Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Travelling Tips for the Smart Traveler

Every terminal has tricks that savvy fliers can use to save time and reduce hassles, says one seasoned traveler. Find out how to get a leg up on your fellow passengers during the holiday season.

It’s a busy Friday evening at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, and I’ve just flown in from London. More than 300 of us have collected our bags and passed through customs and immigration. SeaTac’s arrivals area is a Hieronymous Bosch madhouse — hundreds of people jostling for space at the passenger pickup curb, cigarette smoke choking the air, horns blaring, cars stacked bumper-to-bumper, kids fussing and airport police barking commands.

Ah, but I’m upstairs at the virtually deserted departures level, where peace and quiet reign. My wife zips up in the Toyota, I hop in and off we go. It takes all of 30 seconds. Once again, I’ve beaten the system because I know my home airport inside and out. In the evening (in fact, almost all the time) the departures level upstairs is by far the better place to wait for a ride home.

Travel can be hell — unless you’re a savvy frequent traveler who collects practical expertise to save time and avoid hassles. If you fly 80 to 100 times annually, as I do, saving as little as 10 minutes at each end of a flight adds up to 18 hours each year. That equals reading the paper at home with a second cup of coffee once a week.

I don’t want to give that up (and my airport expertise usually saves far more than a paltry 10 minutes), so I collect secrets for all the airports I use. At SeaTac, for instance, the middle security gateway that leads to the food concourse is invariably quickest — with a line half the length of the queue that leads to the North Satellite terminal. SeaTac is arranged so that passengers can reach any gate in the entire airport once they’re inside the security envelope. Why not use the security gateway that takes the least amount of time?

If you want to join the savvy-airport club, here are five ways to start:

1. Open your eyes. As Yogi Berra said, you can observe a lot just by watching. Early for a plane one day? Take a stroll and check out the alternative security checkpoints. Look for options you haven’t noticed before, such as premium express lines. You can even follow business travelers who look like they know what they’re doing.

2. Ask airport personnel if they have any tricks. Talk to gate agents at check-in, information volunteers or crew members. Ask them, for example, “What’s the easiest way to get to Concourse D?” Virtually every airport has some Transportation Security Administration checkpoints that are quicker than others, and security personnel are happy to tell you about them, since it makes their jobs easier.

3. Ask the frequent travelers you know for advice. People like me catalog airport secrets not only by necessity, but also as a sort of codex for our fraternity. I trade tips at conferences and meetings. Perhaps you’re having your neighbor, the Southeastern U.S. insurance adjuster, over for dinner; offer homemade pie for dessert and ask his secrets. Believe me, he’ll know how to get through Atlanta’s Hartsfield as expeditiously as possible.

4. Check the many online sources of information. The TSA maintains a comprehensive database on security wait times at U.S. airports at http://waittime.tsa.dhs.gov/index.html. Also, the Web sites operated by each airport offer tips and terminal maps; spend a little time before you fly browsing the site for each airport you’ll be visiting on your trip.

5. Avail yourself of the universal tricks frequent travelers can use. For example, consider getting a Clear card, which for $199 speeds travelers into express security lines at 21 airports, including such notorious choke points as Atlanta, Washington’s Dulles and the New York area’s three airports.

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