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Airline/Airport Travel Truths

Arriving One or Two Days Early

Given the frequent delays and real issue of jet lag, we strongly urge you to arrive at your destination at least one day prior to the beginning of your cruise or tour. Normally, by purchasing the air from a cruise line or tour operator, you will not be charged any additional airfare to arrive early. Pre-cruise or tour arrangements should be made at the time of your initial reservation.

Cruise lines charge an "air deviation fee" should you wish to arrive early or delay your return in conjunction with your cruise. In addition to the fee, normally $50-$75 per person, you can be assessed additional charges if if the class of service in which the cruise line is holding space is not available on the day you want to fly. So simply flying in a day or two early can cost as much as several hundred dollars per person. The way to get around these extra charges is to book the cruise line’s “Air/Sea” package which provides air, hotel room, taxes, baggage handling, in-hotel cruise line staff for assistance and sightseeing reservations, and round-trip transfers between the airport and the hotel. Because it is a comprehensive package, the total cost is more than it would be if you simply booked a hotel room on your own. However, we believe that the benefits far outweigh the initial cost difference. It is always best to be staying in one of the better hotels where the cruise line knows exactly where you are, when you are arriving, and how to reach you should there be delays.

Tour Operators do not provide pre or post tour programs as a rule. But it is usually possible to book a night or two before or after your escorted tour dates. This will enable you to settle in prior to beginning your tour, coping with the minimum jet lag encountered in west to east flights.

Based on our experiences over the years, these are our specific recommendations for the vast majority of travelers:

Cruises:

  • Book one or two nights before your cruise utilizing the cruise line's recommended hotel program. The presence of cruise line staff in the lobby is a source of comfort and up-to-date information. The peace of mind that results from an early arrival cannot be emphasized enough.

Escorted Tours:

  • We suggest at least one night pre-tour booked through the tour operator. This will enable you to deal with jet lag and to ease into a foreign culture gently. It will avoid the necessity of beginning your sightseeing on arrival after an international flight.

Researching Your Flights

The best site for checking airfare and routings is not particularly well known. The site that the pros use is www.itasoftware.com.

Choosing Your Aircraft

The plane to avoid is the transcontinental 737 700/800. The new versions of this small aircraft have been redesigned to provide longer range. There are two lavatories in coach on this aircraft – that is one per 75 passengers. Contrast that with the 767 or 777 which provide one lavatory per 45 passengers. Seats are only 17” wide instead of 18” on other aircraft.

American no longer has the most legroom in coach. Be aware that the additional legroom on domestic 757’s and MD 80’s has now been replaced by extra seats. American does still provide extra legroom in coach on virtually all international flights. Only limited seats in the front of United’s domestic fleet have been redesigned to provide more leg room. These seats are reserved for United’s Premier members.

The 767-300 is a popular 2-engine plane flying routes to Europe. Configuration is 2-3-2. This translates to the fact that the aircraft must be 86% full before middle seats will be assigned. This percentage is lower on the 2-5-2 configured 777’s, a popular new aircraft with somewhat larger seats than standard. 777’s have video screen entertainment systems built into the rear of all coach seats.

For claustrophobics, nothing beats the 4-engine 747. The 400 series is the newer version of the aircraft.

Airbus, a European consortium builds excellent planes. The long-distance Airbus 340 is used on many longer routes by European and Asian airlines. It is a reasonably comfortable plane, but avoid middle seats, if possible.

Reconfirming Your Flight

Your travel consultant should confirm all outbound flights. Guests traveling home from Africa or Asia should reconfirm all return flight arrangements a few days after reaching your destination. If you are using cruise line or tour operator provided air tickets, you can assume that your flights have been reconfirmed. If you have made your own air arrangements, have your hotel concierge reconfirm your return flights.

Using Name Tags On Your Luggage

Gangs that commit home robbery sometimes have plants in airports. It is no one’s business that you are going on vacation, particularly if your home is going to be unoccupied. We suggest that you use your travel agents address as your name/address contact. If your lost luggage arrives at their office, they will know how to reach you.

Camera Advice

The new high-intensity CXT 5000 Scanners currently deployed at O’Hare and other major airports worldwide will damage both boxed and exposed film. At one time we advised that only film over 400 ASA risked exposure but this is no longer the case. We recommend that 35mm film be hand carried and that you never put it through the x-ray machines.

Digital cameras are not damaged by x-ray scanners. However, if you are returning from Africa or some other once-in-a-lifetime destination, we suggest that you have all cameras hand-examined.

