Is $100 too much for Global Entry? Get Mobile Passport Control for free

If you’re willing to part with $100, undergo a background check and submit to a brief interview, you can get a card that entitles you to five years of streamlined movement through the U.S. Customs and Border Protection system.

Global Entry allows you to bypass what are frequently long lines at Customs upon arrival in the United States. The pass does not exempt holders from standard regulations, and you could still be spot-checked. But for most situations, the move through these lines is much faster with Global Entry.

Global Entry costs $15 when you consider that five years of membership in TSA’s Pre-Check program is $85, and  you get both with the Global Entry fee. But some budget travelers might say that since they don’t travel internationally all that often (and maybe only take one or two domestic flights per year), these products are a waste of money.

Ready for a free U.S. Customs loophole?

In the interest of keeping those lines moving, U.S. Customs and Border Patrol offers a free program called Mobile Passport Control. This system, which started in 2016, allows U.S. citizens and Canadian visitors to go to the coveted express lane at 24 of the nation’s busiest customs facilities.

All you’ll need is a mobile phone and the ability to download the Mobile Passport app from either Google Play Store or the Apple App Store. Once installed, you simply fill out and store your profile (including a selfie you take with your phone’s camera) and then complete an entry form for each individual trip. The app produces a Encrypted Quick Response (QR) code that is presented to a customs officer along with a valid passport.

If you travel with other family members, the account created in the app can accommodate up to 12 additional profiles. All information is transmitted between your phone and the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol via secure encryption protocols.

Although you don’t push “submit the form” until after landing in the United States, it’s possible to fill out much of the information while still en-route or even before departure.

In addition to saving money on the Global Entry membership, Mobile Passport Control might be more convenient in some facilities. On several occasions, I’ve had trouble using the frequently used and abused machines in the so-called express line. On one re-entry, it took four or five tries to get the machine to function properly.

Your mobile phone signal is the only limiting factor with MPC, and travelers such as The Points Guy have been pleased with the efficiency.

I still like the convenience of TSA Pre-Check, but when my Global Entry card expires in a few years, I might save the $15 and use MPC.

Book Review: Dream of Venice in Black and White

When I learned about the release of Dream of Venice in Black and White (Bella Figura Publications, 2018), I had to get my hands on it. The book represents something near and dear to my travel experiences.

Any lover of travel will tell you there are a few moments you simply never forget.

As a Midwestern boy of nine, I remember the first time I saw snow-capped mountains that towered above timberline from the back seat of the family Oldsmobile on U.S. 2 in Montana. As an adult, I also recall shaking my head in awe upon my initial approach to the south rim of the Grand Canyon.

But I think I let out an audible gasp when I turned a corner in Venice and walked into St. Mark’s Square for the first time. This was before billboards littered the ancient, iconic sight lines.  Pigeons might have outnumbered people that day. There was time to stop and admire the place in all its historic splendor.

You see, it was the dead of winter.

In the brief Venice stay that followed, my wife Cindy and I explored beyond the famous square, joyfully lost at times in back alleys and along dock sides the few winter tourists had not discovered. When our legs grew weary, we boarded vaporettos, soaking in the revealed sights of each new turn along the canals, hardly noticing the bracing chill of March breezes coming off the water.

A decade later, we visited Venice again. That sweltering July excursion was far inferior. I remember being pushed from behind in the square while attempting to photograph the Byzantine grandeur of St. Mark’s Basilica. It was nothing malicious. The square was just that crowded.

Ever since, I have given Venice-bound travelers I encounter two pieces of unsolicited counsel: Winter is the best time for a visit, and getting lost is a good thing. My advice prompts quizzical looks and usually goes unheeded.

Dream of Venice in Black and White is a collection of photographs from the Venetian winter depicted, as the title implies, only in black and white. More than 50 master photographers, working mostly beyond well-traveled tourist paths, contributed to the 96-page volume.

Editor and Bella Figura founder JoAnn Locktov also has produced Dream of Venice, and Dream of Venice Architecture, so this volume completes a trilogy of tributes. But this one is offered mainly as a collection of photographs.

Some might object to the absence of color and text. After all, the striking contrasts between indigo waters and ancient stone contribute greatly to Venice’s visual appeal. A few words of historical context could pave the way toward a better understanding of some pictures.

But there are plenty of other places to see that show. This book reveals a slice of everyday life in Venice that each visitor — or potential visitor — would do well to understand. It is a book built on the genuine premise that a picture is worth a thousand words.

Venetian novelist, playwright and poet Tiziano Scarpa does contribute some words of introduction. He notes a study 30 years ago concluded that 12 million tourists would be the practical maximum Venice could accommodate in a year’s time. Today’s totals approach 30 million annually.

“Venice does not have outlying neighborhoods or suburbs to decompress them and provide an outlet,” Scarpa writes. “Its borders finish brusquely on a brink beyond which there is only the water of the lagoon.”

That truly unique quality makes Venice one of the most captivating cities on the planet. Unfortunately, most tourists miss seeing the daily life of Venetians amid a frenzied obligation to check off must-see architectural sites before their next scheduled departure at the train station or cruise terminal.

This book champions a different approach to the city.

