Streamline Your Trip
There’s a lot to dislike about the modern airport experience, and a lot of it is simply out of our control — security screenings, flight delays and cancellations, the people who insist on loudly subjecting the entire gate area to their conference call with the Dallas office.
I travel often enough to know that the collective stress of getting on a plane — packing, checking bags, getting through security and to the gate on time — can reduce even savvy, multi-tasking professional women into puddles of frantic anxiety. After a particularly unnecessary meltdown in the Atlanta terminal a few years ago, I swore I’d never let air travel get the better of me again. I discovered that the key to making your experience more efficient and pleasant is mastering the things you can control. Getting access to all of the available information for your flight, avoiding lines or finding the shortest ones, making security screening as uncomplicated as possible and preparing ahead of time for worst-case travel scenarios can save you both time and stress. Here’s how.
Prep Your Phone
When you’re armed with the right apps, your smartphone can be your best friend when you travel. Here are some apps that get me to the airport and to my gate with minimum trouble:
The free apps provided by airlines vary in their capabilities, but it’s always useful to have your carrier’s app installed in order to check in ahead of time and to contact customer service if you run into any problems. Then I’ll save my mobile boarding passes (if available) to Passbook, so they’re on my phone’s lock screen and always right there when I need them.
Parking apps like AirportParking and Best Parking help me identify lots closest to the airport, provide driving directions and also offer discounts.
While planning my trip, I’ll forward all of the components of my itinerary (airlines, hotel and rental car reservations, etc.) to TripIt via email and sync it with GateGuru, which keeps me updated on flight delays, gate info and current security screening wait times. Once I’m at the airport, I use GateGuru’s airport-specific maps, amenities lists and travellers’ tips to find my way around.
If I have a connecting flight through JFK or Chicago O’Hare and know that I’ll arrive hungry and pressed for time, I use B4 You Board to have food ready to pick up at my stopover. It’s one less thing to worry about, especially when travelling with children.
Dress and Pack Smarter
Dressing for air travel involves several considerations that are usually at cross-purpose to each other: You want to wear bulkier things to save room in your luggage, for instance, yet you don’t want to take everything on and off at the security screening. You may never achieve a perfect balance, but I’ve developed a system to minimize time and hassle.
Everything that needs to come out for screening (laptops and similarly sized electronics, liquids) stays in a small shoulder bag (my personal item that can accompany my carry-on luggage). There’s no reason to have to unzip one of those heavy wheel-aboard bags unless the TSA wants you to. I can always redistribute items between bags after I pass through the chaos of security.
Since I usually don’t know if I’ll have to pass through an AIT (“nudie-scope”) machine or a metal detector, I find it easier to stash all of my jewelry, scarves, hats, belts and watches in a zippered coat pocket or bag and put them on only after I pass through security. Small packing cubes make it easy to store and locate the small stuff in my carry-on bag.
The only time I’ll do TSA yoga — wiggling in and out of zippered or laced shoes while balanced precariously on either end of the conveyor belt — is when there’s absolutely no room in my luggage for my must-have sneakers or boots. All other times I depend on a pair of slip-on shoes. It’s a small thing, but it’s smart to make the screening process as simple as possible.
And unless you’ve already invested in a TSA-friendly laptop bag, don’t bother spending the money. Even though I’ve traveled with a bag that meets all of the specifications, I’ve still been asked to remove the laptop from the bag more often than not. Somehow, the fact that I paid good money for a bag with a function that’s routinely ignored by the TSA makes removing my laptop doubly aggravating.
Dodge the Crowds
The quickest way to get to your gate is to check in online before you arrive at the airport and not check any luggage, but if this isn’t an option for you, curbside baggage check is always a better option than winding through crowded check-in lines with heavy bags. I used to feel guilty for “wasting” money on this “unnecessary luxury,” but if I’m already frustrated and frazzled before I even get to the counter, I know I won’t be on my A-game for the rest of my airline adventure. For the cost of a few bucks a bag, it’s worth it.
If you still can’t bear the thought of paying good money simply to check in the bags you may already be paying additional fees for, search online to see if your airline and airport offer tag-it-yourself luggage checkin. (Of course, if you enjoy frequent flier status or have a credit card that waives luggage fees, you’re already a step ahead, but you’ll still have to go through the rigamarole of checking bags.)
Once you’re done with your bags, check an app like GateGuru or MyTSA to find the security screening line in your terminal that has the shortest wait time. My default destination is always the screening line closest to first-class check in, which generally has the fewest people.
If you travel fairly frequently or simply can’t stand doing the remove-your-shoes-and-liquids TSA screening dance, you may want to consider their Pre-Check program. For $85 and a background check, approved program participants can enjoy five years of expedited security screening. The upside? Dedicated screening lanes, and you get to keep your clothes on and laptops and liquids in your carry-on bag. The downside? The program is not available in all airports, and that $85 fee adds up if you’re registering a family. There are also considerable privacy concerns, so be aware that the FBI will keep your fingerprints on file for 75 years, whether you’re approved or not.
Be Ready for Disruption
Even the best-laid travel strategies can go awry, so be prepared for the worst-case flight delay or cancellation scenarios. Avoid the chaos of the airport customer service counter, hunker down with a hot chocolate and use your carrier’s app or the handy airline contact list on the Kayak app to contact an agent directly.
Depending on your airline’s contract of carriage, if your flight is delayed and you think the delay has nothing to do with the weather or the airport (a good clue is to check if your flight is the only one — or one of very few — that’s delayed), they may re-book you on a more timely flight provided by a competitor. It’s always worth asking about as airline representatives will generally just try to book you on their next flight out.
In dire situations, I’ve been able to get to my destination after a canceled flight by using Skyscanner to find and book the next flight out. FlightStats is also handy, but only shows direct flights to your destination.
In really dire situations — the times when everything is cancelled, the customer service desk is mobbed with angry travellers and there’s a 30-minute wait to get an agent on the phone — you may want to consider walking into your airline’s private lounge and purchasing a one-day pass. It’s not for sobbing into the free chardonnay, but rather to gain access to another set of less-harried customer service agents with a vested interest in getting their lounge visitors the best service possible.