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Lee Carroll travel hints and opinions

This page is really a blog from me to you, based on my decade or so of travel, both international and domestic. Perhaps you don’t travel much and you would like some tips, or just would like to see some of my suggestions and ideas? Well, this is the place! These are just opinions. They are mine, and not channelled material (smile). So if you don’t agree, you can let me know. But it probably won’t change anything.

FLYING:
I do it all the time. Sometimes I’m on as many as seven individual flights per weekend of travel when I have to go between two cities to present. So I’ve not only gotten used to everything that happens – the bad and the good – but also have some opinions that might help you if you don’t travel much. How much do I fly? Well, let's put it this way – I'm in the million mile flyer niche of United Airlines and working on my second million. I fly about 150,000 miles a year.

BIGGEST PEEVE: People who really don’t think about what they are doing before they do it. Travel these days is all about security. Sometimes you are checked several times before you can board. There is main screening, surprise secondary screening, and if you are flying international, there are always multi-screenings since the USA doesn’t trust the quasi-security methods of other countries. Sometimes, coming from another country, you will go through their security then walk a mile to your aircraft, only to be interviewed personally and walked through another, more stringent security. Therefore, my hints:
1. Women: Please, please resist the big, hard-to-get-off jewelry thing. How can it be a shock to you that they want you to remove it? They will make you take it all off. Multiple rings, bracelets, necklaces, and big earrings all take time to remove, put back on, remove, put back on. Instead, just put them in your purse, go through security, then excuse yourself to the restroom and put them all on so you look stellar for the airplane ride and beyond. And the great big belt buckles? Geesh! This is not a time to be a fashion plate. It’s an airplane ride! How about boots with lots of snaps and stuff? Remember, you have to take them off, and put them on again. Frequent flyers just roll their eyes when a woman presents herself to the security line wearing all these things. It really slows down everybody behind them. Be aware of where you are (a security-sensitive place).

I will often "scope" the security lines before entering them, looking for women with this attribute. It's bound to slow the line down. Oh, and another hint. If you have an option, don't get in the security line with folks with strollers. They take longer. Just go to another line.

2. Keep your boarding pass in your pocket, not in your purse or briefcase! You WILL be asked for it while the other items are going through the X-ray machine. Don’t let it be a surprise that they need it. Just keep it with you. Again, it's incredible to us flyers when someone’s boarding pass is making its way through the X-ray machine when TSA has made the announcement several times to have it out and ready. Everything stops while this person looks silly, having ignored the instructions (probably talking and talking). Just know it in advance and plan for it.

And then (unbelievable as it seems) when you keep your boarding pass, don't put it in a non-accessible place! HOLD IT IN YOUR HAND! I can't tell you the times when a person is asked for it by the TSA as you go through the metal detector, and the person CAN'T FIND IT! What pocket? Where do you put a boarding pass when you have no purse because it's going through the X-ray? I don't want to tell you where women often put it. (Sigh)

Speaking of talking, don't do it on the phone! Cell phones are ILLEGAL during security, and the quickest way to really get attention is to try to take a photo with your phone! Just put it away. This is not the time to be a tourist with your cell phone camera.

Again, Speaking of talking, just suspend the conversation and pay attention to what is happening during security. Otherwise you may miss the announcements that are often specific to a certain airport. Shoes off or not? Belt or not? Don't listen and they may actually put you through the "puff" machine. Don't ask.

HINT: Put your name on your cell phone, and also your computer. These are the items most often lost in security. Cell phones fall out of the bins. Computers simply get forgotten in the rush to catch a plane. They all have to be removed and placed in separate bins for X-ray.

