Welcome to the July 2009 issue of "Smart Traveler". The newsletter with tips and information to help make your traveling smoother.


The Ten Commandments of Flying

Air travel would be a lot more civil if passengers took the time to remember that they’re sharing cramped quarters with other human beings. Here’s an etiquette guide to friendlier skies.

For many travelers, flying ranks somewhere between a root canal and a trip to the post office; the process is marked by lumbering bureaucracy, interminable lines and discomfort. Tired of practices they find unfair, uncaring or even downright demeaning, harried travelers — some of whom have suffered through six-hour delays on the tarmac — have at times even asked Congress to pass an airline passengers bill of rights.

Unsurprisingly, those proposals haven’t made it into law. But before we ask government to stick its tentacles even more deeply into another industry, why shouldn’t we as passengers take it upon ourselves to make air travel a little less of a chore?

So much of the nuisance of flying is caused not by the airlines or even the loathsome Transportation Security Administration, but by our fellow travelers. Obeying some of the following golden rules might make flying more of a pleasure.

Call them the 10 commandments of flying: the passengers bill of responsibilities.

1. De-compartmentalize
That’s an X-ray machine at the security checkpoint, not a cashier totaling up the value of your belongings. There’s no reason to put your coins and keys in one plastic bin, your laptop in another and your coat in a third. (And, now that the TSA has issued new rules, please don’t put your shoes in a bin at all.) All this does is clog up the line, as passengers behind you have to wait for you to clear all of your bins from the far end of the belt. And the TSA agent who wheels the bins back to their starting place has to halt the procession through the metal detector three times as often.

Instead, put your metal objects inside your carry-on bag, and use a single bin unless you have a laptop, which requires its own. That way, the X-ray machine can scan all of your belongings at once, and we’ll all get through the screening process a whole lot faster.

2. Hurry up and wait
I never understand the great rush for everyone to get on board the airplane. You’re going to be sitting in that seat for several hours; do you really need an extra 12 minutes? Sit on the plane, sit in the lounge: What’s the difference?

Yet everyone pushes to be among the first onboard, as though there’s some prize to be awarded at the end of the jetway. Not so: Your reward is the same line of passengers, 25 feet closer to the aircraft, still standing and waiting for that one person in row 9 who’s holding up the entire queue by blocking the aisle.

Wait until your group is called. It makes the entire boarding process faster and less stressful for everyone.

3. Go solo
All of the major U.S. airlines limit carry-on baggage to one piece of hand luggage and one personal item, which they usually define as a purse, briefcase or laptop. That does not mean you get to carry all of the above plus a shopping bag, a sweater, your buckwheat-filled neck pillow and a water bottle that doesn’t fit in any of the aforementioned cases. One means one. And don’t get cute by stuffing your valise into the overhead bin in row 7 before proceeding to your seat in row 26. Check it or leave it at home.

4. A carry-on is a carry-on only if you can carry it on
The corollary to the last rule is that you should actually be able to carry your luggage down the aisle without smashing it into other passengers’ heads, and unless you’re elderly or disabled, you should be able to lift it into the overhead bin with ease. If it’s too big or too heavy to fit in the overhead bin without forcing it, your bag is not a carry-on.

This problem is only going to get worse as more airlines charge a fee to check your suitcases. To that I say: Consider yourself lucky. Even with these fees, airfares are still significantly lower than they were just a year ago. Charging for checked baggage merely redistributes the appropriate costs to those who use the most space on the plane.

5. De-leverage
When you’re getting up out of your seat, please don’t pull back on the seat in front of you for leverage. In case you haven’t noticed, that seat isn’t strong enough to hold your weight without bending. If there’s a person in that seat, you’re giving her an unexpected wild ride. To get out of your seat, use the armrests on your own seat to push yourself up.

6. Look back
The debate over whether it’s polite to recline your seat rages on, with both sides advancing valid arguments. One thing everyone can agree on, however, is that if you’re going to recline, at least take a glance backward so the person behind you doesn’t end up with a laptop to the gut or coffee spilled all over his pants.

