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pre trip preparation
Before you leave
Airport Security Information and Packing Hints from Transportation Security Administration (TSA)
• Sign up with your airline to be automatically notified of flight time changes, cancellations and gate changes. Most airlines will send text or voice messages to your cell phone.
• But don't just depend on the airline to keep you informed. Before going to the airport, check the airline's Web site for changes in the flight's departure time, or call and talk to an agent about probable flight delays. If there's an hours-long delay or the plane is stuck in another city, try to change the flight to the next morning.
• Make sure someone you know has a copy of your flight and hotel information.
• Ask your doctors for spare prescriptions for regular medications, and take them along; you never know when you'll get stranded.
• Preprint your boarding pass 24 hours before your flight if your airline allows it. It will get you through the check-in line quicker and, if you're not checking luggage, will allow you to go directly to the gate.
• Crowded flights mean it's more important than ever to know your rights, since planes can be overbooked. Check your airline's Web site for its "contract of carriage," or find links to them at sites such as OneTravel (www.onetravel.com;click on "Rules of the air"). Familiarize yourself with the rules and print a copy to take to the airport, since ticket agents don't always know their airline's policies. In brief, federal law requires all airlines to pay you from $200 to $400 if you are involuntarily bumped, depending on circumstances outlined in each contract. Airlines have varied policies for other circumstances, like canceled flights, that cause delays.
• Know what you can and can't pack in your carry-on and checked luggage. Go to the Web site of the U.S. Transportation Security Administration, www.tsa.gov, or phone 866-289-9673.
The carry-on rules for flights from U.S. airports were relaxed last week, with the total ban on liquids, gels and aerosols lifted; travel-size toiletries now are permitted (see Page L3 for details).
• To determine when to leave for the airport, check with your airline for the recommended time — generally two hours before a domestic flight and three hours for an international flight, but certain airlines and airports have significant exceptions. Then check the U.S. Transportation Security Administration Web site at http://apps.tsa.dhs.gov/mytsa/wait_times_home.aspx to determine average waits at security lines, and add that to the airline's estimate.
• Register with the U.S. embassy or consulate in the country you're visiting (go to the U.S. State Department site, www.travel.state.gov; click on International Travel, then Registration With Embassies). This is especially important if the country is experiencing civil unrest. The State Department will be able to contact you or assist in an evacuation if there's an emergency.
• Keep informed about developing situations by checking the public announcements and travel warnings at the State Department site, www.travel.state.gov. As a reality check, compare the U.S. warnings with those on other countries' sites, such as the Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs, www.voyage.gc.ca, or the United Kingdom's Foreign & Commonwealth Office, www.fco.gov.uk. For U.K. transportation issues — especially relevant given the carry-on restrictions after the August terror plot to bomb transatlantic planes — go to Department for Transport, www.dft.gov.uk.
• Set up at least two free e-mail accounts (Gmail, Hotmail, etc.), since an account that works in one country may not work in another. You can keep the same account for every trip as long as you access it once every 30 days.
• Scan your main passport page, visa and any paper tickets or other documents and e-mail them to yourself and a friend. It will make things easier if you lose any documents. Also take a photocopy of your passport's main page and your itinerary in a separate bag. For extra security, leave photocopies at home, too.
• Pack light, pack light, pack light. It makes life easier. Leave behind possible electronic products whose wires could alarm a security officer.
• Spread throughout your checked baggage any thick or heavy objects, such as books, chocolate or peanut butter, that might be difficult for X-ray machines to penetrate. This may keep your luggage from being opened. For a list of permitted and prohibited items (in checked and carry-on luggage), go to www.tsa.gov.
• Invest in a TSA-approved lock (you'll find them labeled as such at travel stores) for your checked bag; the locks are designed so screeners can open them. Screeners who want to inspect checked luggage will cut open non-TSA locks. Of course, they may cut TSA-approved locks, too (not all screeners have gotten the word), but the approved locks reduce the odds of this happening.
• If you're traveling with a friend, split your toiletries and clothes into two groups, then combine one another's stuff in two pieces of checked luggage. This way, if either bag is lost, you'll have at least half your stuff at your destination.
• As a favor to airport security officials who might have to paw through your luggage, carry clear plastic bags for storing dirty clothes at the end of a trip.
• Bring medication in its original packaging, including the label with your name on it. Make sure the name on the label matches the one on your ticket. Consider carrying a copy of the prescription in case you need more while traveling.
• To prevent leaks in checked luggage, pack liquid and gel products in resealable freezer bags (carry-on toiletries must be packed in a resealable plastic bag so they can be easily examined at security checkpoints). Use leak-proof bottles for shampoo and lotion (leave room at the top of bottles for expansion). Pack bubble wrap to cushion wine or other liquid souvenirs, such as olive oil.
At the airport
• More than ever, don't check bags if you can avoid it. This lets you go straight to the security line clutching your preprinted boarding pass, with no stop — and wait — to check luggage. Traveling with carry-ons only also gives you the chance to fly standby on earlier flights. Just be sure to check the airline rules on the size/weight of carry-on luggage; they can be stricter on European airlines.
• If you have to check bags, do so at the curb, where lines can be shorter. Doesn't work for international flights, though.
• Women traveling through airports that use the new "puffer" bomb-detection devices should consider wearing pants and a close-fitting top. Skirts and loose-fitting shirts tend to fly up in the breeze.
• Dress down. We would never have stooped to flip-flops at the airport in the old days, but their convenience in the security line — since shoes may need to be taken off and X-rayed — outweighs the horror we know they cause our mothers.
• Since you never know when you might get stranded, travel with a supply of food, such as power bars, nuts, trail mix and fruit.
• If a flight is delayed or canceled — or the airport lines are so long you will miss your flight — immediately call the airline from your cell phone for alternative options. This will spare you from having to fight the crowds for the attention of the desk person.
• Invest in an iPod or other audio player. You can pack a lot of distractions in it.
• Be genuinely polite to everyone, from security personnel to flight attendants. The lines are not their fault.
In the air
• Drink lots of water or other nonalcoholic beverages to combat dehydration from the dry airplane air. At U.S. airports, drinks purchased in airport stores in the secure area beyond checkpoints now can be carried aboard planes.
• Really pay attention to the flight attendant when he or she gives the security briefing.
• Warm up to your seatmate, since you never know when you'll need a friend.
Trains and subways
• On subways in cities such as New York and London, stand near the door for a quick getaway.
• Check Amtrak's Web site, www.amtrak.com, for information on possible last-minute security-related delays.
• Never ignore a bag left in the aisle or at a seat. Get out and inform a security official immediately.
• Pick cars at the far ends of the subway or train, since they will be less crowded (everyone heads for the center cars).
• Embrace the humble highway. Flying hassles — and prices — may lead you to load up the car, even for long-haul trips. You can have more fun than you think with books on tape, motel pools and roadside diners.
• Estimate your fuel costs with the AAA Fuel Cost Calculator: www.fuelcostcalculator.com.
At your destination
• Tune in to the television, radio station or newspaper at your destination; they can alert you to any local security concerns. When traveling overseas, check the Web site of the U.S. Embassy in the country you're in for updates on any unrest: http://usembassy.state.gov/.
• At museums, arenas or ballparks with metal detectors, find the entrance the farthest from the subway or parking garage. People tend to head for the first entrance they find, and it's always the most crowded.
• When touring museums and churches, carry only the essentials, and bring only a small bag so you won't have to check your valuables.
And finally ...
• Be observant, not scared, and keep on traveling.
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