This post, from BestLife Magazine...
By: Peter Greenberg
Feb 21, 2007 - 5:01:29 PM
Once upon a time, air travel was a glamorous adventure. Now, it's more of a calamitous misadventure. Here's how to get from place to place without feeling like part of a cattle drive
So a whole group of weary travelers picked up their carry-ons and moved over to the new gate. And waited. An hour later, a second plane landed and taxied in. Passengers got off. It would only be a short time, we were told, before we boarded and headed to Hong Kong. We waited. And waited. And then, materializing out of a doorway, came the same shy and embarrassed airline employee.
"Very sorry," she said, "but this plane is more sick than the other plane...so...we will take the first plane!" And, like dutiful (and dumb) sheep, and without even questioning the agent as to how sick any of the carrier's planes were, we all marched quietly back to the first malfunctioning plane, boarded, and somehow made it to Hong Kong.
A few days later, I found myself on an Aeroflot flight to Moscow. The flight was not only oversold but also overcrowded. And not just by passengers, but by what seemed like hundreds of oversize horseflies. We actually roared down the runway with a standing-room-only crowd of 12 people in the aisle, desperately holding on to the sides of passengers' seats as we became airborne.
And the flies? No problem. The flight attendants apparently were used to this problem on Aeroflot, and, without even cracking a smile, walked down the aisle handing out...flyswatters! Talk about in-flight entertainment.
When it comes to airplane horror stories, I have more than my fair share. I travel nearly 400,000 miles a year, and I've seen just about everything that can go wrong when you fly. I've experienced three emergency landings. My flights have been hit by lightning five times, once so severely that it burned a grapefruit-size hole in the plane's tail. I've been on aircraft that have lost engines and other parts of the plane in midair.
And once, my flight landed safely only to be broadsided on the ground...by a catering truck. I've been laid over in London, delayed in Des Moines, marooned in Khartoum, and stuck -- more than I care to remember -- in 35E. But I've lived to tell the stories and learned a lot along the way. So this holiday season, don't put yourself blindly in the hands of the airlines, hotel chains, and car-rental companies.
Use these 21 rules of stress-free travel, and seize back a little control. You'll reduce the stress and the strain on both your mind and your wallet.
TALK TO A HUMAN
Your new travel mantra for 2007: human being. While it may seem cheaper and easier to book your flight on the Internet, remember that many Web sites pose as informational when they are, in fact, transactional -- trying to push the sale. I'm not saying not to use the Internet; I'm just saying not to book your flight there first. Instead, quickly go online and find out which airlines service the route you want to take, then type in gethuman.com, which will tell you how to maneuver quickly through the customer-service tree of your chosen airlines. Now, pick up the phone.
START WITH THE PRICE
Let's say you're calling to make a reservation for a flight from Chicago to San Francisco. The first question the agent will ask you seems reasonable enough: "When do you want to travel?"
Don't answer that question. Instead, respond with a question: "Before I answer that, can you just go to your screen and punch up all the published fares on the Chicago to San Francisco route?" This will take the agent about four seconds. "Now," you say next, "scroll to the bottom of the list. What's that fare?" (Since no airline wants to promote their cheapest flights, the lowest fares are buried at the bottom of the screen.) Work your way up that list, finding the best fare for you with restrictions you can live with. Then, and only after you get the lowest rate possible, go to the Internet and see if you can find a deal that beats what you have.
Remember, once you make an airline reservation, you have 24 hours in which to book it. During that 24-hour window, you can go to the Web and see if you can beat that human-being deal. Be sure to check out farecast.com, a new site that actually predicts airfare prices on routes at the 55 busiest airports in the U.S. It's a good guide.
Also check out farecompare.com and my new favorite site, airfarewatchdog.com, which constantly searches travel databases for little-known, sometimes hidden, fare deals. For last-minute deals, check out site59.com, which does an excellent job of unloading unsold inventory.
RESEARCH YOUR FLIGHT
Each month, the U.S. Department of Transportation publishes a list of flights with the worst on-time records in America -- by route, airline, and flight number. In one listing, USAir flight 1619 between Philadelphia and Atlanta was reported late 100 percent of the time. And there are dozens more that are late more than 95 percent of the time. You can also get real-time information at flightstats.com. It lists how often a flight is canceled, diverted, or late.
