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Lani Teshima, editor

Surviving Holiday Travel

Last-minute tips for traveling unscathed

Wednesday, December 22, 2004
by Lani Teshima, staff writer

Are you planning a visit to the parks over the busy holiday season? More people are traveling by plane than in the past few years, and although the numbers aren't quite back to pre-9/11 levels, you can expect crowded conditions.

Air travel

Since 9/11, the world of air travel has changed quite a bit, and not necessarily for the better as far as convenience. A brand new government agency called the Transportation Security Administration is now in place, and TSA agents are all too eager to make sure you are scrutinized before you are allowed to board an aircraft.

There are a number of fairly simple things you can do to make air travel easier for you, starting with the moment you purchase your tickets.

Try to obtain your seat assignments when you purchase your tickets or right afterwards. If you buy them online and you don't get a seat assigned to you, phone the airline and have them assign you one. The earlier you get an assignment, the better seats you'll get. But most importantly, having an assigned seat guarantees you your seat. If you don't have a seat assignment and run behind schedule checking in on a flight that is oversold (that is, they sold more tickets for a flight than they have seats for, assuming some folks don't show up), you have a very strong chance of getting involuntarily bumped. That is truly nasty.

Are you traveling later this week and you have yet to get a seat assignment? Call your airlines, anyway. And don't be too fussy; even if you end up with a middle seat, it's that you have a seat assignment that counts. You can always show up early to the airport and see if you can get your seat changed (for example, to an emergency row seat, since these aren't pre-assigned).

Even if you don't fly that particular airline often, sign up for their frequent flyer program. Not only will you get miles, but you are more likely to be able to get your seating assignments quicker. Sign up for a program online to immediately get a membership number, then phone the airline to have them attach your number to your reservation number. There is a critical reason for doing this: Having a frequent flyer number attached to your flight itinerary greatly reduces your chances of getting the dreaded “SSSS” printed on your boarding pass. “SSSS” stands for “super secret security screening” or something—and it means that instead of the regular security line (where they screen your bags in the X-ray machine, have you walk through the metal detector portal, then wave you good-bye), you get to go to another line, where you are thoroughly screened.

Although there are no publically available rules on how a passenger might get flagged for a random “SSSS” label, some of the possible factors can include: Purchasing a one-way ticket, purchasing a ticket with cash, purchasing at the last minute, or not having any check-in luggage (never mind that the 9/11 terrorists purchased round-trip tickets using credit cards).

A secondary screening takes up extra time at best, and is a public humiliation for many. TSA agents manually open every bag, toiletry kit, packages, and containers in your carry-on for visual inspection. If you overstuff your carry-on or carefully packed everything neatly, this means you are likely to get back a bag that is bursting at the seams and packed haphazardly (but just enough to get the zippers shut).

Worst of all for the ladies, a secondary screening means TSA agents are authorized to feel your breasts in public for inspection! This is highly controversial and is now unfortunately an official and authorized practice ever since the two extremist Islamist women from Chechnya decided to pack bombs around their breasts and blow up those planes in Russia. And don't complain; the TSA will use that as a reason to detain or arrest you and disallow you from boarding your plane. Don't believe me? This is happening across the country at a number of airports.

The official protocol is that the agent must be female, and that they are only allowed to pat your private areas with the backs of their hands. There are reports, however, that not all agents follow this procedure, and some have complained of being “felt up” or groped. Keep in mind this occurs right in public view, in front of everyone else (including your family members).

Finally, there are many ways in which to pack minimally so as to avoid having to check anything in altogether. Without check-ins, the whole world opens up to you. Many airlines allow you to print a boarding pass right on your own computer printer at home. Many other airlines have unstaffed electronic kiosks at their check-in counters so you can do it by yourself. Both of these mean minimizing the waits. [You can learn how to travel with just your carry-ons by visiting my Travelite FAQ Web site (link).]

If you do end up with check-in luggage, make sure you pack your valuables (jewelry, money, and laptops, and fragile items) in your carry-on. Avoid packing heavy food items (such as fruitcake) in your luggage as well. They are dense and difficult to detect in the X-rays, and slow down the security process.

Depending on the security level on your day of travel, you may be allowed to check in your luggage at curbside. If this is an option, you can bypass the check-in counter altogether—and sometimes that line can get really long.

Did you know that since 9/11, the TSA is authorized to open your check-in luggage without your knowledge? And if you put a lock on your luggage, they are allowed to cut it open. Fortunately, you can now purchase TSA-approved locks that allow the TSA to unlock them without damage. Make sure to look for the TSA-recognized notation on new locks. They are very obvious and will advertise this feature prominently.

Make sure to bring your gifts to the checkpoint unwrapped, since a TSA agent is likely to unwrap it during the screening process. You can always bring tape and wrapping paper with you to your destination. Better yet, consider shipping your gifts in advance if you can, or purchasing your gifts using mail order (these days, from their Web sites).

Also, think before you purchase fragile items at the World of Disney stores to take home. They pack such items in their Geami protective packaging system, which wraps items in waffle-cut sheets of paper. While these are very effective, the packaging—even for the smallest ornament—is often very large (and thus difficult to fit in your luggage). You would also lose the intact packaging if a TSA agent decided to cut it open. Instead, inquire about having your items shipped home, or ask them to put your item in a small box instead.

