It’s dejà vu all over again.

A little over a year ago I was anxiously watching another volcano erupt and eventually disrupt my vacation plans.   Now I’m watching yet another volcano do the same thing, and my first thought was “glad I’m not traveling”, and my second thought was “how selfish!”.  I know some of my friends and readers are planning trips, and my disinterest is not particularly charitable.

I’ve learned that prior planning can make these kinds of natural disasters irksome, but not catastrophic for travelers.  Here are some tips to help keep the anxiety at a minimum.  If you’re looking for what to do if they cancel your flight, click here or scroll down to the previous entry.

1. Trip Insurance – If you’re booking a flight to or from Europe or Argentina/Chile, or within Europe or Latin America, it’s best to spend the extra for insurance.  READ the policy thoroughly to make sure ‘acts of God’ such as volcano eruptions are not excluded.  If they are, look at another carrier.    If insurance is not an option, contact the airline to find out what they will do if your flight is cancelled due to ash cloud problems.  Most will allow you to rebook with no change fees, but not all are so nice.   Best to double check ahead of time.

2. Hotel bookings – try to stay away from the hotels and booking services that require you to pay in full up front.  There are many lovely boutique hotels that you can book without having to pay in full weeks in advance.  Look carefully at their cancellation policies, and call or email them if it’s not on their website.  Many are run by caring individuals that will give you a break if you’re stuck because of the ash cloud.

3. Alternate destinations.  If you’re traveling to Europe or the Southern Cone of Latin America and it looks like you may have issues getting to your primary destination, have a backup plan switching your flight to another city or nearby country and then take a train, boat or rent a car to get you where you need to go.  If you’re coming to the US from Europe, Argentina or Chile, try taking a train to a country or area not likely to be affected and fly out from there.  Once you get to the US, you can take a flight easily from any airport to anywhere you wish to go, and there are pretty inexpensive fares available to most destinations.  Don’t be afraid to get creative.  If you’d like to see how I got around the 2010 ash cloud and got home after my flight was cancelled, click this link.

4. Pack clothes that can stand a few extra days.  If you do get stuck, you don’t want to have a suitcase full of clothes that are dirty and can’t be worn.   Pack a shirt and underthings that can be washed in a hotel sink and hung up to dry overnight.  You’ll be glad you did!

5. Have a fully charged mobile phone that works in the country you’re traveling to.  Most local phones will not function outside your home country.   Contact your carrier before you leave to see what needs to be done to make your phone work in your destination country.   A SIM card is usually all that is required.   If that option is too expensive, consider renting a phone when you reach your destination.   That way if you need to rebook a flight, or find another hotel in a hurry, you won’t be looking for an internet cafe.  You can also notify the car service, hotel, friends or family if you are late arriving.

6. Have the airline’s non-800 number written down in an easily accessible place.  If you have to change your flight, the 800 number that is on your ticket, or on their website is not accessible from mobile phones or many landlines in Europe or Latin America.   Don’t rely on the ticket counter at the airport to give you the correct phone number.

7. If you DO get stuck, stay calm.   Turn on that charged mobile, pull out the non-800 number for your carrier and start booking yourself another flight, and a hotel if you can’t leave until the next day.   Pack a few extra videos or toys for the kids along with an extra book or two to keep you interested while you’re stuck in the airport.

Best of luck to everyone traveling during this summer.   I hope the Travel Gods are kind to you.  If not, remember the best way to foil them is to be prepared with alternate plans!

After working within the airline systems on innumerable countries, with flight cancellations, re-booking and so on, I observed positive and negative behavior amongst my fellow passengers. I got first hand knowledge of what works and what doesn’t. Here are some tips for anyone looking to be prepared for the Wrath of the Travel Gods. I hope these are helpful.

1. Before you leave, get NON-800 number contact information from your airline carrier. The 800 numbers they hand out for US-based carriers do not work from mobile phones, and finding a landline in an airport is impossible.

2. When you check in, ask the desk agent what the procedure at that airport will be in the event of a cancellation due to weather or other Acts of the Travel Gods. Take notes – it’s different at each airport, and you want to know ahead of time to avoid the panic when the cancellation is announced.

