Holiday Travel: Avoid the most Common Headaches

I am very fortunate to be able to travel as much as I do. My day job has me traveling every single week, so I consider myself a bit of an expert when it comes to travel. I have about 100,000 miles flown this year, so I’ve done it once or twice.

However, there is one thing I will not do: Travel during the Holidays!

You may not have that choice, however. Perhaps your family lives in Florida, and you live in Michigan. Perhaps they are in New York, and you are in Texas. Perhaps your family is in Kansas, and you’d rather be in Hawaii.

Whatever the reason, sometimes travel is just unavoidable. The reason that travel sucks during the holidays is not because of the volume of travelers. Summer Weekends actually take the honor of being the busiest travel day(s) of the year. The problem with Holiday travel is the volume of inexperienced travelers.

Frequent flyers have a term for inexperienced travelers…they call them (you?) Kettles. This is after Ma and Pa Kettle, who had a show in like the 20’s, and were very very country. It’s a bit of an insult, but I actually have a hard time refuting that after having traveled behind a number of these individuals. You know how TSA shouts “Shoes off, belts off, computers out of their bags, take out all liquids, gels and aerosols” constantly? That’s why it bothers the heck out of me when someone doesn’t take off their shoes and it holds me up!

This is what some Frequent Flyers think of you

The Solution to Holiday Travel

Well, the best solution is to get status with an airline so that you can go to the priority lanes, then get the TSA PreCheck so that you can avoid the main lines. That may not be realistic for you at this point in time.

TSA PreCheck

TSA has a program which allows certain passengers to bypass the main line, and go through a metal detector without taking off their shoes or belts, and keeping their computers and liquids in their bag. Pretty much the only thing you have to do is take metal out of your pockets. For a full description of the program, see the TSA PreCheck Website.

Currently, only those passengers who opt-in will have the opportunity to volunteer to participate.Participating airlines will permit some of their frequent flyers, based on TSA criteria, to opt-in through the airline’s system. Participating airlines have contacted eligible frequent travelers with an invitation to opt-in. Once the passenger opts in, the airline identifies the individual as a participant when submitting the passenger reservation information to TSA’s Secure Flight system.Current members of U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s (CBP) Global Entry, SENTRI or NEXUS programs are already eligible to participate in the TSA Pre✓™ concept if they are flying on a participating airline at a participating airport. Those passengers need to place their PASS ID in the ‘Known Traveler Number’ field while booking their reservation. Interested passengers who are not eligible through their airline and are not already a member of a CBP Trusted Traveler program may still be able to opt-in to TSA Pre✓™ by applying for one of the CBP eligible programs. Click here to learn more:

Track Wait Times 

The TSA has a website which lays out wait times for all the gates at many airports in the country. Sometimes, you can find a “hidden” security gate. For example, for years, at the McNamara terminal in Detroit, the lower level security line would fill up like crazy. However, if you went up one floor, there were two additional security lines which had a much lower wait time. This was a great secret while it lasted! By tracking the wait times on the TSA site, you can easily determine which lines to go to. 
If there are two gates with 1-10 minutes waits…then choose the closest, but if the security screening line near your gate is 50-60 minutes, and another has 11-20 minutes…well, I think you know what to do.
Find the TSA Security Wait Time Finder either on your computer or on a mobile device. While you’re at it, pay it forward and submit a more up-to-date report.
Another great story about wait times: I was flying out of DFW (Dallas/Fort Worth) and my line had a 45 minute wait. They were literally busing people to a different terminal so they could get through security, and then take the tram back to their gates.

In the scenario where you must choose the best line to go through…follow George Clooney’s advice from Up In the Air. It stereotypes, but I’ve found that he is mostly correct.

Ryan Bingham uses Stereotypes to move through the line faster

The TSA Agents are Children in their Hearts!

