Here are some survival tips for today’s air traveler

Story by Valerie Phillips
(Standard-Examiner correspondent)
Mon, Jun 10, 2013
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By the time you read this column, I should be returned from a trip to Rapid City, S.D. As I write, I’m looking forward to the trip. I want to see Mount Rushmore, and South Dakota is on my “bucket list” of nine states I haven’t yet visited.

And although it’s not as comfortable as it used to be, I still love air travel. I like the bustle of an airport, with so many people heading off on new adventures. I love that butterflies-in-your-stomach feeling when the plane takes off from the runway. From the window seat, I enjoy looking down at the mountains, fields and cities below, and the feeling that I could reach out and touch the clouds.

Like everyone else, I have horror stories of lost luggage or a late arrival that had me sprinting through the airport to catch a connecting plane. Canceled flights left me stranded overnight in Dubai, Kansas City, and twice in Atlanta. With airlines charging large fees to check luggage, passengers now cram their carry-on bags into every nook and cranny of the cabin, giving you even less leg-and-elbow room than before.

Back in the ’80s, my family lived overseas and thus logged a lot of frequent-flyer miles. We didn’t know how easy we had it. You didn’t have to take off your shoes at the security gate, nor did you have to pay extra fees for your suitcase.

And you could look forward to an in-flight meal — a compact tray with a piping-hot entree such as chicken Parmesan or Swiss steak. Meals were routinely included in the price of your airfare.

Although it was a lot of work for flight attendants to heat and serve them, they were a point of pride for many airlines. It became trendy to be snobbish about “airline food.” But unless you travel first-class, there’s very little airline food to complain about nowadays.

Of course, 9/11 left airlines struggling for survival. When it comes to cutting costs, I’d much rather have them skimp on food than, say, safety.

And 9/11 reminded us that the “friendly skies” weren’t always friendly, as security experts still scramble to keep ahead of the latest terrorist technology. I’m sure we haven’t seen the end of flight delays, security restrictions and other inconveniences.

To that end, here’s my list of “travel survival” items. They’re all low-tech, easy to pack and don’t break any security regulations that I know of:

1. Ear plugs: They offer relief from the fussy baby across the aisle, the less-than-soundproof hotel room or a spouse’s snoring.

2. Sugarless chewing gum: Chewing helps your ears to “pop” when you’re feeling changes in air pressure during takeoff. It also keeps your throat from getting dry, which often happens when you’re flying. And it’s a quick antidote to bad breath if you don’t have toothpaste or mouthwash.

3. Lightweight black jacket: Maybe I’m dating myself by calling it a “blazer,” or if the term today is a “boyfriend jacket.” But, it’s useful no matter what you call it.

It can dress up a rumpled pair of jeans, or make a party dress look more businesslike. And it can double as a mini-blanket when the plane gets chilly. Even if you’re heading to a warm climate, don’t leave home without a jacket. At a conference in Puerto Rico, the air conditioning was cranked up so high that I would have frozen without my trusty jacket.

A couple years ago, I arrived in Charleston, S.C., just in time for a formal dinner with the National Chicken Council. Unfortunately, my suitcase didn’t show up at the airport until the next day. I had nothing to wear to the dinner but the casual black pants and top that I’d flown in. I pulled the black jacket from my carry-on, and once I sat down at the table, nobody realized I wasn’t “dressed up.” I soon forgot my luggage troubles and enjoyed the evening.

4. A set of clean underwear: Yes, it came in handy during the above-mentioned luggage fiasco. Enough said.

5. A good book: It makes a long wait feel more like a luxury, especially if you usually don’t get much time for reading at home. I like to read cookbooks, but many are too heavy to carry in my purse. Paperback whodunits, culinary mysteries and biographies are some of my travel favorites. If you have a Kindle or your smartphone, that’s great. But for now, I prefer reading from an actual book. If I happen to leave it somewhere, it’s not a huge loss.

6. Soy nuts: They’re lower in fat than regular nuts, high in protein, and filling when there’s no time or place to eat a meal. A couple of handfuls in a plastic zip-lock bag can tide you over for a few hours. String cheese is another good option.

7. A handful of $1 bills. Many people don’t carry cash, or travel with only bigger bills. But when it comes to tipping baggage handlers or hotel bellmen, peeling off several dollar bills is less awkward than handing someone a $20 bill and asking for change. (Unless, of course, you have so many bags that a $20 is an appropriate tip.) Dollar bills are also handy to slip into airport or hotel vending machines when you feel the urge for a drink or snack.

Valerie Phillips blogs at www.chewandchat.blogspot.com.

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