3. When cancellation is announced, stay calm and don’t lose your temper. The ground staff for the airline are doing the very best they can, and in many cases, they are operating under strict guidelines. Don’t push them. They can’t clear the weather or cause a broken airplane to move, and they are not responsible for their airline’s policies. Start working on your own Plan B.  If you’d like to see how I got around the 2010 ash cloud and got home after my flight was cancelled, click this link.

4. If you are flying economy, you’re on your own for rescheduling. In some cases there will be no ground staff at the airport who can reschedule you, and if there are, the lines will be very long. Make sure you have a fully charged mobile phone with you, and call as soon as you can. If the line is busy, keep trying until you get in. Stay patient. The agent who finally answers your call will be able to re-route you. It may not be for a day or two, but they will get you on another flight. If you are flying in business or first class, go to the desk in the lounge and ask them for rerouting possibilities.

5. Don’t be afraid to get creative. Look into flying back overseas from a different country, or to a different country.  If Southern Europe is affected, try to reroute through Germany or England. If Northern Europe is affected, look into Madrid or Rome.  If you’re traveling to the US, try a train to a country not affected and fly to the US from there.   Don’t be afraid to fly to another city in the US if that is all that is available.  Flights within the US are plentiful and there are inexpensive fares usually available online.   If you’re in India, look to Singapore or Hong Kong.    If there is no connecting flight available and you’re traveling to a destination on the same land mass, look into high-speed or regular train option.

6. Be aware the airline may not offer you a hotel voucher, and if not, do not argue, do not get angry. There is nothing you can do about it. Quickly get on the internet and book a hotel before the other travelers do.

7. Don’t demand an upgrade in flying class as a result of a cancellation. You won’t get it by being demanding and argumentative. In most cases, there will not be any seats in the other classes available. There are a lot more seats in the economy section than in anywhere else – you’ll have a better chance of getting out flying in the cheap seats than waiting for an upgrade.

8. Try to calm down the passengers around you. The airline ground staff will bless you for it. You might even get an unexpected reward.

9. Finally, smile at the agent or ground staff and tell them how well you think they are holding up and handling this situation. They have an impossible job, with people yelling at them all the time, trying to make stranded, stressed-out people happy. In most cases, they get no thanks at all before moving on to the next upset passenger. Hearing a nice word from you will help lighten their burden. The grateful smile you get back will be the nicest thing that happens to you all day.

The above was learned first hand last year when my flight home was cancelled due to ash cloud issues. Yes, I did try to calm down the other passengers in my group. Yes, I was nice and patient and smiled. I told them I thought they were doing an excellent job in these trying circumstances, and in one case told a fellow passenger to get off the lounge staff’s back.

My reward – when I got my ticket re-booked on another airline, it was for First Class.

Remember the Golden Rule. It works.

It’s happened to all of us who’ve traveled across time zones.  Nausea, sleeplessness, drowsiness, achiness, and general brain-fog that turns a high IQ individual into Homer Simpson.  This dragging feeling can range from mildly uncomfortable to completely debilitating.  The farther you travel, the worse it gets.  If you’re reading this blog entry, the chances are you’ve been struck by this ultimate indignity inflicted on us by the Travel Gods.

I’ve read about all the special practices that I could find on the Internet.  I’ve talked to other passengers on Trans-Atlantic or Trans-Pacific flights, I’ve asked doctors, physical therapists, and heck – I’ve even talked to Chinese acupuncture and traditional medicine practitioners.   I’ve tried most of what was suggested, and if it didn’t make me sick, loopy, or just didn’t flat-out work, I incorporated it into my own routine, which changes depending on where I’m going.   The nice thing is I now have the jet lag effects down to a minimum, and I can function much better than before.  This blog will refer only to non-medicinal practices.   Discussions on sedatives is a whole ‘nother issue!  Read about that here.

