Don't Get Blindsided: Hidden Hassles of Flying

PHOTO: TSA, PreCHeck, security, airport, travel

Some people look at flying as an "Avengers"-style battle in which it's all they can do to come out alive. Or come out with wallet intact. Maybe you saw the story about the Seattle passenger who overpacked and was confronted with excess baggage fees to the tune of $1,400.

His solution? Instead of paying the fine, he dumped the bags and boarded his flight without them.

Most of us know about bag fees. It's a standard hassle of flying. But there are plenty of other hassles for both domestic and international travelers that aren't always apparent.

Here are four: Some are serious, others petty, but all are annoying, mainly because they blindside you. Being mentally prepared to deal with them helps, so keep reading, and if you're traveling overseas anytime this year, definitely check out hassle No. 2.

For more travel news and insights view Rick's blog at farecompare.com

1. The Security Hassle

The Transportation Security Administration recently announced that most travelers were now eligible to join its faster PreCheck program. Yes, there's a fee for that, but it works out to just $17 for the five-year life of your membership, a small price to pay for keeping your shoes on and zipping through security. However, there are a couple of hidden hassles:

• You can apply for the program online, but you must answer a bunch of questions and then set up an appointment at a security enrollment center, which usually means a trip to the airport for presentation of ID and fingerprinting.

• Even if you do qualify for PreCheck and pay the $85 fee, you can still be pulled randomly from the quicker line for regular screening. The PreCheck fee comes with no guarantees

2. Customs Hassle Horrors

Been overseas lately? Then you may know more than you want to about waiting in line. We've been hearing about three-hour waits at U.S. Customs at JFK, and similar horror stories out of Chicago and Los Angeles. I can vouch for such stories. I had the pleasure of waiting in a Customs line at Dallas-Fort Worth this summer for more than three hours. The Wall Street Journal reports the situation has gotten so dire at Miami International that it has set up cots because so many passengers were missing connecting flights.

Travelers are going nuts over this, but so are the airlines. Delta CEO Richard Anderson lashed out at Customs recently, calling the situation an "embarrassment," and he's right, but Customs officials have been saying they simply don't have enough officers, and yes, sequestration cuts are part of that.

One bright spot is the handful of overseas airports with "pre-clearance" facilities, such as Ireland's Shannon Airport, which allows travelers to go through U.S. Customs on foreign soil and get cleared by U.S. officers stationed there. If only there were more airports like that, or even better, more officers in this country.

To be fair, you never know what a Customs line will be like. A friend recently told me she steeled herself for an ordeal after arriving at JFK from Barcelona, and - there was no line whatsoever! She breezed right through.

3. Carry-on Hassle

I'm told a number of women travelers have learned this the hard way (maybe big purses are to blame). The problem: Most airlines limit the number of items you can take onboard, and sometimes they enforce this rule and sometimes they don't. I know of instances in which travelers were told they had to get rid of or check an item as they attempted to board with a carry-on, shopping bag and laptop, which put them one item over the limit. If you can shove one of those items into another, that'll work. Otherwise, you may have to check the extra bag. More confusion: Usually you won't be charged for gate-checking, but some passengers are asked to pay. Tip: Nice passengers seem to have better luck avoiding fees.

4. Departure Change Hassles

You may not realize it, but airlines sometimes drop routes with little notice, which can mean your nonstop flight suddenly includes a plane-change (and a much later arrival time). You might even find yourself leaving hours earlier or later than originally scheduled. Worst case scenario: Your airline no longer flies to your destination.

Airlines make every effort to email you about changes, but if your inbox is like mine, it's easy for notices to get lost in the shuffle (you may even delete them yourself thinking they're just one more miles come-on). For the most part, schedule changes are a worry for those in smaller markets, and if that's you, be alert to possible changes. Frontier recently said it'll drop its nonstop Durango-Denver service starting in late October, which might put some early ticket bookers in a bind. If you have any concerns, review your reservations at least once a week before departure and keep an eye out for airline email.

These days, flying can be full of unanticipated surprises, which reminds me: Pack light to save yourself a few bucks on bag fees - maybe even $1,400 of them.

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