3. Don’t complain – ever! Ever! The security people will keep you there! They will search you in a private screening area if you are too vocal. If you ever mouth off to a custom’s official, no matter how tired you are, and no matter how ridiculous you think the situation is, they can ruin your whole day. These men and women try to be good representatives of our country, but they process hundreds of people a day and are told to look for the nervous or complaining ones, since this is often a ploy to escape something a person is hiding. So if you’re mad about waiting and your flight is boarding, just smile and shut up. You’ll get there faster. I’ve watched an especially tired and surly US custom’s official in one airport become so irritated at a man who complained loudly in line that he took him aside and purposely made him miss his next flight! They have the power to keep you from boarding for hours and hours and hours, just sitting in a room because they want to “check you out.” It’s totally legal. Usually these folks are fair-minded and do a good job. But don’t tempt your fate. I’ve seen it over and over. Just don’t say anything unless you are asked.

4. This is harder to explain, but important: Let’s say that weather keeps you from making a connection. You are flying to point B through point A, and the weather grounds all planes when you get to point A. There you are, stuck in point A, and they give you a hotel for the night and schedule another aircraft in the morning. It’s a bummer, but weather can do that. So, what’s your first reaction? WHERE’S MY LUGGAGE?

DONT try to find it! RESIST! First, you probably can’t. It’s in a holding area in “the system,” ready and tagged to go out the next day with you to point B. If you insist, you might get it, but it will take forever! A man who doesn’t want to will have to go into the bowels of the airport and try to find it. Then, of course, there is the problem of checking it back in the next day. You already have your boarding pass and they will look at you cross-eyed tying to figure out how you got your bag, and now how to re-check it when the computer tells them it’s already checked. Get the picture?

JUST DONT TRY. Hey, but what about my sundries – toothpaste, makeup, hairbrush, etc.? The answer? Aren’t you glad you’re a savvy traveller and have those few basic things in your carry-on? Nice job!

AIRLINE SELECTION HINTS:

AIRLINE SELECTION: If you are going to fly occasionally, like more than three or four times a year, select an airline that services your city and stay with them. Even if they are a bit higher priced in certain flights or have an additional stop, stick with them. The frequent flyer programs are designed to penalize the occasional flyer and to reward the frequent one. It won’t take long for you to have enough miles to get the better seats and a better boarding scenario. This is the intent of the program.

Since I’m in that top niche of frequent flyers, I know how it all works. See those seats in front (first class) that are sooo cool? You walk past them on the way to your cramped seat and try to avoid looking at how nice they are. If you have a small child, the kid will often say (very loudly), "Mommy, why can't we sit here?" I love the answers, hearable by all those already seated in first class. "Because, sweetheart, these seats are reserved for the beautiful people." He he.

Well, almost nobody sitting in them has paid for them! (and fewer of us are beautiful) They are rewards for how many miles you have with that airline, a pecking order of how many miles flown that year, usually. Those are hard to get, but often there is "economy plus" seating or something like that. It's the first half of the plane and there is more leg room. If you are a frequent flyer and have reward miles, you can get those better seats.

Speaking of rewards, get ready for disappointment if you are thinking about using miles for a free trip somewhere. Or prepare to go at a time you don’t want to go, using multiple stops you didn’t want, on a schedule that does not suit you, usually alone. There are only a few “reward seats” on each flight, and they make it really difficult to claim a “miles for free flight” deal. So instead, use them for upgrades and whatever else the airline offers. The reason? Fewer airplanes are flying these days, a lot fewer.

Want the best seat in the plane? Get the EXIT row! Loads of leg room! The law is different regarding these seats, so quite often they cannot be reserved online. So when you check in using one of those automated kiosks (made to make you feel like a techno idiot), try selecting the exit seat. You won't be sorry.

BOARDING PASS: Get it online the night before you go! You can often print your own using a computer. It's a good deal and allows you to board sooner. About that exit row? Ask the agent when you check your luggage if you can change seats from what it says on your boarding pass. They will try.

BEST AIRLINE HANDS DOWN: Southwest. It’s also the only one in America that is profitable! The only reason I don’t fly them more often is that I have a big body and they don’t feature upgrades to better seats (the ones up front that I told you about for the beautiful people). Here is some little-known information about why Southwest is so much better. (They also are much more cheerful than any other airline.)

