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Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Avoiding International Air Travel Grief (updated May 16, 2017)

Traveling internationally with a ton of gear is a hassle and stressful.  It takes a lot of thought and preparation as every airline and airport has it's own rules and nuances.   Here are some of my lessons learned.  Also, learn more under Chris' Packing, Travel and Image Storage Tactics by scrolling to the bottom of this document.

U.S. Global Entry and TSA Preê:
  • If you're a speed/comfort freak like me, apply for TSA Pre√ and make sure that your Global Entry number is added to your airline profiles.  
  • U.S. Global Entry is awesome for international travelers.  It cost $100 to apply, lasts for 5 years, and allows you to bypass the long customs lines when arriving back in the U.S.  
  • Global Entry scanners are sensitive to hand lotions/sunscreen (i.e., false readings) and long flights can dry out skin making it hard for scanners to read fingerprints.  Net:net: clean hands and then rub fingertips against your forehead or neck before going through TSA. 
  • Register for the Smart Travelers Enrollment Program (STEP) .  This replaces the U.S. embassy registration process which enables U.S. Embassies to contact you in an emergency while you are traveling abroad and/or for the State Dept. to send you Travelers' Alerts. 
Checking In and Boarding:
  • Avoid lost luggage issues by double checking your luggage tag's final destination before agents take your bag. Once your bag disappears on the belt, it's tough to get tags corrected with certainty.   Also, make sure that high end photo/computer accessories are insured. 
  • Your ticket may state that you need to be at the gate 30 minutes before; but, some lines queue up 60 minutes beforehand.  Delta Gold SkyMiles and United Platinum cards will help to get you in the first boarding group.
Smaller Aisles and Rows Mean More Liquid Hazards
  • If electronics are splashed, they can die days after the occurrence from moisture slowly seeping inside.  If this happens, turn electronics off immediately and try to draw any moisture out with desiccants after landing, etc.  
Hack Pickpockets, Purse Snatchers, Plane Pirates and Baggage Thefts
  • Traveling to Europe/3rd world counties is stressful because friends are always reporting someone getting a purse or wallet snatched.  It happens in the blink of an eye, especially when nicely dressed thieves work in teams; i.e., check out Will Smith's movie called Focus.  
  • So always look and stay alert, dress indiscreet and never fumble with wallets which is why I like the Thin King credit card holder for 2 cards/license w/tip money stashed in a small mesh.  Back-up credit cards and debit cards are contained in a slim Ridge wallet (plastic sleeves for eyeglass clothes/badge IDs work too).  Then cards, cash and passport are stashed in a Clever Travel Companion tank (2 zippered pockets) or runner's belt; i.e., SPI  (slim w/clip) or GearProz (w/RFID).  And if I have a tons of small bills (i.e., for India), I use my workhorse REI calf wallet instead of the tank top. I also add Nite Ize lockable zipper pulls to secure purse zippers.  For men, BluffWorks travel pants are great and nice looking. Another option is to attach pre-made zipper pockets.  And FYIto avoid foreign transaction fees on credit cards without transaction fees, remember to charge in the local currency, not USD.  Lastly, don't dress like a photographer and keep an evil eye on overhead bags as gear does get ripped off.
  • With stricter carry-on limits, photo accessories go into checked luggage and it's always stressful because friends have had items stolen; i.e., see this CNN video of baggage handlers riffling through bags; including, inside luggage bays on airplanes.  So, I always hide items I don't want to lose in opaque bags, double wrap them and secure them with plastic ties or straps.  For expensive and critical items like monopod heads, gimbals, camera chargers and flashes, I lock them inside my daypack (ThinkTank Glass Taxi) and then cover the bag with an ultra light dry sack secured with straps in hopes that lazy security agents or baggage thieves won't bother.  The Glass Taxi also protects breakables and makes it faster to pack/find things. 
No Gate Checking or Checked Electronics for Me - Period
  • After seeing employees drop/toss bags down chutes many times like this and hearing first hand report of bags roughly stuffed into cargo holds, I only agreed to gate check my camera bag once (after removing and hanging fragile cameras around my neck).  So, it's no surprise that I'm totally stressed about the potential electronics/camera ban on flights from Europe. It will be a field day for baggage theft rings, not to mention rough handling from automated machines like this.  Alas - Africa trips may be a passion of the past.