If all the flights to your destination city are booked, think alternate airports (Providence instead of Boston, Oakland instead of San Francisco, Milwaukee instead of Chicago, to mention just a few) or routings that get you to Hawaii, for example, through Denver, Phoenix, or Las Vegas. You'll almost always save money and in many cases have less stress (and fewer delays) because you'll avoid the giant airports. For example, Midway has fewer delays than O'Hare, and Long Beach has a better record than LAX.
NEVER CALL TOLL-FREE NUMBERS
The same thing applies to making a reservation for a hotel room. Never call the 800 toll-free number to find a hotel room from a large chain. You'll only be connected to a third-party clearinghouse with a mandate to sell rooms at a designated price -- no room to negotiate. Instead, call the hotel directly.
But don't ask for reservations -- they'll just reroute you back to that 800 number. Instead, ask to speak to the manager on duty or the director of sales. They are the best arbiters of their room inventory. If the Schmidlap wedding party canceled last night and they suddenly have 60 rooms to sell, that 800 number (or the chain's Web site) may not have that information.
You're now in the best negotiating position. And an even better reason to talk to a human being at the hotel: You've established a relationship. Look for that person when you check in and you stand a much better chance for an upgrade.
CALL DURING FOOTBALL
Always try to call a hotel at 4 p.m. on a Sunday to make your reservation. Why? That's the one day each week that hotel revenue managers -- the folks who set and control room rates -- aren't working. You're in a better position to negotiate, since the hotel knows that an unsold room is revenue they'll never recoup once the sun rises.
DON'T BE BLINDED BY STARS AND DIAMONDS
Forget hotel ratings systems. In many destinations, stars are a government designation for how much the hotel is charging, not a reflection of quality. It just means you're paying more for your room. Stars and diamond awards are great for hotel-employee morale and are used by hotels to justify charging a higher rate, but how does that benefit you? It doesn't.
MAIL YOUR LUGGAGE
There are essentially two types of luggage: carry-on and lost. That's why I haven't checked a bag on a domestic flight in eight years. If I need to tote more than I can carry on, I simply ship my bags ahead to the hotel. I use FedEx, but there are more than 17 other private courier companies that perform the same door-to-door, room-to-room service.
In addition to DHL and UPS, check out luggageconcierge.com, luggagefree.com, and virtualbellhop.com.
I save an average of two hours of my life every time I fly by not checking bags. I don't have to schlep, I don't have to stand in line at the airline counter, I don't have to stand in line at the TSA, and then, when I land, I don't have to stand in that refugee circle around the baggage carousel, hoping against hope that my bags were actually on the same flight I was. Where are my bags? In my hotel room. How cool is that? How much does it cost? As little as $40 per bag. But the real question -- and a rhetorical one at that -- is, how much is it worth?
Because of issues with customs, it's not always a good idea to send your bags ahead when you are traveling internationally. In cases like that, if you must check your bags, practice some basic common sense: Always put an identification tag on the outside of each bag (but list only your name and cell-phone contact number), and do the same on the inside of each bag. Airline baggage conveyor belts can devour ID tags, but this way, if your outside tag gets ripped off, someone from the airline can still reach you.
IGNORE DEPARTURE TIMES
If you call the airline and ask if your flight is on time, you'll be sorry. More often than not, the airline agent will interpret your question to mean, "Is the flight scheduled to leave on time?" That's meaningless. Instead, ask to be given the tail number of the aircraft assigned to your flight, and then ask where that aircraft is. If you're scheduled to fly from Boston to Atlanta in two hours, but the aircraft assigned to your flight is still in Belize, well, now you know you're not leaving on time before you ever leave your house or office.
GO WHERE YOU'RE NOT SUPPOSED TO GO
Since you won't have any bags to check, follow my advice and save even more time and aggravation. If you have an early-morning flight from a dual-level airport, don't have your car drop you off at departures -- it will be jammed with vehicles and people -- but at the empty downstairs arrivals area. Who is arriving at 6:30 in the morning? No one. No traffic, no lines. Get out of your taxi and just take the escalator upstairs and through security to your gate. And when you land, there's absolutely no reason to go to arrivals, which will be a zoo. Get picked up at the empty departures level.
UNDRESS FOR SUCCESS
Before you leave for the airport, put everything metallic you're taking with you -- watch, keys, coins, jewelry, pens, chains, et al -- in ziplock plastic bags and pack them in your carry-on. Dress on the other side of security, please! This will save five minutes per passenger. Do the math: It makes so much sense.
