Monday, December 26, 2011

Greyhound: A Twenty-First Century Contender

Back in July 2009, I wrote about how the new Greyhound buses were a far cry from the cramped accommodations found on America's signature bus line for time immemorial. Patterned after the design used by BoltBus, these new buses feature roomy seats, power outlets, cup holders, and yes, free WiFi.

This afternoon (as in right now), I'm making my first trip on one of these buses, from New York City's Port Authority to Wilmington, Delaware.  I'm pleased to report back that it's a pleasant experience.

Greyhound boarding remains first-come, first-serve, with none of the priority-code seating that BoltBus uses. In practice, that meant arriving an hour in advance to have a middling spot in line. But here's the thing: where BoltBus serves half a dozen major destinations, you can take one of these next-generation Greyhound buses to places like Dover, Delaware and Salisbury, Maryland, as well as on longer-distance treks to as far away as Atlanta.

There's also price to consider, and the sharpest distinction comes when considering Greyhound as an alternative to Amtrak. Like BoltBus, Greyhound now has fares that start at one dollar. When I bought my Greyhound ticket for today's trip, I paid $20; Amtrak wanted $168.

WiFi and cup-holders won't make you forget that you're on a bus. But this really is a different way to travel by bus, and if you want to get from place to place for a low price without having to sacrifice too much, Greyhound is a twenty-first century contender.

Happy travels.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The Boston ClubAcela

I was in Boston today, attending the Enterprise 2.0 Expo in Back Bay. There's an Amtrak station there, but I opted to wander down to South Station for two reasons: one, I had time; and two, I figured I'd fill up my Thermos with coffee at the ClubAcela.

Amtrak has four ClubAcela locations, one each in Boston (at South Station), New York, Philadelphia, and Washington D.C. I had been to the other three several times. Despite a few trips to Boston, though, I hadn't been to the ClubAcela here.

When I arrived at 8:40 p.m., I was greeted by two guys cleaning the carpet. The attendant was mystified by my presenting him with a Continental Presidents Plus membership card; apparently, news that Amtrak has reciprocity with Continental for club access hasn't made its way to Boston even after being posted on the Amtrak Web site for more than a year.

Despite being utterly unclear as to the value of my membership card, he shrugged and pleasantly told me that I was welcome to wait for my train up here. I think anyone might have done the same.

Alas, he told me, he had already dumped the coffee--odd, since the stated hours go until 9:30 p.m. He did ask if I was hungry; evidently, my lack of demonstrable eligibility (in his mind) didn't preclude me from enjoying whatever he could offer. I had just had some pizza, so I politely refused and wandered a bit.

The ClubAcela in South Station is quite impressive on its merit, larger than the D.C. or New York locations and with some of the elegance of the Phildelphia club. It's elevated above the main concourse, and there are expansive views from large windows that overlook the tracks and the outside street. Furniture is comfy if utilitarian, and they have a pair fo thin-client workstations for Web access.

I didn't stay in the ClubAcela long, on account of the shampoo scent and damp floors. Maybe I'll come back again. It seems worth another try.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Have a baby and renting a car? Bring your own car seat!

Gwen and I recently took Tara with us on a trip to Orlando. 

Being less than a year old, Tara flies free on one of our laps, and I'd found a good cash fare for myself and picked up Gwen's ticket with miles.  I'd also snagged an excellent rate on a rental car, and we'd settled on the Embassy Suites for our lodging, avoiding the pesky "resort fees" so common in Orlando while getting cooked-to-order breakfasts, complimentary cocktails each evening, and free parking.

Another cost that we avoided: $39 to rent a car seat from the rental car company.

Parents often rent car seats because they figure that it will be less of a hassle than bringing them.  And that can be true: we had to coordinate how I could drop Gwen off at the curb with Tara and park the car without Gwen having so much bulk that she couldn't get the car seat checked in.  We also had to get the car seat in and out of the car, which I've learned can be a hassle.

But we did it, and it really wasn't that hard.  Here are some things to consider:
  • Most of the legacy carriers -- we flew United-Continental, as always -- still have curbside luggage checking available.  There may be a small per-pag fee and it's customary to tip a few dollars per bag, but if you have one piece of rolling luggage (as we almost always do) and then a car seat, it's much more convenient to check these curbside then to try and navigate crowded terminals.

  • Although baggage fees have become the norm for most airlines, a carseat can be checked for free because it is safety equipment, like a wheelchair.

  • Even if your car at home doesn't have the modern LATCH system (and ours does not), any rental car in the United States almost certainly will.  LATCH makes it reasonably easy to attach a car seat, and particularly if you don't use it at home, you won't have to resize any of the non-LATCH connections to install the seat in your rental car.
Orlando was Tara's fifth destination by plane -- joining Anchorage, Orange County, Atlanta, and Reno.  Traveling with a baby has plenty of quirks, but it's not impossible.  With planning and patience, it doesn't even need to be difficult, and since children under two years of age travel domestically for free (and internationally for very little), it's not expensive. 

