Flying has become trickier than it once was — especially if you're packing a laptop and other electronic gadgetry. Here's some basic advice, along with a few pointers for traveling techs, to help make the trip go as smoothly as possible.
Traveling by air use to be easy. You threw a few things into a bag, picked up a ticket, checked your bag, and boarded the plane. It isn't that simple anymore. Flights are often delayed or cancelled, leaving you stranded, sometimes overnight. New security mandates restrict even common items like food and fingernail clippers.
Odds are, you'll also be carrying some electronic equipment, which adds some new wrinkles: How do you transport it safely? How should you deal with the issues that may arise at security checkpoints? What should you carry on and what should you pack? How safe is the data stored on that laptop?
For a trouble-free flight, you need to know your rights as a passenger and how to get through the airport without incident (well... within reason). Here's a mix of general and tech-specific tips that can save many headaches and a lot of time when you — or your users — get ready to take to the sky.
Note: This information is also available as a PDF download.
#1: Book smarter
If you have the flexibility of choice, check the Department of Transportation's Air Travel Consumer Report before booking your flight. Choose an airline with the best performance ratings, when you can. If possible, use a travel agency to book flights and reserve rental cars and hotel rooms. That way, if something goes wrong, you can call your travel agent instead of waiting in line to rebook a cancelled or delayed flight (see #7).
#2: Know your rights
Each airline has a set of rules known as its Contract of Carriage, which is really a terms of agreement document. Before traveling, request a copy of this document or download it from the airline's Web site. You can skip most of it, but read Rule 240, which states the airline's policies for handling delays, diversions, and cancellations. Be familiar enough to debate intelligently with a representative and don't be afraid to rule drop — don't be too shy to mention Rule 240 to get their attention if necessary. (That works only if you really know what's in Rule 240, though.) Know what services you're entitled to before you fly.
For more information, read Know your airline rights by Rudy Maxa. Although it's an old article, the information still applies.
#3: Keep contact numbers near by
Jot down the airline's customer service number or reservation line and keep it with you. If you use a travel agent, be sure to keep the agent's number with you. Pack the number in your carry-on luggage, your wallet, or put it in the bottom of your shoe — just make sure it's available. In addition, try to find the airline's flight list for the day you're traveling. If something goes wrong, you'll have a list of alternate flights.
#4: Check flight status before leaving
Before you leave, check your e-mail. Some airlines automatically notify passengers when a flight is cancelled or delayed. If this isn't the case, call the airline to check the flight's status. Or check the Federal Aviation Administration's Flight Delay Information site.
#5: Speak up for yourself
It helps to know what the airline will and won't supply when a flight is delayed. Getting them to do it is a different story. The airline, most likely, isn't going to make a public announcement like, "We screwed up your flight, please step forward to accept your consolation prize." Instead, you'll have to get back in line and gently demand that the airline fork over what it promised (see #2).
It won't hurt to ask (nicely) for something even if it's not listed in the Contract of Carriage. If necessary, remind the agent that you're a member of their frequent flyer club or that you paid for a first- or business-class ticket. It shouldn't matter, but sometimes it does. You might get lucky. However, you do have a right to the services promised — go get them!
#6: Remain calm
When things go wrong, people, even nice people, often react badly. No matter what happens, you must remain calm. Be polite with the airline's representatives whether you're talking face to face or on the phone. These people can help you. They're also human and they have the power to make things worse if you get nasty. Want a hotel room after being bumped? Starting your request with, "You guys are such jerks! Do you know who I am?" isn't a great idea. In fact, you'll probably end up sleeping on the terminal floor and eating crackers out of a vending machine.
#7: Don't wait in line if you don't have to
They've cancelled your flight, stranding you out of town. When you arrive at the counter to make alternate flight arrangements, you find a long line of frustrated flyers, and the temperature is rising.
Don't stand in that line! There will probably be more people in line than available seats on the next few flights and you want one of those seats. Find a quick corner and call the airline's reservation or customer service line (see #3) using your cell phone. Or if you have a laptop, go online. Either way, you'll get results quicker than if you stand in line at the terminal's service counter.
#8: Keep good notes
Once you're stuck with a cancelled or delayed flight, keep a log. Note conversations and document employee names, the time, and the content. Note announcement times and all other events related to the delay. Even when warranted, it is difficult to choke a refund out of an airline. A documented timeline will help you justify a refund later.
#9: Get the legroom you need
If you like a little more legroom than regular seating allows for, try to reserve an exit row seat. These rows have more legroom than regular seats. If you're unable to reserve an exit row seat when you book the flight, ask when you check in. You might get lucky. However, you must be at least 16 years old, speak English, and be physically able to open the emergency door. If there are two exit rows, ask for the second row, because the seats in the first row usually don't recline. You can also request a seat in the bulkhead row. That's the first row of seats in the coach cabin.
If you're carrying a lot of electronic gadgets, be forewarned — you must store them in the overhead bins, as there isn't room under your seat in the bulkhead row.
