McClatchy-Tribune News Service (MCT) - In the lowered-expectations world of air travel, some facts of life have changed for the better. Meal cutbacks mean most passengers never hear the most daunting question in the air, "Chicken or beef?"
Minus high-salt meals, flying is definitely safer. And thanks to the miracle of hub travel, fewer flights, more crowded planes and staffing issues, many travelers find a routine trip gives them the opportunity to spend extra hours, even days, killing time at the airport of their choice.
Reduced airline capacity means fewer options, all at the passenger's expense. My son's recent trip back from Michigan to St. Louis, a nine-hour drive or train ride, took 36 hours due to the inability of American Airlines to rebook him for an entire day. When he finally did catch a plane to Chicago, a missed connection to St. Louis added another 12 hours to the trip.
My own experience with canceled and seriously delayed flights runs the gamut from AWOL pilots who didn't want to fly on Christmas Day to carriers that refuse to offer any kind of credit or accommodation for a canceled flight. Your lost time is definitely not their problem.
Unless you happen to own an airline you might wonder what if anything you can do to circumvent just a few of the following common problems:
_You have missed your connecting flight and are unable to make a connection until the following day, meaning your cruise is leaving without you.
_Your airline only operates a single flight a day to your destination and a backup aircraft won't be available for a day or longer.
_Your carrier is unable or unwilling to let you change a flight unless you buy a new ticket or pay a huge cancellation penalty.
To get around some of these problems, here are a few helpful suggestions that will prepare you for the deregulated caveat emptor world of air travel.
If you are taking any trip under 500 miles consider driving or taking a train or bus. Often this is a better deal in terms of cost and competitive when you factor in time. This way you don't have to run the risk of huge rebooking fees (I just paid $280 to change a return date on a $490 flight to London and the airline told me I was lucky it wasn't higher) if your original itinerary changes. This is doubly true if you are flying with someone else.
Before you book, look for a nonstop and try to stay with a single carrier or one that it is part of an inter-airline alliance or partnership. This means they have the ability to get you to your destination on a partner carrier.
Much of the problem with air travel is missed connections. This can be a hang-up with budget carriers like Spirit and Ryanair, which assume no liability for their late arrival if it results in a missed connection on another carrier. Even if you are connecting to one of their own flights, you will have to wait for the next available opportunity, which could mean being stuck for a day or longer if they are running or full or have a light schedule on the route you choose.
If there is no direct air service from your hometown airport to your final destination, consider flying nonstop to or from a convenient hub. It's often worth the drive. You can also skip the regional airline connection to your final destination by choosing a shuttle, rental car or train.
Take Santa Barbara, for example. If you're flying from Minneapolis you could head for Los Angeles and then take a ground shuttle to Santa Barbara. This way you can avoid the possibility of commuter flight delays in Los Angeles.
In places like Europe and Japan, where there are efficient rail systems, this alternative can be cheaper and faster when you factor in the reality of bad weather. Also, you may find that the shuttle connection to your spoke city is cheaper than a connecting commuter flight.
Similarly, if you live in a spoke city like New Haven, Conn., or Waco, Texas, it may to worth driving or taking a ground shuttle to a hub to begin your air travel.
Hubs offer plenty of backup flights. If your scheduled flight is seriously delayed or canceled, chances are you can probably easily book a later plane. My son is a good example. Stuck 180 miles away from O'Hare after his 28-minute commuter flight was canceled, he had to wait 24 hours for another connection to Chicago.
Had he simply gone to the O'Hare via train the next morning he could have easily caught one of American's many flights to St. Louis. Instead he was forced to wait 24 hours for another plane, missed the last connection of the night in Chicago and slept on a cot for four hours, until airport staff put all the bedding away at 4 a.m.
Even if you don't take this approach, it's worth choosing your hub carefully. Always pick the hub closest to your final destination. For example, if you're going to Daytona Beach it's better to connect through Orlando than Atlanta. That way, if your connection is a problem, it's easy to rent a car or take a shuttle for a much shorter trip.
No matter how you travel it's almost always better to take the first flight when planes tend to be on schedule, unless there are serious weather issues like fog.