Most of the current reviews of digital film indicate that Fuji is superior to any other brand on the market. Professional photographers tend to use Fuji exclusively.

Avoiding Jet Lag

Eat moderately the day prior to your flight and avoid a heavy dinner. On flight day it is best to mimic the time at your destination. If you depart for London around 5:00 pm, folks in London have gone to bed. So try to go to sleep soon after boarding. Have dinner for lunch, putting your body on alert.

Jet lag is real. It is actually the breaking of the circadian rhythm. There is a theory that you will be jet-lagged one day for each new time zone you pass. Flying west seems to be easier on the body than flying east. Many travelers are, for example, surprised at how ell they handle flights via the west coast to the Orient and Australia.

One of our primary recommendations may not meet with your approval. Never eat airline food in coach. Cafeteria food that has been heated and reheated and loaded with salt and sugar is not going to help your sleep rhythms at all.

FLIGHT SAFETY

Your travel consultant will be reviewing health and safety matters related to your vacation destination. We take this subject very seriously.. That is why we want to state two important facts:

01 – During the worst period of terrorism, more Americans were killed by falling television sets than by terrorist acts. Your shower before the flight was significantly more risky in terms of potential injury than your upcoming flights.

02 – We know which part of your vacation is the most dangerous. Statistically, you are more than ten times more likely to die in a crash on the way to O’Hare than you are flying virtually anywhere worldwide. So once you arrive safely at the terminal, try to relax, the hard part is over.

Using Miles to Purchase A Free Ticket or Business Class Upgrade

There are some general upgrade practices that we would like to share with you:

  • It is usually not a good idea to use accumulated miles to purchase a free ticket. You are far better off purchasing a coach ticket on an international flight and using miles to upgrade to Business.
  • United Airlines miles can be used on Lufthansa. Lufthansa has excellent non-stop service out of O’Hare and other major US gateways via both Frankfurt and Munich.
  • American Airlines partners with British Airways but BA does not accept American mileage rewards for trans-Atlantic flights.
  • Delta and Air France are mileage partners. Delta’s overseas flights tend to originate in Atlanta or JFK in New York.
  • The “first step” in trip planning is to block your frequent flyer upgrade seats. You can then build your tour or cruise around your scheduled departure.
  • It is very expensive to use miles to upgrade to First Class. However, many routes/aircraft only have a two-class configuration so you may be sitting in First Class with a coach upgrade.
  • The best use of upgrade miles is for flights to the South Pacific or the Orient.
  • The best way to get a mileage upgrade is to speak directly to the mileage desk at your carrier, give them your time frame and destinations, and allow them to scan for an opportunity. You may have to arrive a day or two early to upgrade your seats given the difficulty of matching free upgrade availability with a specific date of departure.
  • Due to the bankruptcy of virtually all of the legacy U.S. airlines, traveltruth is now recommending that mileage holders strongly consider cashing in their miles for coupons every six months. Airlines are not obligated to continue mileage award programs during times of financial difficulty.

Getting Upgraded at the Gate

Flights to Europe, South America, and the Orient, generally have a three-class configuration. Many flights, particularly those to Europe are oversold in coach. It is important to know that the average flight is overbooked by 12%. Some international flights are overbooked by as much as 20%. This means that it is sometimes necessary to upgrade economy passengers to Business.

Airline gate personnel will select passengers for upgrades on a number of criteria but the most important is appearance. Be better dressed than anyone else flying coach and you have improved your chances of an upgrade significantly. In short, look like you absolutely belong in Business Class. Build a little relationship with the senior gate agent and casually mention that, "in the interest of assisting United Airlines, we would like to volunteer to move to the forward compartment should you find yourself needing additional coach seats."

Unless you hold executive membership in an airline’s elite traveler club, don’t even think about an upgrade to First Class. Gate agents usually lack the authority to upgrade to First.

When You Have No Assigned Seats

If you are booked on a cruise or escorted tour you may not have assigned seats. Airlines routinely hold a portion of seats for assignment at the gate on the day of departure. Sources at United Airlines tell us that some flights have 40% of seats assigned at the gate.

Cruise lines and tour operators purchase negotiated fares from specific airlines. Each departure is worked in order. This means that even though you may have booked your cruise a year in advance, the cruise line’s air department will not even work your sailing until 60-30 days prior to your sailing date. That is why assigned seats are often not available. The way to beat the system is to book your cruise or tour with an air deviation. There are additional fees but a deviation request usually results in an assignment of flights months before departure. This means that good seats will generally be available.

Airlines like to hold seats for gate assignment because that means that they only have to assign them once. The average airline seat turns over several times and the airlines feel that this is a cost factor they can control.

