As the vacation season kicks in, seasoned travelers share tips for making the journey better.
Thirty-five hours and Kevin Flynn finally reached Indonesia. He flew in from Malaysia and was entering the capital of Jakarta, climbing gear ready for his ascent up one of the tallest peaks on earth.
He was bleary-eyed with a lot on his mind. The mountain, Carstensz Pyramid, was closed until recently to visitors and is perilously close to rebel hangouts. Would there be trouble? Would travel arrangements in the back country work out?
One of only a few hundred climbers who have reached the top of the highest mountains on all seven continents, Flynn has flown the world and has a lot of experience getting uncommon items through screenings — like his ice ax. On this trip to Indonesia, he was surprised with a new complication.
Custom agents didn’t want to let him into the country because, they said, he had no blank pages left in his passport that were specifically labeled for Visa stamps. The customs line whittled down and he’s the last guy there, worried he had just gone thousands of miles and may be turned away.
“It was bizarre,” he says.
A manager ushered him to a back booth, where he was reminded that Indonesia is a poor country. Wink, wink.
It was a “I help you, you help me,” says Flynn, of Fairport, who went ahead and forked over the requested $15. Voilá. They stamped the visa on a regular blank page, no problem.
Few travelers get asked for a donation from officials when traveling, but Flynn’s scenario illustrates the unplanned hassles — and surprises — we all encounter. Delayed flights. The dreaded lost bag. Pretending you’re Jesse Owens sprinting to a gate to make a connection. Everyone knows air travel can be a royal pain. But let’s face it, you can’t swim to the white-sand beach in the Bahamas and a car can’t get you to the foothills of the Alps or in the shadow of Everest.
We’re in prime traveling season now, as winter-weary western New Yorkers head south to balmier locales, or revel in the flakes and hit the slopes out West. Here are some tips on how to brave travel, pack well and make the most of it any time of year, with some first-hand experiences from Flynn, your devoted Out and Away editor and other frequent fliers.
Keep this, and the handy tip list, for future reference.
It probably doesn’t need to be said that checking a piece of luggage does not guarantee you will see it greet you at baggage claim. It might not happen that often, but being without your bag is a real bummer.
Christy Taylor, a public accountant from Brighton and frequent business flier, has had her bag go missing several times, but always received it by bedtime. Co-workers were not so lucky. She knows people who had to buy toothbrushes, pajamas and an entire work outfit to see clients the next day.
Taylor said she traveled pretty much for an entire year in her former job, to Puerto Rico, Florida, Chicago, Philadelphia and London, sometimes for a month at a time. She knows all the ins and outs of air travel, and packing secrets.
“When you start traveling a lot, you’re prepared,” she says. “You know all the little things you have to do. It’s just like second nature to you.”
She walks to the security lane ready — laptop out of its case, shoes off, and shampoo, soap and other liquids are neatly sealed in clear bag. Knowing regulations speed up the line; not knowing them slows everyone down.
“It was frustrating,” she says. “Nobody paid attention to the rules.”
You can look up the new rules with the Transportation Security Administration, and leave those scissors, Swiss Army knives and nail clippers at home. They’ve been illegal carry-ons for many years.
Before you even board a plane, good packing can help.
Making a checklist of what you need to bring and want to bring can save you from finding out you don’t have a swimsuit, after you’ve checked in to the Caribbean beach hotel. I travel only with a backpack and a camera bag. That means limited space and maximum portability. I also tend to overpack. My remedy? I make my list, then “priority pack.” I pack from the top priorities on the list, and move down to things I would like to have. What doesn’t fit stays home.
Since Taylor was on the road for long periods of time, she got a knack for color coordinating and bringing along a few pairs of shoes that go with everything.
And, before you check that suitcase or road-worn backpack, make sure someone can find it. I finally broke down and bought a plastic identification tag after the airline ticket counter was out of paper tags, two trips in a row. My bag flew without one and no one would know it was mine if it wound up in Dubai instead of Denver. It doesn’t hurt to put an I.D. tag or business card inside, either.