Airline, Airport and Bush Plane Tidbits
  • Re-verify carry-on/baggage weight rules for every airline being flown before departing.   And always have a worst case back-up plan in case they reduce the # of allowed carry-on bags on the day of your flight; i.e., with Lufthansa and KLM. 
  • If flying KLM departing departing from Amsterdamboarding time is back to 45 - 60 minutes before departure now that the re-model is mostly complete.  But the bad news is that all cameras/lenses have to be removed for inspection.  For overnighters: get to the airport early (I allow 3 hours 15 min.) because there's often a long line to use the self-check-in kiosks followed by another long line to weigh your bags.  If you're instructed to see an agent after the weigh in, go directly to the service kiosk as opposed to waiting in line again.  Next, go to bag drop off and then through Customs before heading to your gate.  If departing via KLM from SFO to Arusha with a long layover in Amsterdam (i.e., close to 24 hrs.), check your luggage only through AMS (with a temporary release) so that you can retrieve your stuff to sleep overnight.  This can be done at the airport only, and I like to stay on-site at the Sheraton Hotel for convenience.  Note: getting a Gold Delta SkyMiles/AMEX card gives you priority boarding and the Delta SkyMiles Medallion program gives you access to faster KLM SkyPriority lines.  If you buy air tickets via Delta, you can only reserve Comfort Plus seats for the legs they fly in advance (which is why I started buying my tickets directly from KLM/Jet Blue).   If you have a Priority Pass card, there are lounges in Terminal 1 and 3. 
  • Carry-on Bag Hassles:  Some United Star Alliance Partners are ridiculously callous regarding carry-on; i.e., allowing only one personal item versus two at the gate and/or being painfully strict on weight. Asiana and Lufthansa brought me to tears on several trips, and KLM/Calm Air can be ruthless as well.  Calm Air even weighs jackets at times. The success of photographer boarding tactics gets worse each year, so it's best to streamline to the max - ounce by ounce.  June 2016 weigh-in alert: KLM at SFO weighed all of my carry-on and that was my ultra-pared down photo kit; i.e., a small TravelPro Lite roller and Bagallini tote.   
  • Boarding Area/Carry-on Tactics Rule #1: Look compact, nibble, lightweight and groomed.  This is easier said than done if you're height challenged like me as pro camera gear/bags look smaller proportionally on a tall person.  As a result, when selecting backpacks which count as my briefcase/ handbag, I look for bags that are narrower than my body so that when I sit in the boarding area, agents don't notice the bag on my back (i.e., when flying KLM in 2015, I switched from my fav 2 lb. Thule Crossover 25L backpack to a 1.5 lb. Arc'teryx Sebring 18L).  My camera bag (GuraGear Bataflae 26L) is always on a luggage cart which allows me to walk tall and light on my feet, the profile is kept slim (aka outer pockets are empty and I cut off the straps); and, I dress so that my outerwear blends in with my bags aka monochromatic.  It goes without saying that I never wear a loaded vest (that plus light colored clothing just makes you stand out for more security scrutiny).  Lastly, I avoid standing next to folks with oversized bags or tons of stuff because that calls attention to gate agents as well.  All of my bags are listed in the section below "Putting Travel Bags on a Diet - Ounce by Ounce."
  • Lightweight, see-through mesh pouches - are great for keeping things organized and reducing weight.  Plus, they make it easier for TSA inspectors to see what you're carrying without messing up your packing system.  I use color coded meshes - i.e., red, teal and lime green sets from Barnes and Noble - and several favorites from Walker Bags My favorite mesh sizes are the 4 x 9" and 3.5 x 7" which maximizes utilization of space inside backpacks when stood on their ends; and, because the flat profile keeps cords and personal items condensed.  They also make perfect passport, travel docs, receipts and travel cards organizers.  Other favorites include the 2 x 7" for thumb drives and small batteries, etc. and, the 3 x 4" for business cards and cash, etc.  And my new partial see-through find is a slim credit card wallet w/vinyl windows which holds two Samsung SSD drives (kept inside the cords/cable mesh).
