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How to travel, part 2

Filed in: travel, Tue, May 10 2005 17:21 PT

So far, I’ve given my guidance on how to pack for that important trip. This section is about the airport: How to get there, score the good seats, and not piss off the wrong people.

Getting to the airport is half the fun. For me, my mode of ground transportation depends on how long I’ll be away. For shorter trips, I drive down and park — but never at the airport proper. I consider airport parking a necessary evil reserved for pickups, lateness caused by traffic jams, and suckers. It’s $24 a day to park in Seattle, and $7-11 to park offsite. (As a compromise position, I spend the $11 and park at an offsite valet, which buys me time getting in and out.)

For longer than a week (where $77 for me is basically the cost of getting back and forth to the airport), I request a shuttle to the airport, and take a taxi home. When I get back to Sea-Tac, the last thing I want to do is wait an hour for the shuttle to fill up so I can get to bed. I do on occasion take the bus, if I land during the day and I’m not in the mood to hurt those around me. Unfortunately, neither of these cases occur very often.

I frequently fudge the shuttle’s recommended pickup time by at least a half-hour, because I know that if I’m flying on Alaska, I can use my frequent-flier card with them and be ready to brave the security line within minutes of arriving. If you accrue enough miles annually (usually about 20-25,000) to get on a frequent-flier elite program and yet don’t have the card, you are wasting tens of hours and thousands of bonus miles a year. Shame on you, slacker. Go fill out that card right now.

Just make sure it’s a good one. My primary account is with Alaska, since their hub is Seattle, they serve Boston with two nonstop flights, and they are partnered with more other airlines than any other plan I’m aware of. That card gets me 50% bonus miles on Alaska, American, Northwest and Continental; priority boarding and standby; and often times free upgrades to first class. I’ve used the card to get onto the top of the standby list for an earlier flight, bumping 30 others in the process. Membership has its privileges. I also have a Northwest Silver Elite card, but I only use Northwest for trips to Europe, and they don’t give you any real love until you have a Gold Elite, so I’m putting all my miles on Alaska this year so I can get the Gold status I should have gotten last year, but missed because of poor miles planning. That should get me priority service on Northwest and the others, and let me bypass the security check line in Seattle.

If you don’t fly that frequently, no big deal. You’ll have to budget in a little time for lines, and be aware of high-traffic days (the weekends of spring break for example, but more on that later), but most of the worry involved in making a flight is done before you get to the airport.

Airport security is a necessary evil. Nobody particularly likes it, but that’s not going to make it go away, so do what you can to glide through it. Have your electronics in a place where you can dump them into the container quickly. And don’t whine if they tell you to take your shoes off. We all hate that, I know, but the more you protest, the more they’ll insist. Just wear slip-on shoes while traveling. (They’re also easier to take off on those long flights.) In fact, you should pretty much avoid arguing with the authorities entirely. It’s a waste of time, which is your main consideration.

With one exception: If you are traveling with someone else who gets pulled out for secondary screening, you must demand to follow them. It will probably get you a secondary screen as well, but it guarantees you one thing: you will either make or miss the flight together. I was once on a trip with my wife to Las Vegas, and due to it being spring break, my Flawless System failed thanks to high passenger volume (the dreaded spring break) and one checkpoint being closed, which resulted in the largest security line I’d ever seen. K got a secondary screen and made the plane. I did not, and missed it. When the plane pulled back without me on it, she demanded to get off (which, while it will get you some nasty looks from fellow passengers, is your right pretty much right up until takeoff). My elite card got us onto the next flight with no problems, while the customer service agent happily bumped the drunken jerkoffs next to us to a long-shot standby on a flight 2 hours later. Being nice has its privileges, too.

This is an important point when dealing with airlines, or for that matter any service-oriented business. Do not piss off the help. I have had some pretty unpleasant trips, but even then, I never took it out on the customer service people. If you’re in the US or UK, and you want to know what these people deal with on a daily basis, you should watch Airline. Passengers are a who’s who of personality disorders. Anyway, if you look them in the eye, act like they’re humans too, and have your documents prepared, you’re apt to find that they’re quite friendly and helpful, and that you’ll get checked in within a couple of minutes. I’ve often wondered why it is that it seems to take me only 90 seconds to check in wherever I go, but the guy in front of me is always a 10-minute ordeal. Maybe they’re shipping weapons-grade einsteinium or something.

Mind you, if you feel you have just cause to be pissed off (for example, you’re there two hours before your flight, tickets in hand, and they bump you for no reason and without compensation), you will need to talk to a manager. Again, don’t blame the help. If it’s a policy problem, the agent wouldn’t have any latitude to change it anyway, so you shouldn’t go off on her or him in front of the manager unless they’re just giving you a hard time for shits and grins. Anger is natural in this situation, but it is a barrier to getting what you need. Take that anger and swallow it for a minute as you calmly make your case and say what you expect to be done about it. Then call your partner or friend and tell them how badly everyone sucks.

Now then. You’re at the airport with your gear, a boarding pass, and an ocean of glass knick-knacks and overpriced candy in your field of view. The next step is getting on the plane, and there are some tricks to be learned there, too.

I can’t emphasize this next point enough. When it comes time to board, or it seems like it’s time to board, wait your goddamned turn. Almost invariably, people will form an impenetrable semicircle around the gate as soon as someone clicks on the PA. And almost as frequently, the ones who are the closest in and least willing to budge are the ones who aren’t going to be allowed on for 20 minutes.

Helpful hint: there’s more space and fresh air outside the airplane than inside. Enjoy it. Have a Coke and a smile. Read your row or group number off of your boarding pass, and stay seated until they call it. But mostly, stay out of my goddamned way. All that poking and prodding at the security checkpoint has made me cranky, and you don’t want me taking it out on you or your carry-on.

In part 3, we will explore getting on and off the plane, how an apple lodged in gelatin on top of graham crackers passes for dessert, and what I consider the most fascinating and least understood facet of the travel experience: the Armrest Protocol.

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