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You're About to be Redirected to the New Home of Ground Control to Major Mom: 12/14/08 - 12/21/08

Saturday, December 20, 2008

My Christmas Present To You - Air Travel Tips for the Holidays

Merry Christmas, my wonderful friends/colleagues in the BLOGOSPHERE!

I'm sure you're all excited about what my gift will be to you, right?

Well, after having the honor of flying the nation's skies this holiday season during BOTH the Thanksgiving and Christmas rushes, I thought I'd offer these travel tips to the world to help friends better prepare for smooth travel during this season of crazy weather and stringent rules and stingy airlines, charging you fees left and right.

"That's your gift to us? Travel tips? What if I'm not traveling anywhere?"

Well, I'm sure you know SOMEONE traveling for the holidays. And many of those folks will be trying to fly.

"Why should I listen to you?"

Because I fly a lot. I used to fly all the time when I was on active duty (almost once a month during my last assignment), but since I got out of the Air Force it's dwindled down to 2-3 times per year. After my trip to the Middle East, I'll probably be back to 4-6 times per year while I'm still doing AF Reserve work in South Carolina. I try to be as prepared as possible, and I have to admit, this trip I took was rather smooth, and I think it was because I did my homework ahead of time and abided by the rules of travel.

Believe it or not, it's possible to have a smooth travel experience if you follow these tips:

NOTE: These tips for coach travelers, for the most part. I don't travel first class often enough to know how these post-9/11 rules apply to business or first class travelers.

1.) Know the TSA's rules for travel. This includes rules regarding luggage locks, transport of liquids and gels, and hazardous materials, such as knives. The TSA is recommending you NOT wrap gifts in your checked baggage, in case it has to be searched. The TSA will unwrap gifts if deemed necessary to complete searches.

a.) Liquids and gels in your carry-on. This is for carry-ons only, not for checked baggage. Know the 3-1-1 Rule for packing liquids in your carry on. Apparently you can store up to 13 containers in one of those 1 quart Ziploc bags. No individual containers may contain more than 3 oz. of liquid or gel.

Consider items such as gift baskets, snowglobes, gravies, colognes, toothpastes. These items may NOT cross the security checkpoint if their volume exceeds 3 oz., you may have to abandon them in order to make your flight...the last thing you want to leave behind is your new bottle of Chanel No. 5!

Finally: don't buy a drink or carry a full water bottle with you to the airport unless you plan to drink it all on one side of the security checkpoint. Wait till you pass through security.

b.) Know what kinds of TSA-approved luggage locks are allowed on your bags. If the TSA finds a reason to open your bag and the lock is the wrong kind, it will be cut open.

c.) Have the proper federal or state government-issued I.D. College ID cards are NOT valid for travel. Neither are major credit cards. Your best bet is to invest in a passport. I have observed TSA employees work very quickly with passports and military ID cards. Even with state-issued drivers' licenses, TSA employees will take some time to check for watermarks, holograms and other distinctive markings, which are different for each state.

d.) Know what to do in the security checkpoint. Please? Prepare while you're in line: pack unnecessary metal items in your bags so they go through the X-Ray machine, remove your laptop ahead of time so it can be scanned separately, be prepared to remove your coat and/or sweater, make sure to wear slip-on shoes if possible because you are now required to remove your shoes.

Are you a parent traveling with a child and/or a stroller? Be prepared to pass the child through security separately (the rules are written vaguely about this, I've been allowed to carry Timmy as an infant though the metal detector but more than once I had to pass baby Jacob to the TSA employee on the other side of the detector so I could walk through separately), and also be prepared to empty out and fold up the stroller and run it through the X-Ray machine with your other bags.

2.) Know your air carrier's policies regarding baggage. Let me break this down for you:

a.) Know if your carrier charges for checked baggage. I wish I could give you a link to an easy fee schedule chart, but these numbers are always changing, check with your carrier before you go on the latest and greatest. Be prepared to pay the baggage fee at check-in if you're flying coach and aren't in a Frequent Flyer prefered status. They'll accept cash and credit cards, but probably not checks. I was behind someone in Omaha who thought he/she could pay with a check. Most carriers who are levying this fee are charging $15 for the first bag, $25-35 for the 2nd, and a ridiculous amount for the 3rd (Northwest = $125 for the 3rd bag). Southwest is one of the few carriers left not charging this fee, but I wonder if the higher airfare is compensating for that.

b.) Know if your carrier charges extra for over-sized or overweight bags. In Fort Walton Beach on Friday, someone in line pulled her 53 lb. bag off the scale at check-in, opened it up and removed about 5 lbs. worth of stuff to her purse so as not to pay $50 instead of $15 for her one checked bag.

c.) Don't check fancy electronics, medications or excess amounts of cash or valuables. Use a carry on for these. Those bags get thrown around and opened/closed freely for random inspections. It'll be hard to pinpoint where your wife's diamond necklace might have been stolen between New York and Wichita.

d.) Pre-emptively remove those long shoulder straps from your checked baggage, if possible. Stuff them in a side pocket or your carry-on. Those straps might be removed by a baggage attendant and stuffed into a pocket, or they might not be removed and get shredded by a conveyor belt as it travels around. My garment bag's shoulder strap is shredded in one location.

e.) I've preached this all my life. Airline travelers should own "good" luggage, but not "great" luggage. Luggage is meant to hold and protect your belongings during travel, and it will be tossed around, slid around and might be sitting in cargo at the bottom of a rather large pile of baggage. It'll get beat up. For me, personally, I find Vera Bradley luggage absolutely beautiful, but I have to admit I'd be scared to rip up that pretty quilting with how often I travel. Give me a good Samsonite or Land's End suitcase.

f.) Find a way to quickly identify your suitcase. Especially if it's a black rectangular suitcase. My Mom used to use colorful yarn, I've seen bright ribbons tied around the girth of the suitcase. What do I do? I have a brightly colored luggage tag such as what you might find here.

