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Down Under the Weather

Q. Every time I fly from Los Angeles to Australia, I get very sick. Last time, I was sick for over six weeks when I got back home. I was told that I shouldn't fly longer then a five hour flight. Something to do with the air on the planes. Is this common?

A. Actually, it’s not uncommon, especially if one is older. Studies have shown that long flights create health problems of varying degrees, usually minor. One solution is to fly in a Boeing Dreamliner 787, which has an advanced air filtration system and also flies at a low “cabin altitude” which helps passengers breathe with less effort. These cabins are also kept at a higher humidity level, which keeps eyes, mouths, and nasal passengers hydrated.  Keeping mucous membranes moist supposedly helps prevent germs and bacteria from becoming a problem. As the Australian Business Traveller states, "If your nasal passage mucous membrane cracks in-flight — common on long-haul flights — you also open the body up to a much easier pathway for germs to get in."

Early Boarding with EarlyBird Fares

Q. My wife and I are flying Southwest and have purchased the option for EarlyBird check-in. What exactly is required to early board with Southwest?

A. Boarding positions for EarlyBird passengers are assigned in the order they are purchased, so the earlier you buy, the better your position in the queue. However, passengers who have purchased Anytime Fares and Business Select do take priority over EarlyBird buyers. That means you might not necessarily get an A boarding position, but you'll still be among the first to choose seats.

You can access your boarding passes and check-in 24-hours before your scheduled departure time, though this will have no bearing on your boarding position.

Is This Seat Taken?

Q. My husband, son, daughter-in-law and I recently flew from Milwaukee to Ft. Lauderdale on Southwest. We paid the extra fee on each of our tickets to board early. We checked in exactly 24 hours in advance and received a boarding number of 32 & 33, our son and his wife got numbers 30 & 31. When we boarded, there was ONE woman in the middle of three seats with the row in front of her empty. When we tried to sit in the row, she said no, she was saving those seats – and put a small carry on suitcase in the middle seat in front of her so no one sat there. When general boarding started, some of the last people on the plane were her travel companions – they strolled in and got seats all together and didn’t have to pay a cent for it. We got seats together a few rows behind this person, so it wasn’t a big deal at the time. But the more I think about it the madder I get. Is this a way to get around those fees? Should I have told a flight attendant?

A. This is not at all allowed. Yes, you should have contacted a flight attendant immediately. Or politely returned that small suitcase to her and sat down with your family. I’ve heard of this thing happening on cruise lines (people saving deck shares) and around resort pools, but never on a plane. Carnival Cruise Lines has begun cracking down on this practice, by placing stickers with the current time on chairs that been “claimed” by passengers with books, towels, etc. After 40 minutes, if the chaise is unoccupied, staff remove the items and leave a note where to claim them.

Planning for Europe in Summer 2018

Q. We are planning ahead for a trip to four major European cities (Paris, Amsterdam, Venice, Rome), leaving in late June and returning in late July.

We have yet to decide if we will start the trip in Paris or start in Rome, or some other configuration, whatever works out to be the most inexpensive option. Which days are cheapest to fly abroad?

And should we book one way tickets or can one get a round trip to one city and then fly home from a different city? We are in our seventies and also would like to book 3-4 star hotel rooms. Is it possible to book from the rail stations as I did in my younger days? This would allow us to stay longer if we have more to do and perhaps even skip a city. Wondering if the Eurail pass is the way to go or just get train tickets when we need them.

A. You should probably book an “open jaw” round-trip ticket rather than two one-ways. It doesn’t much matter what arrival and departure cities you choose since the fares will be similar, but typically flying Monday to Thursday will be cheaper than weekend travel. As for hotels, booking on the fly may be difficult in summer, depending on the city. You can always check Hotelwatchdog as you go, of course! Seniors can often get discounted rail tickets in Europe and I would just buy point-to-point rail fares since you won’t be taking very many train trips during your stay. However, the train from either Paris or Amsterdam to either Venice or Rome can take quite a while. Paris to Rome can take 11 hours, Paris to Venice 13 hours, and Amsterdam to Venice 18-19 hours, so you might consider flying unless you’re die-hard rail fans.

One-Way Ticket to Paris

Q. My grandson has purchased a one-way ticket from Los Angeles to Paris, via Copenhagen. Are there no restrictions against traveling abroad on a one-way ticket?