Get me to the airport on time

There are numerous ways to cut down on the time and hassle of getting to the airport. On the day of your flight, make sure to keep your ear on the local traffic reports, so you know if there are any accidents that snarl up your route to the airport. Airport lots are often very expensive, and during the holidays, often fill up to capacity. Many airport neighborhoods have park-and-fly lots, which are usually cheaper than the official airport lots. Those are a little better, especially if there are a few and the prices are competitive.

Your best bet might be to get someone to give you a ride. If you are fortunate enough to live in large cities with subways and city trains that go right to the airport (such as the Washington D.C. Metro, Chicago's El (elevated train), and San Francisco's BART system) options. It's very cheap!

A good hybrid between public transportation and getting to the airport in a quick vehicle, is the airport shuttle van service (such as Super Shuttle). You can have them pick you up at your home and they will take you straight to the airport in plenty of time for your flight.

If your flight is cancelled, don't bother standing in line at the airline counter. Immediately call their toll-free reservation number, and speak to an agent about changing your itinerary. You will get the same service as the folks waiting in line (except you will, in effect, be at the front of the line).

Atchoo!

Air travel and park visits during this time of year mean extremely crowded conditions. Be extra careful not to get sick, since air travel with a cold is not only miserable, but painful on your congested sinuses. Nowadays, I automatically take a tube of Airborne water-dissolving tablets with me. While products like Cold-Eze lozenges and Zicam swabs may help you reduce the number of days you are sick, Airborne is touted as being able to prevent you from getting sick altogether by pumping you full of sickness-fighting supplements. I recently started a long-haul flight with a sore throat and headache, and by triple-dosing on Airborne during the flight, I was able to get to my destination with none of those symptoms.

Minimize your risk for exposure by carrying hand sanitizer and baby wipes both on your flight, as well as into the parks. Just think about all the folks who have touched your ride vehicles, and think about how many of them may have had a cold!

Dressing well

Both the Anaheim and Orlando parks are located in warm-weather areas, especially compared to most other locations of the U.S. Depending on how you get to the airport, consider leaving behind your thick winter coats. Have someone drive you to the airport, and you can leave your thick coats in the car if they drop you off at the curb. Layer! New TSA rules implemented this fall require removal of all layers of bulky clothing, including sweatshirts, and not just jackets.

If you're not sure how to dress for your trip, keep an eye on the weather at your destination by checking sites like Weather.com. And instead of taking lots of bulky sweaters with you, consider layering. Limit your travel wardrobe to a single sweater or fleece top, and avoid having to wash them all the time by wearing shirts underneath. If you wear long silk underwear, you can also easily wash and hang dry them in your hotel room as well. If you don't take any cold-weather gear with you and the weather turns unseasonably cold during your stay, you have a great excuse to pick up a sweater at one of the Disney parks!

Say cheese

If you plan to take film with you, make sure to put it in your carry-on. The X-ray machines used to scan check-in luggage are very strong, and will likely cloud your film. Better yet, consider going digital and foregoing film altogether. These cameras have gotten affordable, and you can easily get prints of your digital snapshots made at your local drugstore.

The parks at Walt Disney World have now implemented the new PhotoPass system. When the park photographers snap your picture, you now get a credit card-sized plastic card with a unique ID number on it. Hand the card to the photographers as you get more photos taken of you and your party. This service is free, and you can even view the digital photos later by signing into a special Web site with your card's unique ID number. This allows everyone to look at your photos, and you can wait to purchase the photos when you get home. This means one more thing you don't have to worry about carrying home.

Feed me, Seymour

Most domestic flights no longer offer in-flight meal service, and you're lucky to get a stale sandwich. Even a coast-to-coast flight might forego meal service depending on what time the flight leaves. For example, a recent flight I took on United from LAX to Orlando offered no meal service (not even one for purchase). Consider packing snacks and juice boxes for the kids, and picking up some food either at or near the airport. Your fellow passengers with look at you enviously as you feast on a yummy dinner from home or your favorite fast food eatery. Just be aware that your food will be cold by the time you board, so deli sandwiches with a bag of chips may be better than pizza or french fries. You can also take instant soup mix, cup o' noodles, or hot cocoa packets with you and ask for hot water for a little snack. On your way home from the parks, you can even enjoy a special souvenir version of hot chocolate from the Disney character canisters, while you munch on Mickey Mouse shortbread cookies. Much better than airplane peanuts!

If you travel this time of year, either to visit relatives or to visit the parks on holiday, remember that you will be in lots of company. By taking just a bit of time to prepare in advance, you will be able to avoid some of the worst of the travel troubles.


Thoughts, questions, or comments? Contact Lani here.


ABOUT THE EDITOR

Contact Lani Teshima if you have any travel tips or questions about trip planning.

A Hawaii ex-patriate, Lani is a technical writer for a San Francisco Bay Area software company.

When Lani is not managing the copy editing tasks here, you can usually find her at the gym, slogging away those slow miles on the treadmill as she trains for the WDW Marathon (held in January). She also maintains her internationally recognized Travelite FAQ.

In the occasional spare moment, Lani and her husband, Alex—our MousePlanet CEO and MouseAdventure event coordinator—attend baseball games, and drive down to Disneyland in their 2003 Honda Civic Hybrid (which gets 50mpg).

KEEP US RUNNING!

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