20 Tips From Air-Travel Insiders

By Katie McElveen

Before snuggling up with a plane blanket or tying a ribbon to your bag, read these tips.

Planning Tips

Know the difference between “direct” and “nonstop” flights, and always opt for the latter. Unlike nonstops, direct flights can touch down at other airports on the way to their ultimate destinations, says Macon Dunnagan, a baggage handler with US Airways. And while stops are built in to the total travel time, the potential delays they can cause aren’t. 

Make sure you buy your ticket under the exact name that appears on your ID. It might seem obvious to you that Betsy is a nickname for Elizabeth, but it may not to a skycap, a desk agent, or a security officer?any of whom could ask you to show ID with that name before boarding, says Delta Air Lines public-relations rep Katie Connell.

Select your seats ASAP. “If you have a disability and need a premium seat in the bulkhead, tell the agent when you make your reservation rather than at the airport,” says David Martin, a Delta passenger-service specialist who creates the airline’s policies for customers with disabilities. Other passengers might be able to nab those seats 24 hours before the flight, when they’re made available to everyone through the airline’s website.

Get to your gateway city as early as you can. “Since delays stack up as the day progresses, it’s smart to book the first flight you can into a hub [if you have a connecting flight],” says Dunnagan.

Double-check foreign document requirements. Some countries?like Chile, Kenya, and India?require a visa for entry; others, like South Africa, won’t allow entrance unless a traveler’s passport contains at least two blank, unstamped pages. You need to be aware of such requirements before you make your flight reservations or you could get stuck Stateside, according to a source at the U.S. Department of State Bureau of Consular Affairs. For a complete list of entrance regulations, visit travel.state.gov/.


20 Tips From Air-Travel Insiders

Packing Tips

Set your luggage apart from the pack. “When passengers use ribbons and bows, they can be torn off in the transporting process,” says Chris Gossner, a customer-service supervisor with US Airways for more than 20 years. Your best move: Buy a suitcase in an unusual color, such as bright blue.
Stockpile samples. Freida Burton, a US Airways flight attendant for almost 31 years, carries samples of cosmetics and prescription creams, which she requests from her doctor. Go to walmart.triaddigital.com or freesamplesblog.com for a variety of freebie offers. Or take advantage of Sephora’s and Kiehls’s policies of giving three free samples with any online order.
BYO blanket (and disinfecting wipes, too). “I hate to say it, but tray tables are rarely cleaned, so wipe them off before you use them,” says Sarah Scott, a former US Airways flight attendant. “And steer clear of the blankets and pillows. They’re only washed when they look dirty.”
Pack your electronics in a single layer. “When things are tossed in haphazardly or jumbled together, we spend more time determining what they are [from the X-ray] and have to manually check bags,” says Sterling Payne, a spokesperson for the Transportation Security Administration (TSA).
Do your own bag check before you leave. Keep from getting stalled in security and losing innocent (but sharp) items you forgot were in your bag?hello, nail scissors! “If you think through the screening process as you’re packing, you’ll be fine,” says Stephanie Carter Naar, a transportation security officer based in Washington, D.C.


20 Tips From Air-Travel Insiders

Airport Tips

Know your airport's code. It's easy for luggage-destination tags to get mixed up at a curbside check-in. Learn the three-letter airport code for your destination and make sure your skycap labels the bag properly. The codes aren't always intuitive (for example, New Orleans's Louis Armstrong Airport is MSY), so check the list at airport-technology.com, especially if your destination has more than one airport. "Cities with multiple airports can cause problems if passengers don't know which they're flying into," says Tim Wagner, a spokesperson for American Airlines.
Ask about your options. Stuck with your children at Boston's Logan Airport? An airport employee can direct you to terminal C, where a baggage carousel–style slide anchors a play area. Tired of the same old food-court choices? In the Austin, Texas, airport, make a beeline for Salt Lick?it serves up some of the state's best barbecue. You can even get through security faster by seeking out additional lines: "Airports will often open another line during peak times, so it pays to ask," TSA spokesperson Sterling Payne says.
Exercise caution in duty-free shops. "Not everything in duty-free is a bargain," says Janice Mosher, director of the Customer Service Center for U.S. Customs. "If you really want that bottle of perfume, find out what it costs in your local department store first." And consider the three-ounce rule when stocking up on things like alcohol and olive oil. "If you are transferring to another domestic flight after clearing customs in the U.S., you'll have to put your liquid duty-free purchases in a checked bag," Mosher says.
Spring for an afternoon in the lounge. For a fee?usually about $50 a day, which you can pay on the spot?you can take advantage of the snacks, uncrowded bathrooms, and comfy chairs at most airline club lounges, plus you can get help from the club's dedicated ticket agents. "Several times when it's looked like I would be stuck somewhere for another day, a club agent has pulled a rabbit out of his hat," says Bill Coffield, an attorney who flies between 50,000 and 100,000 miles a year.