On page 34, photographer Matteo Chinellato presents a solitary pedestrian, stationary and weathering an evening snowstorm armed only with an umbrella. In Venice, snowstorms are few. Shelter for passersby can be difficult to find.

The lens of Alain Hamon reveals on page 50 a robed priest walking through an open space, greatly outnumbered by pigeons. To some detriment, pigeons are a part of daily life here.

One of my favorites: a Robert Schonfeld submission titled “After Church, Cannaregio” on page 54 that shows a bundled-up elderly couple taking careful steps, arm-in-arm, on an otherwise empty footpath.

These scenes represent a Venice the average tourist will not experience. My descriptions do them no justice.

There’s a 2016 picture from Jutta Krenzer of people protesting the presence of cruise ships. This is a city that lives with chronic concerns about its fragile lagoon and flooded future.

“So what can you do about it?” Scarpa asks in his introduction. “Perhaps a paradoxical way of helping this city would be not to come at all. Instead, stay at home and leaf through books of photos like this one, which inhabits the city delicately, making it bloom with a light caress made up of splendid images.”

As a traveler and a lover of Venice, I cannot endorse Scarpa’s “not come at all” sentiment. But I certainly understand what inspires it. My hope is that this volume will lead to a greater appreciation of fragile yet determined Venice, and a people who persevere against floods and forecasts of doom.

Sit down with Dream of Venice in Black and White and allow yourself to be transported for a few minutes to the canals and open spaces of the city. Be thankful it captures the full Venetian winter — and few tourists.

Full disclosure: I was provided with a complimentary copy of this book for the purpose of offering an honest, objective review of its contents.

The Art Deco District: Miami Beach’s Historic Treasure

(c)Mark D. Kahler

Miami Beach’s Art Deco District is a historic treasure that came close to being wiped off the face of the earth.

Remember that the term “historic” combines with “South Florida” in a way that will provoke smirks in other locales. By the standards of England or even New England, nothing here is truly old. The City of Miami was founded in 1896, and the Art Deco buildings of Miami Beach were products of the early 20th century.

Miami Beach was a prime destination for beach-goers from the 1920s until the late 1960s. Small hotels gave way to monolithic resorts such as the Fountainebleau that offered giant swimming pools, sweeping ocean views, and trendy restaurants where people went to be seen as much as to dine.

But time caught up with the boom on Miami Beach. Caribbean destinations developed destination-resorts. Baby Boomers saw Miami Beach as an uncool relic of their parents’ leisure days.

By the mid-1970s, Miami Beach was in rapid decline. Once proud Art Deco hotels along Ocean Drive were broken-down eyesores. Crime increased dramatically. Calls for demolition reached thundering magnitudes.

Against long odds, Barbara Baer Capitman and five of her friends formed the Miami Design Preservation League. They fought to have 800 of these buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places. They lost a number of high-profile battles to save individual properties from demolition, but they won enough to preserve hundreds of others.

Work began slowly, but within a decade many of the old Art Deco buildings were sporting new facades, pastel colors, and a hip new image bolstered nationally by the hit NBC television series Miami Vice. The area enjoys an international jet set reputation as “South Beach,” the place where upscale clubs attract high rollers and celebrities.

Today, dilapidation is no longer a fear. The issue now is gentrification.

In another 10 years, will anyone lacking serious wealth be able to afford a home on Miami Beach? Will there be affordable places to stay and to dine?

Which brings us to finding affordable strategies for a visit.

If you pay the first price you see, you’ll be staying in a $500/night hotel and eating overpriced food that comes with a mandatory 20 percent service charge (with a 15 percent tip requested above that total), a 7 percent sales tax and a 2 percent city tax. This partially explains how it’s possible to pay $36 for a Cuban sandwich and a soft drink on Ocean Drive.

Miami Beach doesn’t exactly cater to budget travelers — at least not those who are diligent in finding bargains in such places. But as is always the case with budget travel, those who do the homework are rewarded.

The James Hotel (on the avenue of the same name, just north of Lincoln Road) offers rooms at many times of year for under $150/night, and enjoys strong visitor ratings on  At about the same price point, nearby Crest Hotel Suites bills itself as a boutique hotel swept up in the Art Deco revival.

Naturally, you don’t have to stay in Miami Beach to spend a day enjoying the sights and sounds. A stroll down Ocean Drive costs nothing beyond the $4/hour municipal parking (when you can find it). It’s a place where rollerbladers and volleyball players mingle with joggers and newly arrived tourists in need of a base tan.

If your credit card limit doesn’t mesh with a visit to a trendy South Beach eatery, there are some budget-friendly options. Sylvano Restaurant moved to the Collins Park area from Alton Road several years ago, and offers Italian entrees starting as low as $10.  Icebox Cafe on Purdy Ave. brings a some great salads and innovative drinks to the area. Reservations can be made via Open Table for parties of six or fewer.

(c)Mark D. Kahler

To learn more about the area’s fascinating history, visit the Art Deco Welcome Center at 1001 Ocean Drive. From here, Art Deco walking tours originate twice daily (morning and afternoon), and self-guided tours also are available.

Fair warning: prices for these services aren’t exactly cheap ($25 for adults, $20 for seniors, active military and students). But you’ll benefit from a personal guided tour to understand the nuances of these neighborhoods. It is an attraction you won’t find anywhere else in the world.