If your flights call for airport seat selection the best recommendation is to arrive for your flight two hours early. Check-in at the main counter at the departure level and explain to the reservationist that “I am a little claustrophobic” or “is there anything you can do for a guy with long legs?’ Give them a reason to assign some of the good seats they are holding in their inventory. Once again, the better dressed you are the more clout you will have at the counter. If you are not satisfied with the seat assigned at check-in, try again at the gate. But first observe the agents and try to determine which one is in charge. Reservation supervisors wear Red or Blue blazers and they usually are carrying walkie talkies.

Is It Safe To Use Curbside Check-In?

Yes. The conveyor belt used at the curb ends up in the same place as the interior departure hall conveyor belt. The current tipping guideline is $1.00 per bag. You are not permitted to use curbside check-in for international flights.

"A hundred years ago, it could take you the better part of a year to get from New York to California; whereas today, because of equipment problems at O’Hare, you can’t get there at all."
- Dave Barry

The New Baggage Weight Limits:

Touring Spain? Taking a cruise in Europe? The airlines have actually figured out a way to get you to take more rather than less luggage. In response to union demands, the major airlines are now charging for all overweight suitcases. If you suitcase weighs more than 50 pounds but less than 70, you will be charged $25.00 (per flight and per suitcase overweight) Over 70 pounds the fee goes up to $50.

Gate agents are not permitted to waive this fee. Every bag is being weighed at check-in. This can delay check-in.

Most airlines flying internationally raise the weight limit to 70 pounds per bag.

Suppose We Get to the Gate and Find Out That Our Flight Has Been Cancelled?

When a flight is cancelled, everyone on the flight will have to stand in line to wait their turn to make alternative arrangements. The airline that you were on will have to authorize your ticket for use on another carrier. To be honest, this line can take hours.

Here is how to beat the system. Bring your cell phone to the airport along with this sheet. Immediately call your airline’s central reservation number and have them make alternative reservations. They may also authorize you to fly on another carrier. Start off being nice – but be firm. Calmly explain that you have a ship to catch or a tour group to join. By using your cell phone, you may obtain seats that will be sold out by the time you would get to the head of the line.

Here are reservations numbers that may be helpful:

American 800 – 443 – 7300
British Airways 800 – 247 – 9297
Continental 800 – 525 – 0280
Delta 800 – 221 – 1212 (try speaking southern)
KLM 800 – 374 – 7747
Lufthansa 800 – 645 – 3880
Northwest 800 – 447 – 4747
United 800 – 241 – 6522
US Airways 800 – 428 – 4322

Additional Strategies:

01 – Don't stand in line waiting for something to happen. One member of the family should remain in line while the other wages war on the telephone.

02 – Be aggressive but polite. An airline reservationist can put a notation on your record that you are "difficult." The notation will follow you on your entire itinerary. Still, the airline will be taking advantage of most of their customers but you are not going to let them take advantage of you. Politely ask to speak to a "supervisor." Speak to them away from the counter and never in front of other passengers. They are more likely to give you something if they don’t have to offer it to the entire group at the gate.

03 – Purchase a "picnic basket" of sandwiches. It may be that the new flight you are assigned will not have full meal service for the last-minute passengers.

Finally, we recommend that you subscribe to one of the pocket airline guides and always bring it with you when you are scheduled to fly. The best is the OAG (800-342-5624). This summary of major airline schedules is available in an international and a domestic edition. A one year subscription is $96. Possession of this booklet will enable you to advise the airline of a re-routing schedule that will work best.

What Are You Entitled To If They Cancel Your Flight?

If your flight is cancelled or delayed due to weather, air traffic control delays, labor problems, or a "mechanical" you are not entitled to any compensation. In fact, at one time airlines could bump you off a flight at will until Delta made the mistake of bumping Ralph Nader. Airlines may extend a courtesy or two, but under current regulations, the airlines are under no obligation to provide you with compensation, meals, or accommodations.

When an airline's cancellation requires you to spend an unscheduled night, it is appropriate to request complimentary accommodations. But don't waste your time talking with the counter personnel. Ask immediately to speak to the Passenger Services Supervisor.

If, for some reason, you are stranded in Miami, San Juan, New York, or Moscow, security in some airport area hotels is unacceptable. Do not let the airline take you to a hotel unless you have determined that it is in a safe area. This is a particular problem for compensated overnight passengers in Miami.

If there is a cancellation or major delay, an airline will generally try to book you on a later or a competitor’s flight to your destination.