Bring your own car seat, and having your little one(s) with you on a trip can turn out to be no more costly than having them at home.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Lower fuel prices? For how long?

Just two weeks ago, I wrote about the high price of oil and predicted that fuel was going to be pricey for as long as we would care to imagine. Here it is, fifteen days later, and oil has dropped from $114 per barrel to barely $96.

Does that mean that I was wrong? Yes... obviously. ;-)

But I don't think that I'm going to be wrong for long. While this latest speculator bubble was popped in part by a rising dollar (which makes it more expensive to short dollars and buy oil priced in dollars, a common way for financial wizards to manufacture money) and in part by higher margin standards (which made those wizards put up more cash to cover their bets), the idea that the world economy will do as badly as is suddenly forecast today is as silly as the idea that it was going to do as magnificently well as it was suddenly forecast a month ago.

Look, jet fuel is made from oil, and oil is controlled by governments that are almost universally oppressive. Long-term stability in oil-producing countries has never been likely and is even less so now that the so-called "Arab Spring" is occurring. Instability doesn't actually cause shortages these days, because we never get that far, but speculators do place bets on assumed future shortages and drive up the prices as if the oil is already running out. It's a game, and we're the losers.

Today is a good day. Oil is lower. Gasoline and jet fuel prices are dropping. Enjoy it while it lasts, because it never does.

Smartphone Boarding

Last week, on a trip to Vegas, I had my first opportunity to use a boarding pass sent to and displayed on my Droid 2 Global. Having been underwhelmed by the idea of printing my own boarding pass at home, I expected to be equally disenchanted with this new technological solution.

Wow. I was wrong; electronic boarding passes are awesome!

For one thing, you can't lose an electronic boarding pass (unless you lose your phone, which is reasonably difficult for the average traveler). You can bring it up and see the details at any time.

Then there's the convenience of not having to wave your boarding pass as you go through security screening. Once you've been checked, it goes in the bin, and that's it.

Maybe the best part, though, is that you can check in while on the road, get your boarding pass wirelessly, and head straight to the gate if you don't have a carry-on (which, as my Vegas trip was a single-day affair, I did not). That's really convenient, especially if you're running late (which, as my flight left at 6:00 a.m., I was).

I'm sold on electronic boarding passes. This is the future.

Red Carpet Club versus Presidents Club: Closer, still not equal,

I'm heading out to Rome in about two hours, passing the time in the Red Carpet Club at Washington-Dulles International Airport. Back when I used to fly United all of the time, I was here... well, pretty much all of the time.

I haven't been around nearly as much since moving to Continental, as I fly out of Washington-Reagan instead. Since I was last here, though, a few changes have come about in light of the United-Continental merger.

First, Wi-Fi is now free to Presidents Club members. It's always been free for RCC members, but for a while, United wasn't giving daypass cards to PC members. Since United uses T-Mobile for its Wi-Fi, anyone without a card has to buy a daypass for $7.99. Not cool.

Getting the cards for free is cool, but it's still a hassle. Why not just make Wi-Fi open use for anyone in the Club? In a Presidents Club, there's no card or silly login prompt. A user just selects the Continental network, and poof! Online. I like that model better.

Drinks are free too, sort of. Continental has had complimentary drinks in its Clubs for as long as I've been flying with them. They did recently add a "premium" wine selection, but that was a step up from what used to be available (and the house wines are still available). Spirits and beers are all free in the Presidents Club.

United, on the other hand, used to charge $5 in the Red Carpet Club for any alcoholic beverage: wine, beer, or liquor, it didn't matter. Post-merger, they adopted a stance similar to their new partner. Members and guests can get beer, wine, or liquor for free -- but it's a limited selection. Thus, when I first ordered a Bacardi and Diet here, I was cautioned that it would be $7.50; I opted instead for the "house" rum, which was free.

The drink is fine. I mean, rum mixed with soda only has so much nuance. But she forgot my lime, and she didn't put down a napkin. Does that matter? Only if you compare the two clubs, and that's my point.

The Red Carpet Club has improved. Post-merger, it's closer to its Continental counterpart. But they're still not equal.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Fares, Fees, and Consolidation

These last few weeks have been eventful, but I haven't had inspiration for anything to say.  Today, though, three things happened that I decided needed to be given at least a brief mention:
  1. Osama bin Laden was killed.  This has nothing to do with travel.  People seemed to think it would, though: oil prices dropped by about $2 in the early morning, and airline stocks surged higher.  Then the airline stocks stalled, and oil surged back to where it had been.