3.) Understand the type of aircraft you'll be flying on...I'm sure many of you ordinarily won't care about this type of thing, but airlines are getting more and more stringent about the size of your carry-on. A good way to know how big the plane is by getting an idea of how many seats across there are in coach class. 2, 3 or 4 seats across is usually the standard in a smaller plane. If you have a standard rectangular wheeled carry on and you think it's going to fit into the overhead bin on a smaller plane, forget it. You'll likely be asked to check it at the gate. My backpack didn't fit into the overhead bin on the Bombardier CR-9. Therefore, you need to preemptively remove things you might want during flight: reading materials, drinks (purchased after the security checkpoint, of course) and snacks.

Don't be "that person"...blocking the aisle for 2-3 minutes while attempting to stuff your carry-on into the overhead compartment!

4.) Food. The rumors are true: food service has dwindled down quite a bit and I don't know which flights serve snacks, which serve meals, and which serve nothing at all. My December 19th flight between Fort Walton Beach and Memphis (about 1 hour, 10 minutes) served a pre-packaged 6 oz. cup of water or juice or coffee, while the leg between Memphis and Omaha (about 1 hour, 28 minutes) offered complimentary soft drinks and juices, and alcoholic beverages for an additional cost. On both legs there were snacks for sale. Since I was coming home from 3 weeks of living in a hotel, I had brought along apples and granola cereal to nosh on during the flight. Remember, food products aren't a problem with security, just liquids and gels.

5.) If you're booking a trip with more than one leg to your flight, don't bother with flights with less than 1 hour layovers in large hub airports such as Chicago, Atlanta, Dallas or Charlotte. You don't necessarily know how far apart the gates will be at layover time, and delays can pop out of nowhere! Yesterday my plane from Memphis was ready to go to Omaha, but the crew to fly the plane was due in from Detroit and were delayed.

6.) And my last tip for holiday travel: Be cooperative with authorities, and keep your sense of humor. The airport employees have quite a thankless job during the holidays, and understand that their job is to get you there safely. Most delays happen for the sake of safety, and while we might be inconvenienced, our lives might have been saved by their erring on the side of caution. Whether it's maintenance issues, training, or the weather.

So there you have it, Patricia's Tips for Travel. I've experienced every kind of delay you can think of, and I think I've seen every kind of crazy passenger out there (except for terrorists, thankfully)...for those who think our security measures and rules are severe, just try to fly in and out of Israel or India.

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Friday, December 19, 2008

Hi Honey, I'm Home!

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Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Another Makeover!

Yeah, I gave up the 3-column happy as I was to have it, there was still space on the edges not being fully used. So I reverted to the 2 column format again, but was pleasantly surprised I was able to keep the cake lady picture. Whoo hoo!


Monday, December 15, 2008

The Sociology of Santa Claus

My sister sent me a couple funny links to Santa-related blog posts. A good laugh.

You can see them too: here and here.

I got to thinking (uh oh) about those guys sitting in those chairs for hours on end at the mall. Children from all walks of life sitting on their laps. In various states of friendliness towards fat strangers with candy and presents.

I guess I've been really lucky in this department -- my boys have always been pretty good with Santa. I might need to do a blog post showing my boys with Santa when I get home. In only one picture does Jacob look less-than-happy (2003, he was about 15 months old)...and he just looks peeved, like he has somewhere better to be and Mommy was wasting his time dragging him to Orlando to visit Santa.

From Santa Claus Journey

In 2005 we visited Santa at Southpoint Mall in Durham and that year it was like Santa casual day and he was wearing just a holiday shirt w/ suspenders with his red pants. Weird. What was more weird was that Mrs. Claus plopped herself down on the chair with the boys for the picture. Not against the rules or anything, but it was unusual. That was Timmy's first visit with Santa, he was about 10 1/2 months old. Jacob was 3.

From Santa Claus Journey

Most of you have heard my story of Jacob's most-magical-Santa-experience-in-the-universe at Macy's in NYC in 2005. I remember Jacob asking for a "remote control train" (GeoTrax), in fact. Highly recommend it if you ever have a reason to go to NYC during the holiday season while the kids are still believers.

From Santa Claus Journey

I have the 2008 picture, but not with me as I'm writing this in Florida. I had to go to my online photo albums to retreive the rest of these. And for some reason, I'm not finding the Santa pic from 2004. Enjoy the rest of our Vollmer Santa Journey here.

My husband played Santa Claus one year at our squadron Christmas party. He was the youngest Lieutenant in the unit, everyone pointed to him. He was really sweet with the kids, but did end up with several kids who were scared. I guess it isn't for everyone.

Hats off to all those public Santa Clauses out there -- you have the patience of a saint! I guess that's why you're SAINT Nicholas, huh?

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