It’s Christmas time. I know the PC thing is to say “It’s the Holiday Season!” but let’s be honest…it’s Christmas time. A large number of you are traveling for Christmas, not Kwanzaa (no lost love for Kwanzaa, but it’s just not as ubiquitous). I bet you are bringing gifts to the little children you are going to see (Nieces, Nephews, etc.). Here’s my tip. Don’t wrap them!
The TSA is full of agents who are young at heart. They love opening gifts too. More importantly, they don’t like wrapped gifts. My sister used to travel with wrapped gifts…once. They “tried to be careful” when opening them, but they did their damage. She had to re-wrap everything. 
Bring the gifts unwrapped, then when you get to your destination, ask your hosts for wrapping supplies, or just go buy them yourself (they should at least have tape and scissors). You will be doing this no matter what, so it’s better if you only wrap the gifts once, instead of twice. 

Carry-On Bags are your Friend

You probably don’t want to pay for checked bags. $25 minimum, each way. I highly recommend learning to pack your essentials in a carry-on bag. You are allowed a carry on and a personal item on nearly every flight in the US. Take advantage of this – a roller bag plus an over-stuffed backpack will work. Obviously, gifts may end up being too large, but if that is the case, then you should be ordering the gifts online and having them shipped to your destination. 
If you want a super cheap roller bag for a carry on, and you don’t mind looking like an 8 year old girl, here is a $30 bag from Amazon which qualifies for Prime. 
So, not only does using carry-on bags save you $50, but it also allows you to move much quicker. Waiting for a checked bag sucks. Plain and simple. Plus, if they lose your bag, then you’ll spend your entire holiday trying to track it down. Bring your carry-on’s.

Credit Cards – A Free Checked Bag

A number of Airline Credit cards gift you a free checked bag. I know the Delta Gold AmEx does this, and the United Mileage Plus Explorers credit card gives you a checked bag for free as well. I am not providing a link to these cards because the URLs change frequently. Do a quick search on either “Delta Gold AmEx” or “United Mileage Plus Credit Card” and you will happen upon it. Just make sure you cancel within one year, or you will have to pay the annual fee.

Cheat the System

Technically, this violates airline policy, so I can’t officially recommend this. I can tell you what I have observed others doing. They bring a bag that they know will be too big for a carry on through security. This is the first place you may get stopped – if TSA tells you your bag is too big (this only has ever happened to me at Newark…even when my bag was a legal carry on size). Bring it on through, then when you get to the gate – about 10 minutes before boarding starts – go talk to the gate agent. Tell them you realize you’ll probably have to check your bag anyway, and you’d like to volunteer to check it through to your destination  They will likely be elated at your generosity (and will likely let you board earlier than the rest of the “kettles”) and will check it through to your destination (meaning if you are flying Dallas to Atlanta to Ft. Lauderdale, they will take your bag from you in Dallas, and deliver it to the baggage claim in Ft. Lauderdale). 
This is highly risky, as you are technically violating the baggage policy, but usually agents are too freaking lazy to enforce those rules. Those of you who are semi-frequent travelers will know that they will probably ask for people to check their bags through anyway. Boom – you just got a free checked bag. I have no idea what the hassle is if you get caught…hence the “very risky” statement.

Get to the Airport Early

Look, I know it sucks to get there early. Sitting around at the airport can suck. But the problem is all the inexperienced travelers. Even if you know exactly how to breeze through security, Ingrid and Irving (those are my examples of 94 year old names) might not. Old people can take up a lot of time in security. So you need the extra time. So here’s what you do…PLAN FOR IT! Bring a game to play, or a video to watch. Bring some snacks. Most importantly, go seek out the comfy chairs. Most airports have them now – there are the standard crappy chairs, then there are hidden comfy chairs. This can be la-z-boys, regular padded chairs, or even massage chairs! Find them…and use them. (DFW Terminal E has some particularly comfy chairs. 
If it’s just you, consider buying a one day pass to an Airline Club. It’s probably worth it if you get nice and liquored up on the free booze. Just don’t drink so much that they don’t let you fly – that can happen. 