Did you ever see this: Southwest runs like a shuttle bus. You can get on a flight to a specific city, but you will have to go through perhaps one or two other ones before you get there. But you STAY ON THE PLANE! There are not many airlines that can do this. Did you notice? For instance, Southwest can land a plane, go to the gate, let the passengers out for that city, let the others stay on, then board the new ones and take off – all faster than United can board one flight and leave the airport! This is documented, by the way, and not my opinion. Southwest can land a plane, refill it, and leave again while United is filling out the paperwork just to be allowed on the tarmac! If you have a flight on a major carrier where you are going through an airport (as described above), you normally have to disembark, they clean the plane, then you reboard, often with a different seat, often with a different plane! This takes about three times as long as Southwest.

How does Southwest do it? Here is just one example: Southwest is not encumbered by labor agreements with multiple organizations like the big carriers. Anyone can “drive” the jet bridge who is qualified, and almost all of them are qualified. With the larger airlines, it has to be a member of the labor agreement organization (read: Union) to be part of it all. Ever land at an airport using a major carrier (American, Delta, United, Continental, etc.) and you are late? Then you all stand up in the isle and wait while nothing happens? There you are at the gate in the airplane, yet nobody is there to operate the jet bridge? Well, there are about eight people waiting at that gate, including ground personnel, but none of them are in the proper union. Therefore, you just wait. Amplify this with your imagination, and you understand why Southwest can do what it does.

Now, a secret that nobody will tell you, and that the authorities will deny: How do I know it? I just do. The air traffic controllers and the airport authorities will allow Southwest to land in a pattern earlier than other carriers. This is not supposed to be the case, but they know that Southwest can come and go faster, therefore, creating a more efficient gate control scenario than any of the others, and (here it comes) there are gate fees that are assigned to an airline every time it comes and goes! Therefore (you get the picture?), more money for the airport.

UNITED AIRLINES: I really like these folks. American is good, too, and I haven’t had problems with many of the major carriers. Admittedly, as a prime member of United’s elite, they treat me well. So it’s hard to tell how it would be if I were an occasional coach flyer. But in the few instances where my luggage didn’t make it when I did, they delivered it to my house or hotel from the next flight. They do that for everyone. This may be common to some of the other carriers, too, but with United it works well and they do it efficiently with a smile. I also have found that their computer tracking of luggage is good. They always know where your bag is. Not all the airlines are as good at this.

HAWAIIAN AIR: What can I say? They smile, they play Hawaiian music, they are happy, and they come and go to Lemuria! It really is a very fine experience.

LUGGAGE: Luggage handling is rough no matter what airline. Think about it: baggage folks handle hundreds a day, lugging them on and off the airplane. They are mostly the same from airline to airline. Think they read the fragile stickers? Dream on. So, therefore, I have opinions for you based on what I have seen.

Buy the cheap set! Expensive luggage looks great, as long as it is in the store. The first flight out and it's marred, scarred, and messed up. Choose really ugly, bright colors (honest). These bags will never get stolen, since they are just too easy to spot when someone else lifts them from the baggage carousel. Also, you can spot your luggage coming instantly, even if it's on the wrong carousel. (Yep, baggage handlers are not perfect.) If you are a foreign traveller, it will save you over and over. Try to read what baggage carousel is yours in Russian, Japanese, Chinese – get the point?

I have this vision that if your bag is too new or too clean, there are "baggage trolls" whose job it is to take out their bags of dirt and grease and anoint your bag! Honestly, it seems that way. Also, be aware that sometimes your bag stays in those tarmac carts for hours – outside! If it's raining or snowing, too bad.

Try to take valuables and breakables in your hand luggage if you can. (But remember the "three ounce in a baggie" rule through security). At least you have control over them and won't have to have your heart skip a beat as you casually glance out the window of your aircraft and watch your bag being thrown many feet onto the luggage cart, then smashes to the ground because they missed! (Think I'm kidding?)

