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How to Navigate the Friendly Skies

Going from Point A to Point B via a commercial airline these days can be challenging, to say the least. Many a seasoned traveler now arrives home from business or pleasure trips exhausted, with horror stories of long security lines, humiliating searches and pat downs, rifled-through (or lost) luggage, overbooked planes or cancelled flights.

Does that mean we'll all stay home? Not with all the trade shows and industry conferences scheduled across the country coming up in 2005 (see Calendar of Events). If you fly, there are ways to make air travel bearable, and if you can anticipate and prepare for possible delays and complications, your trip will be less stressful. The key is to be flexible and to expect the unexpected. Build extra time into your schedule; if you don't need it for traversing through security checks, put it to some good use by catching up on phone calls or relaxing.

Booking the Flight

Airlines use different methods for pricing tickets, so it pays to shop around. Savvy travelers have favorite Web sites for comparing and booking flights; use the airlines' sites, too, and check the sites frequently. The Web site www.seatguru.com offers maps and recommendations for seat selections on different planes; airlines also have different business class specifications. Choose your seat and consider size requirements for legroom, height and hips.

If you can, avoid routes that take you to hubs that are affected by seasonal conditions including blizzards and thunderstorms. Think about renting a car to get from a major airport to an outlying destination in order to avoid possible delays on small regional flights. Traveling on mid-day flights will eliminate waiting in long lines at security checks resulting from the simultaneous arrivals of hundreds of people for early morning flights, or from other delays in the evening hours.

Belonging to a frequent-flier program will help you earn rewards points as well as perks including seating upgrades, boarding priority and access to express lanes at security checks.

Before You Go to the Airport

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) oversees the U.S. airline industry. Its Web site, www.faa.gov, provides travel tips, details regulations and publishes information on flight delays at airport departure and arrival gates, as well as by destination.

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is the federal agency in charge of airport security screening including pre-boarding checks and luggage examinations. One very useful tip: The agency publishes wait times in security check point lines at every airport in the United States on its Web site, www.tsa.gov/public . (Different airports use different systems, which take varying lengths of time to get through).

Plan strategically for check points and dress accordingly, because you will have to take off shoes, belts, watches, etc. Wear slip-on shoes and socks (to avoid the dirty floors). Develop a system so your boarding pass and ID are accessible and easy to put away. Put electronic equipment, large pieces of jewelry and zip-lock bags holding change and keys in a briefcase or purse before you're in line. Knowing the airport layout helps, too; you might find that a second check point located in a different area will save you time. Also know what you're entitled to if you get to the boarding gate only to find out the flight is cancelled. Each airline publishes its "Contract of Carriage" rules on its Web site; Rule 240 deals with rebooking, overnight accommodations and meals.

If the flight is cancelled, call the airline immediately about alternative flights, or call hotels. On the other hand, it might be cheaper to buy a ticket on another airline than it would be to pay for overnight lodging and meals; if the original flight cancellation was the airline's fault, they'll refund the ticket or issue a credit.

On the Plane

Humidity inside aircraft is low, so it's important to drink enough fluids; a good rule is one glass of water for each hour of flight. Caffeine and alcohol cause dehydration, as well as increased problems from time changes (jet lag, fatigue, sleeplessness), so limit your intake before and during the flight.

In a carry-on bag, pack bottled water, snacks and a book or CD player. Don't forget to pack any medications in the carry-on in case your checked bags are lost; some people also pack basic essentials like toiletries and underwear, or sweat suits to change into on long flights.

Stand and stretch your legs for circulation during the flight, but don't stand up too quickly. Use the bathroom (after all that water you've consumed) before the plane lands so you don't have to rush through the terminal once the plane lands and stand in yet another line.

Some travelers swear by diet supplements such as Airborne, to boost their immune systems for protection in crowded, germ-infested airplanes. Anti-bacterial wipes and hand-sanitizer help keep bugs at bay, too.

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