    Travellers like us need to be clear: no gimmick or feel-good event is going to change the course of oil.  High prices are being driven higher by a degree of legitimate supply-and-demand anticipation, a whole lot of speculation underwritten by free Federal Reserve loans, and a weak dollar.  Higher fuel prices are going to be the norm for a long time.

    As for security, don't imagine that one terrorist killed diminishes the threat of terrorism.  We always need to be aware of our surroundings, especially when traveling.

  2. Southwest bought AirTran.  The deal was announced months ago, but today is the day that the merger became official.  This is big news because it enshrines Southwest as the biggest discounter probably for years to come, and gives the combined carrier a presence in ultra-busy Atlanta -- the centerpiece of Delta's East Coast network.

    Southwest has much lower labor costs than other big airlines.  Whatever else happens in the industry -- bag fees, attempted fare hikes -- it's always there to act as a spoiler.  Now, it's bigger, and as it consolidates its operations with AirTran, you can expect more downward pressure on the other carriers in terms of ticket prices for domestic routes.  Even now, we're waiting to see if Southwest will go along with the United-Continental fare hike attempted on Friday.

    The airlines face enormous cost pressure because of fuel (see #1).  If they can't pass that along because of competition with Southwest, we're likely to see a return to losses.  We might also see further consolidation, though the only tie-up that seems likely would be a U.S. Airways-American deal down the road.

  3. Europe got more expensive.  I mentioned fuel surcharges in my last post, but since March, these have really gone through the roof.  As CNN Money reports, fuel surcharges for international routes are now 25% higher than they were in 2008 -- when oil was trading at $144/barrel instead of the current $114.

    The reason is simple enough: airlines lost so much money in 2007-2008 that they didn't have any cash to lock in low fuel prices during the Great Recession, so they have to buy a lot of their fuel on the spot market.  That means most of their fuel is actually priced off of the $114 figure, where before it wasn't. 

    Domestically, airlines can only do so much to combat fuel prices due to competition (see #2).  Internationally, there aren't as many low-cost carriers, and there aren't any to and from the United States.  Surcharges and fees can add as much as $500 (!) to the cost of an international airfare to, say, Paris.

Keep looking for the low fares at sites like Kayak and Vayama.  Do your research with a site like Orbitz, where you can put together itineraries that favor particular alliances as well as airlines.  Do your booking directly with the airline whenever possible, though, because they guarantee the lowest fares.

And remember, travel isn't just about flying.  Those big cruise ships take as much fuel to move with or without a particular cabin filled, and trains don't use nearly as much energy to get around as cars do.  High airfares just give you a chance to try new things.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Fares and Surcharges Take Off

With the Libyan conflict impacting oil supplies and speculation sweeping the world about the prospects of unrest in Iran and Saudi Arabia, the price of jet fuel is surging.

Fuel prices drive airline costs, and this has happened before.  Actually, it's happened many times.  In each of the recent cases, however, airlines have been burdened with excess capacity.  They've also had to contend with economic downturns that have eviscerated business travel.  The results have been a race to the bottom on fares to lure leisure travelers and massive operating losses.

This time, it's different.  Really.

Oil still drives fuel prices, and fuel still drives airline costs.  But demand is stronger now, and the airlines have slashed capacity over the last several years.  There are more people wanting to travel than there are seats in which to place them, and that means that airlines don't need to lower fares.

And they aren't lowering them.  They're raising them.

What's more, they're raising other charges too.  In addition to higher fares, airlines are boosting fuel surcharges and imposing peak-travel-time surcharges. 

If you need to travel for work and your employer is picking up the tab, you may not notice the difference.  For those of us with an inclination to explore, however, be warned: the latest era of deep discounts is drawing to a close.  You're going to be paying more to fly.

Monday, March 7, 2011

No Pretzels on Continental

What a difference a year makes. 

Going into 2010, Continental was the only airline that still offered complimentary meals in Coach.  Last March, it joined its peers in eliminating Coach-class meal service.

Going into 2011, Continental--now part of United Continental Holdings, but still operating as a distinct carrier--was among the few airlines that still offered complimentary pretzels (or biscotti to accompany coffee on morning flights).  Now, it is joining its peers in cutting those as well.

The move leaves Delta as the only legacy carrier that still offers free pretzels, though low-cost carriers JetBlue, AirTran, and Southwest continue to offer free snacks. 

It also follows a wider industry trend of replacing free amenities common to all passengers with options for passengers to buy specific amenities that they want.  Continental, for instance, sells a variety of snack boxes and fresh-food items on its flights.

Should we be surprised?  Definitely not.

After years of losses, airlines are finally profitable again.  But the conflict in Libya has driven oil prices as high as $106 a barrel as of this writing, which is about $20 higher than airlines had expected when they wrote their profit forecasts for the year.

