It was a rather early start, especially since today was North American time change day. My 08:00 departure for Toronto left Halifax on time. It was a bumpy 2 hour ride west, so, par for the course in March. This time of year, travelling to Europe from Halifax almost always requires a stop at YYZ.

I’ve travelled all over the world from this airport. Los Angeles, Auckland, Frankfurt – none of these have happened without a stop here.  I’ve never really understood the reputation for being a difficult airport among Canadian travellers. I’ve usually found the signage to be clear and operations to be reasonably efficient. It is, of course, plagued with the same issues any large airport faces, but there’s little that Pearson Airport can do about that itself.

Tonight, I’ll depart for London. It is mildly annoying to spend 2 hours flying west to go east, but that’s a result of living in a relatively small city in the off season. Halifax has plenty of service to Europe, just very little outside the April to October high season.

It’s a rainy, cold day here in Toronto, so I’ll be sticking around at the airport. As much as I enjoy this city, I really don’t feel like dealing with the damp cold and expense of getting into town. Instead, I’ll enjoy my cold smoothie (then, maybe even a beer later), and wait to head to the world’s best city.

Let’s Talk About Baggage

04-03-2019 - Baggage

Let’s talk about baggage.

Baggage can be a real nightmare when you’re travelling. For 14 years, I’ve been working for a major airline, and most of that time has been spent in baggage services. The fact that there is an entire department dedicated entirely to delayed (rarely lost, to be fair) and damaged baggage should be the first indicator that all does not always go smoothly.

Airlines, their contracted ground handlers, airports, and everyone else involved in the complex process of transporting your bag are successful almost every time. When bags are delayed it is most often due to circumstances nobody could reasonably have controlled, and it will continue to happen as long as bad weather, malfunctioning equipment, and delayed flights continue to happen. There are things you can do, though, to help prevent delayed or damaged bags or help to reunite you with yours more quickly if the unfortunate does happen.

The following list is my opinion, but most people working with delayed and damaged bags would agree with all of these things. So, here is my list of things you can do as a traveller to avoid baggage drama:

1) Don’t check a bag. This is the one way to be certain that you’ll have everything at the other end. I realise that this isn’t practical for everyone, but whenever possible, avoid checking a bag. Bear in mind, too, that most items that would prevent you from carrying your bag on board, such as toiletries, are available on arrival in most countries. That said, also recognise that space is not infinite on you flight, and you may be forced to check your bag if it doesn’t meet your airline’s carry-on baggage regulations. Nearly every airline has become far stricter about adhering to the rules.

2) Keep valuable or important items in your carry-on bag. Keys, travel documents, medication, expensive electronics, and anything else you could need during a flight or within about 48 hours of arrival should be kept with you. In the case of medication, in Canada, the USA, the EU, and many other areas, if prescription medication is in its original container and labelled properly, you will be permitted to carry it through security screening, even if it is in excess of the 100 millilitre rule. Medical or mobility devices, such as wheelchairs and walkers, are likewise exempt from most airlines’ checked baggage fees.

3) Have a name, an email address, and telephone number on a piece of paper inside your checked bag. Addresses aren’t always recommended, as someone with ulterior motives may find your bag and, knowing you’re not home, take advantage of that situation. It’s unfortunate, but it can happen. The airline’s baggage services agent will contact you and make arrangements to get the bag where it needs to go. Also, notice I said inside. Tags come off of bags frequently for numerous reasons, so having a name inside the bag will speed up the reunification process!

4) Ensure your bag is self-contained. A lot of backpacks can be zipped up to hide any straps or belts, and I strongly recommend that you do so. Conveyor belt systems have lots of gaps and places where a clip or a strap could snag. A snagged bag will, at minimum, be damaged, is likely to be delayed, and could easily be destroyed. Belt systems in airports are ruthless. If your bag can’t be zipped closed, put it in a plastic bag, ideally a clear one. Leave a handle free for the airline’s tag, or avoid tying the bag shut until a tag is affixed. Use any provided tubs or bins on baggage systems, as these help prevent damage.

