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Some tips for making flying less painful

By JILL SCHENSUL | The Record (Hackensack, N.J.) | Published: May 19, 2016

From airport to air-traffic control to conditions in the airplane cabin, air travel today suffers from overcrowding, understaffing and a scramble for profits at the price of civility. And while passengers have groused over the years about dwindling amenities and flourishing fees, they keep on boarding — in record numbers.

A new survey by Airfarewatchdog found that of the more than 1,300 travelers polled 52 percent plan to fly to their summer vacation, while 23 percent are driving. And while the price of gas is seeing more people hit the road in their cars, the airports will still be crowded.

As Airfarewatchdog President George Hobica sees it: "It seems pretty clear that with cheap gas prices not being matched by a similar drop in airfares (thanks to low oil prices), more people are deciding to drive this summer. However, in 2015, U.S. airlines set a record for passenger traffic with almost 800 million carried — and 2016 looks to be a busy year, too."

No matter the variables, flying is not going to be pretty -- or painless -- in the next few months.

But there are ways to minimize the suffering and to get at least a little bit of comfort along the way. You may even have a moment to stop, look out the window at one of those great big birds and remember what a miracle air travel is in the first place.

 

At the airport

— Scream saver: What would you pay to get through security faster? What price would you pay to make it through the process without your pants sagging toward indecency and your bags looking blenderized? If your answer is "any price," consider applying for TSA PreCheck, one of the Department of Homeland Security "trusted traveler" programs designed to expedite screening for "low-risk passengers."

You need to apply, provide your fingerprints, and pay $85 for a five-year membership. If you're cleared, you'll be eligible to take the dedicated PreCheck lanes now available at more than 150 U.S. airports, where passengers don't have to remove shoes, belts, light jackets or laptops. Any children 12 or younger traveling with you can also join the line. While PreCheck helps with domestic travel, the Global Entry program is meant for international travelers who pass the more rigorous screening process (and pay the $100 fee). Not only do they get PreCheck perks, but when re-entering the U.S., they can scan their passport at the automated kiosks at international arrival terminals and skip the long passport control lines.

— Lounges: They're not just for elite travelers anymore. Among the ways to gain access, along with frequent-flier status and buying a yearlong (expensive) membership through the airline, are specific credit cards.

Among the best cards for lounge access is American Express Platinum, which provides complimentary access to Delta lounges (for you only; $29 for each guest), Airspace and Centurion lounges (for you plus immediate family or two guests) and membership to Priority Pass Select lounges worldwide.

Citi AAdvantage Platinum Select MasterCard gets you access to Admirals Clubs; Citi Prestige gets access to 40-plus Admirals Clubs lounges for the primary cardholder plus immediate family or two guests and more than 800 Priority Pass Select lounges.

Often, you can buy a single-day pass with the airline you're flying. American, for instance, offers them for $50, and three children under 18 get access as well. Similar options are offered through United, Delta and Airspace Clubs.

Priority Pass (prioritypass.com) has 900 lounges worldwide and three levels of membership: for $99 a year, each lounge visit is $27 and $27 for each guest; for $249, you get 10 free entries and guests are $27; and for $399, all visits are free and guests pay $27.

Using the loungebuddy app, you can either enter your itinerary and the app will list available lounges during your trip or you can search by airport. If you enter your frequent-flier status, credit cards, etc., the app will show you which lounges are free to use, as well as lounges you can pay to access.

— Amenities: They're more than just Cinnabons and newstands. Gourmet restaurants, play areas, medical facilities, prayer rooms, sleeping pods, massages, wedding chapels and other amenities are popping up in the once-bland terminals. Look for necessities like ATMs and restrooms or amusements and food via apps from these sources of terminal features: Sleepinginairports.com, iFly.com, Gateguru, and the Airport Plus Flight Tracker Radar from Webport.

And for the four-footed family member or service animal in your travel group, remember that federal law now requires airports to provide pet relief areas in terminals. Among the sources for a list of these areas, plus other domestic airport pet services, is www.petfriendlytravel.com/airports.


Airplane comfort

OK, this subtitle admittedly is kind of an oxymoron. But every little bit helps, as the proliferation of those neck pillows proves, right?

Most sky warriors cite noise-canceling headphones as No. 1 for getting out of the stress zone. Just how serious you are about your noiselessness will determine your options, but top of the line seems to be Bose QuietComfort 25 for $280 to $300. You won't even hear your neighbor snoring or the baby four rows back wailing.

Necks aren't the only body part you can coddle in flight. For less than $20 and some lung power, you can create your own mini Barcalounger via a variety of compact, inflatable foot rests. Among the well reviewed — and least expensive — is the Go Footrest ($12.95 at Bed Bath & Beyond), which is slightly angled and covered in a velour so comfy that some owners use it as a pillow instead.

Also good for your feet: compression socks, which are, yeah, good for your circulation but can be painfully ugly. But I found some cool ones from VIM & VGR. The company's over-the-knee socks come in argyle, polka dots and stripes ($32, www.travelsmith.com or www.vimvigr.com).

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