Pretzels may not seem pricey, but eliminating them will save Continental $3.9 million annually.  It will also tempt passengers to buy snack boxes, which start at $3.95 -- potentially adding millions in new revenue.

For years now, Americans in particular have signed onto a bandwagon of lower prices and a-la-carte services.  We're getting what we asked for.  We're just going to have to live with it.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

United will keep Economy Plus, unveils new plane livery

United today unveiled the first of its repainted 747s, sporting livery that combines the United name with the Continental globe logo.

Linked from; read the article!
As United and Continental continue to integrate their operations, frequent flyers are holding their breath to see which of each carrier's traditional features will make their way into the new unified airline.

Some changes are unavoidable, because United and Continental have different plane configurations as well as different cultures.  United, for instance, operates its international flights in a three-class configuration--Economy, Business, and First--while Continental has only two: Coach and an upscale business class called BusinessFirst.

One question got answered earlier this week, when United announced that Economy Plus seating will become standard on all of its planes. 

Economy Plus seating was introduced by United in the wake of the Dot Com crash.  Fewer people could get approval to fly First Class, but airlines depended on business travelers to maintain profitability (or at least mitigate losses).  The idea was to remove a few rows of Economy seating and respace about a third of what was left.  The resulting seats were no wider, but they had up to six inches of additional legroom.

Economy Plus seats are free for elite members of United Mileage Plus, and in the wake of the merger, elite members of Continental OnePass have also been able to get them for free upon request.  United sells the remaining seats as upgrades that cost far less than First Class fares.

Beginning in 2012, United will begin rolling out Economy Plus seating on Continental aircraft.  Until then, Continental flyers will have to make due with standard Coach seating (or fly on United planes).

Monday, February 14, 2011

From $181 each way: Airline marketing at its best.

United wants people to know about its new nonstop service from its hub at Washington-Dulles (IAD) to Owen Roberts Airport on Grand Cayman (GCM).  According to the airline's Web site, fares are available "from $181 each way."

Airlines love to announce fares in terms of one-way cost.  No one is really going to fly one-way--actually, the one-way rate promised requires a round-trip purchase--but it makes the fare sound lower. 

Would you be as excited to hear about a round-trip fare from $362?  It's the same fare given the terms, but studies say no.

In fairness, even giving you the round-trip fare doesn't tell you everything.  The fine print observes that you'll also be subject to a bewildering series of charges, including:
  • A $3.70 per flight-segment tax;
  • Either a September 11th Security Fee of $2.50 per enplanement at a U.S. airport
    or Passenger Facility Charges of up to $18;
  • U.S. arrival and departure taxes and agricultural, immigrations and customs fees of up to $50;
  • Additional airport, transportation, embarkation, security and passenger service taxes/surcharges of up to $250 for foreign travel; and
  • Airport and/or departure taxes of up to $45, which may be collected by the foreign government.
The first one is pretty much guaranteed.  The second one will apply in one form or the other, but you have no way of knowing which.  The other three are entirely unknown when you first set out to book a ticket. 

Strangest of all, the departure tax might not even be part of your ticket.  You could have to pay it in cash--specifically, in U.S. dollars--at the airport before you can leave the country.

But let's say that you're okay with all of that.  What are the odds that you'll actually get that $181 fare both ways?  Usually, not good.  In this case, United specifies that the advertised fare is available only for travel on Saturdays, and the nonstop departure from GCM leaves too early for you to catch it on the same day.  That means staying for at least a week in order to come back at the same price for which you flew down.

Oh, and if you are inclined to stay a week?  Don't forget about those checked-baggage fees.  United gives you one free bag for international travel.  A second bag will cost you $30.

There are great deals on airfares, of course.  Just be aware that not every fare advertised as a special is necessarily as cheap as it sounds.

Friday, February 11, 2011

On Amtrak and Ideology

In January, 2.1 million people rode Amtrak trains, the 15th month in a row in which passenger use increased, and a new record for the national rail carrier.

Last year collectively, Amtrak carried more than 28.7 million passengers.

Like Interstate highways, like airports and air-traffic control systems, passenger rail transportation requires an infrastructure that has to be built and maintained.  The Federal government provides support to Amtrak for track maintenance and other capital projects. 

One thing of which we can be sure, though, is that the Federal government has no intention whatsoever of stopping its subsidies of transportation overall, and if subsisides are going to be made to support infrastructure, rail deserves to be at the table.  Much of the rail infrastructure outside of the Northeast Corridor is privately owned and still gets subsidies. 

So, let's focus our attention on operating subsidies, the money that Amtrak receives on a per-passenger basis just to run its trains, without concern for the infrastructure.

In 2010, Amtrak received $563 million in operating subsidies from the Federal government.  The $563 million figure comes from a site whose entire purpose is to denounce Amtrak as wasteful spending, so it's fair to say that it doesn't pull any punches.