Flying Tips

Bring a car seat for your child. "Car seats aren't just safer for children," notes Veda Shook, a flight attendant who has been with Alaska Airlines for 16 years. "They also help kids stay calmer, since they're used to being in them." Shook suggests investing in a car seat-stroller combination. "The seat slides right out of the stroller part, which you can check at the gate," she says.

Corral your in-flight necessities. Blocking the aisle during boarding while you dig for gum, a book, or a snack can delay the entire plane. Dezirae Bridges, a Delta flight attendant for 11 years, suggests packing small must-haves in a resealable gallon-size bag that you can toss onto the seat while you put away everything else.

Stow your bag near your seat. "It's tempting to toss your suitcase into the first empty space you see, but that slows down deplaning, as passengers who had to stow their bags near the back move downstream to collect their belongings," says Beth Jones (not her real name), a US Airways flight attendant with 34 years under her (safety) belt.

Call for help. If you've missed a connection, don't stand in line to rebook with a gate agent. Instead, use your cell phone to call the airline's customer-service number (tuck it in your wallet before leaving). You may speak to someone faster, giving you a better shot at a seat on the next flight.

Utilize cell-phone lots. Free-parking areas where drivers can wait for the "I'm here" call for 30 minutes or longer have sprung up at more than 50 airports in the last few years. For a complete list of these lots, visit the Airports Council International website at aci-na.org.

Get fed fast. To have dinner waiting in your hotel room when you arrive, call and order room service from the road. "It can save a hungry half hour," says Barbara Talbott, an executive with Four Seasons Hotels in Toronto who flies about 20 times a year.




To replace and report a lost or stolen passport

If you are in the United States and are traveling in 2 weeks or less:

  • Make an appointment to apply in person at a Passport Agency or Center to replace your passport in 5 business days or less (based on need, some restrictions apply).
  • You must submit Form DS-11 and DS-64 in person to the agency. You may:
    • Use our online guide to fill out Form DS-11 and DS-64 and then print for submission by mail or in person; or
    • Print Form DS-11 and Form DS-64 and complete by hand.

If you are in the United States and are not traveling within 2 weeks:

  • You must submit Form DS-11 and DS-64 in person at an authorized Passport Application Acceptance Facility. You may:
    • Use our online guide to fill out Form DS-11 and DS-64 and then print for submission by mail or in person; or
    • Print Form DS-11 and Form DS-64 and complete by hand.

Traveler’s Checklist

A trip requires careful planning.  Listed below are important steps you can take to prepare for a safe trip anywhere outside the United States. In addition, you can search for your destination to view more specific information about that country or area.

Getting There

  • Beware of Any Travel Alerts and Warnings for Your Destination

    The State Department issues Travel Warnings to recommend postponing travel to a country because of civil unrest, dangerous conditions, terrorist activity or, in some cases, because the U.S. has no diplomatic relations with the country and may have great difficulty in assisting U.S. citizens in distress. Travel Alerts disseminate information quickly about terrorist threats or other relatively short-term or transnational conditions that could pose significant risks to you and affect your travel plans.

  • Do You Have All Required Travel Documents?

    Most U.S. citizens must use a U.S. passport to travel overseas and reenter the United States. A passport is an internationally recognized travel document that verifies your identity and citizenship. Only the U.S. Department of State and U.S. Embassies and Consulates have the authority to issue or verify U.S. passports.

    Most foreign countries require a valid passport to enter and leave. Some countries may allow you to enter with only a birth certificate, or with a birth certificate and a driver’s license, but all persons, including U.S. citizens, traveling by air, must present a valid passport to reenter the United States.

    If you are traveling by land or sea, you must provide evidence of both your U.S. citizenship and your identity when you reenter the United States. For many land or sea trips this means you can travel using the new U.S. passport card instead of the normal passport book.  Read more about U.S. passport requirements.

    What about your children?  Some countries have instituted requirements to help prevent child abductions and may require travelers to present proof of relationship to the children and evidence of consent from any non-accompanying parent(s).  Visit our child abduction country information pages for information about your destination.

    When does your passport expire? Some countries require that a traveler’s passport be valid for at least six months beyond the dates of the trip. Contact the embassy of your foreign destination for more information. Foreign embassy and consulate contact information can also be found in our Country Specific Information pages.

  • Are You Prepared for an Emergency?