Sign up for Automatic Updates

All airlines have the ability to have status updates sent to your phone or e-mail. Sign up for this! This way, the Airline will automatically notify you if your flight is delayed or if the gate changes (notorious among American Airlines). If your flight is cancelled, immediately go to a ticketing agent, or call into reservations to change your flight. This gives you about a 2 minute head start on the others, and will allow you to potentially get on a  new flight before the others.

Lastly, Your Security Checklist

I go through security a lot. I mean…a LOT. At least twice a week, sometimes more. Here is a quick checklist for you. Memorize it – it will save you valuable time going through security.
Hand to the first agent:

  • Your Ticket
  • Your ID (Drivers License or Passport preferred)
  • If you have an electronic ticket (on your phone) then use the scanner they provide
When you get to security, take off the following items:
  • Hats
  • then, Jacket
  • then, Shoes
  • then, Belt
  • then, Underpants (just kidding…but I wonder what they would say if you did)
Take the following items out:
  • Laptop out of your bag (tablets stay in the bag)
  • Liquids out of your bag
  • Everything out of your pocket (if they only have a metal detector, then only take your phone, keys, and other metal out)
  • If they are using a backscatter machine (pictured below), ask to opt out.
    • This means you do not want an x-ray scan, and that they will give you a manual pat down. This is a safety concern. ALWAYS do this if you are pregnant, old, young, or particularly weak. I recommend everyone opts-out. 
Here’s how to use the Bins
  • Put in your laptop
    • If there is room, you can also put your wallet, phone, keys, etc. and belt in the same bin. Don’t put anything on top of your computer
  • Jackets can go in their own bin
  • Bags go on the belt
  • Shoes go directly on the belt
    • This is a pet peeve of mine…Shoes don’t need their own bin! 
  • A purse, if it is open, can go in a bin
I only use one single bin when I travel, and it makes things so much faster! Try to be a minimalist when it comes to the bins!
If you see this machine…ask for an opt-out immediately
So when all is said and done, you can have a fantastic travel experience, despite the Holidays being about the most obnoxious time to travel ever! I’ll post a follow-up in a day or two on finding great fares. I am currently looking for a last minute fare myself, so I’ll post all my tricks and tools to ensure you get the best price available!
Happy Holidays, and Happy Traveling!

I made a mistake: The AeroPress Coffee Maker Rules!

I made a major mistake on March 3, 2010. I said the following words:

“…the AeroPress looked cheap, and based on reviews is nothing too special…”

Where did I say this, and how do I know the exact date on which I said it? Easy – I said it on my old blog Dorm Room Business and I know the exact date because Blogger is kind enough to put the date on the posts I put out there.

Dorm Room Business has since been pulled into this blog (meaning all of the old posts were migrated over)
The post on which I said this was: Travel Espresso Maker

Why did I say such hurtful things? Well, they weren’t entirely untrue. I was looking for an espresso maker, and the prevailing reviews at the time claimed that the AeroPress doesn’t make espresso. They said the Aeropress makes “really strong coffee”.

Okay, so it didn’t make espresso – it turns out I don’t need an espresso shot or 7 every single day. Sometimes a nice cup of Joe is what I need.

Here’s why I have purchase the AeroPress, and the MyPressi and Handpresso still sit on Amazon’s shelves, pining for me to order them.

  • The AeroPress can use any coffee at all – the others require pods
  • The AeroPress travels very well
  • The AeroPress is easy to use
  • The AeroPress is ready to drink in about 3 minutes
Now, the MyPressi and HandPresso make great cups of coffee, I’m sure, but the AeroPress is the winner. 
A quote from one of the certified barista’s at Kaldi’s Coffee in St. Louis (they make some of the best coffee I’ve ever had)

“I prefer the AeroPress because it is ready in a minute flat, and it makes a coffee/espresso mix. If you want a normal cup of coffee, you just add some hot water, otherwise it’s really intense, which sometimes, you really want”

That has been my experience as well. It doesn’t make espresso. It makes a coffee concentrate. I have never watered it down, but I’m sure you can.