7. Not so loud
What’s that incessant noise bleeding out of your headphones? Your fellow passengers may not care what it’s doing to your hearing, but they do care when the volume is so loud that they can sing along across the aisle. The whole purpose of headphones is to keep your music, your podcasts or your Rosetta Stone Italian lessons from bothering other people. Remember that.

8. Surf politely
Internet access on airplanes is no longer a fantasy. It’s already available on select flights; some airlines have pledged to offer Wi-Fi on all their flights by midsummer. How widely carriers extend this service will partly depend on whether passengers abuse the privilege.

We’ll all dread flying a whole lot less if we’re able to check the score of the game, send and receive e-mail or update our status on our favorite social networking sites (“Ohmigod, can you believe it? I’m Twittering FROM THE PLANE!”). But the minute people start using mile-high Wi-Fi to stare at porn or watch videos with the sound on, the airlines are sure to pull the plug. And forget about using the Web to make phone calls; nothing will kill Internet access on planes faster than a bunch of people yammering on their phones for the entire flight.

9. Clean up after yourself
Nobody wants your empty coffee cup in their seatback pocket, or an in-flight magazine with your gum sticking its pages together. Flight attendants constantly come through the cabin collecting trash. Pitch in.

10. On your mark, get set … wait your turn
Passengers used to applaud when pilots made a safe landing. These days, they deliver a standing ovation, leaping out of their seats in a rush to be the first ones off the plane.

We’re all in a hurry; we all have tight connections. But that doesn’t give anyone license to hurdle past old ladies or whack people’s knees with their rolling suitcase. The etiquette is simple: Exit by rows. The first row of passengers gets off first, followed by the second row and so on.

Odds are you’re going to have to wait for your luggage at baggage claim, anyway. If you’re in that much of a hurry, there’s a way to make sure you’re in the first three rows of the plane: Pay for a business-class seat.

         
American Airlines Announces Changes to Checked Bag Charges

American Airlines on 7-27-09 announced charges for checking a first or second bag. The charges will increase for domestic-travel tickets that are purchased on or after Aug. 14, 2009. The changes apply for travel within the United States and U.S. territories such as Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. The changes also apply to travelers on American's regional affiliate, American Eagle, as well as AmericanConnection flights.

For tickets purchased on or after the effective date, the first checked bag will be $20 and the charge for a second checked bag will be $30, up from the current charges of $15 and $25 respectively. The current checked bag charges to and from Canada are not changing at this time.

Here are some examples of exceptions for travelers who do not pay any checked bag charge - other exemptions may also apply - see AA.com/baggage for details:

• American's AAdvantage program members who have achieved AAdvantage Gold, AAdvantage Platinum and AAdvantage Executive Platinum levels, as well as oneworld Alliance Emerald, Sapphire or Ruby members;

• Those who have purchased tickets in the First and Business Class cabins, as well as those who purchased full-fare tickets in the Economy Class cabin;

• Those with international itineraries (except to and from U.S. territories such as Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands). Checked bag charges to and from Canada, as noted, are not changing at this time and remain at current levels.

Customers may pay checked bag charges at an airport Self-Service Machine, the curbside check-in counter, or at any airport ticket counter.

    
10 Ways to Save With Frequent Flier Programs

Casino pit bosses will tell you the best way to make your table action pay dividends is to sign up for a players card that is used to record points based on how much money you put down and how long you play. You often can get freebies on food, hotel rooms and merchandise.

 

The same holds true for flying. If you don't have a frequent flier reward program number or card when you buy your next ticket, get one. The credits, miles or points you earn when you fly add up to discounted or free flights, upgrades and other rewards.

 

Not all airline programs are the same, so here are 10 tips to make frequent flier programs take off for you.

Look for value.

If you have 25,000 miles and want to fly Delta Air Lines, consider how much the ticket is before you use the miles. Sales abound right now due to the weak economy. If you can fly roundtrip from Atlanta to Boston for $178, it's worth it to buy the ticket and save the miles for a free transcontinental flight that might cost you twice as much to buy, or use it for an upgrade on an international flight.
 

Book early.

Make sure you get that free ticket for only 25,000 miles. Don't pay 50,000 miles that took you two years to accumulate for that cramped coach seat unless you absolutely have to.