Don’t Be So Afraid of Spirit Airlines

(c)Mark D. Kahler

Despite the friendly “HOWDY” that appears on the wingtips of Spirit Airlines planes, lots of travelers approach the budget carrier with fear and trepidation.

With Spirit and all budget carriers, there are indeed reasons for budgetary caution. Spirit, for example, requires fees not only for checked baggage, but also for cabin stowing of carry-ons.

Yet there’s no reason to automatically reject a low Spirit airfare without at least making a few calculations and considerations. I present an example from my recent travels.

I had reason to make a brief (one night) trip from Chicago O’Hare to Greenville, South Carolina. Round-trip fares five weeks prior to the trip were consistently priced at more than $400. That’s before renting a car or booking a hotel.

Knowing that alternative airports can save money, my next airfare search was for Atlanta, about 160 miles away. Spirit offered nonstop service for $140 round-trip, including a one-day intermediate car rental with unlimited mileage through Dollar. Bundled as a so-called “vacation package,” the car rental amounted to less than $15!

Remember, that $125 airfare figure transports only my flesh and bones between Chicago and Atlanta. Each flight segment on Spirit requires a $35 fee per carry-on item, or $30 for each checked bag. It’s important to snag nonstop flights when available and make the annoying baggage arrangements early to avoid much higher fees later.

A man with a rolling carry-on in front of me apparently neglected to do so. He was pulled out of line and informed that he would need to cough up $65 for the privilege of continuing the trip with bag in tow.

Good travelers don’t make those mistakes. But they can still pay dearly for previously routine privileges under the budget airline model.

My $140 flight was going to be $210 if I brought a carry-on bag. Other add-ons include choosing a seat ($9-$35 per flight segment), early boarding privileges ($6 per flight) or skipping a boarding pass printing at home in favor of airport check-in ($10).

All the fees are clearly displayed at alongside vague threats of added expense if the baggage options are ignored at booking.

Take note, however, of one baggage freebie: each passenger is allowed one “personal item” no larger than 18″ x 12″ x 8″ (roughly the size of a puffed up laptop bag). This must fit under the seat in front of you.

For my one-day trip, I needed to bring a business suit, a change of clothing, some toiletries and a few random documents. I wore the suit on the flight, meaning the rest of what I needed fit comfortably into a laptop bag. There was also room to squeeze in a book to read on the plane.

Sorry Spirit, but your revenue on bags for this passenger is $0.

Not too practical for a multi-day trip, I know. But two people with strong packing skills, flying together for a few days, could split a checked bag and cut costs significantly.  One more advantage: if I don’t have to worry about carry-on space, there’s really no need for me to book priority boarding. That’s $6 saved per flight segment.

I printed my boarding passes at home for the outbound flight and in my hotel’s business center for the trip home. At this point, I’ve short-circuited any reason to be afraid of booking on Spirit.

Now, I can enjoy that nice round-trip airfare and inexplicable car rental rate. Confession: to aid in my enjoyment, I did spend $9 each way for reserving a window seat. That’s $18 for four hours worth of loading, taxiing, and flying.

The thought of spending four hours in a middle seat scares me a lot more than Spirit’s fee structure.

Time for Dinner in Marion, Arkansas

(c)Mark D. Kahler

After a 500-mile drive through sometimes stormy weather, at last I arrived in Marion, Arkansas and my reserved hotel room. With more bad weather on the way, I was not inclined to explore larger nearby cities for restaurant options.

The area surrounding this exit on I-55 offered a number of familiar chain options. These are places that serve up expected, familiar food. They are safe choices. They are meals you can order at home.

But one of the options was a place called Tacker’s Shake Shack, also known as Big John’s Shake Shack, also known as Big John’s Restaurant. Lots of names. No hint of smooth, streamlined branding. Let’s just refer to it here as the Shack.

This is a family-owned restaurant, serving the good citizens of Marion since 1977. It had at least one brush with fame: a 2011 designation in Southern Living magazine’s Off the Eaten Path list.

My thoughts wandered to the Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives television show. I fully expected to see Guy Fieri wandering around with his camera crew. But there isn’t much at first glance to capture the focus of the lens.

No big neon signs or spacious landscaped parking lots at the Shack. But there was evidence of steady business in the early evening, which is always a good sign. I decided to stay for dinner.

The Shack is not noted for health food. In fact, it’s safe to guess that most items on the menu are fried. If there was a corporate motto, which I would guess is unlikely, it would be something like “if we can fry it, you can order it.” It is possible here to order a deep-fried Oreo cookie for dessert.

(c)Mark D. Kahler

There are “Loretta’s Deep-Fried Pies (“as seen on local news stations and in local magazines”) in several flavors. There is a wide selection of burgers (served with either fries or tater tots) and seven flavors of milkshakes. The shake menu says “we only use real strawberries, pineapple …” Diners choose from 38 ice cream flavors. If ice cream and pie aren’t enticing, there is the Shack’s “famous bread pudding.”

I ordered a cheeseburger and one of Loretta’s apple caramel fried pies. Lest you think me a hopeless glutton, the pies are sized to be consumed in about five bites, and I resisted adding ice cream.

