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|| SportsShooter.com: News Item: Posted 2007-02-27

On The Road: Advice To Being The Prepared Traveler
By Darren Carroll

Uh-oh. Here we go again. It's wintertime, which, for air travelers, means that hell has indeed frozen over. Denver is snowed in, Chicago is whited out, New York is frozen solid, and Dallas is under water. Air traffic is snarled around the country, planes are stranded on taxiways, politicians are blustering senselessly about a "Passenger's Bill of Rights," and local news crews are delighting in video footage of poor souls sleeping on floors in airports across the country. It's miserable. And if you have to fly to work, you stand a pretty good chance of getting caught up in the whole sordid mess at least once this season.

But don't lose hope. Show up at the airport prepared---both physically and, perhaps more importantly, mentally--and you may just be able to get where you're going. Maybe not right on time, but certainly in time. There are just a few things you need to do:

While it may be too late to help this winter, start this year by picking an airline and sticking with it. I don't care which one; just make sure it's one of the "majors"--i.e., American, United, Continental, Northwest, Delta, or USAirways. Choose based on schedule, convenience, location, and whatnot. And once you've made your choice, fly it as much as you can to attain the highest frequent flier status possible. The higher your level, the better the benefits--and I don't just mean double bonus miles and first-class upgrades. I mean dedicated telephone lines that people actually answer, and the ability to jump to the top of a flight's standby list--which could mean the difference between going home, or sleeping at gate 97.

Once you've picked your airline, join the club. As in the airline's airport club. Not only do clubs (like Delta's Crown Room, American's Admiral's Club, or Continental's President's Club), provide a comfortable respite from the teeming masses of humanity stranded in the waiting areas, they also have a dedicated staff available to handle ticketing issues, often with little or no waiting.

Additionally, many clubs are staffed by personnel who are at a level above your average ticket or gate agent, and have the ability to get things done that other agents simply can't do. Is it cheap? No. But my theory is that there's always at least one hellacious day per year when the only reason I'm on a flight out of DFW and able to tuck my son into bed is because I have a membership at American's Admirals Club, and its agents were able to work some magic that got me on to a plane I had no business being on. It makes the couple of hundred bucks it costs for an annual membership seem exactly what it is--priceless.

So now off you go, armed with double-secret Titanium frequent flier status and a club membership, ready to brave the vagaries of O'Hare in a blizzard or Dallas-Fort Worth in an ice storm. That's still not going to cut it. A little foresight never hurts, either.

• Most airlines will offer one-time, no-charge itinerary changes if it looks like their operations at a specific airport will be severely impacted. Check you carrier's website one or two days before you leave to see if, for example, American will let you re-route your connection in Chicago through Dallas instead, in anticipation of a coming blizzard.

• Ship your clothes and gear ahead of you, and free yourself from the ball-and-chain of checked baggage. Most airlines still won't allow you to stand by on an earlier flight, or take an earlier connection, if you've already checked bags. And should circumstances dictate re-routes on another airline, the chances of your bags showing up when you do are pretty slim. You'll be amazed at how easy it is to shift things around and adapt to ever-changing travel conditions, not to mention how much less stressful travel in general can be, with only carry-on luggage.

• Pack some essentials. Never head to the airport without a change of clothes and some travel-sized toiletries in your Think Tank Airport Security roller. Even when the weather is perfect, you never know when mechanical or traffic issues can pop up. To that end, the most important thing you can bring with you is your sense of humor. Seriously. You're not a mechanic, and (despite what a few of you out there may think) you're not God. As far as I know, those are about the only two beings that can get rid of a mechanical or weather delay.

Which leads me to my final point: the poor soul standing behind the ticket counter or at the gate eyeing an angry mob in front of them can't do anything to get that plane fixed, or get it to stop snowing in Philadelphia, either. What they can do, however, is get you on the next possible flight. Or put you on another airline. Or give you a hotel voucher for the night. Or even, believe it or not, lean over and conspiratorially whisper the truth about what's really going on, so that you can call the airport hotel well before the other 150 people on your soon-to-be-cancelled flight find out. But they'll only do this on one condition: that you're not a prick.

Indeed, the surest way to guarantee yourself a night on a cot at the airport is to walk up to the agent, slam your silver frequent flier card on the counter, and inform him or her of your vast financial contributions to the airline--like the $99 web special fare you're flying on right now.

The old saying goes that you catch more flies with honey than you do with vinegar, and it's never more true than when you're trying to work your way through the Byzantine system of airport standby lists, gate changes, and air traffic holds. Agents know your frequent flier status the minute they look at your boarding pass, and they've probably been dealing with irate people screaming at them for the past few hours. The last thing they need is a guy who thinks 25,000 miles a year is a lot (it isn't) telling them he spends a lot of money with the airline (he doesn't) and therefore should have a new plane brought up to the gate just for him. Don't laugh. I actually heard that once.

Anyway, the bottom-line: Smile. Be nice. Remain calm. Put your sense of entitlement in your pocket. And plan ahead. At best you'll get where you need to be. At worst, well, at least you won't be one of those unfortunate overnight airport guests on the local news.


(Freelancer Darren Carroll is based in the winter wonderland of Austin, Texas. You can view Darren's work at his SportsShooter.com member page: http://www.sportsshooter.com/dcarroll and at his personal website: www.darrencarroll.com.)

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