#10: Pack a snack
If the flight is delayed, you might get hungry. The terminal will have plenty of food and drink, but once you're on the plane, you're stuck. This is especially important if you're diabetic or have a food allergy. Don't depend on the airline to feed you. Don't depend on the airline to provide food you can eat. Be sure any food you pack doesn't violate security regulations.
#11: Pack (and carry) medications
Pack allowed medications in your luggage. And then pack a 24-hour supply in your carry-on luggage, just in case.
#12: Keep important documents at hand
Before you leave, scan important documents, such as your passport, driver's license, and birth certificate, and e-mail those electronic files to yourself. They'll be available for printout if you need them. This also works well with business documents you might need.
#13: Secure your laptop and other electronics
You probably have a laptop and a few other electronic gadgets flying with you. There are rules for all those toys, so be prepared. If you want to keep your laptop with you on the plane, read Seven rules for flying with a laptop: Share these tips with clients. There are two things to keep in mind:
- Larger electronics, such as laptops, video games, cameras, and DVD players, must be placed in a separate bin at the security check. If they're in your carry-on luggage, you must remove them. Smaller items, such as iPods, can remain in your carry-on luggage.
- Border guards can confiscate your electronic devices without provocation. Remain calm and hand over the goods. That's not meant to scare you, because it's not likely to happen, but it can. Cooperate because making a scene won't help you a bit.
If you don't know whether an item is allowed, check with your travel agent or the airline. In the end, if there's any doubt, just leave it at home. And if your laptop bag happens to contain a collection of bench tools — even a relatively benign screwdriver — you'll want to remember to move those items to your checked luggage.
#14: Protect the data on your laptop
The general security rules for laptop users apply to air travelers as well. Your laptop could be confiscated by security personnel (rare, but it does happen) — or possibly stolen. So make sure you don't have any sensitive information stored on it. Back up any critical presentations or business data you'll need at your destination and carry it separately on DVD or a flash drive or make sure it's available via VPN on your company server.
#15: Send non checkpoint-friendly equipment ahead
When you know that certain items are likely to create a security fuss, you should consider shipping them a few days early. In most cases, you'll be able to have the items held for pickup at your destination airport terminal or shipped to your hotel.
#16: Make your life easier in the airport
If you're carrying a lot of equipment — several laptops, for instance — be sure you have some easy way to transport it, such as a wheeled bag. Your back will thank you. Also, if you're in for a wait and decide to use your laptop, try to find a spot where you can plug it into an electrical outlet. Your wait could turn out to be much longer than you expect, so you might need to conserve your battery.
#17: Protect yourself from Wi-Fi scams
Here's one you'll definitely want to share with your traveling users. Many public places, including airports, provide wireless networks. While waiting for your flight, you log on to a hotspot, named appropriately enough Free Wi-Fi, thinking it's the airport's network. Unfortunately, you might not be using the airport's network at all. You might have fallen into a hacker's trap by signing into their network. If so, everything you do will go through the hacker's system, including your usernames, passwords, and any other information you send or download. (Usually this person is sitting nearby.) If your laptop allows file sharing, the hacker is free to steal your files and personal and financial information and to plant malicious malware.
There are ways to protect your laptop when using these public hotspots:
- Before signing on to any hotspot, check with the airport's information desk for its network name. Confirm the appearance of their login page because a hacker can create a network using the same name as the airport's network. When browsing, you'll simply see two networks with the same name.
- Enable your firewall.
- Disable wireless capabilities when you're not using them.
To prevent an accidental connection to a fraudulent network, do the following:
- Click the wireless icon in your laptop's System Tray.
- Click the Change Advanced Settings option.
- Click the Wireless Networks tab.
- Delete any networks in the Preferred Networks list that you're not familiar with.
- Highlight each network you want to keep and select Properties. Click the Connection tab, and deselect the Connect When This Network Is Within Range check box. Return to the Wireless Networks tab.
- Click Advanced.
- Select Access Point (Infrastructure) Networks Only.
- If the Automatically Connect To Non-Preferred Networks option is checked, uncheck it.
- Click Close.
Tips for approaching the security checkout
Security personnel care about security, not about your schedule. You can't make the line shorter, but being prepared will get you through the process quicker:
- Have your boarding pass and identification out.
- Take your laptop and other large electronics out of your carry-on bag and ready to place in a bin.
- Don't pack liquids, aerosols, and other gels in your carry-on bag.
- Declare medicines and other allowable liquids that are in your carry-on bag.
- Don't wrap gifts or pack anything on the Prohibited Items list.
- Wear shoes that are easy to slip on and off.
- Don't wear a bulky coat or sweater. All coats and jackets must go through the X-ray machine. Stuff them into your carry-on bag if they'll fit.
- Avoid wearing heavy metal jewelry, clothing with metal buttons or snaps, metal belt buckles, and underwire bras to avoid setting off the metal detector.
- If you have a body piercing, remove metal rings or studs. If they set off the metal detector, you may have to undress in private or submit to a pat-down search.
Few travelers run into delays or problems at the security checkpoint so relax and enjoy your flight!
Susan Sales Harkins is an IT consultant, specializing in desktop solutions. Previously, she was editor in chief for The Cobb Group, the world's largest publisher of technical journals.