This amount equates to $19.62 per passenger for 2010.

Considered another way, the population of the United States by December 31, 2010 is estimated as having been more than 308 million people.  That means that every American paid an average cost of 55 cents per year to provide for the Amtrak operating subsidy.

Of course, fewer than half of all Americans file tax returns; some are below the income level required to mandate filing (because they pay no tax), while others have not reached adulthood.  Since Americans file tax returns for a given year after the year ends, we won't know until after April how many people filed taxes for 2010.  We can estimate, though, that it may have been as few as 150 million. 

That would make the Amtrak operating subsidy roughly $3.76 per taxpayer per year.

At a time when the Federal budget is approximately twice the total sum of all revenue brought in by the Fedearl government--that is, we borrow 50% of what we spend--cuts do need to be made.  But let's get real: $3.76 per person is not the reason that the Federal government is spending itself into oblivion.

The question is, is it worth expecting every taxpayer to part with nearly $4 per year just so he or she can over the course of a lifetime have the opportunity to take a train trip?

Think about it this way: even as an avid traveler, I'm unlikely to visit Iraq or Afghanistan.  Yet as a taxpayer, I incurred a $220 cost to pay the 2010 war supplemental budget of $33 billion, and that was on top of the $534 billion Department of Defense 2010 budget that already cost me $3560.

Don't get me wrong: the Department of Defense is important.  I'm not begrudging my obligation to pay $3560 to support our military.  (Actually, that one's an easy sell for me, since as a Reservist I net more than the average taxpayer amount paid.  But I digress.)

But as important as these other expenses are, the fact is that I get a lot more use out of Amtrak's mere existence than I do out of our continued wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Amtrak travelers, for instance, are neither on the roads nor in the screening lines at the airport; that saves me time.  And when I'm the one traveling by train, I benefit from the services provided.

We should continue to promote more efficient Amtrak operations, and we should invest in the infrastructure--both rail and rolling stock--that will make these efficiencies possible.  But we should not under any circumstances accept the ideological notion that passenger rail should be privatized.  When you hear that, understand that Amtrak exists only because private passenger rail has proven itself impossible in the United States.  Privatizing rail means eliminating rail.

No, not every American will ride Amtrak this year, or ever. But not every American--or even most--will ever see all of our national parks, either. We still pay for them, because they're important; the option to see them is important. That's true of Amtrak as well.

Higher fares and the return of the fuel surcharge

Airlines posted strong profits in 2010, bouncing off lows from the Great Recession and aided by extremely low fuel prices that came as a result of that same economic downturn. 

2010 was a great time for airline passengers, too: desperate to attract passengers, airlines ran plenty of fare sales and promotional offers, and while baggage and onboard meal fees did raise the potential bottom-line price of travel for some, unavoidable fees like the dreaded fuel surcharges of 2008 were removed.

This year is fast shaping up to be different.

Fuel prices have surged.  Part of the equation is genuine demand, as emerging economies like India and China have been consuming more oil even as the developed nations of Europe and North America have pulled back.  Speculation also plays a big role; oil is frequently used to place bets of instability in the Middle East, where protests are seen as potentially impacting oil shipping as well as production.

As a result, we're now seeing a return of the fuel surcharge to some U.S. airlines, including American, United, and Continental1.  For now, it's ranging from $3 to $5 each way, which isn't so bad.  But it may go much higher: at the height of the oil spike in 2008, fuel surcharges exceeded $60.

To be sure, fuel isn't the only thing driving increased travel costs.  Despite one year of profitability, airlines are still coming off nearly a decade of losses.  The capacity cuts made over the last few years, coupled with increased demand for flying, has left airlines with considerably more pricing power.  That means that fares are going up, too. 

Add to this that some airlines are cutting back on specials--for instance, United has stopped advertising discounted weekend travel routes, though Continental continues to offer these---and 2011 promises to be a more expensive year to fly.

1 United and Continental are both owned by United Continental Holdings, but presently continue to operate as separate carriers.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Shame on you, Ariana Huffington

It seems that Ariana Huffington of the Huffington Post had to be escorted off a United flight at LaGuardia on Saturday night. It seems that she was on her crackberry during takeoff both talking and texting, which left a fellow passenger highly agitato.  The other passenger repeatedly complained loudly that Huffington's blackberry was on when it was supposed to be off, even standing up at one point to yell at the flight attendent.  His problem? "How come she gets to use her personal device but no one else does?"

It was a fair question and when the flight from D.C. landed in New York both Ariana and the anonymous passenger got to talk it over with the cops.

That poor flight attendent.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Flying Baby: Don't Sweat It.