The food was hot, cooked to order, and delicious. The decor is heavily influenced by Elvis. Service is short on pretense and long on smiles. I left happy.

Later, when I looked up the restaurant on, I found it “ranked No. 1 of 17 restaurants in Marion.”

(c)Mark D. Kahler

Chances are good that you’ll never travel to Marion, Arkansas, and you’ll never eat at the Shack. But stay with me.

There are places like this in most cities of any size in the United States. The owners have put their hearts and souls into taking care of people. They find their own unique ways to make a burger something special, or fry a pie for your dessert. They’re just different enough from the rest of the pack to draw return business — loyal return business.

Places like this spend little, if any,  advertising money. They don’t have to. They are well-known for catering VFW socials or Sunday School picnics.

So don’t always side with fancy branding and lofty Zagat ratings. Those elements have a place, and they will influence many of us on travel dining decisions.

But a plain storefront and a full parking lot can be very revealing as well. Take a chance.

At the very least, you’ll have a good story to tell when you get home.

You Need to Hire a Local Guide

(c)Mark D. Kahler

Would you quarterback a football team to a first down at the opponent’s one-yard line and then simply quit? Would you say “hey, we just drove 79 yards! That’s pretty good” and sit down for a while?

Absurd as it sounds, many budget travelers will spend thousands of dollars on airfare and hotel expenses, arrive in a complex, historic city, and then refuse to hire a professional guide for a few hours to reveal the nuances of their destination.

The thought is that a $30 guidebook will provide enough information on the ancient cathedral in a paragraph or two on page 45.  Really?

Guidebooks are great for planning itineraries, but depending on them for fine detail frequently results in a lesser experience.

Why do budget travelers hesitate to hire a local tour guide? Some undoubtedly are simply trying to save a few dollars. Others perhaps equate a guide experience with schlepping on and off a crowded bus.

I advocate independent travel whenever practical. Travelers can remain independent in spirit but invite a local guide into their experience for a few hours.

So, maximize your other travel investments with a reasonably priced but thorough and engaging local guide who understands his or her city and enthusiastically shows off the sites with a smile.

I encountered such a guide in Budapest. His name is Dániel Draskóczy.

(c)Mark D. Kahler

When we met him, he was working with Grand Circle Cruise Lines as a guide on their Danube Cruise/Prague tour.  This assignment involved guiding several dozen people through the streets and alleyways of cities such as Budapest, BratislavaVienna, Melk, and Prague. With all of those travelers to accommodate, I didn’t expect to connect with him.

But Daniel took the time to recommend an excellent restaurant in Prague to celebrate my wife’s birthday. He volunteered to take several of us on an off-the-itinerary tour of key spots in Prague’s struggle for freedom. He recounted personal and sometimes painful stories of how his own family suffered in Hungary behind the Iron Curtain.

In city after city, he brought small details to our attention that enhanced our visit.

Daniel now has started a company called Budapest Explorers. Because it’s a new operation, I’ve never had the opportunity to sample the services. But based on my knowledge of Daniel’s work, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it.

He offers tours ranging from 2.5 to 6 hours in length for  €35- €45 ($43-$55 at this writing). You could buy several guide books for that price, but you’d miss out on the insights of someone who is a native — a guide who understands his city and wants others to leave with valuable knowledge.

In Budapest (or any other European city), you’ll find guides like Daniel who will enhance the investment you’ve made to arrive in their cities.

Websites such as and Viator will connect you with tour services, but these arrangements can be quite expensive. To find experts at lower prices, it sometimes pays to contact the local universities, or the tourist information centers under the familiar “i” signs. In many cases,  they will provide contact information and recommendations for professional guides.

I look for three qualities in a local travel guide. Certainly, it’s great to hire someone who will attend to your interests and come across as friendly.

But it’s also important to connect with a native whenever possible. Someone such as Daniel who has lived in Budapest since childhood will provide a richer guide experience than someone who moved there eight months ago.

At the risk of sounding like a snob, a third attribute that I value is educational attainment. Someone who understands history, languages, and culture is apt to provide a better experience than someone lacking such knowledge. You certainly don’t need a college degree to employ these qualities, but a well-read guide will enhance your expenditures of time and money.

It’s great to economize on travel expenses. But don’t stop at the one-yard line. Find a good local tour guide.

Strategies for Fighting Jet Lag

(c)Mark D. Kahler

Jet lag is one of those conditions that can extract value from your travel investment. If you’re not managing it properly, you can lose multiple days from your itinerary.

It is not possible to completely eliminate jet lag symptoms, especially on longer flights that cross five or more time zones. These symptoms include malaise, headache, drowsiness and perhaps bowel irregularity. To be sure, jet lag hits travelers in a variety of ways. None of those ways is welcomed.

Take a look at eight simple strategies for fighting jet lag.

Schedule Arrival as Closely to Local Bedtime as Possible

The longest air trip I’ve ever taken was a 14-hour flight from Detroit to Beijing. Daunting though it may sound, this schedule had one built-in advantage: the time of arrival.

We touched down in Beijing at about 9:30 p.m. local time. By the time we got to the hotel, it was probably 10:30. Exhausted and groggy from the long trip, we simply went to sleep. Millions of others were doing the same thing all across the city.

