Welcome to the September 2008 issue of "Smart Traveler". The newsletter with tips and information to help make your traveling smoother.


Wave of The Future: Luggage Tags That "Talk"


Tomorrow's high-tech luggage tags will look nearly the same as today's low-tech tags with bar codes.Five years from now, travelers may smile at old photographs of today's bar code labels for luggage.

In addition to Las Vegas, Hong Kong, and Amsterdam using new “smart” baggage tags, London (at Heathrow's terminal 3), Paris, Milan (at Terminal 2), Dubai, Kuala Lumpur, Tokyo (Narita), Beijing, and a few small airports around the U.S., are currently trialing this technology for full use in the near future. The goal is to make sure every passenger arrives at their destination with their bags—which doesn't happen for about eight of every 1,000 passengers in the U.S. right now.

Here's how the technology works: A disposable paper luggage tag is implanted with a radio frequency identification (RFID) tag, which is a microchip that's the size of a pin and as thin as a sticker. When this RFID tag passes within several feet of an antenna, it "wakes up" and acts like it's a transponder for a major radio station, beaming out radio signals. By broadcasting its location, a smart tag makes it easier and cheaper to track a bag.

Right now, it's common for bar code labels to get torn or folded, making them very difficult for scanners to read automatically. The new smart tags could reduce errors in reading baggage tags from the current 10 percent estimate to between 1 and 0.5 percent.

Let's say an airline worker needs to find a bag in a giant pile of luggage. Under the current bar code tracking system, an employee would have to hand sort the bags and scan each bar code individually. But using the new chip-based technology, workers can use a device like a beach-combing metal detector to beam out a signal for faster tracking of a lost bag. If the bag is in the pile, the hand-held scanner will make a noise.

The smart tags also prevent the loss of luggage. Under the previous bar-code-based system, luggage tracking through airports was limited to just a couple of points, such as at a check-in counter, at an airplane's cargo hold, and at a baggage carousel, because of the high cost of the equipment. In-between these distant points are "black holes" where many bags go astray.
The technology provides a more affordable means for covering the gap with a series of new checkpoints. Each time a bag passes an antenna—such as at a check-in counter, in a storage room, in a plane's luggage compartments, and at a baggage-claim carousel—it will be recorded in a computer database. These computer records will allow airlines to precisely find a bag—or figure out where a bag was last seen—by checking when and where a bag's tag was last "read" by a machine.

The technology, while not new, is becoming cheap enough to allow airports to install antennas throughout an airport. Today's tags cost about 15 to 20 cents a piece on average. In comparison, the cost of dealing with lost and mishandled luggage is estimated to by other organizations to be about $100 per bag on average.

McCarran airport, in Las Vegas, was one of the first airports to use this technology to track checked-in bags and make sure bags make their flights after being screened by L-3 explosives-detection machines. Officials at other airports look to Vegas system for its increase efficiency in handling and tracking bags. In addition, this improved “smart” baggage tracking system helps to centralize all the explosives-detection equipment in one place. Unlike other airports, which clutter the floor next to every airline's check-in counter with the security machines--Vegas uses the freed-up floor space to host slot machines and other money-making businesses.

Hong Kong's main international airport has already installed the system. You can check your bags at counters at the downtown train station or at the front desks of a few major hotels. Another perk: Hong Kong is a major transfer hub for passengers. In addition to the airports’ efficient check-in benefits, the airport provides a speedier connection time because bags are more efficiently tracked, sorted, and placed onto connecting flights. The result is that passengers are able to enjoy shorter wait times between transfers and trust that their bags will meet them at their destination.

One of the main things delaying the switch-over from bar codes to RFID tags is money. As the industry faces rising fuel costs, airports and airlines may put off the investment.

        
United Will Cut Free Meals On Many Overseas Fights

Starting Oct. 1, United Airlines will stop serving free meals to coach-class passengers on transatlantic flights between Washington D.C. (Dulles airport) and destinations in Europe. It's the first U.S. airline to stop distributing free meals on transatlantic flights. The airline will offer salads and sandwiches for $9.

Meals in first and business classes will remain free for transatlantic flights. But for most domestic flights, business class will no longer get free meals. And the price of meals for flights within the U.S. will also rise.

No word yet on whether flight attendants will be able to handle all the cash payments. The game of "does anyone have small bills?" will get very old on a long transatlantic flight. I hope they'll give hand-held, credit-card reading machines to them, like US Airways is giving some of its flight attendants on domestic flights. (Virgin Atlantic has credit-card swipe readers on each seatback.)

