Travel Will Return Soon, Plan Now

2020 has had some issues, to say the least. As we approach the end of this Annus Horribilis, there are glimmers of hope that vaccines and precautions will end our battle with ‘Rona. Hopefully that means we’ll be suffering our ways through airports again, rather than suffering by reading about great destinations without actually being able to go to them.

Since we have been traveling only in our minds, I’m going out on a limb and assuming everyone’s a bit out of practice. As most of this site is bike-centric, I’m taking a bit of a tangent here and talking about air travel in general. I travel as much as I can, but more than that, I have firsthand knowledge and experience with the other side of travel: I’m one of the guys who puts your bags on the airplane.

We’re not going to discuss bike bags here, as I’ve already done that here and here.

Instead, we’re going to discuss how to be a good traveler, because pretty much everyone needs a reminder.

First off, let’s review the basics of air travel:

  • Get to the airport early. This should be obvious, particularly since we’re approaching the 20th anniversary of 9/11. It’s been 2 decades, stop being surprised by having to stand in long lines, remove your shoes, show TSA your mini toothpaste, and dump out your water.

    You haven’t seen this before?
  • Know your cutoff time. Most airlines have cutoff times for bags, some are 45 minutes and some are 30 minutes. Local airports may also have specific cutoff times. Begging the gate agent to bypass this cutoff time is ridiculous, because they won’t bend the rules just because you’re a Special Customer. It takes time for the bag to go through TSA screening, then make it to the bag room, then make it to the airplane. Basically, the bag cutoff time is based on how long this takes, it’s not just there to make your life hard. If you want to wait until the last possible second, use a carry-on.
  • There’s an app for that: Get your airline’s app. Use it to check in, track your bags, see flight info, gate changes, etc. These apps have nearly all the same info we have in the systems.
  • Be nice to the gate agents at check-in and at the gate. I can’t believe I actually need to remind people to have common courtesy, but I do. Plus, trust me, they want to see you get on the plane and leave as soon as possible.
  • Either wear slip-on shoes or get TSA Pre-Check. We’ve had to take off shoes at security for long enough that you should be able to plan for it by now.
  • Take off old barcode stickers and labels. Bags are scanned at check-in, then when they are put on a cart, into an airplane, off the airplane, onto the next cart, along conveyor belts, and finally, onto the claim belt where you pick them up. It’s in your best interest to take the time to peel those stickers off after each flight, unless you really like spending time in the Baggage Service Office.

    And your bag being mis-directed is OUR fault?
  • Don’t call Flight Attendants “stewardesses”. Also, be nice to them (see above). Their job isn’t easy, because they have to deal with asshats all day long. Don’t be one of them.
  • Don’t show up drunk. Because if you do, you’re not flying.
  • Wear your mask, and don’t argue about it. Masks are a thing now, and probably will be for many many years to come. You can argue all you want. but all you’ll get is banned from the airline. Actually, that’s fine with me, so go ahead and get kicked off. It’s one less bag for me to deal with.
  • Do take batteries out of your smart bag.  Better yet, don’t buy a smart bag. They’re not smart. Lithium batteries can (and do, regularly) catch fire. Don’t leave your batteries in the bag.

    Look! I bought an ignition source! I’ll put it in the belly of an airplane, that’s a good idea.
  • Don’t check a backpack or bag with lots of loose straps. Bags travel on conveyor belts. What do you think will happen to a bag or pack with lots of straps hanging off of it as it travels hundreds of feet on conveyors that turn corners, go up, down, and all around? Hint: it gets caught, other bags jamb against it, and it gets damaged. Duh.
  • Don’t try to jam a big bag in the overhead. Know what happens when you break the door? First, the airplane sits there while maintenance sends a mechanic, and second, everyone with a tight connection knows YOU were the cause of the delay. You will not be winning any popularity contests, and if you have a tight connection, you’ve just done yourself nicely. If the door gets removed, all the bags in that bin have to come out. This happens more often than you think.

    Don’t force it.
  • At smaller airports, where your hand-carry bags may be brought to you as you deplane, do not stand around waiting for your checked luggage. When was the last time you went planeside at O’Hare to pick up your bag?
  • When you stand in line for your rental car, unless the whole family is also going to be signed on as a driver, they don’t need to stand in line with you. Actually, they don’t need to stand in line with you for most transactions, like at restaurants, hotel check in, stores, etc. Believe it or not, this is how crowds and long lines are formed.

With these handy reminders out of the way, let’s discuss bags and suitcases.

First, and possibly most importantly, keep in mind that you don’t need to take everything you own. You don’t need a full change of clothes for every day on the trip; odds are pretty high there’s laundry technology at your destination. Worst case: wash clothes in the hotel sink. Not long ago, we had a family travel through our airport with three 99-lb suitcases and 2 carry-ons each. They told the gate agent they had stayed for a week. In the summer. Who needs 300 pounds of summer clothing for a week?