    Make sure you have the contact information for the nearest U.S. Embassy or Consulate where you are going. Consular duty personnel are available for emergency assistance 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, at U.S. embassies, consulates, and consular agencies overseas and in Washington, D.C. Contact information for U.S. embassies, consulates, and consular agencies overseas may be found in our Country Specific Information pages. If your family needs to reach you because of an emergency at home or if they are worried about your welfare, they should call the Office of Overseas Citizens Services in Washington, D.C. at 1-888-407-4747 (during business hours) or 202-647-5225 (after hours). The State Department will relay the message to the consular officers in the country where you are.  The consular officers will then try to locate you, pass on any urgent messages, and, if you wish, report back to your family in accordance with the Privacy Act.

    You can read more about what the Department of State can and can’t do for you in an emergency here.

  • Do You Plan to Drive Overseas?

    If you plan to drive overseas, you may need to obtain an International Driving Permit (IDP). Many countries do not recognize U.S. driver’s licenses, and it is illegal to drive without a valid license and insurance in most places. You should check with the Embassy of the country where you plan to travel, to find out more about the driver’s license and car insurance requirements. Foreign embassy and consulate contact information can also be found on the Country Specific Information for each country.

    If you will be residing overseas for an extended time, it is a good idea to obtain a local driver’s license as soon as possible, since an IDPs is not always valid for your entire length of a stay abroad, and often is only valid if presented in conjunction with a valid U.S. or local license. To renew a U.S. driver’s license while abroad, contact the Department of Motor Vehicles in your home state.

    For more information, please review our page on Driving Abroad.

  • Pack Smart!

    • Pack light so you can move more quickly and have a free hand when you need it.
    • Carry a minimum number of valuables and plan places to conceal them.
    • Use covered luggage tags to avoid casual observation of your identity and nationality.
    • Avoid packing IDs, tickets and other vital documents in backpacks or other locations you won't be able to see at all times. 
  • Do You Have Photocopies of Your Itinerary and Travel Documents?

    Make two photocopies of all your travel documents in case of emergency or if your documents are lost or stolen. Leave one copy with a friend or relative at home. It is always a great idea to let at least one person know exactly where you will be staying and how to contact you in an emergency. Carry the other copy with you stored separately from the originals. Documents to make copies of include:

    • Passport ID page
    • Foreign visa (if applicable)
    • Itinerary
    • Hotel confirmation
    • Airline ticket
    • Driver's license
    • Credit cards brought on the trip
    • Traveler's check serial numbers 

Your Safety

  • Prepare to Handle Money Overseas

    • Check and understand the exchange rate before you travel.
    • Before you leave, notify your bank, credit card company, or other financial institutions that you are going overseas.
    • Avoid carrying cash and consider using traveler's checks or major credit cards instead (but make sure they are accepted at your destination before departing on your trip).
    • Change traveler's checks only as you need them.
    • Do not flash large amounts of money when paying a bill.
  • Learn about local laws and customs

    While traveling, you are subject to the local laws even if you are a U.S. Citizen. Foreign laws and legal systems can be vastly different from our own and it is very important to know what's legal and what's not. If you break local laws while abroad, your U.S. passport won't help you avoid arrest or prosecution, and the U.S. Embassy cannot get you out of jail.


Your Health

  • Do You Need Any New Vaccinations?

    Vaccinations Are Required for Entry to Some Countries

    Some countries require foreign visitors to carry an International Certificate of Vaccination (aka Yellow Card) or other proof that they have had certain inoculations or medical tests before entering or transiting their country.  Before you travel, check the Country Specific Information and contact the foreign embassy of the country to be visited or transited through for currenty entry requirements.

    Health Experts Recommend Vaccinations for Travel to Some Countries

    The U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO) can provide you their recommendations for vaccinations and other travel health precautions for your trip abroad.

  • Does Your Health Insurance Cover You Outside the U.S.?

    Learn what medical services your health insurance will cover overseas.  Although some health insurance companies will pay "customary and reasonable" hospital costs abroad, very few will pay for a medical evacuation back to the U.S., which can easily cost over $10,000, depending on your condition and location. Whether your insurance is valid overseas or not, you may be required to pay for care when you receive it.

    If your insurance policy does not cover you abroad, consider purchasing a short-term policy that does.  Many travel agents and private companies offer insurance plans that will cover health care expenses incurred overseas including emergency services such as medical evacuations.


NOTE: Social Security and Medicare do not provide coverage outside of the U.S.

Learn More

Are You Taking Any Prescriptions or Other Medications?

If you take prescription medication:

  • Pack enough to last your entire trip, including some extra in case you are unexpectedly delayed.
  • Carry your medications in their original labeled containers, and pack them in your carry-on bag since checked baggage is occasionally lost or delayed.
  • Ask your pharmacy or physician for the generic equivalent name of your prescriptions in case you need to purchase additional medication abroad.
  • Get a letter from your physician in case you are questioned about  your carry-on medication; some countries have strict restrictions on bringing prescription or even non-prescription medications into the country without proper medical documentation.
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