   
Pre-packing checklist: 7 simple steps

How can you prepare for next business trip? Here, is a checklist of seven simple -- yet easily forgotten -- steps to take before departure.

 

ONE WEEK BEFORE TAKEOFF

Freshen up your suitcases. Air out your bags before you pack. And next time you put luggage away, leave air freshener sachets in the pockets.

Stock up on storage bags for small items. Our favorites: Stephanie Johnson designs stylish Dopp kits with protective plastic interiors; a nylon-lined cotton sack by Zazendi is well suited for wet swim gear; and the drawstring laundry bag by Flight 001 is treated with polyurethane, which keeps odors under wraps.  

THREE DAYS BEFORE TAKEOFF

Get your gadgets in order. Empty memory cards and charge your phone and camera. Consolidate power cords, chargers, and extra batteries in your carry-on (new DOT regulations prohibit putting them in checked luggage). Pick up the Tumi Electronics Charger Kit, with adapters that work in 150 countries.

Refill necessary prescriptions. Bring medications with you on the plane; make sure they are properly labeled according to TSA requirements.

Copy important documents. Carry paper duplicates of your passport, visa, and itinerary, and e-mail yourself electronic copies. With a password-protected itinerary on Google Docs, close friends and family can keep track of where you are.

Pare down your travel wallet. Only bring essential documents: driver's license, medical insurance cards, passport, and credit cards. (T+L Tip: Alert your bank and credit card companies before you depart, so that they won't be alarmed by out-of-town charges and ATM withdrawals.)

 ONE DAY BEFORE TAKEOFF

Record the contents of your suitcase. Take pictures of your clothes, shoes, and jewelry, which will serve as documentation if your bag is lost or stolen. Download the shots onto your home computer, just in case.

   
For Deals and Service, Reconsider a Travel Agent

While most travelers were trying to get through to their airlines, travel agents were sitting at their computer rescheduling and rerouting clients last week coping with the disruptions of Hurricane Ike. And it raises again the issue of why—despite the Internet—so many travelers continue to rely on travel agents. Maybe you should think about doing the same.

There are  two reasons for placing “assistance” it at or near the top:

  • The massive disruptions of two recent hurricanes highlight the way natural events—weather, earthquake, fires, whatever—can impact travel plans and how extensive the disruptions can be.
  • Upcoming and inevitable airline schedule cutbacks are going to require that lots of you make drastic alterations to your itineraries and trips.
     

When something goes wrong—either before you leave or when you're already on your trip—a travel agent is your best source of help. Whether it's an airline snafu or a natural disaster, you often have to rebook flights, accommodations, and other travel arrangements. When you have advance notice, as in the case of a permanent schedule change, you could probably do your own rescheduling. But chances are an agent could do a quicker and better job than you could.

 

Agent support is even more important in a last-minute problem. Those are the times when you'll probably find it almost impossible to reach an overloaded reservation phone line or work your way through a long line at an understaffed airport counter. Instead, a quick call will get an agent working on your case immediately.
 

Beyond assistance in a pinch, travel agent advantages remains valid:

  • Knowledge and counsel. The main reason so many leisure travelers use travel agents is to take advantage of their specialized knowledge of destinations, local deals, and such, plus their counsel when trying to select a destination or activity.
  • Time saving. The main reason so many business travelers rely on agents to make their travel arrangements is to save time and hassle. If you've ever spent several hours online searching for a hotel deal or airfare, you'll know why.
  • Good deals. Good agents know what's available through the same Internet sites you might visit on your own. In addition, agents can search their GDS computer reservation systems, not available to the public, for deals that might not be on the Internet.
  • Airline tricks. Online booking is simple for buying straightforward one-way, round-trip, or even multi-stop air tickets. But some international air ticketing rules are arcane, and a good travel agent knows cost-cutting tricks that you could never find online.
     

If you decide to use a travel agent, my suggestion is that you use the agent for all your travel needs, not just when you think you might face a hurricane or blizzard. The more a travel agent knows about your personal preferences, the better job he/she can do for you. And although agents don't slack on any customer, steady clients get more attention than the once-every-five-year types. If you like to check trip details out on the Internet, that's fine: Just tell the agent what you've found. And if you're wary of online researching and booking, an agent is about the only way you can come even close to finding the best deals. 


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


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