IGNORE THE DEPARTURES BOARD
If the airlines ran the shipping business, the departure boards would still show the Titanic as "on time." Look at the departures board for only one piece of information: the gate from which your flight is scheduled to depart. Then go immediately to the arrivals board. Check to see what is arriving at your gate. If nothing is arriving at your gate, then you can enjoy the luxury of not being disappointed at the counter.
INVOKE RULE 240
The airlines definitely don't want you to know about this one. It's a rule that has been around for more than 20 years, but unless you invoke it, don't expect the airlines to volunteer it. And here's what it means: In the event of a delay or cancellation for any reason whatsoever (except those caused by weather), if you invoke rule 240, the airline must endorse your ticket over to the next available flight -- not their next available flight, which might not leave until next Tuesday. One word of caution: Some low-cost airlines, like JetBlue and Southwest, which have no interline arrangements with other airlines, are not covered by the rule. But each of the legacy airline carriers (American, United, Northwest, Delta, US Airways) is still governed by 240.
NEGOTIATE YOUR PHONE BILL
Yes, phone and Internet charges are negotiable, as long as you make a deal ahead of time. Before you take your room key, tell the person at the front desk you want your phone and Internet charges bundled -- a flat fee of $10 or $15 a day for unlimited Internet and domestic long-distance calls. More often than not, the hotel will agree to the deal. This also applies to other annoying charges like resort fees and use of the hotel gym. Negotiate everything up front.
STAY BELOW THE EIGHTH FLOOR
Modern firefighting equipment doesn't have the capacity to easily fight fires, or rescue people, higher than eight stories. Staying on a lower floor is especially important in third-world countries, where fire-safety regulations and procedures aren't quite as strict as they are in the U.S.
FOLLOW THE BOOSTER PUMPS
Most high-rise hotels cannot maintain adequate water pressure. As a result, many have installed booster pumps in their buildings. The pumps aren't necessarily on alternating floors, just different floors. So when you check in, ask the front-desk clerk to call engineering and find out what floor the booster pumps are on. If, for example, the answer comes back that the pumps are on 4, 6, 9, 11, and 15, then ask for a room on either 4 or 6. Why? Because when you walk into your room on a floor where there's a booster pump, you'll be guaranteed a decent hot shower no matter what time of day you need it.
ASK ABOUT CONSTRUCTION
Now that you've made friends with the front-desk clerk, ask another question: "How close is my room to the construction?" Virtually every hotel runs on a constant cycle of renovation, which means that, at any given time, an entire floor (or floors) is closed for reconstruction. If you don't ask that question, you could be given the keys to the Jackhammer Suite.
GERMPROOF YOUR ROOM
Short of wearing a biohazard suit, you need to do three things immediately upon entering your room: First, always pack some sanitizing wipes, and use them to wipe down the TV remote and the phone handset. Second, walk over to the bed, pull off the bedspread and throw it into a corner of the room. Never look at it again. Never touch it again. And last but not least, go into the bathroom. Turn on the hot-water faucet and place the water glasses under that faucet for at least three minutes.
Why? Hotel maids are heavily tasked to clean between 12 and 16 rooms per shift. And if your room is one of the last three she worked on, chances are your maid ran out of time and didn't replace the water glasses from the last guest. Instead, she probably wiped them down with the dirty towels left lying on the bathroom counter.
Once again, using an 800 number to reserve a car may not get you the lowest rate or the best car. Check out rentalcars.com for great comparison prices at the local level. Another tip: Rent a car on a Saturday. Why? Many cars suddenly become available on Saturday when customers who reserved them for the weekend don't show up.
Since you probably travel with a digital camera, why not put it to good use? Walk around the rental car and look for dings and dents. If you see any, activate the camera's date-and-time option to stamp on each photo, and snap a few shots. Show them to a rental-agency employee, and get his or her full name. This will take all of five minutes. Later, if the company claims you banged up the car (and these repair charges can be draconian), you'll have proof the damage was preexisting.
GET YOUR OWN GAS
In some cases, rental-car companies will charge you north of $6 a gallon to fill up your tank when you return the car. Save some real money -- and time -- by going to gasbuddy.com, which lists the cheapest gas stations along your route, and then fill up the tank yourself. Since time is also money, traffic.com will get you customized traffic information for your trip, and the info can even be sent to your cell phone.