Short-haul Travel (1-4 hours of time change):

  • If you’re traveling east, get up early – very early.   Try to wake up at the same time you would if you were already at your destination.  This way you are tired when you need to go to bed  once you arrive.
  • If you’re traveling west, try to take a later flight, and get up a bit later than normal.  It does help.
  • Get your stomach-clock on the new time zone immediately.  Eat breakfast and lunch on the destination’s time zone while you travel.  I’m not hungry at 4:30am, but I always eat something light while in the car on the way to the airport.  It really helps.
  • Set your watch to the new time zone as soon as the airplane takes off.  This gets your mind on the new time, and reminds you when to eat the lunch you brought on the plane with you.
  • Do NOT overdo the caffeine.  Take only as much as you are used to – a cup of coffee or tea in the morning.  If you load up on Coke or Diet Coke, you will only have problems falling asleep that night and your jet lag will be much worse.
  • Go to bed that night at the time you usually fall asleep, but in your destination time zone.  If you’re traveling west, stay awake and DO NOT NAP!  If you do, you’re hosed, and might as well admit defeat right there.   Follow your normal routine when going to bed, but try to keep noise down as much as possible.  Turning the TV on will just keep you awake, and really tick off your hotel neighbors.  A book or magazine will make you fall asleep faster.

Long-haul Travel (5+ hours of time change):

  • If you are  landing in the late-afternoon or evening, the most important piece of advice I can give is DO NOT SLEEP if you can, and if you have to, don’t sleep more than 2-3 hours on the flight.   I’ve learned through bitter experience that it increases that hit-by-a-truck feeling the next day, and jet lag effects last longer than if you stayed awake.  I bring books, videos, crossword puzzles and my ipod to keep me awake on long, long flights and layovers.  You want to be really tired when you land so you can get some sleep that night.
  • If you are landing in the morning (any time before noon), then get as much sleep as you can on the flight so you can stay up all day without napping.   At this point, caffeine is a good friend, and go ahead with the coffee, tea, and soda until about 3pm.  DO NOT imbibe any caffeine past 3pm in your destination time zone.  If you do, you will not sleep well that night.
  • Set your watch to your destination time zone as soon as you take off in the airplane.  This helps you wrap your head around the time change before you arrive.   If you have multiple destinations, I’ve found it helps to reset it on each flight.  It may sound like a small point, but I firmly believe that if you keep thinking “it’s _o’clock at home” your body will not accept the new time as readily.
  • Drink a lot of non-alcoholic fluids on the flight.  Keep hydrated.   Yes, it does mean more trips to the loo on the airplane, but as long as it’s not too turbulent, it also gives you an excuse to get up and get moving at times.  Dehydration will increase the severity of your jet lag.
  • Get up and do some stretches when turbulence permits.   Sitting in one position too long is not only uncomfortable, it can be detrimental to your health.
  • Go to sleep at an appropriate time your first night, and do not eat a meal just before retiring.  Stay away from that room-service menu!   If you eat a meal, you will not sleep well, and will be very muzzy the next morning.   If you are arriving very late, I usually bring some protein bars to nibble on the train or car to the hotel.
  • And this from reader Jaimie Goulding – “Having spent considerable time in the air myself “commuting” between West Coast USA and Asia/Pacific global region, I have 1 more suggestion to offer. Prolonged exposure to the pressurized cabin may be attributed to the flu-like symptoms some of us suffer (mild hypobaric hypoxia) upon landing, and I’ve found that a good long hot water soak in a deep hot tub or jacuzzi immediately relieves some of the edema, helps “rebalance” your cells and will certainly help you sleep better. Try to do the soak as soon after you land as possible. ”  –  Thank you, Jaimie!  This is an excellent addition.

And the MOST important piece of advice:

  • Get a massage as soon as you can after arriving, and definitely within the first 2 days.   If you land in the morning and have to work or sight-see the first day, then try to have a massage before sleeping that night.  This is the single most effective piece of advice I was ever given.   A massage will  decrease jet lag in a very simple way.  Tight muscles  prevent sleep, and wake you up at 4am.  Water retention and mild edema is uncomfortable.  Racy-brain and stress will increase the body’s reaction to the time change.  All of this is corrected by a 60 or 90 minute session with a good therapist.  Many good hotels in Asia offer special massages to reduce jet lag, and they WORK.   If they don’t have a Jet-Lag Special, then choose whatever service is most comfortable for you.

I have the routine set now so I can land after traveling for 23 hours, have a full day of productive meetings, a massage, a light dinner and a glass of wine, and then sleep for 8 or 9 hours and feel great the next day.  It’s a minor victory over the Travel Gods, but I’ll take it!

If you have a favorite practice that I have not addressed, please post it in a comment, or send me an email.  I will do a follow-up after I hear from some of my readers.