The next day, we woke at about 7 a.m. to bright sunshine. It wasn’t quite the same feeling as a typical wake-up at home, but I don’t remember jet lag posing any difficulty as we explored the Great Wall of China, the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square.

If you can find a flight that arrives late in the destination day, you’ll be one step ahead.

Mentally Adjust to New Time Zone before Departure

In the days prior to departure, some budget travelers try to adjust their bedtimes gradually in the direction of destination time. It’s a great idea. Yet for many of us, it’s simply not practical.

But there’s one pre-flight adjustment anyone can make.

Whether crossing one time zone or 12, it’s good practice to reset your watch to destination time as the plane is leaving the gate.

Don’t do it on the way to the airport. Don’t make the switch after your arrival. Take advantage of a moment in time when your trip is just about to start, and make the mental adjustment.

Don’t let someone tell you it’s 3 a.m. back home as you’re within an hour of your destination. Show them your watch and say “as far as I’m concerned, this is the time.”

Use your new time reference to decide if you really need to eat that heavy meal the airline is serving at 4:20 a.m. destination time. What you really should be doing at that hour is sleeping.

Sleep on the Plane

This is the simplest of advice, and yet sleep is so elusive on an airplane. There are scores of noises and distractions. Even in business class or first class, it’s tough for many of us to put together several hours of quality REM sleep.

But even a few minutes of sleep can be helpful as you fight jet lag. It helps reset the body’s circadian rhythms — the quicker your reset, the fewer problems you’ll have with jet lag.

Some airlines will give you slippers and an eye mask, and some travelers find a way to pipe “white noise” into their ears with headphones to minimize outside distractions. Naturally, not all of these techniques work for every traveler.

Another approach is to ask the flight attendant not to disturb you for a period of time. That means no duty-free offers and no food or drink service. Of course, if you’re in the middle seat, you might be awakened by a passenger who needs to get by you to use the restroom. Sleep is best achieved in window seats if you can’t afford to upgrade to first class.

Remain Hydrated

The air is dry in a pressurized cabin that’s 38,000 ft. above sea level. When those conditions are maintained for five or more hours, it’s easy to become dehydrated.

Flight attendants are usually careful to offer water to their guests, and you should take advantage of these opportunities. Hydration is helpful as you fight jet lag symptoms.

Use Drugs and Supplements with Caution

Travelers sometimes fight jet lag with sedatives (to promote sleeping in the airplane seat), or dietary supplements.

The most common supplement for this purpose is melatonin, a hormone that occurs in nature and is used by some doctors to treat sleep disorders.

Travelers frequently disagree on how much melatonin to take before a flight, and some say it’s best avoided altogether.

There are also other packaged herbal supplements promoted for use against jet lag symptoms that can be ordered online or purchased in stores selling travel products. Some people have great success with these supplements. Personally, I have not found them all that helpful.

Another caveat: alcohol consumption can further disrupt natural sleep cycles. Avoid that glass of wine to “calm down” during the flight.

Whatever you decide, please consult your physician for advice before making any final decisions.

Stay Awake and Active on Day One

Do yourself a favor and wage the jet lag fight on day one.

If you arrive in the morning, it is best to stay awake all day and go to bed in the evening (at least 8-9 p.m.) local time. The best way to reset your body’s 24-hour clock is to stay in sunlight, walk, and experience the destination city.

This does not mean you have to run a 5K race shortly after arrival. Nothing strenuous is necessary. But taking a four-hour nap is likely to push the effects of jet lag into the next day, and cause you to wake up at times when the new schedule dictates sleep.

You might still feel a bit groggy or wake up at an odd hour on day two, but for many people these effects are greatly minimized if they’ve confronted jet lag head-on in day one.

Schedule Light Itineraries after Arrival

While it’s important to take naps very sparingly (if at all) during the first day, it’s equally advantageous to start slowly after crossing a number of time zones. This means saving the most anticipated moments of your trip for several days after arrival if at all possible.

Day one might be a good time to take a bus tour of the city. Make windshield observations of the places you’ll want to explore more closely when your senses are sharper. Try to avoid complicated purchases or money exchanges. Take it easy and relax — just don’t go to sleep until evening!

Airline Bumping: Good News and Bad News

(c)Mark D. Kahler

Almost a year ago, a Kentucky doctor was dragged down the aisle of a United commuter flight scheduled to depart Chicago O’Hare for Louisville. He had refused to surrender his seat during an involuntary bump, and the confrontation attracted international attention.

Airlines routinely bump booked passengers from flights when too many people show up at the gate with boarding passes. These oversold flights, we have been told, are a necessary evil because a struggling industry can’t afford empty seats.

Business travelers, for example, often purchase extremely expensive but fully refundable airline tickets. If these reservations are canceled just before the flight, filling the empty seats with another paying customer often is difficult.

Each airlines has a mathematical formula designed to oversell a flight just enough to compensate for last-minute no-shows. Note the word “designed.” It’s far from an exact science, which is why people are asked to volunteer to be bumped.

In the absense of volunteers, an involuntary bump occurs. That’s what happened in Chicago.

The scene last April was ugly. David Dao, the 69-year-old doctor who insisted he must return to his practice the next day, was the focus of smartphone cameras as he was forcibly dislodged from his booked seat, bleeding and shouting as passengers — some of whom were children — watched in horror.

