Travel Tips for Novice International Airline Flyers

I’m not the most organized person in the world, and since I usually have to learn from my mistakes, I thought I’d generously share them so you can learn, too.
On my first overseas trip in early 2010, I decided I wanted to travel simply. This meant making do with one carry-on and the largest purse I could find. Mind you, I was going to be gone for nine days, but it seemed like a great idea at the time.

I made sure I took more than enough unmentionables, which were easy to pack and didn’t take up much room. I packed a pair of black leather boots that were supple enough to fold over and rolled my jeans into tight little balls. I chose tops that weren’t bulky and even had room for a dress that didn’t wrinkle or crease.

Since it was late January, I dressed in layers, putting a brown turtleneck over a lightweight shell. I wore jeans, brown boots and a brown jacket. I carried a long, dressier coat, perfect for any London fog that might roll my way.

I checked the US Airways carry-on luggage policy and made every use of my 45 allowed inches (14x9x22), weighing the bag a couple of times to make sure it didn’t exceed 40 pounds. Hah! It didn’t even top 30.

My one carry-on bag plan worked fine during my trip. I wore a pair or two of jeans twice, but they weren’t really dirty from the first wearing. If I wanted, I could wash something out, or buy something new to wear.

It was in Gatwick on my return trip home that my carefully laid plans crumbled. My bag didn’t fit into the test boxes they have for carry-on luggage. In fact, I could have stomped on it, squashed it and pulled out half the contents and it still wouldn’t have fit into the test box.

So I checked my bag and thought of all the things I could have packed into a bigger suitcase-all the bulky sweaters, the jackets, the shoes, if I had just checked a bag in the first place. Next time I’ll be sure to check the carry-on requirements for both airports, coming and going.

To further demonstrate my inexperience, I offer the duty-free products lesson. At the Charlotte Douglas International Airport in NC, I purchased smokeless tobacco at the request of a friend in England.

The friend sent an e-mail with specifics: the tobacco comes in 50g pouches with five pouches to a box for a total of 250g, the amount that could be carried in duty-free. He joked that I would have nothing to declare but my genius.

At the airport I quickly located the smokeless tobacco, but couldn’t remember the allowable size limit, so I texted my friend. When I didn’t hear back immediately, I decided to go ahead and purchase a box so I could get to my gate with plenty of time to spare. I figured if he got more than he wanted, well, that would just be a bonus.

It wasn’t until I was walking through London Gatwick Airport, the box of tobacco swinging in a plastic bag, that I was stopped. An airport employee approached and asked to see the tobacco. He asked if I had more of it before informing me that I had twice the allowable limit for duty free status.

This is where it helps to look totally clueless (as I was). He instructed me to go to customs and said if I was lucky they might let me off. He went into a room and a moment later another employee came out and asked where I was from. I told him and he consulted a book and told me how many pounds he could charge me for the tobacco. I don’t remember how much it was, but it was more than I could or would pay for tobacco.

The employee let me off with a “don’t do it again” warning (as if!), and of course I was grateful because at the least they could have confiscated the tobacco. So instead of declaring my genius, I declared my dumb luck.

At the risk of sounding more stupid than inexperienced, there is one last thing. Do not, I repeat, do not wear high-heeled boots or shoes while playing tourist. Sure they look good, but that’s little consolation when your feet start hurting after five minutes of walking. And when you’re in London and want to see Buckingham Palace or anything else, you will need to walk–for hours. I was tempted to pull my boots off and go barefoot, but it was February and I didn’t want to draw attention.

During the trip I managed to lose one earring, one brown glove, a pair of white pants of thin material, referred to as the “new longjohn” for women, and worst of all, my Blackberry. Yet I managed to get over there and back in one piece, and I’ll be a little wiser on my next trip.

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