  • When reducing travel weight is essential, I double up eyeglasses (i.e., in the Sun Cloud Trekker using cloth sleeves as protectors), swap to plastic see-through cases and/or check my spare. 
  • Lighter packing cubes: most seasoned travelers use packing cubes to keep things organized; i.e., the original Eagle Creek cube and knockoffs.  When weight is an issue, I switch to Eagle Creek's 1 oz. Ultra-Light Specter cubes plus a few 1 oz. REI Expandable Mesh Packing Cubes.   
    • Boarding: If you have a Star Alliance Gold/Platinum card, keep it handy to get into the better airport lounges and/or to board with the first group.  The Delta SkyMiles Gold AMEX card gives you early boarding as well (but not necessary lounge access).
    • Connecting Flights (Especially When Small Planes are Involved - Int'l or domestic): always plan extra travel days in case of bad weather flight cancellations or for luggage delays.  That's because Alaskan/African/Indian commuter flights and tundra trains aren't always scheduled on a daily basis.  And when it rains, it pours.
    • Protect your overhead space/gear: early boarding is great for getting overhead space by your seat.  But, beware of rude folks who try to jam heavy items on top of your camera bag and/or try to move things around if you're not paying attention.
    • Germany: Allow for extra time getting through large airport terminals and multiple security/passport lines upon arrival and departure even when connecting In Frankfurt, it takes about 45 minutes to get from Terminal 1, pier B lounges to pier A/Z gates. If you arrive in a pier A gate and depart in a pier Z gate (same area, different levels), you still have to walk to the center  of the spoke and go through passport control before going upstairs and then walking back out to the gates (>45 min. depending on where you are in the passport line queue.  Note: to board a Z gate plane, you need to walk down a set of stairs. If you want to go to the main restaurant/shopping arcade (pier B), you need to allow time to go through two securities; i.e., to enter pier B and again when re-entering pier A/Z.  And sometimes, the airport makes you go through a bogus A to Z route so that they can hustle pier A to B/C passengers (a longer distance) through passport/security more quickly.  And if you are flying SAA, passengers line up at the gate 30 minutes or more before boarding time.  In the Frankfurt Lufthansa Senator lounge, many of the floor plugs by the comfy leather chairs are broken, so carry an extender in case you need to share with other passengers.  Also, if you're flying coach and thinking about boarding from a 2nd level Senator lounge, don't do it as you'll be entering from the back of the aircraft aka against the flow of traffic.  Lastly, some of Lufthansa's gates in Frankfurt have self-scanners, so boarding has been reduced to 30 - 40 minutes prior to departure (good news if you have a short layover).  
    • South Africa: Arriving in Johannesburg: Airport/hotel porters and van drivers are happy with dollar bills; and many bush camps accept U.S dollars/credit cards.  So, check before leaving home.  If you only need a small amount of rand (i.e., 60 rand per checked bag for shrink wrapping when you leave the country, refreshments and server tips), the ATM's are located in the Domestic terminal on the left hand side (on the opposite side of the main lobby).  If you need more rand, the currency exchange kiosks are located in the baggage area and to the left before you enter the main lobby.  The minimum exchange fee was $25 the last I checked which is why I use the Bank of Barclay ATM.  Note: I've always tipped game drive rangers in U.S. dollars using a mix of $50/20/10/5 new'ish bills.  Avoid carrying $100 bills to 3rd world countries because they're more concerned with counterfeit issues; especially at hotels.  If you need sundry items/adapters, the stores are located in the Domestic terminal (a short walking distance).  nice and reasonably priced hotel near the airport is the Protea Hotel.  The Sun Inter-Continental is excellent and right across the street; but, the rates are now 3x more.  Catch the Protea shuttle across the street from Terminal A which is where International flights arrive.  Walk down the pathway between the the parking garage and the Sun Inter-Continental Hotel and head towards the back.  Shuttles leave every half hour.  Vat refunds leaving Johannesburg on international flights: You can only get a VAT refund if you show an official your purchases on the first level of the airport.  