The public relations firestorm that followed prompted United to make a media-documented promise to improve customer service. One specific goal was to reduce the number of bumped passengers from the airline’s departures. Soon, other airlines were joining in on that pledge.

It appears that effort to cut down on bumping is quite successful.

According to a news release from the U.S. Department of Transportation, bumping cases in 2017 reached their lowest level since such statistics first were kept in 1995.

The release says U.S. carriers “posted a bumping rate of 0.34 per 10,000 passengers,” wiping out the previous low mark of 0.62 in 2016.

The release continues: “These carriers posted a bumping rate of 0.18 per 10,000 passengers for the fourth quarter of 2017, an improvement over the 0.55 rate for the fourth quarter of 2016.”

From October through December 2017, Delta reported 24,793 passengers were bumped voluntarily from their flights. This means these travelers agreed to give up a booked seat, most likely in exchange for compensation.

An involuntary bump occurs when the airline cannot recruit any ticketed passengers to give up seats. Delta only reported 10 involuntary bumps in that time frame.

One year earlier, those numbers for Delta were 36,471 and 326.

United’s decline in bumping was even more dramatic. Voluntary bumps for those same months in 2017 are reported at 8,483, down from 15,696 during the same period in 2016. Involuntary bumps at United dropped from 891 to 44. Other major carriers showed similar results. Indeed, United claims in its fourth quarter report to have decreased involuntary bookings 92 percent from April-December 2017.

All of this is good news for travelers who don’t want unexpected travel delays, and the airlines certainly are to be commended for taking better control of the overbooking issue.

But there are some travelers who are bound to be a bit disappointed.

Some budget-minded fliers show up at the airport actually hoping to be bumped in exchange for vouchers that cut the costs of future trips. In some cases, vouchers worth $500 or more in future travel could be secured for a few hours of inconvenience.

We show up early to the gate, and ask the attendant if the flight is overbooked. If so, we announce that we might be willing to volunteer for a bump in return for free future travel. This usually comes as welcome news to the gate attendants, who don’t look forward to recruiting volunteers or, worse, involuntarily bumping a booked passenger.

After the Dao incident, both United and Delta announced they’d be willing to offer up to $10,000 in compensation to bumped passengers. The maximum amount offered for that fateful United flight was $800.

It still doesn’t hurt to quietly ask about oversold flights upon arrival at the gate. Overbooking probably won’t disappear in the near future. But if you’re thinking a nice fat travel voucher will pay for next year’s vacation, it might be time to formulate a backup plan.


Do You Get Ready for Airport Security?

You get ready to go out to dinner. You make preparations for places you’ll visit on your trip.

But do you actually make yourself ready to pass through airport security?

Step one should take place before you ever leave home.

Check Luggage for Surprises

Imagine this: you’re in the TSA security line with a family member, and you get a tap on the shoulder. This family member covertly reveals a large pocket knife and a worried glance.

Explanation? A few months earlier, he had used the suitcase during a move to transport some small items, including the knife. He had forgotten about that move until noticing the outline of the knife in an outer compartment.

At this point, you can explain yourself to security, and they might let you through without being detained. But the knife will be confiscated. In our case, there was a trash barrel prior to the screening point for bottled water. The knife wound up in the trash.

Make it common practice to check all the compartments of your luggage for potential contraband before you leave home.

Put the Phone Away

In almost every such line I’ve ever entered in recent years, I’ll see multiple people using mobile phones. This might be a part of your daily routine, but it’s also a fairly common example of what not to do in a security line.

That phone should be stashed in your carry-on baggage by the time you enter the screening area. Your ticket and boarding pass are all that should be in your hands.

Find a waiting area just outside the entrance to security and stow these other items as well: wristwatch, metal belt, wallet, keys, jewelry, pocket change, and of course, the phone.

There are two important reasons for making this adjustment. One involves keeping the line moving. When you stop to slowly remove these items one-by-one in the security line, you take time away from everyone behind you.

The second reason is rooted in security. There are bandits who work in teams and remove wallets and jewelry from the conveyor belt before the owner becomes aware of the problem. It’s a risky crime, and your chances of being a victim are slim. Why take a chance? No one is going to palm your carry-on. But your wallet is easy to snatch and pass.

Dress for Success

Do you really want to wear that outfit with all the metal zippers on it? You’ll almost certainly be pulled out of line for an additional “wanding” with a hand-held metal detector.

If you don’t have TSA Pre✓™, you’ll be removing your shoes during this process. Wear loafers or some other kind of footwear that can be removed and restored quickly.

That jacket you’re wearing will have to come off, too. Be prepared to place it on the conveyor belt if you didn’t remove it and stow it prior to getting in line.

Get Behind a Competent Traveler

At larger airport security areas, you’ll often have line choices as you approach the scanning checkpoint. Your long line will break into several shorter lines. This is an important moment in your security journey.

By now, it’s possible you’ve spotted a frequent flier. He or she appears to have done this many times. They’re not talking on the phone. They aren’t wearing metal.

You should follow this person whenever possible. They will pass through the checkpoint quickly.

Someone who looks confused or has several children in tow is less likely to breeze through the area.