Did you know that you are not supposed to lock your luggage? YEP. It's not allowed. If you do, they will ruin your bag opening it if they want to look inside. However, there is a way, and it's authorized. At a travel store in the airport (like Brookstone), purchase an authorized TSA (Transportation Security Administration) lock! There are several kinds, including combination locks and luggage belts. The way they work is that there is a TSA key that will open them, and TSA is the only one supposedly who has the key. I do this all the time and it simply means that my bag MUST be opened using that key, or the combination I know. It's much safer than leaving your bag unlocked.

THE WORST DOMESTIC AIRLINE: I really don’t like to bash an organization, but here’s the deal; I fly for a living and see what is possible. So I get to see the whole gamut of services and attitudes. When an organization is poorly run, then everyone is unhappy. It’s not the fault of the employees, but rather the energy of the company that is projected to them. They just go with the energy. Soon it permeates the whole organization and you get to see it within almost all the steps that make up an airline.

At this writing, and for some years, it has been US AIR. They really don’t show much caring, they lose luggage more than almost anyone else, and they are not quick to respond to your needs when you are in trouble. Problems compound fast with this airline, and you can find yourself in a city far from your luggage and wait days for it to show up. Then you are asked to come get it. The stories are rampant and I hear them from many. In the few times I had to use them, it was obvious that they were not a happy group. There are exceptions, of course, and each city has its own specific energy. But in general, they are not up to the level of the others.

THE WORST INTERNATIONAL AIRLINE: Iberia Airlines based in Madrid. Just don't fly with them, ever. They are guaranteed to lose your luggage in a large, black hole in Madrid that has no connection to any computers that are fast. Their idea of getting luggage back to you is for you to wait a week or two, then come get it. If you are passing through Madrid on a cruise, this could be a disaster. It was, and we experienced it. Imagine formal night on a cruise ship in your T-shirt and flip-flops. Get the picture? There are plenty of European airlines who are really, really good who go to most of the places that Iberia goes to. Lufthansa is excellent, and Swiss Air is another. These guys even feed you! (USA air carriers stopped feeding you about two years ago). They also speak English. Iberia barely speaks Spanish.

FINALLY: The attitude of the passenger means more than you can imagine. Do you realize that you are part of “the system” when you fly? Without you, there are no flights. Without the airlines, you go nowhere. Therefore, you might say that a confluence (meld) of energy exists between the flyer and the airline that creates a kind of partnership. If you approach flying with an attitude, angry that you are having to fly and crabby at everyone along the way, you are hurting everyone. The partnership falls apart, and you also affect other passengers around you. The airlines are not there to service you, they are there to participate in the partnership and get you somewhere. If you make the experience horrible for them, the flight attendants smile, but hate you (sorry, but they do). The ticket agents wish you had stayed home and had ridden a bus, and if you are ignorant enough to give the TSA security people a bad time, this highly underpaid group would just love to have their way with you, exercising their newly found power (in a legal way) with an “uncooperative flyer.” Oh, and they have their ways!

If you can’t be a happy traveller, then either don’t travel or take a Valium before you get out of your car at the airport (smile). Those of us who must travel for a living will all celebrate your decision not to be with us, or your willingness to be in a smiling state of unawareness. You might even be fun!

Travel, and the big credit card insurance scam

Do you have a credit card that tells you that they have insurance when you rent a car? I do! We all have to have insurance to rent a car, or instead take that which is offered to us by the car agency. That’s a given. But what if you have a minor scrape or something? Did you know that your credit card offers insurance as a back up for that? Well, that’s a really nice feature, and a good reason for selecting that specific credit card. Right?

NOT!!

My advice, based on very recent experience, is this: Unless you are actually paying something (exchanging money for the service) for a specific type of rental car insurance on a credit card, you will NEVER get insurance money from your credit card company for anything that happens, even if they say they offer the service.

