Traveling Prepared – Part 1

I have been doing a lot of traveling the past few months, both by plane and automobile and I’ve found that each poses different challenges to Living Prepared.  And I’ve been on different kinds of trips – from simple business trips (powerpoint and projector in hand) to disaster response exercises in semi-austere environments to a family camping vacation.  I thought it would be a good time to review some lessons learned from these experiences and to see how I am measuring up to the standards of this blog.

Airline travel

Airline travel poses significant challenges – especially if you are carrying on all of your baggage – to keeping the 10-12 items you should not leave home without with you – because of airport security.  I’ve gone on a couple of day-trips or quick overnights and haven’t needed to check any baggage – actually, I didn’t want to check any baggage because of the additional time (and expense) it takes to check domestic baggage.  And there are some items on the list of items you shouldn’t leave home without that aren’t going to (or shouldn’t) make it through the TSA security checkpoints – namely a Swiss Army knife/multi-tool and the vehicle escape tool.

Carry on only flights

I lost one of my Res-Q-Me’s that I have perpetually attached to my key chain at one checkpoint.  I forgot to take it off my key chain and leave it at home and the TSA screener asked what it was when I emptied my pockets and placed my keys in a bin was going through security.  Odd thing… I had to stop and explain to him what the device was and that he should confiscate it from me – both because of the blade (though shielded, it could easily be taken apart to become a weapon) – and the window shattering punch – which – although I don’t know whether it would break an airplane window – I would not want to find out.  He somewhat remained unconvinced, but I reassured him that he should indeed put it in the bin of confiscated items and that I wasn’t worried about it as it was only a $10 item and I had others at home.

Second odd thing – on two other occasions, I have successfully gone through security with a Res-Q-Me on my key chain, which I put in my carry on bag to go through screening (including, at this very moment! Yikes!  I promise to put it in my checked bag on the way home from this trip).  I don’t want to comment further on the state of screening at the nation’s airports, nor do I intend to continue to test these procedures informally or unintentionally.  But I hate being without my Swiss Army knife especially when away from home; I find that I still use it daily for both the mundane and creative tasks.

I have seen mailers at airports such that you can mail yourself items that you can’t carry on a flight.  This is a great solution if you plan to be somewhere for several days and don’t want to check a bag.  But personally, I have actually become a great fan of checking one bag – especially if I have a connection to make.  This allows me to take with me all those items that I can’t carry on – Swiss Army knife, Res-Q-Me (when I remember to stick it in there), a decent bottle of hand sanitizer, and depending on the purpose of the trip, some other tools that are prohibited from carry on baggage (more to follow).  This also avoids having to lumber around the airport and on and off planes with bulky luggage.

Packing for a plane trip

When flying, let’s start with these premise: you will always have a carry on bag, and in that carryon bag should be not only things you need/want with you on the flight (books, snacks, iPod), but also everything that you can’t afford to be at your destination without.

This actually should not be a long list.  I’ve had a couple of experiences with lost checked luggage and have learned a lot from them.  Let me share those with you.

Just over 10 years ago, I was working as the emergency communications officer for UNICEF, based at UNICEF’s global headquarters in New York.  I was part of a team of instructors who were going to be training 100 UNICEF staff from around the world to be a part of their rapid response team – ready to respond to humanitarian disasters wherever and whenever they took place.  The training was to take place at an abandoned facility outside Bamako, Mali, on the border of the south Saharan desert.  My checked luggage never, ever, arrived.  In that bag were 100% of my clothing (beyond what I was wearing on the plane) and all of the training materials that had been prepared for the trainees.  Fortunately, I was able to borrow a couple of changes of clothes from other UNICEF staff, as well as personal supplies (sunblock, etc.), and bought some t-shirts in the local market.  We conducted a hands-on training and all ended up okay, but most of my favorite expedition clothing and my camera and my personal travel kit were lost forever.

After that experience, I resolved to always carry on:

  • At least one full change of clothing
  • Valuable personal possessions (e.g. computers, cameras)
  • Anything you absolutely need to have at your destination for professional reasons (e.g. presentations, handouts)

So, I should have learned from that experience… and for a while, I tried to live by that rule.  Unfortunately, that often made my carry on bag a bit on the heavy side, and I do have chronic lower back problems, so I found myself relapsing into a check-the-maximum baggage mindset.

Just a few years later, I was caught out again.  I was sent on a mission to Dili, East Timor during that country’s process of independence from Indonesia via Darwin, Australia in 1999 on behalf of the U.S. Government.  I arrived in Darwin after 36+ hours of coach middle-seats on full planes with less than an hour to run between connections in Los Angeles and Sydney.  I made it.  Needless to say, my checked bag was three days behind me.  Being on such a long trip, I had carried on a couple of changes of clothing, but did not have the tropic-wear required of the 100+ degree heat of Darwin and Dili.  A quick trip to the local surf shops in Darwin got me some t-shirts and shorts that I still like to wear to this day.

