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Savvy from veteran globetrotters

Tracy L. Barnett
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Paul and Deborah Luik

FROM THE MOUNTAINS OF MYANMAR Paul and Deborah Luik were fortunate to run into a Kayah Karen man while they were in Loikaw, unusual in that his people rarely come down from the mountains to the lower elevations, where they were, except to trade.

Whether you’re a frequent flyer or just an occasional adventurer, you have met some folks who just seem to know the ropes. They avoid lines, capitalize on deals, pack like a pro and pick the coolest destinations.

As you prepare for Spring Break, we talked with a few of those folks and ask them to share their savvy to give you a head start.

Your flight has been cancelled, or is overbooked. Now what?

First, says “Million Miler” Bill Montgomery, prepare for the worst by being aware of other options before you travel. See if your carrier has agreements with other carriers, and check alternate flights for what’s available in a pinch.

Never pack your phone charger in your checked bag, in case you have to wait a long time in the airport, says Susan Sisler, German teacher at Spring Branch ISD. Sisler has made 16 trips to Germany with student groups, and has never had any problems with flights, she says, because she nearly always flies with Lufthansa. In 35 years, only one of her European flights was cancelled. It was not Lufthansa.

Ask the desk agent to check with codeshare partners – an aviation business arrangement where two or more airlines share the same flight – for other available flights, she advises. Be quietly, politely persistent. Don’t leave the counter until they have found you a substitute flight.

Staying calm helps, Montgomery adds. If you’ve studied the routes, you’re in a better position to think creatively with the airline personnel about different routes that could get you to your destination – for example, Chicago or Phoenix or Atlanta as a layover instead of Dallas.

If there’s a long line forming, you probably want to be in it, but don’t stop there. Many times, the airline will automatically rebook its passengers, says Larry Wheeler, a retired petrochemical-company executive. Check your phone and see if you have a seat assignment already – if it doesn’t show up, check the airline’s website. If you don’t like the seat, call airline reservations, even if you have to be on hold for 30 minutes as you stand in line.

If the flight is overbooked, this could be an opportunity, says Montgomery. Travel with enough flexibility so that you can be the one who volunteers to be bumped. “Spring Break is a classic time for overbooking. If the airline is offering a $500 travel voucher, you want to be prepared for that. Sometimes you can pay for your entire vacation with vouchers.”

Other advice from Larry: Buy travel insurance (use the emergency hot-line). Avoid lesser-known airlines; flights may be cheaper, but the airline is usually understaffed and has fewer options to offer.

What are some little-known tricks and tips to get the most out of your Frequent Flier Miles?

Montgomery’s approach to gathering and using miles has changed recently because the three big airlines with the good frequent flier programs have all gone to a revenue-based program. Discount fares on Delta, United and American don’t earn miles at a 1-to-1 ratio anymore. You get more miles than the actual miles for your trip if you spend more, and you get less if you spend less. Southwest has had a reward system based on spending for longer than those three. The best program of any size, from his point of view, is Alaska Airlines, because you still get a mile for each mile traveled.

That said, if you have miles, it makes sense to use them wisely; use them during off-peak times, when it won’t cost as much to use them. With the increasing number of discount airlines, he says, it might be almost as cheap just to buy the airline ticket and save your miles. For example, Southwest now flies to Mexico City, and with discount fares to Costa Rica running less than $400, it doesn’t make sense to spend frequent flier miles on that, either.

Larry and Margaret Wheeler

THEIR DAY IN THE SUN Larry and Margaret Wheeler were enchanted by the Greek isle of Santorini. Savvy travelers can make the most of any travel destination.

What are some ways to get through the red tape regarding security, customs, re-booking tickets and the like?

Some frequent fliers go for Global Entry, a U.S. Customs and Border Patrol program, which allows you to skip lines with Pre-Check status for a one-time fee of $100.

Sometimes there’s a shorter line available that’s not immediately evident. For example in Terminal A at Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental Airport, there are two security lines, one on each side. “When airlines on one side are really busy, those lines back way up,” Montgomery says. “Spirit is increasing flights, and there are massive numbers of people going through that line.” Walking is better than standing when you’re preparing for a long flight.