This means that you need to get a form stamped before you get your luggage shrink-wrapped and before you check-in your luggage with your airlines.  After going through security on the 2nd level, you then have to process the refund voucher.  Next, you go to a nearby bank kiosk to get your cash.  Note that refunds are in rand.  Flying on South African Airlines: check in for flights is in Terminal B.  Then, take the elevator one level up to get through security (laptops out, not liquids).  At the gates, there are no orderly coach/business class lines or any orderly process at the boarding gate.  Once it's time to board, it's a no holds bar stampede.  So, be ready.  Pay attention to flight announcements so that you hear them, especially the one that says to cover your face/nose before flight attendants walk down the isle and spray the cabin with bug spray.   Flying on smaller bush planes (i.e., Federal Air)  means dealing with extremely strict weight limits of 44 lbs. for total bag weight. So, bite the bullet and purchase a 2nd seat to avoid travel grief.  The price/per seat each way is approx. $300  which you can mitigate if traveling with a buddy or two.  Note: With the extra seat, you still need to get permission in advance to carry your gear into the cabin.  The Federal Air kiosk is located between the parking garage structure and the Sun Intercontinental Hotel, in the back (across from Terminal A).   Arrive an hour before departure as flight times change on a dime's notice.  If you are departing on Lufthansa or United, the check-in counter is #101 and all the way to the left side of the cavernous multi-airlines check in counters.  Of course, they always drop you off at counter #1.  Once through security, Lufthansa/United co-share lounges with South African Airlines and the Senator lounge is very nice. Note for the ladies: there are only 3 stalls for the entire large Senator lounge which means that the queue can get long right before boarding times.  So if you need more timing for changing clothes, etc., don't wait to the last minute.  In addition, Lufthansa lets you check-in several hours before departure (i.e., 5 hours plus) as opposed to South African Airlines.  If you need more than a bowl of soup/light sandwich in the SAA lounge, have lunch at the fairly new Italian restaurant across from the check-in counters in Terminal A before checking in (handy when you're still lugging around checked baggage).  Otherwise, there's a couple of small eateries on the other side of security for both Terminal A/B.  
    • Reduce lost luggage risks by allowing at least 3 hours or more for connections.   If your luggage isn't with you at the start of a safari, it might not show up for days, if at all.
    • Botswana:  I've learned (the hard way) to check-in early when leaving Johannesburg for Maun on Air Botswana.  That's because luggage doesn't always get on board.  And, because camp:camp bush planes aren't daily, you may have to charter a plane to deliver your bags before you leave for another camp aka expensive.  If not, there's a real risk that your luggage won't catch up with you until the end of a safari.   Also, pay attention to the muffled flight announcements and cover your face/nose before the flight attendants walk down the aisles spraying nasty pesticides!
    • African bush planes: some planes are only 4 seaters, which means that the cargo hold is proportionately small.  If you don't heed by the rules of using soft duffels, your luggage or long lens case may not fit in the cargo bay.  Since weight limits are very lean/strict at 20kg or 44 lbs. - and everything is weighed for safety purposes -  now is the time to radically pare down; i.e., see my Putting Gear on a Diet - Ounce by Ounce below.  Don't make the assumption that because you're petite that you can get away with more luggage. That's because weight is averaged out (and the "planning average" is less than the "actual average" of most Americans).  Plus, planes are typically loaded with bush supplies and/or luggage catching up from earlier flights.  Don't take the risk of missed luggage because it's a headache.  As mentioned, I always buy an extra seat, use my lightest weight duffel - Kinesis @ 2.2 lbs. or Eagle Creek No Matter What rolling duffel @ 3.4 lbs. (not stuffed so that it crushes down), a pared down photo backpack @ 3.7 lbs, and a no frills tote/brief/backpack to and from the int'l airport and in between camps.  
