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Strategize to leap over summer travel bumps

Jun. 28, 2012 - 12:08PM   |  
By GARY STOLLER, USA TODAY   |   Comments

During the busy summer travel season, frequent business travelers deploy strategies to lessen the stress of crowded airports, planes and hotels.

“Pack first and then remove half,” says Don Schmincke, an author and speaker from Baltimore. “Avoid checked bags and baggage claim at all costs. If a business event requires extra gear, ship it.”

Schmincke also pays extra or uses frequent-flier points to upgrade to first class, visits airport clubs more frequently, and avoids hotels’ resort properties.

Without strategies, proper planning and patience, the peak summer travel season can take its toll on seasoned business travelers or infrequent vacationers. USA Today asked its panel of road warriors — which includes many of the world’s most frequent business travelers — to provide tips that can help anyone navigate more smoothly through the summer crush.

U.S. airlines expect to carry an average of 2.2 million travelers a day through August, according to the trade group Airlines for America. During last year’s busiest month, July, U.S. and foreign airlines carried 76.9 million passengers to and from U.S. airports on scheduled flights — about 22 million more than in February, the slowest month, according to the Transportation Department’s Bureau of Transportation Statistics.

The number of hotel guests also increases in summer. Last year, U.S. hotels sold 98.4 million rooms for June, a record 105.2 million for July and 99.5 million for August, according to hotel consultant STR. Those numbers far exceed the 70.3 million sold during January, the slowest month.

Road warrior Kevin Korterud says he goes to airports earlier than usual in the summer, especially if he’s booked on an airline’s first flight of the day to a destination. Such flights are usually heavily booked by vacationers bound for a connecting flight, he says.

Korterud, a consultant in New Albany, Ohio, says he tries to fly on airlines that allow their most frequent customers to use shorter security lines.

Chuck Bowser, a manager in the telecommunications industry in Plant City, Fla., recommends early-morning and late-evening flights. “Those planes tend to be less crowded,” he says.

Know the rules before you go

Many road warriors implore infrequent travelers to visit the Transportation Security Administration website and learn the screening checkpoint rules and procedures before they arrive at the airport. Screening lines rapidly get longer if prohibited items must be confiscated or rules and procedures are not followed, road warriors say.

Stefan Sobol, a simulator engineer in the flight training industry, says “there are plenty of people who get to the security checkpoint and end up with a deer-in-the-headlights look.”

After passing through an X-ray machine or a metal detector, people should pick up their belongings and move to the area provided to redress and stow their laptops, he says.

“Standing at the conveyor belt of the X-ray machine holds up everyone else,” says Sobol of Leesburg, Va. “If the output lane of the X-ray machine is blocked by belongings while people put their shoes and belts on, no additional items can be sent through.”

Sobol also advises travelers to check the weight of checked bags before they leave home or be prepared to pay if bags are overweight.

“The limits are published on the airlines’ websites, and it should not be a big surprise at the counter if you are over the limit or have too many bags,” he says. “People repacking their luggage at the ticket counter delay everyone in line.”

Schmincke advises vacationers to dress in business attire, because airline agents and flight attendants “seem to be much more accommodating” when you’re in business clothes.

“I don’t think they’re conscious of it, but when problems or changes are needed, they appear to be much more responsive to business travelers,” he says. “I’ve even had staff excuse themselves momentarily with a vacationer to find out what I needed, though I was also on vacation.”

After leaving an airport, Joseph Cooke, a consultant in Jamul, Calif., says he sometimes hails a taxi to take him to a rental car lot if the line for the rental car shuttle is too long.

Benjamin Griffith, a lawyer in Cleveland, Miss., says that in airports with “notoriously long” taxi lines — such as at Chicago’s O’Hare and “sometimes” New York’s LaGuardia — he saves time by booking a car service to meet him at curbside.

Help with the kids

Some road warriors say that vacationers, particularly those with young children, are a constant annoyance. But Korterud, the road warrior from Ohio, says frequent business travelers should stop complaining and start helping.

“Don’t stand back watching and commenting about the mayhem,” he says. “Offer to help infrequent travelers and families if they seem confused about airline practices such as where to get luggage that was gate-checked,” he says.

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