Air travel today is at best a humbling and demeaning proposition. And for all but the wealthiest and best-connected, words like hell and purgatory are not an exaggeration.
Well, in a few days we're going back to Hellhole Central - Detroit Metropolitan Airport - where the International Terminal check-in lines are maddeningly long and chaotic. The holding compound often resembles a refugee camp; the meager selection of cafeteria food has Michelin-star price tags, and a simple domestic beer in a plastic cup costs $5 and up.
And that's without mentioning the perpetually constipated parking situation or the airport traffic snarls or the delays and cancelled flights.
Maybe the new terminal that's going up midfield will alleviate the situation, but we're hardly holding our breath given that the airport management will undoubtedly stay the same.
Hellhole Two on this particular trip will be London Heathrow, marginally better than Detroit given the wide variety of high-end shops, international eateries, and improved access to the city. But equally gruesome in terms of interminable lines at security checks, passenger check-in, luggage carousels, passport control, and lines to board the buses that move travelers to one of the four terminals.
Flying between these two places can be equally unpleasant. You sit for eight hours stuffed into your 19-inch-wide seat with nothing to amuse you but a beverage, plastic food, and a movie that you may or may not actually be able to see.
Arriving in London in the wee hours achy, irritable and jet-lagged, you've still got several hours to kill before afternoon check-in at your hotel. And, of course, it's probably raining cats and dogs.
Who said that getting there is half the fun?
Flying - domestic or international - isn't going to get any better in the near future, all the experts say. Gruesome gridlock is the more likely scenario. That's the bad news.
The good news is that there are a few small things that tormented travelers can do to minimally ease the aggravation on the ground and in the air.
Start at the airport:
w Get there early, much earlier than called for in the regulations. The check-in lines will be shorter and the staff less hassled. You've got a much better chance, too, of getting the airplane seat you requested or changing the one you didn't.
w To beat the high-priced, low-quality airport food, pack some of your own home-prepared stuff and your own bottled water. It'll tide you over until dinner time. And that makes for rather sweet revenge!
w Get away from the jabbering, noisy crowds that automatically collect around the gates like wasps in a jam jar. Search out some more secluded area in another part of the terminal. Relax. Get into a good novel or a guidebook. Do some puzzles. Listen to music. Think happy thoughts.
w Take minimal luggage. It will help those transfers and is an added safety factor.
w Dress for comfort rather than style.
In the air, comfort and tranquility are equally hard to come by given the almost intolerably cramped conditions - at least in economy. But getting a good seat does help somewhat, especially on the long-haul flights.
The first thing to learn is which seats not to choose:
w The ones close to the galley - too much in-out action.
w Seats near the toilets. Noise, lines, and occasionally odors.
w Seats that don't fully recline. Incidentally, this an increasingly contentious issue and the number of passengers who believe, as we do, that seats should not recline is growing. There's already precious little space in economy and reclining just exacerbates the problem. There's nowhere to go if the person in front of you does recline and you're in a nonrecliner. You'd better know where those nonrecliners are usually located. They're usually found in the last row of the aircraft or particular cabin section and just forward of the emergency exit doors.
w Middle seats. They add to the already claustrophobic, squashed-in feeling, especially if you have a couple of 300-pounders on either side of you. Airplanes with a 3-4-3 seating configuration have the most number of middle seats, so pay careful attention to which aircraft model you'll be taking.
w Ask instead for seats closer to the front of the aircraft because you'll usually be served first by the food and beverage carts and will generally disembark first, too.
w If you go for the popular bulkhead seats, be aware that while these provide more legroom, they are often near the toilets and galleys, may not offer any under-seat storage, and have restricted views of the video screen.
The best way of ensuring that you actually do get the seat you want:
w Reserve your seat when you purchase the ticket, ideally through a well-connected travel agent who can call in your seating requests.
w Get to the airport as soon as possible, and confirm your seat with the check-in person.
And finally, have realistic expectations from the moment you leave home. Relax. Focus on the future. And endure. The best is yet to come.
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