With the recent chaos of the 2009 holiday travel season and the continuing chaos around attempts at ramping up airport security and flight safety, it's understandable that many people are tempted to stay home in 2010. But while the new rules and regulations for air travel can seem daunting at first, they don't need to prevent you from hitting the skies this year.
To encourage you to get out and see the world with more confidence--and potentially less time spent in security lines--here's an overview of what to know before you go, along with time-honored tips for staying organized and in control when you fly.
What's New with Security?
In the wake of the attempted bombing of an airplane arriving at the Detroit airport on December 25, there was a scramble by the TSA (Transportation Security Administration) and related agencies around the world to put in place more restrictive security measures. Over the past few weeks, those measures have been clarified significantly. Here are the basics:
- There have been no changes for flights within the United States. If you're traveling domestically, your experience at the security checkpoint will be much like it has been for the past year, and you will still be able to carry on one small piece of luggage and one personal item (purse, briefcase, laptop bag, etc.).
- The same holds for international flights leaving the U.S. Though it's always wise to leave more time to get through security when traveling internationally (including to Canada and Mexico), you will still be permitted the same number of carry-ons, and shouldn't notice much different about security procedures.
- If you're traveling to the U.S. from another country, be prepared for longer security lines, new screening measures, and stricter limits on carry-ons. In some cases you'll be limited to one personal item only, and no additional carry-on luggage. United Airlines' website has a good overview of the new security measures for inbound international flights.
- Finally, if you're traveling to the U.S. from or after having traveled to a country on the TSA's list of "state sponsors of terrorism" or "countries of interest" (see the TSA's website for a list), expect to spend more time at the airport due to enhanced security measures.
Another recent change to the security process at airports is the TSA's Secure Flight program, which is designed to prevent cases of mistaken identity for travelers whose names are similar to or the same as those of people on the Administration's watch list. Secure Flight requires that the name on your boarding pass exactly match the name on the ID you use at security (e.g., Robert K. Smith rather than Bob Smith), and also that you register your full name, date or birth, and gender with the airline you're flying.
If you regularly travel with certain airlines and have frequent flier and/or website accounts with them, check to see if they offer the ability to save Secure Flight info to your user profile so you won't have to enter this information anew each time you book travel with them.
Common-Sense, Stay-Sane Tips
For all the changes happening in air travel security, a few basic common-sense tips still apply.
- Don't overpack. Now more than ever, bulging suitcases and crammed carry-ons are likely to cause headaches, delays, and possibly extra charges. Take the time to get organized before you pack and be extra selective about what you bring.
- Pack and dress smart. No matter where you go through security, you'll still need to remove your shoes and jacket and screen liquids and laptops separately; you may also be subject to secondary inspection, which involves a security officer taking a closer look at your carry-ons. Wearing shoes that are easy to get on and off, limiting bulky layers (like hooded sweatshirts), and packing small items together in cases or mini bags will make for a less stressful trip through security.
- Arrive early but not too early. It's always smart to get to the airport well ahead of your flight (at least 90 minutes for domestic flights and 2 hours for international), but showing up many hours ahead of time--as many travelers have been doing lately--can actually cause delays, not to mention many hours of boredom at the airport.
- Do as much as possible online. In most cases, you can check in for your flight online (and print your boarding pass) up to 24 hours ahead of time. Many airlines will also let you pay for checked bags online and then drop them off at designated counters once you reach the airport. In both cases, you'll save yourself the time and stress of standing in miles-long check-in lines.