I got an e-mail this morning from a friend who is getting ready to take her seven-month-old baby girl on her first flight. It's a two and a half hour trip to Texas followed by a road trip to Arizona and the poor love is in a bit of a dither. My baby (lovingly known to Facebook friends as "Butters") has flown about ten flight segments over three plane trips in six months. The longest segment was from DCA Reagan to LAX, about five hours. Butters and I have flown from Fairbanks, Alaska to Washington, D.C. in a four-segment flight that took so long that by the time we boarded our last plane in Houston, the gate scanner would not accept my boarding pass because it had yesterday's date on it.

Suffice it to say, I have some thoughts.

First: The smaller the better. Some parents delay taking that first flight because they feel their fragile, newborn baby won't be able to handle the stress of a plane trip. While I think concerns about germs may be valid - all that recycled air and in-flight magazines are absolutely rife with bacteria - good old handwashing and hand sanitizer should protect both you and baby from plane bugs.

As for the stress of being inside the strange space that is the aircraft, remember that for a tiny baby everything is strange. Going to the supermarket could be stressful with it's bright lights, strangers, and aisle after aisle of different colorful objects to look at. Also remember that newborns sleep almost all the time and sleeping is a great way for a baby to get through a flight. When Butters took her first flight at three months old, I got (unwarranted)compliments from people who appreciated how quiet she had been. "There was a baby on this flight?" a few people said and laughed when we got up to debark.

Super tip: If possible, let baby nurse during take-off and landing. The sucking should help to relieve pressure on his tiny ear drums.

Second: Nurse, nurse, nurse. If you're breastfeeding, you're in luck. Flying will be a lot easier for you. Babies love to suckle to reduce stress, and if you've a handy nipple to pop into your baby's mouth, that child is far less likely to bother you or anyone else. If you're not breastfeeding, don't worry. The TSA has changed its rules (AGAIN) regarding expressed breast milk and formula. These fluids are now treated like liquid medications.
  • You can carry them in quantities greater than 3 oz (unlike other liquids).
  • You do NOT have to freeze them.
  • You do NOT have to carry them in a quart-sized bag.
  • You DO have to separate your milk and/or formula from your other gels and liquids, (your other gels and liquids being in the quart-sized bag of course) and you DO have to declare them to the TSA agents before they begin inspecting your carry-on luggage.
  • You will NOT be asked to drink anything. (Thank God that drama is behind us.)
You can also bring on baby food, gel-filled teething rings and juice.

How much can you bring? According to the TSA website, you can bring as much as you want in "reasonable quantities". What's that really mean? Who knows. Just pack as much as you know you will need given the length of your trip, and add one, maybe two, bottles for potential delays. Odds are however much you bring, the TSA agents won't hassle you about it. Just don't tempt them by trying to bring on say, a case of Similac.

Third: Fill that diaper bag. I'll talk more about packing for baby, what to check and how to check it, in my next post, but I did want to say here that you can't carry too many diapers or wipes on a flight. Ever heard of traveler's diarrhea? Babies get that too. Once on a United flight to San Francisco (this was on the plane that had no changing tables, not even in first class) Butters dirtied three diapers in one trip to the lavatory. Seriously. It was like a lame slapstick scene from a Hollywood rom com.

Here's me: bent over at the waist, my butt pressed against the door of the restroom as I balance my baby on the toilet seat lid, clean diaper clenched in my mouth, wiping baby poop with one hand and holding up her legs with the other. I get her in a clean diaper and clean pants (she had leaked of course) and then try to balance her on my raised knee while I wash my hands in the tiny sink. As soon as my hands are dry: "THHHRRRPPPT!" A heavy, wet and muffled sound escapes from my darling baby that sounded to me like, "Back to work, shmuck." This process repeated itself no less than three times. In the end, I ran out of wipes and had to use moistened paper towels.

Not fun. In general, you should pack light, but when it comes to the diaper bag, go heavy.

Fourth: Drinks and snacks. So baby's got her lunch, what about yours? Unless you bought a ticket for baby, she's riding on your lap the whole way. That means that she's blocking your drinks tray. If you're travelling with someone, then you don't got a problem, Jules. Just switch off who's holding her so you can both eat your turkey club sandwiches.

(Side note: if you are travelling in separated seats, this may not prove workable. On that same United flight, my DH was upgraded to the vaunted Economy Plus section and got trapped holding Butters for an hour because the seatbelt light was on. This wouldn't have been so bad, except that there was no baby formula in the diaper bag and Butters got hungry. Oy.)

If you're travelling alone, just ask the person next to you if you can share his tray to balance your drink. People are pretty accomodating I've found, especially if your baby is behaving herself, or even if she isn't, as long as you are making a visible effort to quiet her down, your fellow passengers are likely to cut you a lot of slack. Beyond that, just use your best judgment. You might want to skip the salad on this flight and just have some chips. You can always eat before you leave or after you get to where you're going.