    • Canada:  Flying from Winnipeg to Churchill on Calm Air is always a risk for checked bag #2, unless you're willing to pay an excessive fee for "guaranteed freight".  At minimum, fly in at least 1 to 2 flights earlier than needed so that missing bags can catch up with you.  And, if you want to reduce the major stress of having to check or valet check your gear, read the carry on rules and luggage weight limits carefully.  Some of the agents follow these rules to a tee albeit they seem to be more lenient with Canadians.  Wear a jacket with large pockets to hide some of the weight; but, don't look overstuffed or else agents will ask to weigh your jacket.  Personally, I only put small, dense items in my jacket, like batteries, portable drives and camcorders, etc. along with eyeglasses and other flat items.  On this flight leg, I pare down to the absolute minimum as described in more details under Small Plane Tactics  under the Putting Photo Gear on a Diet section below.  Depending on your total weight (carry-on plus checked luggage), overweight fees can range from $25 - $300, and hundreds more if checked as guaranteed freight.  
    • Adapters: Use seatguru to see if your airplane has A/C (if so, carry the appropriate cord/plug).  Also, carry euro airplane jacks for your earbuds along with a spare. 
    • Airport lounges: check online airport maps before departing to identify the most convenient lounges as airport personnel don't always give you the right advice.  And since floor outlets near comfy lounge chairs don't always work or are occupied, carry a plug extender in case you need to share with other passengers.

    Be Ready for the Next, Next Leg and 3rd World Tactics
    • Going on international photo trips means lots of adjustments and tweaking; i.e., for airlines with different carry-on rules, planes with different storage space, airports with different security measures, lodges/camps with different amenities; and vehicles (bush planes, buses, trains and jeeps) with different configurations.  The goal is to be as efficient as possible without gotchas along the way.
    • It's takes an effort to pack organizers/bags in a manner that's easy to shift gears - in route and between hotels/camps - so that things are in the right place at the right time without have to rummage around.  My tactic is to work with a Packing and Workflow list that's tailored by trip.  I mentally walk through how I'm going to carry things on the next travel leg, identify where things need to go, and make reminders for important action items (i.e., getting local cash, checking luggage status, and swapping out adapters, etc.).  That's because sleeping aids, lack of rest and jet lag can easily fog the brain.  Important sundry items/adapters are redundant so that there's no need to move items between bags (carry on, day bags and toileties) I also pre-pack items in separate mesh pouches so that I can utilize a pick & pack approach; i.e., the travel home outfit, rain kit and game drive kit, etc.  And, all important travel docs/references are stored in my laptop/iPhone/iPad - plus, a notebook.  
    • Since travel connections can be tight if flights are delayed, it's important to be organized and ready for the next, next leg; especially, when switching from an international to domestic flight or to a small airplane.
    • When traveling to 3rd world countries, there's a much higher risk of travel interruptions and it's easier to address problems if you're prepared; i.e., having all local telephone #'s handy (airlines, hotels, credit cards/banks and embassies) for each country that you're visiting.  Since cell service may not be available and/or wireless is often slow, have important travel resources bookmarked and copied into an Emergency Contacts file (i.e., how to get a hold of AMEX Global Assist).  You'd be surprised as to how hard it is to hunt for customer service numbers when you need it.  When important telephone/policy numbers are written down, you're more efficient when using public computers or asking for assistance.  And since companies are always enhancing security measures, know your answers to security questions.  Researching hotel options and airline lounge hours in case of emergencies before departure is also valuable.  Lastly, I always pack a few tees/undies, a shower kit and a mini sundry/cosmetic/first aid kit in carry on in case of major luggage delays or longer than expected airport layovers. 


    Tips for First Timers to India: 
    • If you're traveling out of the Delhi International Airport or flying domestically within India, radically prune your carry-on bags down to the bare minimum before entering the security line.  If not, security will examine every inch of the bag with a fine tooth comb and it could take 30 minutes or more for every pocket and pouch to be opened and/or emptied out.  Make certain that every tool, including simple L wrenches, and non critical items are banned to checked luggage.  Even though I follow my mantra, I've still had to remove camera and lenses and put them in a flimsy plastic bin for re-X-raying.  Good grief!  And, make sure that everyone in the group is on the same page because one delay is a delay for all. 
    • Re-think what you pack. At domestic airports, they also do a pre-screening X-rays scan on checked luggage, like Hawaii, except you have to take everything out if they have concerns.   On my last visit, my Gitzo monopod was scrutinized because of the rubber grip and my dust air blower really gave them grief.  So, only pack your must-haves.
