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Travel & Holiday

Pack right for flights

Load your carry-on bag with essentials such as toiletries to survive long hours at the airport
The Straits Times - February 23, 2012
By: Akshita Nanda
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Pack right for flights

When travelling by plane, pack for a train - that is my new motto, coined after the bitter realisation that in-flight entertainment is no good when the aircraft is grounded.

Last week, my return flight from Mumbai to Singapore was cancelled at the last minute because the carrier is near bankruptcy, according to recent reports - leaving me in the increasingly common position of having to keep myself occupied for several hours at the airport before taking a replacement flight.

Veteran travellers may scoff or seek to brain me with their well-provisioned haversacks, but until six months ago, I never had to worry about surviving more than a couple of hours at an airport.

Every single one of roughly 100 flights I took before last August was charmed. Planes were punctual, connections seamless in spite of weather and every itinerary went as planned. My only grouses would be not having enough time to shop at duty-free shops or to complete the potboiler I had brought along to read.

But in the past six months, I've been on six flights from hell. It started with the one from Mumbai to Doha, when the plane stopped dead while taxiing off the runway. The passenger a few seats down from mine had found a note warning of a bomb on board.

Forget about making my connections to Heathrow and Toronto and arriving in time for a cousin's wedding. I had to de-plane, identify my luggage in pouring rain on the tarmac, and be sequestered with hundreds of other travellers until the plane was stripped to pieces. For security reasons, none of us was allowed out of the waiting area, though food and drink were provided.

For the next 16 hours, until the note was dismissed as a terrible practical joke, I stared at blank walls, tried to plug my ears against co-passengers' virulent tirades and tired children, all the while wishing fervently that I had packed more books to read in my carry-on bag or at least a change of clothing and breath mints.

On the way back from Toronto, my flight was delayed in order to pick up passengers from the United States, who had been stranded by Hurricane Irene. I barely made my onward connection at Frankfurt and arrived in Asia by the skin of my teeth. My luggage stayed on in Germany for a while, returning fit and snow- burnt five days later.

The flight provider did pay for the essential personal items I needed in the interim. However, even the thrill of shopping on someone else's dime could not drown out the thrifty little voice in my head that pointed out that my comfortable walking shoes and inner wear could have fit into my handbag, had I been so inclined.

For many years, I operated under the mistaken impression that smaller is better when it comes to carry-on luggage. It seemed more sensible and convenient to take a tiny tote for my wallet, cellphone, passport and holiday read, instead of a haversack equipped to keep me alive should I end up on a desert island.

However, over the past six months I have been stranded in airports in deserts (Doha) and on islands (Heathrow, England). I now prepare for the worst and pack accordingly.

Stringent and varying airport security regulations ensure that food and water are the hardest items to carry. Circumvent this with apples or oranges or some other such thirst-quenching fruit that can be consumed easily before boarding. Scale up, depending on how seasoned the traveller is: Last week in Mumbai, my father played the odds and bought biryani from one of the best restaurants in town before we checked in at the airport. When the flight was cancelled, the excellent food made the hours before the replacement flight much easier to bear. We spent most of the time snoozing on pleasantly full stomachs.

For the best possible snooze, stuff in a pair of socks, a favourite T-shirt, a pair of flip-flops and a warm shawl, so you can change from travel gear to sleep mode. During the eight-hour wait last week, a long-haul passenger on my flight was reduced to walking around the airport in bare feet because he could not stand to have his boots on any longer.

Never skimp on the toiletries, for nothing brightens the mood like being scrubbed clean (especially as grubbier co-passengers look on enviously). Definitely pack the toothpaste, toothbrush, lip balm and comb, add in shower gel, face wash, shaving cream and anything else you fancy. Remember to bring a hand-towel or tissues as well, if only to mop up the liquid spill when all the toiletries are squashed together.

Also consider a portable pharmacy of paracetamol, throat lozenges, motion sickness pills, medicated oil and band- aids, everything needed to keep yourself alive while marooned in the midst of an airport. Just be prepared to hand out samples to hypochondriac fellow travellers and overwhelmed parents with hyperactive kids who do not trust the local pharmaceutical brands.

If the bag is still light enough to lift, it is time to add entertainment. If it is too heavy, take out everything else and put in these anodynes instead: long, entertaining novels (choose the kind that can be easily discarded after reading) and a deck of cards for solitaire.

Some tout the virtues of Kindle and e-books or the multiple games available on today's laptops and cellphones. To them, I quote words of wisdom from two friends stuck in airports recently: 'After a while, I ran out of battery.'

The key to surviving and even enjoying airport hell is to treat the journey as more important than the destination and to embark on each trip only after adequate preparation for the worst possible scenario.

It also helps to qualify, or pay, for airport lounge memberships. Then again, when I tried my luck with that at Paris' Charles De Gaulle Airport, every seat in the lounge was occupied. I took croissants and coffee to-go and ate while balanced on my oversized carry- on case.



Budget no longer a poor man's way to fly