Sisler’s advice: Get to the airport very early. Smile, be patient, make relaxed eye contact with the passport official. “In over 30 years, I’ve never had problems with customs, passport or TSA.”

What about packing for long flights?

Susan Sisler has flown to Germany twice with a bicycle and highly recommends it. Once, she put her bike together in the baggage-claim area of Tegel Airport (Berlin) and rode into town on the bike path used by airport employees. In 2015, she biked along the Danube from its source in Donaueschingen to Passau on the Austrian border. It’s not as difficult to pack a bicycle as you might think, she says. You just take off the pedals and handlebar and pack it in a regular bike box.

In the carry-on, she says, pack a phone charger, light jacket, socks, toothbrush and toothpaste, fruit, cheese and crackers, photocopy of your passport, phone numbers and addresses on paper.

Larry Wheeler’s advice: Travel with duplicate IDs and duplicate credit cards and keep the duplicates in a separate place from the originals.  When travelling abroad, always keep a photocopy of the information page of your passport. For the carry-on, he says, bring travel toiletries, including a headache remedy; all your prescription medications; and change of shirt and underwear.

Most important, says Montgomery, is to take along a good frame of mind. “It’s going to be a long flight; say hello to your seatmates. Let them know you’re a nice person who isn’t going to be a pain for the next 15 hours.”

What are the best/worst airline lounges or airports? Best airport food/shops?

Susan says Munich is hard to beat, with the best airport, best lounge chairs and a biergarten. Domestically, she likes SFO or DEN – good food and excellent wifi. Worst: O’Hare – slowest and longest TSA lines (but they do have good Garrett Popcorn Shops caramel corn, she adds).

Larry and wife Margaret Wheeler love the lounge at Heathrow in London; they’re not so fond of the one in Saudi Arabia, where men and women are separated in different lounges. Domestically, Larry likes McCarran International in Las Vegas and Baltimore-Washington International Airport because of ease in getting in and out and changing terminals. Least favorite: IAH (Houston) because of the long haul between gate and baggage claim on United domestic flights; also Atlanta and DFW because of size and distance between connecting flights.

Montgomery likes Amsterdam and Zurich airports, which have an observation deck where you can watch the planes, but he loves Changi Airport in Singapore for the way they take care of all passengers, not just airline-lounge members. There’s a butterfly garden and a free movie theater. “Most places, the idea is put bars up on the seats so people don’t feel tempted to lie down. In Changi, they have nice lounges open to anyone, nice sloped chairs where anyone can sleep. I wish airports would approach it more that way, since people are going to be traveling and need a place to rest.”

Domestically, he says, “Detroit is a great airport, I think, and maybe not fully appreciated. Still fairly new and simply laid out. Unlike most other people, I love LAX. If I have three hours between flights there, I walk over to the In-N-Out burger place and watch planes.”

What about surprise destinations – places that most people don’t know about, but make the top of your list?

Deborah Luik, former software architect and now dog trainer, was our expert on out-of-the-way destinations. Having now been to almost every country in Asia (not Bhutan, she adds, which, at $200 minimum per person per day was not worth it to her family), she recommends that people visit Myanmar now. “It has some areas that are just now opening for tourism, so it’s still possible to be the first person in some parts of Myanmar,” she says.

She’s a big fan of Panama. “Cheaper and more interesting than Costa Rica, with great snorkeling and both the Afro Caribbean and Hispanic Caribbean cultures neatly separated onto the two halves of the isthmus,” she wrote. “You can also see mountains and it has of course the canal for the engineering minded.”

As for yours truly, I write to you from the breezy loft of a chic café in Guadalajara’s Chapultepec district, a hipster’s paradise on a teeny budget. After six years and counting, I still say Mexico can’t be beat for its diversity, authenticity and good folks. My other pick would be Bosnia, where I spent three beautiful months of 2016 on assignment and was blown away by the mountain vistas, East-Meets-West culture and warm, funny, resilient people.

Wherever you go in the year ahead, do keep us in mind here at The Buzz. We love hearing from you!

Editor’s note: Do you have travel savvy to share with fellow readers? Email info@thebuzzmagazines.com or leave a comment under this story at thebuzzmagazines.com.

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