It’s no secret that air travel right now is a bit of a hassle. More than a hassle, actually. It’s a full-blown gong show.
Long lines, cancelled flights and lost luggage have plagued many Canadian passengers attempting to travel in the wake of easing COVID-19 restrictions, and some are finding their vacations bookended by pure airport hell.
Air Canada and Toronto’s Pearson airport again claimed the top spots for flight delays during the first week in July, marking at least four days in a row when the country’s biggest airline has placed No. 1 for delays of any large carrier worldwide.
Meanwhile, Pearson, Air Canada’s main hub, was the sole airport across the globe to see more than half of flight departures delayed.
There have also been stories of passengers losing their luggage for upwards of five days, while across the pond, airports have asked travellers to pack a “plane picnic” as staffing shortages leave some U.K. catering services struggling to keep up with demand.
Perhaps the biggest sign of the times came late last month when Air Canada announced it would make “meaningful reductions” to its flight schedule in July and August to help cope with ongoing flight delays and airport congestion.
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With so many of us champing at the bit to get away after two-plus years of being sequestered due to pandemic travel restrictions, what’s the best way to survive the summer air travel chaos that’s afflicted Canadian airports and beyond?
Global News spoke with Christina Guan, a Canadian travel expert based out of Vancouver, to pick her brain about how to pack like a pro and dodge as much of the travel-related stress as possible this summer holiday season.
Stick to a carry-on, and make sure it’s smartly packed
The best way to avoid lost luggage is not to check your bags, says Guan, who is used to packing light when she jet sets around Europe — something she’s been documenting on her blog, Happy to Wander, since 2014.
“You want to maximize the number of items you bring,” she says. “One rule of thumb I go by is to make sure that every top goes with every bottom, goes with every shoe, goes with every jacket.”
For the fashion-forward, or those going on longer vacations, Guan says light packing may not be an option, so she recommends bringing a carry-on full of essentials, including medications, that will tide you over in case you don’t get your bags right away.
“Again, prepare for a worst-case scenario, so pack your carry-on, assuming your checked bag may not make it on time.”
Guan says it’s good practice to buy refillable containers that meet the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority’s (CATSA) guidelines. That way, she says, you won’t face extra scrutiny at security and don’t have to sacrifice bringing your favourite toiletries and cosmetic items.
She also says travellers can save themselves a lot of hassle at security checkpoints (and save room in their carry-on, too) by using packing cubes — small fabric organizers that allow you to condense your clothing.
“If (security) have to look through your carry-on, after they look through it everything is ruined and all your organized packing spills all over the place. And that can be very stressful and time-consuming to get it all back in place. But if it’s in a packing cube, it’s all organized, and you can slot everything back quickly and be on your way.”
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Use your personal carry-on item wisely
Another way to carry more stuff through airport security is to maximize your personal carry-on, Guan says.
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While she sees lots of people, especially women, bring a small purse or handbag onto the plane, Guan says she routinely travels with a backpack that carries her camera equipment, computer, and other personal items.
For those who like to travel with a pillow, Guan says it’s also possible to remove the stuffing of a travel-size pillow and put other soft items in the pillowcase, like jackets and hoodies.
Pack a tracking device
If you do have to check a bag, Guan recommends putting some type of tracking device in your suitcase, like an Apple AirTag.
“I’ve seen on a lot of Facebook travel groups that people are hearing from airlines that they can’t locate their lost bags. But if they have a tracking device on the suitcase, they are showing the airline where their bags are and even if it doesn’t speed up the process of getting their bag back, at least they know where it is and can help locate it.”
In fact, a Toronto woman recently told Global News about her success in tracking down her suitcase that got lost on a short flight between Toronto and Saint John, N.B., earlier this month.
On the trip, Kelly Laing said she slipped an AirTag into her luggage for “peace of mind.”
For five days she tracked her luggage until it eventually made its way to her destination.
Give yourself the gift of time
“I’m a huge advocate of getting to the airport early,” says Guan, who arrives early for every flight, even under normal circumstances.
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Guan says by arriving early, you have a jumpstart on long lines and it lowers the likelihood of missing a flight.
Plus, she says, there might be an opportunity to get on an earlier flight, avoiding the stress of a missed connection due to flight delays.
Keep a list of important numbers and locations
One major mistake people often make is not being organized with their documents, Guan says.
Creating a digital or hardcopy note that contains flight and hotel information and contact details, reservations and important phone numbers will save you the stress of digging through your email or a stack of paper when you need to access that info.
It’s also important to document any delays or complications you might face, in case you need to claim compensation in the future.
“The airlines will try to find ways to potentially not have to compensate you, but if you have good documentation in place they won’t be able to change their story or find a loophole to not give you what you’re entitled to.”
Prepare for a long journey
Guan says she can give tips all day long, but airport lineups and flight delays are often a matter of fact, and people will do best if they manage their expectations and prepare for long days.
“Picture what the worst-case scenario might be and plan around that, because if everything is really screwed up in the airport, at least you have a plan.”
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Guan recommends packing some snacks or meals, downloading movies or podcasts, and getting ready to ride it out.
Be flexible — and patient
“After not being able to really travel freely for more than two years, everyone is a bit rusty and out of practice,” says Guan with a laugh.
If possible, booking an extra travel day on each end of your trip can help alleviate stress if things go awry.
Guan also calls summer travelling “an absolute nightmare” in the best-case scenario, and recommends that if you can save your holidays for the off season, you’re likely to face fewer airport and travel-related headaches, and your wallet will thank you, too.
“Even a summer travel deal is going to be substantially more expensive than if you planned the same trip for a few months later. Some of my favourite trips have been in the shoulder or off-season because it’s so much quieter and the prices are so much lower.”
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