In my experience, the credit card companies have a “special services” department to handle these things. This entire department is experienced in nothing but CUSTOMER ABUSE. You can call the Customer Abuse department easily, and they will willingly abuse you as long as you want.

It was winter and I was in a garage parking lot underneath the hotel I was staying in. I was in a rental car and didn’t see that post coming! I was in a nice Avis car, and I scraped the front bumper. Not a big deal, but it was damaged by the very low speed collision with the post. When I returned the car, my rental agreement showed that I had declined insurance (because I have good insurance already), so Avis repaired the damage and charged my credit card for it, the same card that the car rental was charged on. It cost $1400. All is normal at this point. This is standard procedure.

I called my insurance (State Farm) and they advised me to try to see if the credit card insurance would cover it. This was a good idea, so I called the number on the back of the card. Sure enough, they assured me that my card did indeed provide for that, and gave me a special number to call. (The very special insurance customer abuse number). I did, and the process began that has led me to give you this advice.

Special Services is the branch that specializes in making certain that no cash is ever given to anyone who has a claim, and they did it well. They feature frustration, delay, and then downright deception. But I didn’t know that and proceeded with the claim. I got a letter in about two weeks that asked me for certain information. They needed the original rental agreement (the thing in your glove compartment in a rental car that you never take with you when you leave it), the police report, photos, the repair bills, and proof of the Avis charges. I contacted Avis and got a copy of what was in the glove compartment (I don’t think the card people expected I could do that. They were counting on the fact that I had left it in the car.) Of course, there was no police report since there was no other moving vehicle and, of course, I didn’t have photos. The last thing you do when you scrape a bumper at midnight in a garage is take photos of it. Instead, I got exhaustive repair reports from Avis (in lieu of reports and photos), and turned it all in with an explanation.

In three weeks, I got a letter asking for the same things the first letter had asked for, without any indication that they received the plethora of material I had given them. So I again papered them with everything they asked for, and this time put it in larger type, just in case they were reading disadvantaged with a possible education gap. No. They were instead just playing a game.

I received the requests for identical information for four more months and each time I increased the size of the type until it took several pages to say, “What’s wrong with you? Is anybody there?” Finally, I called them in frustration. They were ready for me! This is where it gets good. Now pay attention in case this ever happens to you, since this next ploy is really hard to beat, and it’s where the customer abuse department shines.

I called them and they immediately denied my claim! First, I asked them how they could deny a claim when they never acknowledged the material I sent. They dodged this one, saying that they now suddenly had it all. Interesting that they suddenly had it after months of asking for it. The ploy? They said that the car was “reserved” under one credit card number and billed with another. Because it wasn’t reserved and billed under “their” card, they wouldn’t pay it. I asked what credit card that could possibly be (since my Avis profile only has one card). They said that they couldn’t reveal that due to security reasons (of course not). Case closed.

When all you have is one card with Avis, and it’s the only one that has ever been in the profile, it’s really hard to imagine when you call them up that they would use another. Then I had a revelation: An Avis preferred member never needs to use a card to reserve a car! Bingo! They were caught in a lie. However, it doesn’t matter since this department has been hired and is there to make certain there are no payouts, plain and simple.

By the way, I turned this in to State Farm and had a check in five days!

Hopefully, this will save someone months of useless energy and time. Use your main insurance carrier and don’t ever deal with the credit card people. The bank is Chase, and the card was my United Airlines Chase Visa card. Interestingly enough, when you call customer service using the number on the back of the Visa card, you get very caring and interested people. They have helped me a number of times and they are very security conscious. But the bank fails when it comes to the special abuse department regarding collision insurance, and should never be offering these services when it has no intention of paying a claim.

If you are part of Chase Bank and want to write me a letter, go ahead. I'll pretend I didn't get it and ask you for another one each month until you surrender and stop. If you call me, I'll be happy to give you the same abuse I got. Come to think of it, I can hardly wait! I'll tell you that you have the wrong person and give you the address of the bank president. :-)

Respectfully submitted
September 2009

LEE CARROLL