The Brancatelli File



August 28, 2003 -- I am, by my own declaration, a good business traveler.

I've been traveling on business for more than 30 years and I think that I've done a decent job of organizing my life on the road. Like most grizzled road warriors, I have compiled a damn good list of dos, don't and rules for living on the fly.

But repetition breeds sloppiness and even savvy frequent travelers sometimes break their own rules of the road. It doesn't take but one or two bad trips to remind us why we have those rules in the first place. And when bad things happen to good business travelers, it can get ugly indeed.

Trust me, I speak from very recent experience. I've had a couple of bad trips lately and I've rued the rules I've broken. Life on the road comes into extraordinarily clear perspective when you're shopping for replacement underwear at midnight at Wal-Mart.

So consider what follows a refresher course on Business Travel Basics 101. We all know this stuff. We all have rules about this stuff. We just need to remember not to get sloppy.

On those rare occasions when I have to check bags--a long, long business trip or an honest-to-goodness holiday--I have an unbreakable rule about my carry-on bag: Make sure there are back-up clothes in there in case the airlines lose my luggage. I always pack a clean shirt, a pair of socks and underwear in my carry-on. And what happens when I don't do what I always do? You guessed it: On a recent trip, I did check luggage, I didn't pack back-up clothes in my carry-on bag and the airlines lost my bag. It showed up 36 hours later, but not before I had to drag myself to the Wal-Mart (the only store still open after 10 p.m.) to shop for necessities for the next day. I am eternally grateful to the Wal-Mart for being open, but, believe me, I never want to go shirt shopping there again. So follow the rule: Pack the back-up stuff when you check a bag.

I keep a pre-packed miniature kit bag in one of the pockets of my carry-on bag and it's stocked with an emergency supply of the essentials: toothpaste and a toothbrush; deodorant; shampoo; mouthwash; that sort of thing. So when my checked bag--and my toiletries packed within--went missing, I wasn't prowling the Wal-Mart for emergency supplies of this nature. But what a surprise I got when I opened my emergency tube of toothpaste: The paste had turned to a chalky lump and, despite my planning, I was stuck without usable toothpaste. That led me to check the label--no easy task on those tiny tubes. Turns out I had packed that tube at least four years ago. So a word to the wise: Replace your emergency supplies once a year or so.

Like most good business travelers, I own a huge collection of luggage. Which is fine, except that I tend to forget the bag I'm traveling with the moment I check it. So when my luggage went missing and I had to go to the baggage-services counter after a three-flight, 12-hour marathon, I actually couldn't remember any specifics about the bag. So I've added a new rule to my arsenal: Write down the brand name, size, color and markings of the checked bag and stuff the details with my ticket and other paperwork. Some travelers go even further: They have snapped Polaroids of every bag they own. They store the picture in the bag and, when they pack it, they move the photo into their date book. If the bag is lost, they then present an actual snapshot of the bag to the baggage-service agent. That may be overkill for business travelers who rarely check bags, but it's a good strategy for travelers who check luggage regularly and/or travel in places where they do not speak the language.

Look, I'm a guy. If it's in a cake and it's in the shower, I'll consider it soap and I'll use it. I don't travel with my own supply. (Most woman business travelers I know carry a bagful of potions that claim to be shower gel or body wash or some other cleansing elixir, but that's just not a guy thing.) But I'm rethinking my strategy after being stuck at a "famous" hotel that, despite its stratospheric nightly rate, was a fleabag in every sense of the term. This property's idea of soap was a wafer-thin bar of some brand that hasn't existed at retail since 1959 or so. It didn't make suds and I stepped out the shower feeling clammier than when I started. So maybe I'll start traveling with my own soap or listen to my wife and carry one of those bottles of Moulton Brown shower gel she imports in bulk from London.

I have a wonderful fold-up suitcase that I routinely throw into my carry-on or checked bags. I keep it in reserve--complete with personalized luggage tag--in case I buy something large on the road. But I recently found an additional use for this emergency bag: Beating the stupid new airline rules on the weight of checked bags. I hooked up with my wife--herself a savvy business traveler--after she'd been on the road for almost a month. My checked bag was light (about 35 pounds), but hers had ballooned to 58 pounds during her marathon. No worries, I thought, since together the two checked bags weighed 93 pounds, comfortably under the new 50-pound-per-bag free limit. How was I to know the dumb airlines don't go by averages? The ticket-counter agent tried to charge me $20 for my wife's overweight bag and she didn't want to hear that the two bags we were checking together didn't exceed the weight limit. Rather than pay her, I whipped out my fold-up suitcase, transferred some of my wife's gear to the bag--and checked a total of three bags.

Along with all the other baggage issues I've had lately, my checked bag had its first encounter with inspectors of the Transportation Security Administration. Mine was a happy experience: Nothing seemed disturbed and I wouldn't even have been aware of the TSA's interest had not the agent slipped a "Notification of Baggage Inspection" flyer into my suitcase. But some travelers claim their bags have been trashed by the TSA and/or they have had items pilfered from their luggage. So when you're packing your luggage, keep in mind that TSA is now doing physical inspections on some checked bags. Consult the TSA Travel Tips site for packing tips. And if you feel you've had your bag damaged or pilfered by TSA handling, consult the agency's procedure for filing a claim.

We've all switched to mobile phones so quickly that we've forgotten one rather crucial point: No cell phone, regardless of service provider, will get you a signal all the time. (And those of you stuck in this month's East Coast blackout learned that cell phones aren't reliable when the electricity is down or the call volume is abnormally high.) So do the simple thing: Next time you're at your local warehouse club, pick up one of those AT&T pre-paid calling cards. The rates are extremely low (less than 4 cents a minute for a normal domestic long-distance phone call), the cards have long expiration dates and they work from any wired phone. It's cheap insurance and a good guarantee that you can make a phone call without getting ripped when your mobile goes down.

As I was bunging around the planet, I got a call from a friend whose wife and daughter make their way across Europe and back to the United States without their passports and plane tickets. (They had apparently left them in the cab on the way to the airport.) I was frankly amazed that these resourceful women successfully convinced two airlines and security guards, gate agents and customs and immigrations officials in three countries to let them fly without proper ID. But don't bet that you'll be so lucky. Remember the basic rule: Make a photocopy of your passport's photo and signature pages and keep it separate from your passport. If your passport disappears, the photocopy will speed the process of replacement--and might even help cut the red tape and get you home in a pinch.

This column originally appeared at

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