Despite all our best efforts to make things go smoothly, things happen. After a year on the road, Taylor got tired.
“It sounds good on the surface, but after not being home for four weeks straight, it wasn’t much fun,” she says. “We were basically living out of a suitcase.”
Racking up all that travel time meant she experienced more hassle than if she flew only for fun. After a while, the 40-minute waits, five-hour waits, and missed connections got to her.
A recent USA Today analysis published in December revealed that airline problems such as mechanical issues or lack of crew were the primary cause of flight delays. Second was air-traffic congestion.
Taylor had one particularly frustrating excursion, with mucked up plans and confusion. After working two weeks in Puerto Rico, her homebound flight was delayed. She missed her connection. Her luggage was lost. It arrived hours before she and friends were back at the airport to fly to Las Vegas for a vacation. The day they were to return home, Taylor called the airline to confirm.
She found their connecting flight was canceled and they were automatically rerouted to another flight that was a full six hours later. They told her all other flights were booked, that she had no choice. In her connection city, Taylor sought out a gate representative for a flight going to Syracuse. There was space after all. It was an hour's drive and a rental-car cost for them to get home that night, but Taylor didn’t care. They went and paid the money for the car.
“When you travel a lot, you realize your time is worth it,” she said.
Above all, she and other seasoned travelers say, patience is key.
Flynn has mastered keeping a laid-back attitude on his many travels to exotic and sometimes chaotic locales. In fact, it’s part of the journey.
Flynn flew to Antarctica from Chile to climb Mt. Vinson-Massif, on a vintage Russian cargo jet. They had to land on a 3-mile ice runway in some of the most extreme weather in the world. Cross winds often make it too dangerous and often, crews have to wait for days for the window to open. Flynn was lucky. His team didn’t, but he was prepared to stick it out. He didn’t even mind.
On his recent trip to Papua New Guinea, he’d summitted Carstensz Pyramid OK but had to go back and forth to the airport a few times to finally get a flight out.
“Flexibility is really key,” says Flynn. Situations come up. “It’s part of the price of admission. You’ve just got to deal with it. I always kind of find it exciting.”
Agreed. While backpacking in Hungary, I spent two days in Budapest taking in an opera, sightseeing and taking photos and was ready to go; the trains were not. I went to the station for three days. One day the train was running late, another time it had come early. Each day I strolled back to the hostel I was staying in and checked in for another day. Go with the flow. Being flexible meant less stress and I got to experience more of the city.
Flynn has another suggestion to ease travel time. Stretch a layover into a full day, so you can check out a new city or take a boat ride say, in Bangkok. It can break up the time.
“I take on a completely different mindset,” Flynn says. “It’s just a bunch of hours. It's part of the journey.”
Packing and flight tips for travelers...
• Make a checklist of what you need including numbers of pants, changes of socks, important documents, medications and emergency contact information.
• Check items off as you gather them.
• Color-coordinate clothing choices to maximize outfits.
• Pack travel-size packets of Woolite in case you need to handwash clothes in a pinch.
• Pack two large plastic bags to separate wet and dirty clothes from clean.
• Keep your passport on you at all times. Keep copies of your passport, ticket information and other important documents in more than one place, such as a wallet, hidden bag or purse. Give copies to loved ones and friends.
• Roll your clothes to save space and keep them wrinkle-free.
• Make sure your carry-on is really 22x9x14 inches so it fits in the overhead bin, or you may have to check it.
• Wear shoes that are easily removed for airport security screening.
• Wear comfortable clothes, in layers. Planes can be really cold, or really warm.
• Bring ear plugs. They are lifesavers on noisy planes and noisy hotels.
• Jet lag: try to adopt the arrival destination's time immediately. Stay up until local bedtime even if it's already 3 a.m. to you.
• Call ahead to make sure your flight is on time and if there's changes.
• Exit aisles have extra room. Sitting in the front of the plane means you get out first if there’s a delay and you need to race for a connection.
• Be patient.
• Remember it’s all part of the journey.