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"Never Stand in Line" and Other Tips for Surviving Modern Air Travel

Having flown more planes than I could ever count, I've come to the conclusion that there are three truisms of business travel.

  • The later you arrive at the airport, the further the gate. Conversely, the earlier you arrive, the closer the gate.
  • If you check in two bags, the first bag arrives first, and the second bag arrives...NEVER (which is why you never check bags in the first place).
  • No matter how good the weather, no matter how clear the skies, the more important the business trip, the more likely your flight will be delayed or canceled.
Knowing (and reluctantly embracing) these travel rules, how do you survive when your flight is suddenly delayed or even canceled?

1. Never stand in line. Each minute spent standing in line represents three more flight options that have evaporated once you finally get to the front. Pick up the phone and call the airline rather than waiting in line for the gate agent.

2. Carry a portable flight guide. I know, we live online, but I can whip through a pocket OAG faster than you can say iPad. You need options, and alternate cities (and alternate routings). Those pocket flight guides are my saviors.

3. Never pay attention to schedules.
The airlines don't, so why should you? Always go the the airport armed with alternate flight information, not just for later flights, but for earlier flights. Why earlier flights? Assuming the delays might be systemwide, when your flight is delayed, there's a reasonably good chance the earlier flight you weren't even scheduled on might still be at the gate. It may not even show on the departure board, so always ask. At least 50 percent of the time I've asked, there was an empty seat and I got on the earlier (delayed) flight.

4. Think like a contrarian. Try to change your connection to a hub with better weather or an alternate airport known to stay open. My favorite example is the airport in Islip, Long Island, which tends to stay open when Kennedy and LaGuardia close. It's a train ride from Penn Station to the Ronokonkoma station on Long Island and a 5-minute cab ride to the airport. Most folks don't realize that within the U.S. you can go a lot of places from Islip. On nonstop flights, you can go as far as Las Vegas and then connect onwards up and down the West Coast.

Get creative with your route. When travelers were trying to return to the U.S. from Japan, my advice was to double back by first flying west through Hong Kong, Taiwan or Bangkok, rather than trying to get on an overbooked flight headed east.

5. Pack portable snacks. Look for portable, packaged items that have some nutritional value, in case you're waiting around for a while. I'm talking beef jerky, dried fruit, nuts, and granola bars.

6. Stay fully charged. Although more and more airports are finally installing accessible electrical outlets at gate areas, you still can't depend on finding them everywhere. Don't just pack your electronics already fully charged, but also bring along extra batteries for those devices.

7. Dress for success. Always pack an emergency supply of clothing in your carry-on bag, just in case you're separated from your suitcase. For both men and women, keep it simple: a shirt or blouse, pants/trousers, and for men, the indispensable navy blue blazer.

8. Make a backup plan. Last, but certainly not least, keep a list of direct numbers of airport hotels at your location, NOT the 800 numbers. The Internet may not help you out if there's a line of stranded passengers. Call the property directly and immediately. Even if you aren't positive that your flight is canceled, I recommend booking that room. In major delays, those hotels have long waiting lists, so they will rarely charge same-day cancellation fees.

Frequent travelers, what strategies do you use?


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