5) Avoid hard shell bags like the plague, especially for travel in cold climates. A well-made hard shell bag will withstand just about anything, however a poorly made bag (i.e. nearly all of them built after about 1980) just gives you a false sense of security. As soon as temperatures fall below freezing, the cheap plastic becomes brittle, and damage becomes much more likely. Working in baggage services in Canada, I can tell you, this is an exceptionally common problem!

6) I know this sounds patronising, but if you are in a place where you are expected to tag your own bags, ensure you’re reading the instructions and doing it correctly. Poorly affixed baggage tags coming off are an extremely common reason for delayed baggage incidents. Airline staff are (mostly, as with anything, some people are just jerks) happy when you check that you’re doing it right. Self-tagging is becoming an industry norm, and there really isn’t a single standard tag, so how to do it will vary between airlines and airports.

7) Keep your bag within the airlines’ weight restrictions. This is for at least two reasons. First, bags with more weight inside than they’re designed to handle can be damaged. Handles, seams, and other structure will not withstand both the rough ride the baggage belt systems give them and significant weight. Also, many countries’ health and safety laws require that two people complete lifts on items heavier than a particular value. This means that your bag could sit unmoved while a baggage handler waits for a colleague to help them. That time may have been the time required for your bag to make its connection.

8) Keep your bag within the airlines’ size restrictions. The main reason for this, besides avoiding oversized fees, is what airlines call bulk-out situations. Bulk-outs occur when there are too many items for an aircraft’s cargo pits. When this happens, bags are left behind and sent on the next flight. Typically, the largest bags are the first to be left behind, as the goal is to get as many bags flying as possible. If it is unavoidable that you’ll be travelling with bulky items, allow extra time for those to be transported, particularly during peak travel periods. In Canada, this tends to be around the Christmas holiday period (mid-December until mid-January), though this varies from place to place.

9) Be on time. In a large airport, your bag’s journey from the baggage drop station to the aircraft is often more than an hour. It has to traverse a sorting system, be cleared by that country’s security agency, be sorted to the correct area, then loaded onto your flight. If any of those things is slowed at all, your bag will not make the flight. Giving your bag a minimum of 90 minutes is strongly recommended, even in medium-sized airports. I know that hanging out in airports is boring, but it really will help ensure you get your bags on time.

Delayed baggage can happen, and there is often nothing you can do beyond the above to prevent it. Following the above advice won’t guarantee that your bag won’t be mishandled by a baggage system, that it won’t get loaded to a wrong area through human error, or that the tag won’t get torn off somehow. You will know, though, that you tried and that because your name is in the bag, you’ll likely get it back quite quickly!

Travel is Incredible!

Travel is incredible.

01-03-2019 - Documents

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”

— Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad / Roughing It.

The above quote is just as apt now as it was when Mark Twain wrote it. I’m passionate about travel as education, and this quote summarises quite nicely how I feel. I want to share just how much travel can change your life, and how accessible it really is.

I’ve been travelling independently for nearly 20 years. My first real adventure was in New Zealand. I’d made friends with a student on exchange to my high school, and decided to pay a visit. For eight weeks, I explored what remains my favourite place on the planet. It was liberating, and opened my mind in so many ways. It was with that trip that I was hooked. I’ve since been to countries all over the world. I’m not rich, but manage to travel regularly. Hopefully my experiences will help you to see that you can do it too.

When people discover how much I’ve travelled, they often wonder how I manage it. Travel is, in theory, expensive. It doesn’t have to be. Hostels, couch surfing, work away, and other options do exist, and these can allow you to travel without spending all of your cash. How important is a private hotel room to you? Can you make do with taking a bus rather than a train to save a few euro? All of these allow you to travel more. I’ll be the first to admit that budget travel isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but it isn’t all dirty beds and fast food, either. It’s what you make of it, and travelling more cheaply nearly guarantees a closer interaction with local people.

On Road Trip Writer, I’ll be sharing my travel experiences with you. You’ll see how I make a go of it, and I’ll share tips and tricks I’ve learned along the way. I’ll also share my favourite sights and activities, hidden attractions, and overrated tourist traps. My goal is to help you to travel by sharing my experiences. You’ll have the advantage of knowing where I screwed up so you won’t have to.

You can expect regular updates. My next road trip is through Europe, and begins on the 10th of March. I’ll be flying to London that evening, then making my way across the continent, arriving in Istanbul six weeks later.

Join me on the road!