Take Out Laptops and Tablets

If you choose to travel with a laptop or a tablet, realize that in a standard security line at U.S. airports, it must come out of your luggage and go through the scanner in its own bin.

Some travelers believe they can save time by simply keeping it in the carry-on bag. Others think that when personnel see what is obviously a laptop bag, they’ll simply let it go through the scanner.

This is an important exception to the previous advice about stowing expensive items. You will frequently buy yourself delay and scrutiny if you fail to follow this rule.

The examination of laptops is almost universal, but the rule on unpacking tablets can vary between countries or even between checkpoints within a country.

In London, I failed to take out a tablet and it cost me about 30 minutes at the security checkpoint. Thinking it was not necessary proved to be incorrect, and the personnel proceeded to unpack and inspect every item in my luggage.

This lengthy, intrusive process doesn’t begin immediately at many checkpoints. You’ll wait in line behind others who made the same mistake. Security personnel usually are not all that sympathetic about final boarding call concerns.

Assume all laptops and tablets need inspection and put them in plain sight. If there is someone else in your party, have them go ahead of you so they can keep an eye on your valuable electronics at the other end of the scanner.

Know the Restrictions on Liquids

As with laptops and tablets, any liquids, aerosols or gels in your carry-on luggage will receive attention at airport security checkpoints.

The best advice is to leave all such items at home, but that’s not always practical. The next best approach is to stow all such liquids in a see-through plastic freezer bag.

In the U.S., you can bring liquids on a plane, but only in certain quantities.

The best way to remember the rule is to think of it as the 3-1-1 Regulation: bottles must be 3.4 fl. oz. or less (100 ml), one quart transparent plastic bag hermetically sealed, and one bag per passenger placed in the inspection container.

Any quantity larger than 3.4 fl. oz. will not make it on the flight, and you’ll be asked to discard it.

So as you work on preparing lightweight baggage prior to leaving for the airport, make the 3-1-1 routine part of your packing process.

If Randomly Selected, Keep Words to a Minimum

One moment you’re waiting patiently in line, and the next moment someone says “You need to come with me.”

It’s a shocking development. You fear you’ve been mistaken for a terrorist. The natural inclination is demand justice and a full explanation.

But a better approach is to simply follow the instruction. Chances are good that you’ve been selected for “enhanced screening.” Such screenings are supposed to occur at random.

This process can also surface if you trigger an alert — perhaps you forgot to remove some change from your pocket.

The more you express your discomfort or disapproval, the more likely you’ll be seen as a person of interest. This is a moment when it pays to be uninteresting. Follow directions.

If it becomes clear this is more than a random enhanced screening, you’ll need to speak up and politely ask some questions. But chances are excellent that you’ll be on your way in a few seconds.

Practice One-Bag Travel

If you’ve ever tried to keep track of three or four bags while passing through airport security, you know it’s slow and stressful business.

Maybe you had small children with you. Perhaps you were unaware that most airlines only allow one carry-on and one small bag.

Excess baggage devalues your trip in many ways. Start with ever-increasing airline baggage fees, especially among budget carriers. Then consider how a bunch of bags will limit opportunities for cheap ground transportation. You’ll be less nimble, and finding storage lockers in the post-9/11 world is not easy. Finally, you’ll appear less competent as a traveler. Thieves and scam artists look for people who lack know-how.

Limit yourself to one bag. This checkpoint is the first of many places where you’ll benefit by keeping baggage to a minimum.

The people in line behind you will be grateful, too.

Allow Extra Time to Clear Security

Much of the advice here might seem rather obvious. It is. But you’d be surprised how many people violate these very basic tenets of good airport etiquette and efficiency.

Even if you follow all of this advice, it’s a mistake to assume quick passage through airport security. Showing up late at the airport is a common and costly mistake.

In large airports, security lines tend to be long. Outbound business travelers can make Monday mornings slow and difficult, even in medium-sized airports. Holiday travel periods bring out lots of novice travelers who move slowly through security.

In these situations, allow 90 minutes or more to get through airport security. You might not need that much time, but on occasion, the time cushion could save you the expense of a missed flight.

Pack a good book. Relax in the waiting area and read it. Let others scramble and stress about making it to the gate on time.




Map Out a Strategy for International Calling

Why consider the cost of international calling during your trip?

International travel involves some obvious big-ticket investments: airfare, accommodations, and even food can become costly. Everyone frets over these charges.

Phone bills are not on the front line of concern. But those monthly bills arrive and bust more than a few travel budgets. It is an expense that is so underestimated that travelers make careless, expensive mistakes.

These charges often carry premiums when made in a hotel room, or eye-popping roaming charges on smart phone accounts. But a few sound strategies enacted before leaving home can make a big difference.

The strategy you choose will be dictated by your destination, your phone and its capabilities, and, of course, your budget.

Telephone Companies and Calling Cards

In some destinations, it could be far cheaper turn off your smart phone and visit a telephone business that sells cheap international calling time. In parts of Latin America, for example, you can pay under $2 U.S. dollars per minute at cabinas telefónica, a place where you’ll be assigned a private stall and a phone. Simply make your call and then pay the attendant.

A few caveats: always check the price-per-minute before starting the call. Rates should be displayed on the walls or in printed form. It also pays to ask someone local about the places with reliable connections and honest attendants.