Finally: Boarding the plane: don't be a jerk, wait your turn. I know you're nervous about flying with your precious bundle of joy. I've been there. I'll be there again. In your head, there is a clock ticking away the number of seconds that you have before junior decides that he is hungry right NOW, and the screaming starts.

Relax. Maybe your baby will fuss, and maybe he won't. It doesn't really matter. You still can't board until the gate agent says it's your turn.

Different airlines have different rules about when "passengers with special needs" like you with your baby, and the elderly and handicapped can get on. Generally, you won't be allowed to board before the first-class passengers or the frequent flyers. (Now, if you ARE a frequent flyer or flying first class, none of this applies to you, and frankly I'm surprised that you're reading this.) For everyone else, WAIT UNTIL THE GATE AGENT CALLS SPECIFICALLY FOR PARENTS TRAVELLING WITH INFANTS AND SMALL CHILDREN. Why? Because you don't want to add to your stress levels by getting into an argument that you should and will lose with people who paid more far more money for their tickets than you did for yours. 'Nuff said.

Remember, all babies are different and yours may just not like flying, but in general the sensation of being held close to you, the hum of the engines, and the general stillness of the cabin are all things that baby like. So, relax. Watch the in-flight movie. Order a bacardi and diet and feel secure knowing that people do this flying with the baby thing all the time, every day. Don't believe me? Do you know anyone who's ever flown who DOESN'T have a story about being seated on a flight near a crying baby? Exactly.

Welcome aboard.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Have tits. Will travel. Breast-feeding on the go.

I am not a breast feeder who channels the goddess each time she nurses. I do not feel ultra-feminine or empowered or special by virtue of breastfeeding. (More power to you if you do. Seriously, I think that's great.)
I DO feel more confident as a mother knowing that I can nourish my baby any time, anywhere. In fact I’m nursing as I type this. Usually my instinct to nurse outweighs any prudishness I might feel based on who's in the room.  After all, baby's gotta eat, right? Still, after six months of practice, I occasionally experience bouts of shyness about the act of nursing in public, so I do my best to hide my breasts behind blankets, coats and my trusty Moby wrap.

How does this affect my travelling? Well, in different ways. I don't own a breast pump - basically because I'm too cheap to buy one that really works - though I did borrow one for a recent trip to India. (More on that later.) Until Baby was four months old, she was strictly breast fed. So, that means nursing in stations, airports, on the train, and especially on long flights. And I am happy to report that I have never been confronted or been made to feel uncomfortable because I'm feeding my baby. People, it seems, are pretty cool with breastfeeding.

It helps that breastfeeding equals a silent baby. On flights especially, my sense is that even people who might otherwise be squeamish are so appreciative of any effort you take to quiet your child, they are willing to endure a flash of a shiny, swollen nipple. Once I was even allowed to board a flight ahead of first class because Baby was fussing like mad and the gate agent said to me, "Just board and feed that baby, please."

The nature of commercial flying also lends itself to more privacy than might be immediately apparent. People take their seats, and while they might occasionally glance left or right, for the most part they stare straight ahead. This seems to be part of a group effort to minimize the pyschological impact of being trapped in a big metal tube with so many other people. If we don't focus our attention on each other, we can all pretend that we are alone in the sky. Same deal with the bus.

Even in my beloved café car on the Amtrak Northeast Regional train (the most prosaic name for a train route of all time, btw) where having a baby invites stares and sparks discussions with total strangers, breastfeeding is simply NBD. Now as stated, I am kinda bashful, so I like to slip my coat backwards over my shoulders to create a nursing shield. I am sure many people walk by my seat and have no idea what I'm up to.

It helps too that the law is on the side of breast feeders. Forty-four states (plus D.C. and Puerto Rico) have laws protecting a woman's right to breastfeed in public and private places.

So to my sisters who might be feeling nervous about how exactly to get expressed milk past the TSA, or the prospect of having to pump in a bus station restroom (ick) I say you should embark with nothing but your baby and your nursing bra.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Southwest ups the Ante

Up until now, the rewards programs offered by low-cost carriers in the United States have fallen well short of those of the so-called legacy carriers. 

On March 1, Southwest Airlines -- America's largest low-cost carrier, and already a perennial favorite among budget travelers because it doesn't charge fees for first or second checked bags -- will unveil a new and improved form of its Rapid Rewards frequent flyer program. 

Highlights include:
  • All rewards will be unrestricted, with access to every seat on every flight.
  • Every day will be eligible for reward travel.
  • Points won't expire as long as your account has some activity every 24 months.
Southwest will be keeping its A-List and Companion Pass elite benefits and is also introducing a new A-List Preferred level designed to compete with legacy programs' upper-tier elite levels, with benefits like 100% point bonuses for flights and dedicated phone lines for reservations.

