Are you headed home for the holidays? Thousands of Alaskans will make the trek over the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays to see friends and loved ones. You may think you can handle the Anchorage airport — it’s pretty easy. But you may be shocked at how busy it is at the airports in Seattle, Los Angeles, Chicago or New York.
While visiting the airport is just one part of your trip, you need to be intentional so you can breeze through like a pro. After all, Thanksgiving is usually the busiest travel weekend of the year. Let’s double-check the basics.
Your tickets: If you’ve made your holiday travel plans, check to see that you have assigned seats. If you’ve purchased one of the “Basic Economy” fares, you may not get the opportunity to reserve your seats in advance. So you can assume you’ll be sitting in the middle. Also, check your departure times and dates. Many flights leave just after midnight, which means you check in late the night before. Make a copy of your itinerary for your loved ones, especially if they’re picking you up!
Travel insurance: Just one misstep in your itinerary could cost you lots of money in change fees, cancellation charges or rebooking fees. It’s one reason why I purchase travel insurance. My policy, through Allianz, covers change fees, lost or delayed baggage, doctor visits and has a modest limit for medical evacuation. Other plans are available through BHTP, or through your credit card. You can compare plans at websites like Squaremouth.com and Insuremytrip.com. You have to read the fine print to determine the best plan for you. For some exotic or expensive trips, it’s worthwhile to purchase the insurance plans offered by the tour operator.
Checking in: If you’re just carrying on your luggage, you can check in online at home or on your smartphone. If you have bags to check, you have to stop at the counter and show your ID while they tag your bags. All airlines charge for checked bags, so be prepared to pay up. Typically it costs $30 to check one bag, unless you have an airline credit card that offers a free bag benefit. Also, if you’re a Club 49 member with Alaska Air (it’s free for Alaska residents), you get two free checked bags on flights to or from Alaska.
If you have Alaska Air’s app on your smartphone, you can pre-reserve food for your flight. I’ve never done it, but on my last few flights they’ve been sold out of my favorite fruit-and-cheese platter before they get to my row. Of course, you have to pay for everything with a credit card — no cash is allowed.
Credit cards: I play a lot of “credit card bingo” to rack up extra miles and points. But some cards are more valuable than others. I always travel with the Alaska Air credit card from Bank of America. The bonus miles are good (currently 40,000-42,000 miles for a new card). If you’re not a Club 49 member, you still get a free checked bag. Alaska will discount 20% off inflight purchases with the card and now you can get 50% off day passes at the airline’s lounges.
My primary card for travel is the Chase Sapphire Reserve Visa card. It costs $450 per year, but includes a $300 annual travel credit and offers “Priority Pass” access to more than 1,000 airport lounges. It used to offer admission to Alaska Air’s lounge — but the airline nixed that. The card also offers comprehensive car rental insurance, trip interruption/cancellation coverage and a host of other benefits. I’m also a fan of the “Ultimate Rewards” loyalty plan, particularly for hotel stays. The Chase card also reimbursed me $100 for my “Global Entry” membership, which helps me cut in line at the TSA.
The TSA checkpoint: This should probably be renamed “TSA chokepoint.” If you travel more than a couple of times per year, the “Global Entry” scheme may work well for you. It costs $100 for five years. You have to fill out a lengthy application form online. After receiving conditional approval, you can schedule an in-person interview. Global Entry was designed for frequent international travel — and it really does speed things up at customs. But the side benefit is that you get “TSA Pre-Check” for your domestic flights. That’s a valuable benefit which can save you time and aggravation during the holidays. You can go in the shorter line and keep your shoes on.
What to pack in your carry-on: Every traveler has their favorite items close-at-hand on the flight. If you’re checking a bag, remember to remove everything that’s valuable or essential: medicine, car keys, cash or valuable documents, cameras or electronics. Your checked luggage is a great place for your clothes, shoes, shampoo, big bottles of sunscreen and bottles of booze.
If you’re traveling with kids, there’s a whole separate list of things to bring, aside from a diaper bag. Some toys, some snacks, some books and a fully-charged iPad.
Most of my essential carry-on items are electronic: some noise-canceling headphones, a portable battery charger in case my seat-back charger doesn’t work (that happened on my last flight). Don’t forget the charge cord for your phone (I have a couple of them for iPhones and one for Android which also works for my camera). Then there’s the headlamp, which comes in handy if the light above my seat doesn’t work, or the power goes out in your hotel.
There are lots of packing lists if you’re going on an expedition or a remote location. Check with the tour operator. I found a good all-purpose checklist at SmarterTravel.com.
Temperatures can vary on the plane. So, just like when I’m hiking on the trail, I dress in layers on the plane. That includes a light jacket. I don’t travel with a blanket, but my wife does — it doubles as a pillow.
It’s important to stay hydrated while you’re flying. So bring your water bottle — just wait until after the TSA checkpoint to fill it up.
Other items in your checked baggage: Airlines have special rules and restrictions for checking guns and ammo. There also are special requirements for checking sporting equipment like bicycles, surfboards, golf clubs and skis. Check with the airline directly to avoid any surprises at the check-in counter.
If you’re traveling with Christmas presents, save yourself some aggravation and pack them unwrapped in your checked bags. That way, if the TSA needs to check on them, they don’t have to cut through the wrapping paper. In fact, the TSA has its own travel checklist.
My favorite part of any trip starts after I get there. But you’ll be happier if you check and double-check your itinerary and your bags before you head to the airport!