Posted by: gabriellereneeleblanc | May 7, 2012

Flying American

Domestic travel in the U.S. generally means one of two things:

Navigating the twists and turns of our lovely Interstate highways on a time-consuming, gas-guzzling road trip, OR navigating  the twists and turns of our lovely national security checks and airport terminals in a time-consuming, jet-fuel guzzling flight.

Ours is a large, sprawling land and, unfortunatly, we have nothing like the European train and bus options available. Oh, sure, there are a few Greyhounds and Amtracks here and there, but really U.S. Travel (like our politics) is a two-party system.

And, just like our political candidates, neither option is very appealing–but, in the end, you have to go with one of them.

So, which will it be? To drive or to fly?

The saavy traveler weighs the pros and cons of both very carefully before making arrangements. Gas prices and MPG are held up against cost of tickets and transport to and from the airport. The list of pros and cons goes on and on…

Luckily for yours truly, the decision is a simple one.

Having set up my “home base”  in the wonderous mecca of public transit, New York City, I have neither a car nor a licence.

Thus, where ever I may roam, I fly my way from home. (That was cheesy. I apologize.)

In my many years of plane-hopping, I’ve developed a system of navigating the ins and outs of our country’s airlines that allows me to journey forth with minimal fuss and a reduced amount of stress. Without further ado, I present to you:

The Southern Girl’s Guide to Domestic Flight

Book Early! This is my number one rule and the first step to take for any destination, continental or international. It’s amazing how the prices for airfare vary throughout a given month–even day to day!  Thus, it is imperative to purchase tickets as soon as you have your vacation dates are finalized. There really is no point in waiting. Prices only go up, so lock in your rate today, and you’ll benefit tomorrow. (I’ve actually be known to schedule my vacations are around flight availability: for example, during my last trip down South I saved almost $200 by booking my return flight for a Tuesday afternoon rather than my typical Monday morning.)

Airlines are constantly over-booking and over-scheduling flights which means, when the weather turns or there’s a mechanical problem, the entire system gets backed up and the remainder of the day’s flights are delayed. With this in mind, make sure to give yourself a  minimum of an hour lay-over between flights. Just to be on the safe side, I generally aim for something around the 2 hour mark. It may sounds like a long time, but it’s better to be bored in a Miami terminal than stuck on a stand-by list, hoping someone makes a cancellation.

Airlines do try their best to keep everything in order but, with millions of people flying every day, things are bound to get messy. In the event of a missed or delayed flight, it is a fact that Airlines will assist their recurrent customers before any others. Platinum and Gold members get the best treatment but just being a frequent flyer (precious metal or no) does help. Which leads me to…

Rewards Programs: Though often tempted by the discounted rates found on Kayak.com, I always fly with American Airlines. Sometimes I end up paying a little more, but that extra $30 earns me points towards free airfare and upgrades. (Last December I ended up with a free first-class ticket home for the holidays because of my accrued flyer miles!) I’m not saying everyone should immediatly forgo all other airlines and jump on the American bandwagon: AA just happens to have the program best for me. Do some research. It’s worth reading the fine print.

Being a rewards member also makes getting your boarding pass a breeze! Once you have your rewards number memorized it’s a simple matter of punching it into the self-service ticket kiosk. No more struggling to get the machine to read the code on your passport or the magnetic strip on your card. In under a minute, I’m over and done and on my way to security.

Now, most airlines will offer little upgrades at the ticketing kiosk for an additional charge. My advice? Ignore them, save your money and skip on through. Don’t shell out the extra $9 to upgrade to boarding group A out of fear there will be no over-head space for your luggage. If the flight is over-booked and there is no room for it, your bag will be gate-checked at no traditional cost. You won’t be needing anything out of it during the flight anyway and, besides, you’ve given yourself plenty of time to pick up up between flights with your 1-2 hour layover, right?

Of course, it’s another matter if I have any luggage to check, which is why I try to always…

Carry-on: The airlines allow one carry-on item and one “personal item”, such as a purse or a small backpack. Ladies, I know how attached we are all to our purses, but for air-travel it’s best to just let it go. Get yourself a backpack or shoulder bag, something small enough to fit under the seat in front of you but large enough for your laptop or tablet, your bag of sundries, a few snacks, and the usual contents of your purse. Anything you may want to access during your time in the terminal or on the plane should go in here. Once your suitcase is packed and closed it should stay that way until you reach your destination (provided airport security doesn’t randomly select you. There’s no helping that.)

Here’s a little tip: food items do not count as a part of your carry-on! Isn’t that great? Having discovered this, local delicies are my gift of choice. Whenever I fly down from NYC, I bring fresh bagels from Absolute Bagel to my family. When I return from New Orleans, I carry back pralines to my co-workers.

Liquids: Ladies, have mercy on the FAA security, they know not what they do. What the danger could possibly be in my bringing aboard my bottle of SmartWater I do not know, but these are the rules and we’re forced to obey them. Each passenger is allowed only a small amount of travel-size liquid bottles, shoved into a sandwhich baggie. (Obviously the man responsible for these rules has never tried to tame naturally curly hair in Louisiana humidity!) Don’t waste this precious space with the simple things. Anything easily found in a drug store (shampoo, conditioner, toothpaste) can be purchased on location: it’s the specialty items–the ones we pay way too much for–that get to come along for the ride.

