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Flying Smart: 10 Tips

Have you flown lately? From buying tickets to boarding a plane, it's a new world out there. Increased security, fewer flights, earlier check-ins, luggage limitations: Even if you're not a fearful flyer, getting from point A to point B still can be stressful. Here's what I did to make a recent trip easier. Consider taking some of these steps the next time you fly:

1. Buy Tickets Online

Unless you have a complicated itinerary, where you require the help of a human travel agent, it couldn't be easier to book a flight yourself online at a major Web travel agent (Travelocity, Orbitz, Expedia). Have questions or prefer to book offline? These sites also offer 800-number service. If you need to save money on a flight and have a flexible schedule, also check the online discounters (Hotwire, Priceline.)

2. Select Your Seat Online

Depending where you purchase your tickets, you'll be shown a schematic of the interior of the plane with available seats indicated. Click on the one you want, and its location is recorded. That way, you won't arrive at the gate without a seat assignment and end up in the middle seat.

Avoid the middle seat by buying your ticket early and selecting your seat location online.

3. Opt for an E-Ticket

It's really not a ticket in the old fashioned sense; it's simply a pass code with letters and numbers that you present (either to a check-in machine or a human) at the airport to receive your boarding pass. I bought my e-ticket from Expedia. If I'd wanted a paper ticket, I could have had it mailed for an additional $14.95.

4. Print Out Your Boarding Pass Before You Leave Home

Since I was flying on Northwest Airlines -- the first airline to offer this amenity -- I went to the Self-Service Check-In page on the airline's site, keyed in my e-ticket pass code, and printed my boarding pass from my home computer 30 hours before take-off time. The boarding pass bears the traveler's name, flight information, and a bar code the flight attendant scans at the gate. Since I had no check-in luggage, having the boarding pass ahead of time spared me from waiting on a check-in line or at the gate to acquire one.

Bringing a downloaded boarding pass to the airport can spare you from having to wait in the check-in line.

5. Take Carry-On Luggage -- and Send the Rest Ahead

One of the stressors of flying -- especially when you must change planes -- is worrying whether your luggage will arrive the same time you do. If it's a short trip, pare down to the bare essentials and just take a wheeled carry-on that meets your airline's size requirement. In most locations, you can buy what you need when you arrive. If you must bring more stuff along, consider sending it ahead via FedEx. It won't save you money, but it will give you peace of mind -- and free you from dragging that suitcase everywhere.

6. Remember to Bring Government-Issued Photo Identification

At check-in, at security, and at the boarding gate you will be asked to show this with your boarding pass. Have both pieces handy so that you don't have to dig for them each time.

7. Hire a Car for Your Trip to the Airport

Parking at an airport can be expensive. And asking someone else to drive you there can be inconvenient. In many cities, mass transit is non-existent or impractical for someone with a suitcase. Although I could have hailed a taxi on the street where I live, I instead arranged for a private car the day before. The driver arrived a few minutes early in an immaculate black sedan and helped me with my luggage. I was able to put the $50 charge (which included toll and tip) on my credit card, helpful for record-keeping.

The driver arrived a few minutes early in an immaculate black sedan and helped me with my luggage.

8. Arrive at the Airport on Time

That means well before your flight departs. For my domestic flight, 75 minutes was recommended. If you're departing from a large airport, add 15 minutes to that. Longer if your flight goes overseas.

9. Prepare to Go Through Security

Although the security checkpoint line I joined at LaGuardia Airport was long, it moved quickly. Understand that you will need to separate your electronic devices (cell phone, PDA, computer, etc.) and put them in a bin supplied by the security person. They will be x-rayed separately. Random checks of passengers take place. If you are one of the unlucky ones pulled from the line, expect to have your body scanned with a wand and your luggage opened and inspected. You will also be asked to remove your shoes, so save time by wearing slip-ons rather than tie shoes.

10. Bring Something to Eat from Home

With a few first-class exceptions, airline food always has been notoriously bad. It still is. Now there's less of it. Fewer and fewer airlines are offering sustenance on shorter flights. That means you may get a free beverage and a small granola bar -- or just a drink. If your flight becomes delayed and you haven't eaten, that makes for discomfort. Consequently, airport vendors, from Starbucks to Burger King, are doing tremendous airport business. So much, in fact, that lines can be long and passengers risk missing a flight to acquire victuals, which can be low in nutritional value. The solution: Pack your own "care package" before you leave home.

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