Lesson learned again.  Maybe for you the solution is to try to carry on everything you take with you on a flight.  Personally, I find it annoying to watch people get on planes with enormous wheeled bags that take up an entire overhead compartment (which need to accommodate the bags for at least two or generally three persons each), plus a large “computer bag” plus a third tote or plastic bag – truly stretching the limits of what should be allowed on a flight.  And all that baggage doesn’t include a good Swiss Army knife or multi-tool!   Sometimes packing light enough to carry on only a small bag is possible but I find it challenging.

Right now, I am on a flight to the Midwest where I will be for the next four days.  I took a fairly large computer bag on wheels as my carry on bag.  It has four large pockets on it, but it will still fit under the seat in front of me if it has to (and it had to on the small jet I took on my connecting flight).  One pocket has a full change of clothing in it – including a pack towel and an empty bag (a Lands End folding backpack – it is always good to have a backpack with you on any extended trip away from home).  One has my computer in it.  One has reading material for the flight and files I need for this trip. The fourth has my iPod, power cords for computer & phone, pens, business cards, sunglasses & sunglass case, flashlight, and keys (including whistle, photon freedom flashlight, and Res-Q-Me [doh!]) and other small items.

I also carry my passport with me when I travel domestically – as one never knows when one will be called voluntarily or involuntarily out of the country.  My passport is also carried in a zippered pocket within my carry on bag.  In general, it is always good to have a second form of picture ID carried with you when traveling by air – and carried in a separate location from your primary picture ID (generally a driver’s license carried in your wallet) – such that if your primary is lost, you will have another that will enable to continue your travels until you get home.

Checked Luggage

Annoyingly, a lot of airlines are now charging extra for even a single checked bag.  Boo!  I prefer to fly always on direct flights – these are often cheaper – and usually not much more expensive than flights which require connections – and will get you to your destination a minimum of two hours – usually more – faster than a flight that requires one or more connections.  Living in the New York City metropolitan area, I fortunately have an awful lot of choices where airlines and airports are concerned – and can usually find a cheap direct flight that goes where I want to go and when I want to go on an airline that does not charge for the first checked bag.  [My favorite airline is JetBlue, in case you are wondering, which I take whenever possible. Four reasons:  comfortable seats, clean planes, friendly staff and DirectTV at every seat.  Beats the crap out of the major airlines which are more expensive, more uncomfortable, less friendly and with no free/no choice of entertainment (you know who you are)].

So, today, I am flying one of the major airlines, have a connection to make, and I had to pay $15 to check a single bag.  While I am on this rant, I understand that airlines have real costs associated with handling baggage, and by charging for second or each bag that passengers check, they are passing these costs on to those passengers using those services, which certainly seems reasonable on one level.  But just a couple of years ago, in part because of the stricter security screenings taking place at airports, airlines were actively encouraging passengers to check as much baggage as possible while only carrying on a single small bag.  This greatly sped the process not only of getting through security screenings at airports, but also in getting on and off of airplanes.  And that all made the process of flying so much more comfortable and reduced conflict between passengers, without overstuffed overhead compartments and bags consuming everyone’s foot-space, and it taking 20 minutes or more to deplane while everyone gathered all of their items.  All I can say is:  what happened?  This was great.

A checked bag carries all the things I’d like to have with me for the trip.  This includes clothing, toiletries, my Swiss Army Knife, Res-Q-Me (heh heh hee!), other tools as appropriate, and other obvious items.

In August, I traveled to California for a week to take part in a disaster response exercise.  I made a detailed inventory of everything I packed – both in my checked and carry on baggage.  I was going to share it here but don’t think it really adds a lot to this discussion.  In part 2, I’ll go over some of the specific items that you should be packing with you in your carry on and checked luggage, and that should be informative.

Here’s a preview:

Essential Things to Take With You on A Trip by Plane:

  • All of the things you should never leave home without
  • Backup photo ID (passport preferably)
  • Full change of clothes on your carry-on bag
  • Pack Towel (carry on)
  • An extra empty bag (min. 1 backpack)
  • Medications/prescription drugs for duration of trip + min. 1 day (carry on of not easily replaceable)
  • First Aid Kit

Much more to follow in Part 2

2 Responses

  1. Good insight; very useful.

    I roll my eyes at the items confiscated at airport security. ResQme key rings are so harmless compared to other things that ARE allowed onboard including but not limited to: a good pair of boots, a writing instrument, a belt with a heavy buckle, a shoelace around a neck, a broken off tray-table.

    Just because something can be used as a weapon doesn’t mean it is an effective weapon. *sigh* I miss the days of reasonable security screening in the ’90s. Compulsory carry of firearms by pilots and associated training would be a much more effective deterrent to hijacking than costly and time-consuming scrutinizing of passengers’ key accessories.

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