I cannot say enough nice things about this device. Seriously, if you like coffee, buy one today. You can travel with it, and have really wonderful coffee all day long.

Lastly, if you want a demo on how to use this thing, you have 2 options. Tim Ferris covers this in The 4-hour Chef, under the section titled (rightfully so) “In Search of the Perfect Cup of Coffee”

If you don’t want to buy his book (it’s a great read…you might as well shell out the cash) then here is a video by one of my subscriptions on YouTube: coffeenate1. It’s a bit dry, but he explains very well how to make a proper cup of coffee in the AeroPress. Again, he is not flashy, and is not all that exciting, but dammit  he gives you good information!

Go put one on your Amazon WishList now!

Lose Weight by Swinging your Bowls

Another quick one. My computer (personal one) is still dead, so I can’t properly do the next Rut Busters justice. ETA on that is 2 weeks (the doctors are trying to reclaim my data) and then hopefully I’ll have all my wonderful data and programs back!

Do you snack? 
Do you like to snack? 
Do you think you should snack? 
Do you remember what your last 5 snacks were?
The point is:
Most people snack.
Most people like to snack.
Most people don’t think they should snack.
Most people mindlessly snack.
I bet if you logged your food intake for a day, you would be astounded by the amount of calories you consume just by snacking. Ever sat next to a bowl of M&M’s, only to find that an hour later, they mysteriously disappeared? I know what happened to them! [For my slower readers: You ate them]
The Flash Diet
So here’s how you fix the snacking issue…and really any mindless eating issue. You use a pattern interrupter. Sounds complicated, huh? It just means that instead of going into a mindless snack, you do something before you start eating. This interrupts your pattern of mindless eating, and tricks you into thinking about what you eat. There is even an entire diet named after this: The Flash Diet.
The Flash Diet is based on research from the University of Wisconsin-Madison (I could not find a link to the original study. if you have it, please send it my way!). You can find a write up here (I know it’s not the most credible source, but the study they are reporting on is credible) The flash diet: Taking photos of meals helps slimmers lose weight

The Bowl Diet

So that is great. It forces you to really think about what you are eating. It can also be a bit inconvenient. Another simpler method is quite obvious when you think about it. All we need is a pattern interrupter, right? Here’s one – plate up everything you are going to eat. Whether it’s a bowl, a cup, a plate, a saucer, a platter, a gravy boat, a jug, a crock…plate something up! (Plate it up = Put it on or in a container for serving)

Here’s the scenario: You want chips. The barbecue chips have been screaming your name all day long. Instead of grabbing the bag and sitting down (which will result in an empty bag. I promise) grab a bowl, and fill it up. This can be a small bowl, to hold one portion, or it can be a HUGE bowl, which holds the entire bag. Just do it. If you want more when you are done, then fill it up again. 

Example 2: You want some peanut butter cups (yummmm. It’s almost Christmas – I can’t wait for the Christmas Tree peanut butter cu…trees). Grab some and put them on a plate. Want more? Put more on there. 

First of all, you won’t fill up a bowl that takes the entire bag of chips, and you won’t put 15 peanut butter cups on the plate. Plating up your food makes you think about it. Sit down with a bag of chips, or a candy dish full of peanut butter cups, and you’ll polish off most, if not all of them.
Here’s what’s happening – your mind has to take a break to figure out how to plate these up, and you now think about what you are eating. We all know we shouldn’t eat a bag of chips – but it happens. By stopping and thinking about it, our logical part of the brain kicks in, and says “Hey, if I eat the entire bag now, there won’t be any to eat tomorrow!” and you consume fewer calories.
If you do nothing else except start plating up your food, I guarantee you will lose weight. 
Try it!

You know what? This would be a wonderful opportunity for a 30 day challenge! Maybe you could start on January 1st.