    • Re-think how you pack.  Unfortunately, the dust blower was packed inside a day bag buried at the bottom of my duffel (a pain to remove with foot traffic all around).  So now, I always put the blower inside a baggie at the top of my duffel with a friendly note/photo explaining it's purpose.  
    • Don't use rolling camera bags for carry-on unless you're willing to risk your bag getting snatched away as checked luggage.  Also, be careful when selecting airlines if your carry-on is overweight as foreign airlines can be very rigid.  On my last visit, I used a small ThinkTank Acceleration backpack with a removable Samsonite luggage cart (same carry on as the previous year, same airline, same route).  I never had trouble with Asiana before.  But on this trip, I got serious grief departing and returning - in Biz Class!  A supervisor physically yanked the camera bag out of my hands and placed it onto the conveyor belt as I gasped in disbelief.  The fact that my gear was fragile and cost a small fortune did not faze him.  I managed to keep my bag by a quarter of a thread; but, my travel buddies did not fare as well.  So, be warned.
    • Make a pack with buddies to watch over each other's gear before/ after the security X-ray machine.  With everyone having their own security hurtles and hassles, it's easy for things to fall between the cracks.  Unlike the U.S./Canada, you are not allowed to hang back and watch your valuables disappear into the X-ray machine.  To add insult to injury, females are segregated and moved to another line - up to 3 lanes away - in order to get patted down in a closed curtain booth.  In the meantime, more folks are cutting into the X-ray line.  So by the time you get back to your belongings, items are separated and/or buried under a pile of other travelers' stuff.  So, plan accordingly and be on top of your mental game.  
    • Remove all tools and extra stuff including lipsticks: A friend who just returned from another wildlife trip inadvertently left a small pair of personal scissors in a pouch.  Even though they were readily found, every other pouch had to be opened up and examined as well.  Ditto for a guy friend with a small L wrench and searches can take up to 30 minutes per person!  
    • Think twice before checking lenses in baggage:  If you're a risk taker and check your lenses internationally, be warned that you might not be able to get your long telephoto lenses into the country.  A buddy had his 400/2.8 lens detained by Indian customs.  His only saving grace was that the lens was registered with the U.S. Customs Dept. and he had his original U.S. Customs stamped paperwork on his possession (plus some cash).  But, it still took over 4 hours of multiple meetings and tons of paperwork to get it released.  
    • When traveling to India, you are not allowed to take rupees in or out of the country. And because the use of credit cards can be an ID theft gold mine and finding a working/secure ATM machine can be your worst nightmare - not to mentioned hotels being lean on rupees for exchanging dollars - it's advisable to exchange your currency at the airport upon arrival for all service/game drive tips, laundry, drinks/water, luggage fees, spending moneyand emergency cash.  Be prepared to lose around 8% of your U.S. dollar - the exchange cost in both directions.  Shop around for the best rate and then negotiate a matching rate at Thomas Cook.  Remember to save your USD to rupees receipt that you will need for changing currency back when leaving the country.  
    • Ask for smaller bills from the get-go:  It's difficult to find and change larger 1,000 rupees for smaller 100 and 50 rupees which you will need for tips and miscellaneous purchases.   Thomas Cook typically pays out in 1,000 denominations and doesn't stock 50s.  Hotels don't keep a small bill inventory either, especially during the weekend.  So, your best bet is buy $100 packs of 100 and/or 500 rupees when exchanging your money upon arrival at the airport.
    • Best way to carry a wad:  $20 U.S. dollars equals 1,000 rupees.  So, a wad of 50, 100, 500 and 1,000 rupees for a 3 week visit will be heavy and several inches thick.  It's not easy to be discreet or comfortable carrying this much cash.  I found that the most comfortable way of carrying a wad of rupees is to use 1 - 2 lightweight nylon ankle/calf wallets which eliminates chest lumps and/or a bulging tummy.  My favorite REI calf wallet has been discontinued but there are similar options on amazon.
    • Traveling to India isn't for everyone.  You have to like the culture, people, food (yum), noise, aromas and challenges.  For me, India is mesmerizing with so much history and emotion.  And, endangered Bengal tigers are magical to see in the wild.  

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