Making travel civilized (almost)

I travel a lot these days, and couldn’t do it without all of the great tools available:

  • As I’ve written previously, if you’re applying for a Canadian passport, do yourself a huge favour and fill out the form online; that reduces the actual visit to the passport office from about 1.5 hours to about 15 minutes.
  • If you cross the Canadian-US border frequently (or enter either country from elsewhere), get a NEXUS card so that you can use the automated kiosks instead of standing in immigration/customs lines; this reduces your time from 15-45 minutes standing in line to about a minute. The first time that I used the NEXUS kiosk, bypassing a line of about 1000 people at Toronto airport on a Monday morning, I almost wept with joy. Works at airports and land crossings.
  • Use TripIt to organize and share your travel plans. TripIt is definitely the most useful online service that I’ve found in last year: you forward your air and hotel itineraries to it, and it auto-parses them into an online itinerary. I can share my trips with my other half, so that he knows where I’m staying and when to pick me up at the airport. There’s also a mobile retrieval to get any particular part of your itinerary emailed to you in short plain text in case you forget to print out the itinerary. They’ve also just started accepting itineraries from corporate booking services such as Orbitz.
  • Dopplr is more of a travel social network, where you indicate when you’ll be where, and can see if your friends overlap in the same locations. TripIt is trying to do something similar, but since that’s not their main focus, they aren’t quite doing it so well, and don’t have the mindshare. Personally, I’d rather have all of this information in one place (TripIt) than use two services, but I’d need to have more of my social network using TripIt.
  • SeatGuru and their related mobile site lets you get a good seat on any airplane, or at least avoid the ones that don’t recline and are beside the lavatory. Pick by carrier and craft, and it shows you seating plans of the plane with the good, bad and cautioned seats marked.
  • FlightStats and their related mobile site lets you track any actual flight, sometimes more accurately than airline sites. However, it doesn’t always get updated in the case of cancellations.
  • FlightAware is quite similar to FlightStats, and provides a map for a specific flight to tell you exactly where it is and when it will land. Great for checking on the inbound flight when you’re waiting to take the same plane outbound.
  • Google maps on your mobile device can now use cell tower triangulation to give you an approximate real ground location even if your mobile doesn’t have onboard GPS: it sucks down your battery fast, but works as a low-res GPS in a pinch.
  • Mobile airline sites — I’ve used Air Canada, United, US Air, Delta, WestJet, Northwest and American — allow you to check flight status and set up alerts for changes in status; some even allow you to check in for your flight via your mobile.

The best thing that you can do for yourself if you fly frequently is to use one airline (and its partners) in order to accumulate status, and get yourself to gold level status if you can. This may (depending on the airline) give you lounge access to get you out of the madding crowds in airports — a sanity-saver when there’s a massive weather delay — and get at least a desk and a plug, and sometimes free wifi, food and drink. Status sometimes gets you free upgrades to business class, as could a full-fare economy ticket if your company springs for the fully-flexible alternative. Gold status also allows you to board the aircraft during pre-boarding, which means that you can carry on the maximum allowable bag size, avoiding checking any bags. Don’t feel guilty when you cram that suitcase into the overhead bin: if you don’t use the space, someone else will.

I read a newspaper column last week (not surprisingly, on an airplane) in which the author was complaining about things that have been a fact of life for a while: taking shoes off at security, no liquids through security, no free food onboard. My advice: you know about these things in advance, so suck it up and learn to compensate. Wear slip-ons. Budget ahead to buy an overpriced bottle of water after security. Pack a lunch. If you must whine, at least whine about unpredictable events, not the ones that you know are going to happen.

Update: one thing that I forgot, is that if something goes seriously and unexpectedly wrong, don’t be afraid to complain, although try to do it nicely. A few weeks ago in Vegas, I spent one night in a $2500/night suite after starting out in a “non-smoking” room that smelled like an ashtray. They moved me out of the suite after one night, to a much nicer room than I started out in, but I’m quite sure that I’ll never actually pay that much for a night in a hotel room so was happy to have the experience.

2 thoughts on “Making travel civilized (almost)”

  1. Very good list. Although I frequently feel like a loyalty program whore….

    I do think it’s ok to complain about the US security check. You don’t need to take your shoes off anywhere else in the world and liquids are rarely banned. These are stupid measures that don’t increase security in my mind. I don’t want to just get used to it. Getting used to something stupid and silly should not be encouraged. The worst about US security is the attitude of the personnel. I know this doesn’t apply to *everyone* but it’s pretty close. I feel like they might actually poke me with sticks as the bark commands to drive the packed crowd through the gate while everyone is trying hard to keep track of boarding passes (which may or may not have to be shown as you walk through), IDs, laptops, shoes, belts, liquids, coats and whatever else they’ve forced you to remove. I thought I was a paying customer in the land where the consumer rules supreme. Just don’t get it…

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