Travel light. You can do it.

Second, don’t over-stuff your suitcase. You’ve heard this before, but really, don’t do it. We see zippers split open all the time, and while we try to stuff everything back in the case and close it, your burst-open bag will hit the carousel that way, and everyone will see what you packed.

We see this more than you think.

Third, if your suitcase is torn, worn, shredded, has fussy zippers, etc., REPLACE IT. You don’t want a handle to rip off when you pick it up, and we don’t want that either. Worn zippers are waiting to burst, particularly if you’ve over stuffed the bag. Sometimes we have time to try to tape it all back together, but most of the time, no. We load hundreds of bags a day (our tiny regional airport moves 300,000 bags per year), and we get worn out bags on every flight.

Fourth, pack your bag so it can be dropped from waist height. We’re not going to bend over and gently place that overstuffed, overweight bag on the ground-level belt 300,000 times. We won’t throw it, but if it’s fragile, carry it on yourself.

Fifth, don’t modify your suitcase, like by strapping wheels to it. You won’t get past the gate agent.

Don’t do this.

Sixth, use a suitcase. You’d be amazed at how many times we get skis and snowboards checked without a bag. If you can afford to visit a resort, you can afford to put your stuff in a bag.

Plastic shrink wrap is the new ultra-light suitcase.
Skis, poles, boots, and a shitload of bubblewrap.
No, really, my base is fine.

Bags that suck:

Face it, some bags are better than others, and we know them all. Standard size and shape make loading airplanes easier for us (keep in mind some airplanes have cargo pits where we can’t stand up, so we’re crawling with your bag). Squishy duffels are OK, we can work with those, but strollers and car seats are really a hassle. Those can be rented, pretty much everywhere, so do it. All of my hand injuries have been from folding strollers pinching them. Ski bags and golf bags are also a pain, but some are far worse than others.

Ski Bags: SportTubes are godawful. They are slippery and the handle makes them impossible to stack. The pins that hold the sleeves together commonly break off and the tube falls apart. The slick plastic slides down belt loaders regardless of if you’re loading or unloading the airplane. Buy a rectangular fabric bag like Patagonia, DoucheBags (yes), or Dakine. Or rent skis.

Slick plastic, impossible to stack. Don’t waste your money.

Boot Bags: This wedge-shaped little monsters are usually considered “part” of the ski bag and don’t get treated as a separate bag for fees. To you, this is great, although personally, I always carry my boots on board so they can never get lost or miss my flight. I can rent skis anywhere, but my boots are not replaceable. The boot bags, being kind of triangular and unbalanced, tend to roll down belts and hit the ground, like a demon-spawn bowling ball, seeking the shortest path back to the depths from which it sprang.

Serious PITA. Might work better as a chock.

Golf Bags: Lumpy, unbalanced, tapered, and bulky, it’s hard to believe airlines don’t charge extra for these nightmares. Of all sporting goods, these are the worst to load, unload, stack, and transport. Find a well-padded bag that is as rectangular as possible, and avoid the all-plastic shells. We call them “torpedos” for a reason: they simply don’t stick to the rubber belt. If you want your golf clubs to hit the ground again and again, this is the case for you. If not, make sure your bag has some fabric.

This one is faster than a bobsled.

Bag covers: Those clear plastic condoms that some people think are a good idea? They’re not. Don’t do it. They usually cover the handles and make the bag hard to grab, and they’re slippery. The stretchy fabric ones are just as bad.

Don’t Wrap That Rascal.

Hard shells vs soft bags: We like hard, rectangular suitcases in the quasi-standard sizes. Remember the last time you moved? How much easier was it when all your boxes were the same size? Putting weird-shaped things into a stack is never easy, and we can load hundreds of bags on an airplane, even on the small ones. Similarly, weird-shaped bags are a hassle to fit in the trunk of a rental car, so it’s worth remembering that the airplane is only part of your journey.

Partially loaded pit

Keep in mind most airplanes are loaded from the outside, in all kinds of weather. Belt loaders, particularly in winter, can be slick with frost and/or snow, so super shiny cases may slide down them, quickly. As in: Olympic Luge-type quickly. Some people might like watching these bullets shoot down the belt loader, but we actually don’t like to see it. We’d prefer the bags were only trying to injure us by being heavy, or splitting open, or by having broken handles and wheels. Adding acceleration to the mix isn’t good for anyone involved.

Rubberized fabric, like on bags by Patagonia, Marmot, North Face, LL Bean, REI, and so forth, “stick” like glue to the belt and never slide off. In fact, we use these to hold slippery bags in place. The coated, waterproof fabric is found in nearly all standard shapes, from duffel to roll-aboard, and also are durable on the baggage conveyor belts.

For the record, my own bags are Patagonia Black Holes, and I usually carry them on.

Looking out for you.