The best way to maximize your miles is to book your reward ticket at least several months before you want to fly. That's because the number of reward seats available at the lowest redemption level on many airlines are limited, particularly at peak hours of the day or peak days of the year.

"If someone tries to get an award on a high demand specific flight at a specific time of day and they're not flexible, they may be disappointed," American Airlines spokesman Tim Smith said.

If you must travel at a specific time on a specific day and your plans don't come together until close to the day you want to leave, you still can get a free ticket, but it may cost you more miles. For 60,000 miles, Delta guarantees a free seat on a domestic flight, excluding travel to Hawaii, as long as a coach seat is available.
 

Diversify.

Sign up for several reward programs — it's free. Rewards on AirTran Airways add up fast. You can get a free domestic coach ticket for 16 flight credits, which take just eight roundtrip paid flights, regardless of distance, to accumulate.

But if you tend to take a lot of transcontinental flights, it may get you a faster free roundtrip coach ticket on United Airlines or US Airways, which, like Delta, give reward miles based on the distance you travel. AirTran only flies in North America. But for 100 flight credits, AirTran will buy you a ticket anywhere in the world on another carrier.
 

Get the credit card.

Some airline branded credit cards will give you 2 miles or points for every dollar spent on the partner airline and 1 mile or point for every dollar spent everywhere else. Some of those cards carry annual fees of up to $85 or more. AirTran and Delta, however, have partner credit cards that offer no-annual-fee options, but that comes with 1 point or mile for every dollar spent on the partner airline and one-half of 1 point or mile for every dollar spent everywhere else.

"For those people who charge very high dollar amounts annually to those cards but yet don't carry a revolving balance, the mileage you generate is worthwhile. The annual fee is worthwhile," said David Robertson, an expert on frequent flier credit card promotions and publisher of the Nilson Report, a credit card industry newsletter.
 

Watch for promotions.

Some airlines offer frequent flier members the ability to get extra miles, points or credits if they rent a car with a partner company, fly to certain locations or buy a Netflix membership. Look for deals on airline Web sites and sign up with the airlines for e-mail alerts about promotions.
 

Double dip.

Some hotel reward programs allow you to earn some of your rewards as airline miles with partner carriers or to transfer existing reward points to a partner airline reward program.
 

Watch expiration dates.

Frequent flier miles, points or credits do not last forever on some carriers. With some airline programs, miles or credits can expire after a year or two. But having the partner credit card can help. At AirTran, for instance, flight credits are generally valid for 12 months after the date on which they were posted to the member's account. But for holders of the AirTran branded Visa credit card and for Elite members, flight credits are valid for 24 months after the posting date.
 

Avoid unnecessary fees.

Book your reward ticket online. Calling a customer service agent may cost you — AirTran charges a $15 direct booking fee. Try to fly the airline on which you are redeeming reward miles. Using your frequent flier miles within three weeks of travel may cost you a fee — $75 at Continental Airlines for basic OnePass members if you book the reward ticket less than 21 days from the day you travel.
 

Pack light.

You'll still pay those checked bag fees even if you are traveling on a reward ticket. So, try to limit yourself to one carryon bag and one personal item per person. If you have to check a bag and you are traveling with another person, merge your belongings into one bag and split the fee. But be careful not to pack the bag too heavy. There are fees for overweight bags. The fees vary by carrier — some airlines charge coach passengers on domestic flights $15 for a first checked bag and $25 for a second checked bag. Delta charges $90 on a domestic flight for a bag checked that weighs between 51 pounds and 70 pounds.
 

Lastly, free does not mean completely free.

The reward redemption generally covers the base fare of the ticket. Some airlines will charge you for certain taxes or fees. At American and other carriers, you will still pay the $2.50 per boarding security service fee that all travelers at U.S. airports have had to pay since the fee was instituted after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. At American, international award tickets are subject to, and the passenger is responsible for, applicable departure taxes and/or federal inspection fees.

    
How to Pick the Right Cruise Cabin
By a process of elimination—this one's too small, this one's too loud—you can find a stateroom that's just right.

On paper, choosing a cruise cabin seems pretty simple. There are four basic styles: insides (no window), outsides (with window), balcony, and suite.

