It’s a new year. Which means, as well as resolving to lose those few nagging pounds, it’s also time to ensure you get lounge access, free miles and the best possible outcome should your flight be canceled, says a recent New York Times article. “In 2013 travelers bemoaned being barred from planes, stranded in faraway cities and confused about what’s allowed on board,” it comments. “Resolve to not make the same mistakes in 2014 and prepare—not just for delays but also spur-of-the-moment getaways—with this five-step travel checklist.”
1. HAS YOUR PASSPORT EXPIRED?
Answering that question isn’t as simple as glancing at the date. Let’s say your passport doesn’t expire for another four months. You can book that last-minute flight deal to Bangkok, right? Wrong. Even if a United States passport is months away from expiring, some countries will not let you in, and it’s up to you to know which countries they are. If not, you could arrive at the airport only to be told you can’t board the plane. European countries including Germany and Spain require that your passport be valid at least three months after your departure date. Asian destinations like Thailand and Indonesia require a passport to be valid for at least six months beyond the date of your arrival. Bottom line: Check the entry and exit requirements (including rules about how many blank pages your passport must have) on the U.S. State Department’s website, which provides a searchable list.
2. DID YOU REMOVE THAT SWISS ARMY KNIFE FROM YOUR CARRY-ON BAG?
In March 2013, the Transportation Security Administration was making plans to allow pocketknives on airplanes but backed down after resistance from the flight attendants’ union and some lawmakers. So where does that leave you? The general rule is that you cannot put sharp objects in your carry-on bag with a few exceptions, like small needles for medical use and scissors with blades shorter than four inches.
Still have questions? The “Can I Bring?” tool on the My T.S.A. mobile app and website allows users to type the name of anything they wish to bring—snakes, golf clubs, handcuffs—and find out if it’s allowed on board. Of course, the final decision always rests with the T.S.A., so there could be a pat-down or, even if items like small scissors are generally permitted, they could be taken away if deemed a security concern.
3. CAN YOU SOLVE TRAVEL EMERGENCIES WITH A FEW FINGER TAPS?
The time to add apps that alert you to flight delays, find seats on alternate flights and score deals on same-day hotel rooms is before you need them, not when you need them. If you own a smartphone, a few basic (and free) apps are worth having, including Seat Alerts by ExpertFlyer (to help you change seats or find one on a different flight), Hotel Tonight (for last-minute room reservations) and a taxi or car service app. Those traveling abroad should also have contact information for the nearest United States Embassy.
4. CAN YOU GET INTO THE LOUNGE?
There are several ways to get lounge access. You can book an international business- or first-class ticket. Some domestic business- and first-class fares and routes are also eligible (like some trips between New York and Los Angeles). Or you can buy a lounge day pass (usually about $50), the best option for infrequent travelers. (With elite status, membership is often discounted.)
Another method: Apply for a co-branded credit card, like the Chase United MileagePlus Club card or American Express Platinum card. Alternatively, you can just buy a Priority Pass membership, beginning at $99 a year plus $27 for each lounge visit.
American Express is also rolling out its own lounge option. Known as the Centurion Lounge, it operates at Dallas/Fort Worth International and Las Vegas McCarran International, though more are on the way, including one at La Guardia Airport in New York. To get in you must be an American Express cardholder, have an airline ticket for that day on any carrier, and pay $50. But if you have a Platinum or Centurion card, access is free for you and immediate family or up to two guests.
5. ARE YOU USING THE RIGHT CREDIT CARD?
To determine which card is best for you, review the travel benefits and ask yourself if you’ll truly use them. If you’re traveling abroad, you will also want a credit card with no foreign transaction fees and, if possible, smart-chip technology, rare on American cards. The points blogger Brian Kelly lists cards such as Chase Sapphire Preferred without foreign transaction fees, and those including BankAmericard Travel Rewards Visa with smart chips.
One easy way to earn more miles this year is by adding one of your credit cards to an airline shopping portal (where you’ll earn miles for online purchases) or a dining reward program. For instance, you can go on the website for the American Airlines program AAdvantage Dining and register any credit or debit card you own. Then each time you eat at a participating restaurant, bar or club (a list is on the website) and pay with your registered card, you also get miles (in the case of American, up to five miles for each dollar you spend). It’s also a good way to keep your frequent flier account active if you don’t travel a lot.
Here’s to a terrific 2014 travel year!