Speaking of points, the new program will be point-based rather than using the credit system that Southwest has had thus far.  Credits will continue to be redeemable under the old system, and flyers with credits left to use up will be able to use their points to acquire additional credits (at a rate of 1200 points for one credit) towards a previous-generation reward.

Bottom line: Southwest has upped the ante.  Combined with its pending acquisition of AirTran, this new Rapid Rewards program makes Southwest a compelling choice for domestic business travelers.

Baby Tourist Rides the Rails

So for those of you haven't heard, in June of this past year, I had a baby girl.  I am happy (but in no way smug) to report that she is healthy, beautiful and gloriously friendly with everyone she meets. Seriously, she's a smile machine.

All through my pregnancy, (as I visited such destinations as L.A., New York, Singapore, Edinburgh, Hong Kong, etc.) I was assured by many loving and well-intentioned associates that the impending birth would be the death of my globetrotting.  "You won't be able to travel with a baby!" was practically the chorus of my 2010.

Needless to say, these loving and well-intentioned associates (some of whom never travel more than 20 miles at a time themselves) were all dead wrong.  My baby travels.  She travels because she's healthy (danken Gott), because her family is scattered throughout the U.S., and because her mother likes to.  At almost seven months, she has been to Alaska, California, Delaware and New York, and she has ridden the train seven times.

Five of those trips were on Amtrak Northeast Regional trains.  Some thoughts on the experiences:

1. It's all about the café car. When she was brand-new, (about six weeks old) I thought nothing sitting in a regular coach seat and holding her in her baby wrap for the whole trip.  Now that she's bigger and we're slightly sick of each other, we like the extra space provided by nabbbing a seat in the café car.  Baby can stretch out on her back on the table and take a nice nap while you sip some it-could-be-worse Amtrak coffee.  (Warning: always keep a hand on your baby lest the train brake suddenly and baby go flying.)

2. There are NO changing tables in Amtrak Northeast Regional trains or Accela trains.  None.  To add insult to injury, there's a depression in the wall of each restroom where you can tell the changing table was supposed to go.  Amtrak loves to tout how family-friendly it is, but I ask you: how family-friendly can you be when your passengers must balance their babies on slippery plastic toilet-seat lids in order to change their diapers?

(Side note: you can also use the folding side panel near the toilet (designed, I guess, for the ease and comfort of disabled passengers) as a changing table, but that requires you to crouch on one knee in the restroom, as opposed to bending over at the waist.  Oh, the choices!)

(Side side note: I also once found myself on a United flight that had no changing tables, but that's a rant for another post.)

3.  People see you with a baby on the train, they will talk to you.  It doesn't matter if you're reading or your baby just fell asleep.  Babies are like celebrities.  In their presence, most people have to stop and say something obvious.  If you take advantage of the café car, this will be especially true.  Also, if you stand up, or move at all, someone (most likely a beaming older woman) will offer you help.  If you don't need help, if for example you are just adjusting your Moby wrap and trying to remember which pocket contains your wallet, this might confuse or even startle you.  Don't worry.  This woman is probably not going to proselytize to you or try to sell you Mary Kay.  Odds are, she's just fondly recalling her baby days and wants a little taste of what you've got.  Be gracious.  Simper.  Say, "Thank you."  Whenever possible, allow her to "help" you.  Because before you know it, you'll be her.

4. Don't be such a big shot: ask for the Red Cap service.  Even if you're traveling light and don't need it, mention to the conductor that you'd like Red Cap service when you arrive at your destination.  You can even couch this request thusly, "I'm not going to need a 'Red Cap' per se, but..." and the conductor will get it.  This will ensure that you have enough time to get off the train, which with a baby in tow can often take a little extra time.  Not much.  Maybe an additional thirty seconds.  Point is, you don't want to miss your stop or have to stand in the dangerous vestibule with all its metal handholds (conveniently placed at chest-height or the height of a baby's skull while being carried) when you could be sipping the last of your not-terrible-when-you-really-consider-it Amtrak coffee and double-checking the seat to make sure that none of Baby's many many accessories are about to be left behind.

5. Amtrak employees are kid-friendly.  While the restrooms leave a lot to be desired, all of the Amtrak employees that I have encountered since I started traveling with a baby have been kind, friendly and patient.  Now it might help that my baby is an established smile-machine and could probably charm a smile out of Dick Cheney himself, and it definitely helps that most Amtrak employees have good customer-service skills in general (in my humble tourist opinion), but it is still worth noting that they have been especially courteous since I strapped a little one to my chest and climbed abroad.  Here she is with her new friend, Greg the engineer.  Greg wasn't even working that day but he graciously watched the baby for me while I fetched myself another cup of you-really-can't-complain Amtrak coffee.