A. There's no rule against flying to the European Union from the United States on a one-way ticket. Passport control will sometimes question arriving passengers, asking where they plan to stay and for how long, etc., but it's perfectly fine to admit to having a one-way ticket just so long as it's made clear that there are no plans to stay beyond the allowed 90-day visa.

Fees for changing dates on a return ticket can be awfully expensive. If your grandson isn't quite sure when he wants to return home or even what city he'll be in when he does decide it's time to come home, flying on a one-way ticket could be the better option. Still, it's a good idea to have some loose plan of what cities he might want to return from, sticking to airports serviced by low cost carriers where it's easy to find a cheap fare back to the States (Copenhagen, Paris, London, Oslo, Stockholm...).

Baggage Fees Lower Online

Q. I recently flew from Atlanta to Chicago. According to the airline site which I checked before booking, one checked bag should have only cost $25. However when I checked my bag at the airport, I had to pay $30 for my one checked bag. Why the difference?

A. Some airlines will offer a slight discount on checked baggage if you purchase before your flight as opposed to waiting to pay at the airport during check-in. This practice is more common among low cost carriers such as Frontier or Spirit.

External Medical Devices and the TSA

Q My husband has a food tube implanted in his stomach. He uses nutritional supplements to feed himself several times a day. Do you know if there are any TSA rules governing wearing a food tube onto the plane? We are hoping to travel to Orlando the end of February and want to be prepared.

A. Passengers are allowed to bring external medical devices aboard flights, and this includes food tubes.

Your husband should alert a TSA officer prior to screening that he has a food tube and present the officer with a TSA notification card. It's also a good idea to bring along a note from a physician and any other medical documentation.

You'll find more info on traveling with external medical devices at

Blocked Out Seats

Q. Do airlines block out a large section of seats to make it appear there are fewer seats remaining? When our airline cancelled the final leg of our trip, we reviewed the airline website for flights returning a day before as well as after our original return date. None of the alternate flights offered adjoining seats. Yet, when we called the airline, they immediately assigned us two seats together in a section that appeared to be completely filled on their website. How likely is it that we will be reassigned seats?

A. Yep, some airlines do block out seats, even if the plane is half-empty, and sometimes a call to the airline will sort things out. They do this in part to accommodate last minute business customers who are flying on higher-priced “walk up” fares, to cater to their preferred frequent travelers, and also, in some instances, to entice consumers to purchase “premium” seat assignments for a fee. Even if you end up not sitting together, it’s always possible to ask fellow passengers to trade seats. A good strategy is to offer to buy the accommodating passenger a couple of cocktails on board, or bring along some Starbucks gift cards ($10 should do the trick) as a thank-you.

Booking Fares Without Specified Dates

Q. Is it possible to by an airline ticket without knowing the exact date of travel? I’m wondering if I can purchase a ticket ahead of time and decide later when I was going to fly.

A. You can always purchase an airfare and change the dates of travel, but the fare may change (either up or down) for travel on the date you decide to fly, and in most cases the cheapest fares will also require a change fee if you do decide to change dates (and you can be sure it won't come cheap!). Of course, you could buy an expensive fully-refundable fare and change the dates all you want, but I’m guessing that’s not what you had in mind.

If it suits your itinerary, there's always Southwest Airlines, which doesn’t charge a change fee. But again, the fare on your new dates of travel may be higher or lower than the fare you originally bought (you’ll either pay the difference if higher, or get a travel voucher for future travel if lower).

Post-Security Water Bottle Confiscated at Secondary Gate Screening

Q. On a recent flight back to the U.S. from Australia, I connected via Beijing. At the connecting gate, passengers were directed through a secondary security screening before being allowed into the gate area. The screeners took issue with a bottle of water I had purchased at the airport and refused to let me bring it on the plane, even though it was obvious I had purchased this water during my connection in the area beyond the initial security check. What's the big deal?

A. We've seen this happen before at secondary screenings in international airports. Bagged and sealed bottles purchased at Duty Free are allowed to pass while bottles of water purchased at the post-security newspaper shop are confiscated. Even more frustrating, there doesn't seem to be a whole lot of consistency around who allows what and when. It's a gamble and there's not much you can really do aside from politely surrender your water and board your flight.

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