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Air Travel: Changing Rules & Conditions

by Denise McCluggage

Travel conditions continue to shift and change. The National Guard soldiers and their camouflage uniforms are gone. (At least one I know of returned to a small business that foundered while he stood on duty at Santa Barbara's airport.)

New security personnel are now in place with varying degrees of competence and civility. Some checkpoint personnel are actually cheerful; some downright sullen. Training continues. Let's hope the pleasant tone wins out.

Here are some notes based on recent travels in the US and abroad.

In the US, you must take them out of the carrying bag, put them in the provided plastic containers (to protect them on the conveyor belts) and send them through the detector.
In Europe, removing them from the carrying bag is not required. Just send the whole kit through the detector. In Canada, be prepared to remove them and turn them on. (See Switches.)

Be sure you have adequate juice to fire up your battery-powered devices, particularly in any Canadian airport. In Canada if any gadget in your carry-on has an off-on switch you will be asked to switch it on. That means computers, PDAs, cell phones, DVD or CD players etc.

And, as someone I know discovered, a radar detector, which normally draws its power from a cigarette lighter in the car. This traveler was given the choice of having the device confiscated, send it as checked baggage or provide a credit card number and an address. A few weeks and $29 later the radar detector found its way home. Lesson learned.

One bag and a "personal" item.
Though I still see people getting on airplanes draped in several over-the-shoulder totes carry-on restrictions are increasingly enforced. They are expressed as "one carry-on and one personal item."

This means one bag (wheeled or otherwise) that fits under the seat or in the overhead bin and one other item that must fit under the seat. That "personal" item can be a purse, a computer case, a camera bag, a small to medium-sized backpack, a shopping bag or the like.

What to do if you have the full complement of two items and spot something irresistible in an airport shop? Consolidate. You can find in most airports with shops a lightweight bag that comes no more than palm-sized yet unfolds to swallow your "personal" item as well as several purchases and still meets regulations.
Here's my travel set up these days: My "personal" item is an under-seat-sized bag that holds in various compartments my Sony Vaio computer, my digital camera, mini tape recorder, business papers and reading material as well as my wallet, make-up and other "purse-y" things. (This bag is sometimes a small to medium backpack but always has wheels as well.)

In my checked luggage (or overhead bin bag) I include a bag that packs totally flat but can serve as a day purse on my arrival. I pack a smaller flat purse for evening.

Check or not to check bags.
In the days pre 9/11 the wisdom of experienced travelers held that carrying everything on-board with you was the only way to go. Keeping everything with you eliminates waiting to check baggage or retrieve it. It grants the necessary flexibility when late or canceled flights make changing planes, airlines or plans likely. And carry-ons mean no bags can miss connections or wander off to distant lands without you.

Now, however, checking baggage has new appeal.

You can take with you in checked bags items forbidden in carry-ons such as a nail file or manicure scissors, knitting needles, that gift set of steak knives and that radar detector.

Your checked bags can be larger (and more numerous) than ones carried aboard so you can take more with you and thus be prepared if the expected backyard barbecue is changed to a dressy dinner out . More space means fewer wrinkles, too.

With just one thing to carry on board you avoid the competition for limited overhead space.

Less burdened with "stuff" you can move less encumbered through airport shops, restaurants and restrooms.

With one bag you save time and hassle in case you are a passenger "chosen" to have all your possessions pawed through. Keep in mind that can happen at the security checkpoint and yet again at the gate. Lucky "chosen" you.

Check-in and baggage-retrieval take time. And probably more now than before.

The possibility of lost and delayed bags, particularly if a change of planes is involved, is still with us.
(And a warning - the machines used to screen checked baggage is strong enough to cloud film. Do not pack either exposed or unexposed film in your cheeked baggage.)

Paper or E-ticket
Though Consumer Reports advises in its TraveLetter to choose a paper ticket when possible I say: Go for the e-ticket. And so saying marks a change for me.

Consumer Reports says a paper ticket "will hasten your security check." No longer true. If you have in hand an itinerary issued by the airline or a travel agent (either faxed to you or printed from an e-mail) it is as good as a "real" ticket in getting you past security checks.

True, if you have to change to another airline because of delayed or canceled flights a paper ticket is still simpler to get endorsed, but that's a comparatively rare plight.
Here's a plus for e-tickets: They can save you money, particularly if bought on the Internet.

And the clincher: With an e-ticket (and a credit card) you can use the boarding pass machines that are appearing more frequently in airports. Put in the credit card (it is to establish your identity - no charges are made). Enter the information requested (your ticket location number, preferred seating etc.) and the boarding pass emerges from the slot complete with seat assignment.

In my experience an attendance is handy if assistance is necessary (the machine failed once) and to check my bag.
By using an e-ticket and the machines I twice saved at least 30 to 40 minutes of exasperated line waiting.

I bet even Consumer Reports comes around to the e-ticket.

Document holder
Several months ago I suggested in this column using clear document holders hanging around your neck to carry your required ID and boarding passes when you travel. I continue to do so and get many laudatory comments from gate attendants who have seen more than their share of passengers have to set down their bag and fumble through pockets to come up with the material. My timesaving holder is in the ready always.

Similar around-the-neck holders are available on the market (for around $15). I even got one free in the mail from Southwest Airlines. But I prefer the type I use (I have a drawer full of clear sleeves collected at press events and motor races) for two reasons: It is ticket length (the others are shorter) so more protective against loss or damage to the ticket. And it is completely see-through. The others have only a clear pocket for the ID and have to be sent through the metal detector like a purse.

I keep in mine my passport, folded to show the ID page, the trip itinerary, baggage checks, boarding passes - anything immediately germane to the trip.

I use my passport rather than my driver's license for ID because I use the passport only for travel so it remains always with my travel stuff. A driver's license has other uses (check cashing, possible traffic stops) and would have to be moved back and forth from travel duty to daily use thus being exposed to loss or forgetfulness.

The set up works for me.

Time, Attitude and Acceptance.
Uncertainty is what adds most these days to the usual stress of getting from one place to another. It is not so much the uncertainty of another terrorist attack that is stressful to most travelers, but a cluster of mundane uncertainties. Uncertainty about the length of unpredictable lines. Have you allowed enough time or too much? Will you risk missing your flight or end up with a long, long wait at the gate? Will you be one "chosen" to have your possession searched at the security checkpoint? And maybe again before you board?

Or maybe someone else's careless breach of security will cause evacuation of the terminal and the muddle of plane delays. And that uncertainty haunts nearly every step. In your seat and belt fastened? Don't breathe easy yet: loaded planes have been unloaded and even called back once in the air because of a glitch in security.

All this can make travel nerve wracking. And nothing like wracked nerves to bring irritability to the surface. In this atmosphere the traveler must find equanimity, composure and some way to cope with the process and excuse the sometimes rude or bumbling security and airline personnel without adding more tension to the mix.

However you do it - breathing deeply, counting silently - find some way to rise above the irritations and be as pleasant as you can be even if others are not. What I do: I think of that Santa Barbara man called to duty to don his National Guard camo suit and stand in an airport day after day while his business collapses unattended.

I can, after all, remove my shoes one more time while someone passes a small square of cloth over them to toss into a mysterious machine. The searches, the shoes off yet again, the long lines may make your trip a hassle but they are not meant to be; they are meant to make it safer. Remind yourself to simply sigh, smile and accept it. (And wear kick-off shoes rather than boots or lace-up sneakers.)