Flying around the holidays can be . . . less painful

By Margaret Loftus
Globe Correspondent / November 22, 2009

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With cramped seating, recycled air, and zero sustenance, modern air travel is not for the faint-hearted. Factor in a flu pandemic, fewer flights, airports thronged with the traveling masses, and the usual threat of winter storms, and choosing to fly over the holidays may seem downright masochistic. But it doesn’t have to be. Short of upgrading, here are some strategies that can make flying more bearable this time of year.

Once largely left to fate, finagling a decent seat on a plane has become something of an art. Most airlines and online travel agents, such as Expedia, allow you to choose your seat when you book. But the legroom, recline, and amenities can vary widely, depending on the aircraft and carrier. Vet your options with Boston-based, which color-codes seats according to their desirability and notes the features, like laptop power ports and seatback video screens, that can make or break a long flight in steerage.

Don’t despair if you’re seatless, as is often the case when booking last minute. Check in for flights online as early as possible to get a shot at the seats typically released by airlines 24 hours ahead of boarding, including those in the exit rows (note that while they have more legroom, some seats in exit rows don’t recline). Cash-strapped airlines have started to charge a fee for some of the choicest coach spots, such as aisles and windows.

Sign up for flight status updates from the airlines or online agent by text or e-mail. Or better yet, download real-time flight information on your smart phone from Depending on the airline and airport, your BlackBerry/iPhone/Droid may also be able to download your boarding pass, skipping the step of printing it out at home or in the terminal. Tech-savvy fliers on Continental Airlines, for instance, can just hand their smart phones to Transportation Security Administration screeners and gate agents to be scanned. Luddites: Bring the toll-free phone number of your airline to call in case your flight is delayed or canceled, which is likely to yield quicker results than standing in line at the counter.

Still no luck getting out of that row across from the loo? Seatguru founder Matt Daimler suggests politely making your case to the gate agent, who may have decent seats to dole out once those passengers who are upgraded are reassigned. As a last-ditch effort, talk with the flight attendant, but be prepared to be nickel-and-dimed: United Airlines, for one, has begun to up-sell “economy plus seating,’’ with more legroom, even after the aircraft is boarded. Prices vary depending on the route.

Leave at least 30 minutes extra time to travel to the airport, suggests Phil Orlandella, Massport spokesman. He says finding parking at Logan International Airport won’t be a problem, but public transportation will be crowded and cabs in high demand, especially on the peak travel days of Wednesday and next Monday, when more than 100,000 people are expected to travel through Logan.

Now that carriers, with the exception of JetBlue and Southwest, charge $15 and up to check luggage, more passengers cram their belongings into a carry-on bag, leaving overhead space at a premium. Enforcement of size restrictions (not to exceed 22-by-14-by-9 inches) is often lax on domestic flights, with checking at the gate (oddly free) offered as an alternative if your bag is deemed too unwieldy to stow in the cabin. Considerably less hassle than the carry-on free-for-all and checking bags - but pricier - is luggage delivery service. United, for instance, has partnered with FedEx Express to offer overnight baggage shipment starting at $79 per bag.

However your bags travel, don’t forget the onboard essentials that will make those 30-plus inches of space tolerable for the duration of the flight. For Bryan Saltzburg, general manager of new initiatives at Newton-based, who flies at least once a week, that means noise reduction headphones, iPod, cellphone charger, batteries, a laptop loaded with movies, a big bottle of water (purchased beyond security, of course), hand sanitizer, travel-size container of disinfectant wipes, and high-energy snacks, like nuts and protein bars. Other frequent fliers swear by padded eye masks, pashminas, and a change of clothes, in case a checked bag goes missing. For children, think lots of snacks and entertainment, says Gabe Saglie, senior editor of, who just invested in a portable DVD player to pacify his 1- and 4-year-olds aloft.

You’ve made it to the airport without any huge hassles, and then you realize there’s nothing but fast food between you and your destination, six hours away. Check out for a rundown on the healthiest choices at standard airport eateries (the bean burrito, sans sour cream, is touted as the best option at Taco Bell). Just remember, the higher the altitude, the more the gas in our bodies expands, according to gastroenterologist Patricia Raymond, assistant professor of clinical internal medicine at Eastern Virginia Medical School. She recommends taking an over-the-counter activated charcoal capsule to avoid “jet bloat.’’

If you’ve got a considerable layover, splurging on a day pass to an airport lounge can be well worth the tab. For about $45 (or as little as $29 if you prebook at, you will have access to Wi-Fi, newspapers, up-to-date flight information, showers, snacks, and cocktails, depending on the lounge - not to mention peace and quiet. Plus, if your flight is delayed or canceled, the club staff may be in a better position to assist you with rebooking than the harried folks at the gate.

In a recent survey by TripAdvisor, more than half the respondents polled admitted that they would fly with the flu to avoid paying a rebooking fee. Fortunately, more airlines, including Air Tran, are beginning to waive that fee for sick passengers - with a doctor’s note - in the wake of the H1N1 influenza pandemic.

A crowded plane may seem like a veritable Petri dish, but it is no more perilous than other modes of public transportation, says Mark Gendreau, senior staff physician and vice chair of emergency medicine at Lahey Clinic in Burlington and assistant professor of emergency medicine at the Tufts School of Medicine. Not surprisingly, most of the bacteria on an aircraft are in the bathroom, especially the handles of the sink and the door. Swine flu, in particular, is transmitted by sneezing and coughing, which releases large droplets that can travel about three feet.

The good news is that the ventilation systems on planes - designed back when smoking was allowed - are surprisingly efficient, exchanging air flow about 15 times an hour. “If the ventilation is working correctly,’’ Gendreau says, “it’s doing a good job of minimizing the risk.’’

Gendreau suggests regularly sanitizing hands, drinking plenty of water to stay hydrated, and avoiding touching your nose, eyes, and mouth, which is how most respiratory viruses are introduced. Chronic sinusitis sufferers can use saline nasal spray to stay hydrated.

Gendreau also recommends directing the flow of the air vent to slightly in front of your face. “That will create enough turbulence so if there is an offending droplet coming your way, it doesn’t land on you.’’

And skip the airline-issue pillow and blanket, he says, “You don’t know where it’s been. Bring your own.’’

Margaret Loftus can be reached at