Do remember that even if you use a cell phone to secure a flight on a competitor, the airline on which you are ticketed does not have to endorse the ticket over. You have to insist that the airline you were scheduled to fly endorse the ticket over to another airline.

One of the secret processes of this kind of "at the counter" negotiation is that the competing airline may not be willing to accept the heavily discounted ticket you are using. In that case, passengers who paid more for their tickets may get priority. There is generally no problem endorsing a business class ticket from one airline to another.

As you are aware, airlines do overbook and they sometimes have to "buy off" passengers who volunteer to give up their seats. The airlines will offer future flight coupons, or credits. It is usually not a good idea to take the first offer. But when an offer is made, move toward the front of the counter as if you are going to take the offer. When a higher offer is made, you will then be able to catch the attention of the counter staff. Saturday and Sunday post-cruise flights from San Juan to New York and Chicago are the most often overbooked.

Couple waving goodbye

Who Is Really Responsible If a Delay Causes You To Miss The Beginning Of Your Cruise Or Tour?

All cruise and tour brochures state clearly that air arrangements are provided as a "service" to their customers. The responsible party is the airline that caused you to miss your scheduled arrival. That airline has the ultimate responsibility to get you to the first port or the first major city of your cruise or tour. Any expenses incurred en route are your own. However, your travel insurance will likely cover the majority of your expenses in such a scenario. That is why we urge you, in the strongest possible terms, to always carry comprehensive cancellation and travel insurance.

What If We Have To Sit On The Runway For a Very Long Time?

There are no rules that govern how long an airline can keep passengers on a parked aircraft.

What Are The Rules If an Airline Loses Or Damages My Luggage?

The most important advice is don't leave the baggage area without filing a lost or damaged luggage claim. Most airlines will not honor a claim if you fail to follow this procedure.

If you are flying domestically, an airline's maximum liability is $1250 per person. The current international carrier liability is $9.07 per pound.

Aboard Your Aircraft

The seats on your plane do not follow the natural contours of your spine. Sitting normally, for a long period of time, on any plane in economy can cause back problems. Here are some simple suggestions that will help you counter the airline's attempts to misalign your spine:

  • Wear loose clothing. Men – remove your tie, particularly if you wore one to get upgraded and the strategy did not work.
  • We highly recommend the purchase of compression-rated socks for flights of more than four or five hours. Select socks that meet the C1 rating standards.
  • Never sit for moré than two hours unless you have somehow managed to fall asleep. Consider investing in one of the new noise blocking headsets like the ones made by Bose.
  • Men – never sit on your wallet. Remove it from your back pocket. This alone can cause back problems.
  • Take a pillow and wedge it between the seat and your lower back for much-needed lumbar support.
  • Do arm and leg stretch exercises in your seat.

We also want to caution you about drinking the water served aboard your plane. Bottled water is, of course, necessary and recommended. But many airlines serve tap water that has been stored in the plane's water tank. This water is treated with some fairly heavy duty chemicals and, we think, is best avoided. Update: The EPA has announced that random testing indicates that 17% of the water served aboard flights is "contaminated." Do not assume that coffee or tea has been boiled. Based on this research, we are now recommending that our clients avoid drinking coffee or tea prepared aboard aircraft.

Never drink any carbonated beverage once in flight. The effects of CO2 gas at 33,000 feet are not compatible with stomach comfort on arrival.

Alcohol potency is said to double in the containment of an aircraft cabin.

If you want to err on the side of extreme caution, consider this: There is a commission in England investigating claims by British Airways crews that flying frequently can cause abnormally high rates of cancer. The theory, and that's all it is at this point, is that the atmosphere serves to block out the sun's harmful UV rays. When you fly above the atmosphere, the "filter" is gone. So some of us are now closing the shades when flying during daylight hours.

Learning More About Overseas Destinations

You can access Consular Information Sheets, Travel Warnings, and Public Announcements 24-hours a day by calling 202 – 647 – 5225.

A great deal of information from American Consulates abroad and the State Department is available on the internet at www.travel.state.gov.

Credit Cards

ATM machineExperienced travelers let their credit card company know when they are planning to travel abroad. Some banks will, for instance, automatically deny a credit card charge for any purchase in a country that has not previously appeared on your statement, They do this for your own security. Americans have been arrested overseas for innocently exceeding their credit limit. Make copies of all credit cards and carry the sheet with you, apart from your wallet or purse.

Make certain that you have the exact amount of your current credit amount.

Have your bank verify your pin number to facilitate use of ATM machines abroad.

Make certain that you have a telephone number for your credit card company that works overseas.

 

 

Updated: October 6, 2005