My staples include John Frieda 3-Day Straight Spray, Whish Flawless Ingrown Hair Serum, and a travel-sized bottle of dry shampoo. (Dry-shampoo was obviously created by a woman who HAS had to deal with combating humidity and is one of the greatest inventions for a gal on the go!) Whatever your staples, you’ll want them with you so get yourself a set of empty travel-sized bottles and fill ’em up with your favs.

Security: Yes, it’s a drag, but you can get through it with minimal fuss by being prepared. With your bag of liquids and electronic devices (laptops, e-readers, tablets) in your “personal item” and not your suitcase, it’s a very simple matter of pulling them out to place in the bin. Have your boarding pass and I.D. in your pocket, but nothing else. Don’t give them the satisfaction of having to “wand” you because your car keys keep setting off the alarm. As for taking off your shoes, it’s a lot easier if you’re trekking about in comfy Sketchers than knee-high, zip-up boots. If laced loosely enough, you can slip them right off and on. Not to mention, it makes running through terminals to catch a connecting flight a heck of a lot easier.

Oh! Here’s a good segway…

Clothing: Wear pants. Planes and airports are generally cold and, with marching up and down narrow aisles and escelators, practicality has to trump fashion. I suggest an alternative to the usual denham jean. Pick your pants for comfort. I generally favor black cargo pants: they’re versitile, light weight, and the pockets come in handly when trying to juggle cell phone, boarding passes, etc.

For a top, I tend to go with a light-weight fitted T, casual and comfortable. Though I mentioned before the cold temperatures of most planes and ports there have been occasions where it’s the exact opposite. Believe me, you don’t want to get caught in the New Orleans airport in a turtleneck. Instead, bring a cardigan or sweater. Though you’ll have to shed them to get through security, layers are your friend. They don’t count as a part of your carry-on if you wear them on, and you’ll be prepared for all weather/climate eventualities.

My favorite airport layering item is a zip-up hoodie. If you see me on a plane, nine times out of ten I’m sleeping with that hood over my head and pulled down over my eyes. It’s a great way to block the light as well as unwanted conversation from the passenger beside you.

Which brings me to:

Entertainment: Perhaps you are one of those jovial people who excels at small-talk and loves nothing more than to make a new friend on a flight. There have been times when I, myself, have behaved in such a manner. Generally, though, I don’t want to be bothered. Call me antisocial, but having harried the daunting tasks of packing, commuting to the airport, getting through security, and–finally–boarding the plane,  I really just don’t have it in me to entertain the person beside me with my life’s story. I’m tired. Typically, I pull the old “hoodie trick” and nap against the airplane window or, if napping isn’t in the cards for the day, I’ll pull out the Kindle or a paperback and read. However, this isn’t always enough to discourage discourse. (Some people just can’t take the hint.)

So, if I’m feeling very anti-social, out come the headphones. Let me tell you, for air-travel headphones are as much a necessity as jet fuel. It’s the solution to so many issues!

Crying baby on the plane? Pop in the headphones. Loud talkers to your left? Headphones! Interesting movie on the flight (a rarity)–hey, guess what? You have your headphones!

Just don’t get too zoned out and miss out on the in-flight beverage service or you’ll regret it.

Food: At the Dallas Fort Worth Airport, I paid $4.50 for a bottle of water. You can’t bring liquids in through the gate, remember? They can pretty much charge whatever they want and, during a long layover, you’ll end up paying it.

The prices at airport food kiosks are just as ridiculously jacked-up. As an experiment, I ordered the same item at the Dallas Fort Worth Taco Bell as I had at one in Baton Rouge, LA. The difference in price was a staggering $1.50 difference. This was at a Taco Bell, people. That’s crazy. To combat this unnecessary corporate greed, take advantage of the “food doesn’t count” carry-on policy and bring along your lunch in a shopping bag. Just be certain none of your munchies could possibly count as a “liquid” or you could find yourself the proud owner of some confiscated peanut butter.

Misc. That’s about it for my general tips for domestic flight. A few other things you may want to bring along in your personal item are a Sudoku, crossword puzzle, or paperback if you’re main device of entertainment is electronic. Remember, all “powered devices” are required to be shut down during take-off and landing, which could mean up to a half hour (or longer!) with nothing more than an AmericanWay magazine as your method of distraction.

Also, if you’re a napper like me, try squeezing a travel pillow in your smaller bag. For long flights and lay-overs it’s a great asset and almost as invaluable as your headphones.

Lastly, when it comes to booking seats, I always aim for a window seat. Though it is a pain to have to climb over someone else’s lap whenever you have to visit the lavatory, I find it better to be the climber than the climbed-upon–plus, you have the choice of a lovely view or a wall to sleep against, and complete control over the position of the shades. Face it, y’all, some things haven’t changed since childhood: window seats still rule.

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