And no matter when you fly, always arrive at the airport at least two hours early. Cutting it close can be a special problem if you are carrying checked luggage. Some airlines have an earlier check-in deadline for baggage than they do for passengers. I learned this sad fact after arriving at the Los Angeles airport 34 minutes early for a long flight. I was denied boarding because my bag was due 45 minutes ahead of departure. As I result I ended up on a redeye six hours later.
Wise travelers realize anything an airline tells you is subject to change. The only way to know for sure that your supposedly delayed flight is actually held up is to show up at the airline gate well ahead of your scheduled flight time. Miraculously some "delayed" flights actually do take off earlier than forecast because anticipated problems are solved quickly.
When you're sure that your flight is not going to fly, it's time to ask the airline agent about your alternatives. If she can't quickly book you on another plane you have the following options:
Ask the airline if they can book you to another city. Once, when a snowstorm closed all the New York airports, I was able to switch to an alternate Washington, D.C., flight at no extra cost; an easy Amtrak connection put me in New York just a couple of hours late. This was far cheaper than spending an extra night in Detroit at my own expense (airlines don't pay for weather delays).
Another possibility is a change of airports. While this may require some driving time it allows you to make a same-day connection. I did this on a recent trip because the secondary airport 50 miles away had a flight that allowed me to make my original hub connection. Happily I arrived on schedule. This made far more sense than an alternate airline recommended route that would have put me in New York five hours later.
I am not a big fan of airline clubs mainly because it's often easy to duplicate or even beat their services at an on-premises airport hotel. But if you travel frequently they do offer one big advantage: In some circumstances they can call a departure gate and find out if there is space left on a supposedly sold-out flight.
This happened to me during another snowstorm when Northwest had canceled all their evening flights to New York. Continental was still operating but when I went to the gate the agent explained their flight was sold out. The club agent was able to find me a seat on the same flight and I arrived on time. Keep in mind that you can buy a one-day club membership _ not a bad idea if you're flying on a problematic air-travel day and will be at the airport for a long time. Also, club staff can get through to reservations for rebooking when you are stuck on hold.
Once your flight leaves there's not much you can do about ground delays, air traffic slowdowns or gate delays. But you can anticipate late arrivals that might interfere with connections by always opting for the seat closest to the exit door (which is not always the front door on the plane). It's also a good idea to board early to store your luggage above your seat or in a forward compartment.
If you're forced to store your bag in an overhead behind your seat you'll have to wait until other passengers disembark, which can cost precious time on a short connection. And remember, if you're on a tight schedule it's better not to check luggage at all, even it means you have to ship your belongings ahead or do some shopping at your final destination.
When you arrive, ask the agent to give you the gate for your next flight and, if time is tight, ask them to call and try to hold the plane. By all means take advantage of shuttle buses, shuttle rail or shuttle carts that can expedite the trip to your connection.
All of these remedies underscore perhaps the greatest irony of air travel. Flying may be the fastest way to go, but in many situations you can expect delays that will easily disrupt or even destroy your plans. For this reason I suggest the following caveats for people headed for weddings, cruises, major business meetings or any event that is time sensitive.
_Leave at least one day early, two if you really must be there.
_You are often better off booking through a travel agent or direct with an airline. If you go any other way contact the airline directly before you leave home to make sure that your flight arrangements are in order. When in doubt, book on the phone and discuss recommended connecting times based on the experience of the agent, who has a good feel for how long you should allow to get through the Frankfurt airport on a holiday weekend.
_If you have an early flight it makes more sense to spend the night at a hotel near the airport than it does to drive early in the morning.
_In large cities double check the name of the airport on your ticket and be sure you know the terminal number
_Carry minimum luggage.
_Prepay all extras such as luggage fees and print out your boarding pass with a reservation for an aisle seat.
_Go to the bathroom before you get in line at the ticket counter.
_Allow at least an extra hour if you are returning a rental car. Seriously consider the prepaid gas option.
_Don't schedule any appointments within five hours of your flight unless they are within a couple miles of the airport.
_If the weather looks dodgy plan to be at your flight gate at least an hour and a half before departure.
_Wear sensible running shoes.
And bon voyage.
Roger Rapoport, publisher of the "I Should Have Stayed Home" trouble travel series, has edited hundreds of stories from around the world about trips gone awry. E-mail: Roger@rdrbooks.com
© 2009, McClatchy-Tribune News Service.
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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