But booking a stateroom is not a snap. Even though there are just four room styles, cruise lines divvy them into as many as 20 price categories. A cabin's location, size, and amenities determine the price, which generally increases the higher, bigger, and more deluxe you go. The trick is figuring out what's worth paying extra for, and that depends on your priorities. If you don't plan to spend much time in your cabin, feel free to book the cheapest price you can find. But if you think of your stateroom as a retreat, proceed carefully and avoid these not-so-ideal scenarios.

A CABIN THAT'S TOO SMALL
Cruise cabins are designed for maximum efficiency, so they're generally more than adequate as long as you're neat and you haven't overpacked. Some cabins, however, are just plain miniscule. Rooms on older vessels can be as little as 100 square feet, particularly for inside cabins. If this is your home for a week, you might feel like an inmate in a cell. When looking at cabin measurements, note that cruise lines often include the veranda in the overall square footage. A balcony cabin on Celebrity Summit, for example, may look about average size at 208 square feet, but that factors in 38 square feet of veranda. The cabin itself measures just 170 square feet. So the advice is: Think hard before booking a cabin that's extraordinarily small—say, one that's less than 150 square feet, not including the veranda.
What to ask a travel agent: What's the square footage of the cabin? Does that figure include a veranda?

A CABIN THAT'S TOO LOUD
A ship's deck plans, available at each cruise line's website, are easily readable. It's important to check what's below, above, and around the corner from the cabin you're considering. Avoid anything right under the lido buffet, as meals are served nearly around-the-clock. Unless you plan to close the ship's late-night disco, don't book a stateroom nearby. If your cabin is just below the pool deck, your morning wakeup call could be the scraping sound of chaise lounges being dragged into position. Cabins on lower decks are cheaper largely because guests have to put up with the hum of propellers. The best bet is to choose a cabin that has staterooms above and below it—and then cross your fingers that the neighbors in every direction aren't rowdy night owls.
What to ask a travel agent: How noisy will the cabin be? Are there restaurants, discos, pools, or public areas nearby that'll keep me up at night?

A CABIN WITH A LESS-THAN-STELLAR VIEW
Every outside cabin pretty much looks out on a similar sea-and-sky vista, but there are some notable differences. Most are located either port or starboard, so you're always looking sideways. A front-facing stateroom lets you see where you're heading, but also takes the brunt of wind and rough seas—the big reason why these cabins rarely come with balconies. Backward-facing cabins boast the best views. There's something incredibly Zen-like about gazing at the wake and the panorama behind the ship. Backward-facing cabins are hard to come by because most cruise lines devote that part of the ship to public spaces. Holland America Line, Royal Caribbean, and Celebrity Cruises are among the lines that regularly have backward-facing cabins.
What to ask a travel agent: What's the view like? Can I get a better view for the same money?

A CABIN THAT FEELS LIKE GRAND CENTRAL STATION
Many passengers prefer centrally-located cabins because they're close to stairways, elevators, pools, and buffets. Still, there's such a thing as too central a location. Stateroom doors are absurdly flimsy, so you'll hear pretty much everything going on outside. There is no truly quiet corner of a cruise ship. But it's smart to avoid lower deck cabins that are close to the ship's atriums—the extravagantly designed openings, often several stories high, attract a lot of foot traffic. In a cabin around the corner from an atrium, you'll hear the hordes milling or power walking past your door from dawn to dusk.
What to ask a travel agent: How close is the cabin to the ship's atriums? Is the cabin on the main walking path for people disembarking or reboarding the ship?

A CABIN THAT'LL REDUCE SEA SICKNESS
Newer ships have all sorts of nifty stabilizers that try to tame the sea and give passengers a smoother ride. Most people feel fine, even during mildly rough seas. But if you are unusually sensitive to movement, you may want to forego the higher decks. The higher you go, the more likely you'll get not only back and forth (or side to side) rocking, but will also feel an unsettling swaying effect. Stick to the center, the most stable part of the ship, and by all means avoid any stateroom within a dozen cabins of the front.
What to ask a travel agent: I'm worried about getting sick if the seas get rocky. Can you book me in a cabin in the most stable location?
 


Remember: Without a travel agent you're on your own.


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