In other destinations (Europe is an example), international calling cards are sold at convenience stores and hotels. In some countries, you simply swipe the card’s magnetic strip on a public pay phone and gain access, while other places require a code that is under a scratch-off cover on the card itself.

Costs can be quite cheap, but the cards are past their prime in many places because public telephones are far less common these days. Using the cards on a hotel phone can lead to nasty access fees.

International Roaming Plans

Many of us would rather use our own mobile device and bypass public telephones. But the first important question is this: will your particular phone function in your destination country?

To answer, find out if your device standard is GSM or CDMA. Your mobile phone company should be able to provide this information quite easily. In some places, CDMA  phones are rare, while in others, it is the prevalent standard. In those places, your GSM phone won’t work.

Again, your phone company (or a simple web search) should provide this information. Don’t waste money on a roaming plan if your device won’t function within the correct standard!

AT&T offers international plans that significantly lower the roaming charges you’ll pay in another country. They come with annual and monthly rates. Purchase on a monthly basis unless you’re a frequent international traveler. On the monthly deals, be sure the month will include all the days you’re away from home.

T-Mobile has ONE Plus™ International for $25/month that allows some added benefits such as unlimited in-flight Wi-Fi on Gogo-enabled flights and unlimited mobile hotspots.

Verizon’s Travel Pass starts at $5/day for Canada and Mexico, and $10/month in other international locations. Note that the charges are per device rather than per account. Monthly pricing runs from $15-$40, and there is a pay-as-you-go option that charges by the minute. Don’t assume your destination is included on the list of covered countries.

If your provider isn’t mentioned here, simply check for an international roaming plan. Make the buy for the shortest amount of time necessary to ensure your travel period is covered.

Buy a Temporary SIM Card

Mobile phones use a memory bit called a SIM card (short for Subscriber Identity Module) that allows the phone to access your provider’s service. The card pops out of the phone and can be exchanged.

Some travelers temporarily replace the SIM card in the destination country (after arrival and customs clearance), which means the phone will operate as a device native to that country. But it’s not always a simple transaction.

For example, some places will not permit the purchase of a SIM card with a credit card issued in another place. These regulations change frequently, so you’ll have to find out what prevails in your destination.

There is a SIMsmart Europe card that the vendor claims will work in 170 countries and be purchased for as little as $20 USD.

As with the roaming plans, it’s important to estimate the extent of needed international service for the trip. Many travelers want to make short calls back home on a regular basis and choose the lower-end options.

iPhone FaceTime

With smartphone access to Wi-Fi a feature called FaceTime allows Internet-based calls at no cost.

Once the internet connection is made, look at the settings on your iPhone and make sure FaceTime is enabled (in the “on” position). Then, simply call someone in your address book who also has FaceTime enabled and you’ll be face-to-face with them on the iPhone. The FaceTime connection has its own distinctive ring that is separate from the ringtone for conventional phone calls you receive.

Anytime the internet provides international access, costs drop significantly. No smartphone? There are other ways to access Internet-based International calling options.

Mobile Phone Apps

Computers share Voice over Internet Protocol, commonly abbreviated as VoIP. You don’t need to be a technical genius to understand that VoIP will enable you to make calls on your mobile phone without using conventional phone lines. You’ll be connecting via the Internet.

There are plenty of mobile apps available for download that will help with this process.

One is called Viber, which allows free texting, calling, phone messages and location-sharing. It will pick out people in your address book who are already using Viber, and you can call them with the touch of a finger. Viber works using Wi-Fi or 4G connections.

The Vonage Mobile VoIP Calling App works in a similar way. You can connect with other users anywhere in the world via the Internet.

If you connect via 4G with any such app, remember that roaming charges and data downloading charges could apply. This is a good time to turn the page and consider data roaming charges when overseas.

Watch Out for Data Charges

If your smart phone is enabled to receive data, you could be looking at a very unpleasant bill upon your return home.

This was a mistake I made in Mexico that wound up costing about $200 USD. I had falsely assumed that roaming data charges for Mexico were similar to the U.S. Too late, I discovered that is true only of certain phone plans — but not mine.

Always check with your provider to see if international data roaming is available at a discount, just as the call roaming plans are offered.

If you don’t need access to data while on vacation, turn off data roaming on your phone. Your owner’s manual or company help desk should be able to show you how to do so.

Perhaps you don’t own a mobile phone, or you haven’t been too impressed with the options suggested to this point. There are other ways to enjoy international calling on a budget.

Skype and Webcams

Anyone with a child studying abroad can tell you about Skype.

The Internet-based service allows people separated by great distances to chat with audio and video. Most devices come equipped with a built-in camera. If yours does not, a web camera that can be purchased at most computer stores for about $50.

Internet cafes around the world frequently are equipped with web cams for the purpose of using Skype, or some similar platform.

Skype membership is free, and you can speak for free with anyone else with a Skype account. You share video and voice calls, along with instant messaging and file sharing.

For Skype calls to mobiles and landlines worldwide, rates start at $6.99/month for most destinations. Rates and terms will vary by country, so become familiar with the rules for your destination.

Whatever option you choose, be sure to ask questions. Above all, make your prime consideration what works best in your intended itinerary.