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Air Travel Escalating Into Hassle Travel

By September 7, 2006

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Flying is fast becoming one of the world's great travel hassles. New TSA airport rules mean packing itself requires time-consuming pre-planning in order to pack for airport security because at least one of your bags must now be checked if you want to bring any significant quantity of gels or liquids (like a truly useable amount of your own fave sunscreen); security checks have grown into an issue requiring early arrival at the airport; food service is a fading memory on many US carriers and airplane seats are shrinking. On my recent first flight post-UK terrorist scare, my carry-on bags were searched a total of six times.

No Shoes, No Service

Potential indignities abound in air travel these days: you must pad along the athlete's foot trail through the airport security metal detector sans shoes while a security agent may be sorting through the underwear in your carry-on, a process viewed with resigned sympathy by other travelers in line, and you may be pulled from the security queu to enjoy a full body pat down if you meet some mysterious criteria, as I did in London's Heathrow this spring. It's interesting to have your parts squeezed by a stranger while fellow passengers look on, and there's no doubt that it leaves one with a disquieting feeling of having done something wrong -- in most folks' experience, pat downs are the provenance of criminals on cop shows.

The US's TSA (Transportation Security Administration) and Britain's Home Office's recently revamped and newly stringent air travel security measures mean just the number of three ounce (or less) bottles of liquids and gels which can fit in a one quart ziploc style plastic baggie can be carried through airport security or on board commercial aircraft bound for those countries. (Edited to add: Et tu, EU?)

Hassles aside, sheer creature comforts are falling by the wayside in air travel, as well. Simple sustenance is becoming more difficult. Airline food, though often derided over the years, at least existed; recently, some US airlines have started skimping so much on edible substances that you may feel grateful to get a bag of snack mix rather than peanuts. And, since you can no longer bring your own water on US and UK flights, you must now, once in your Lilliputian seat on board, wait for the plane to take off and a flight attendant to get to you before you can stave off dehydration. If you didn't choose to buy a spendy bottle of water post-security line in the airport, you may be looking at a couple of hours between H2O consumptions. And finding the water fountain before you board can be time-consuming if you were held up in the security line.

Airport Rules Create Packing Dilemmas

I always carry on all bags if I can -- carrying on those wayward bags helps me avoid losing them and I can be in-country that much quicker if I needn't wait at baggage claim (understand checked and carry on baggage). However, my international flights this month caused quite the packing consternation for me -- I like having my own stuff in some circumstances. I was going to Mexico where, I knew from experience, killer sunscreen can be hard to find, and I wanted to bring mine. I also have some natural insect repellant and awesome antiseptic goo without which I never travel. These things are liquids, and hard to buy anywhere. Ergo, I knew I had to check a bag if I wanted 'em. I studied up on lost baggage advice, mentally reviewed the circumstances of my own past lost luggage incidents (one involved wandering around the San Francisco airport in a swimming suit while my bags made their way from Maui to Taipei), and put together some lost luggage avoidance tips you may want to check out. And I grudgingly packed a bag to check.

Having to check a bag caused me to carry three bags. I normally carry a shoulder bag containing my cameras, lenses, noisebuster headphones for long flights, inflatable neck pillow, mp3 player, and flashpacker gear like laptop, GPS gizmo, cell phone, international adaptors, USB cords and wifi finder. My carry on flashpacker bag has a water bottle keeper, too, and it doubles as my street bag when in-country. Normally, I stash my toiletry kit in it, as well, and I am totally set for a flight of any duration. Ha. Not so much, this time.

I also carry on an expandable backpack with zip-off daypack. I can pack this bag with enough gear for a month's travel, and I often mail the daypack home, filled with unbreakable souvenirs, or mail clothes home and carry on fragile souvenirs. Between these two bags, I can hit the ground running when my plane docks.

This time, I had to stash the toiletry kit, the sunscreen, the bug dope and the Brave Soldier in a checked bag. When I arrived, I twiddled my thumbs at baggage claim. And when I left Mexico for the US, I surrendered my checked bag at the first of three stations where my carry-on bag was searched (my checked bag was searched once, as usual, before I handed it over). On this same trip, I took an inter-Mexico budget airline from Tijuana to Guadalajara, where my carry-on was searched just once.

(At the last of the Mexico airport security stations for US-bound flyers, my Clorets gum was confiscated. This led me to speculate about what smokers are doing on long flights these days -- no gel nicotine patches and no nicotine gum, and certainly, no puffing, allowed. What happens if a smoker goes nuts on an LA-Sydney flight, deprived of all nicotine infusion? Perhaps chewing tobacco is the answer.)

Baggage searches are best approached with a sense of humor, and it then doesn't seem so strange to have strangers sift through your stuff, occasonally pulling out items to discuss -- not with you, but with fellow screeners. And I don't mean potential bombs. This happens to me all the time, for some reason; on this trip, it was my carabiner-clip travel light which was hauled forth and handed around among the screeners. The verdict: cool light. Yes, I think so, too. Screeners did at least admire my handy Swiss Army compass/lighter combo among themselves before confiscating it in the US this spring. This friendly appraisal of your possessions can be somewhat disconcerting; if your checked baggage has been unlocked and searched, you only have to imagine it instead of watching.

Back to the packing woes: on this trip, I ended up carrying a third bag because I didn't want to check and potentially lose my clothes or my flashpacker gear, and carried them on as usual -- but I needed a bag in which to tuck toiletries and lug liquid souvenirs; the country of destination being Mexico, I knew it was likely I'd be hauling home tequila and vanilla extract, and I wouldn't be allowed to bring those onboard.

So there it was -- the new TSA rules created extra time in the airport for me (retrieving checked bag, waiting in line while folks threw away shampoo and gum), extra work for the airline (dealing with my checked bag), extra manpower for the Mexico airport screeners dealing with US-bound flights, and extra hassle time as I planned and packed. By gosh, though, the skies were safe from those tequila minis. Is that really the point? Of course not -- but it sure feels like it when you're the one caught in the terrorist-TSA crossfire.

Given the time, I'd rather take the train or bus or drive. And slow boats to China do exist.

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