Airport lines are the bane of travelers. You wait in the line for tickets, then you wait to wait in security lines, then you line up to get on the plane, to get to your seat, to get off the plane…. It feels like the better part of my life is spent lining up at the airport sometimes. But I’ve learned some secrets to the lines that have helped me and should help you, too.
Check in online. Most airlines now allow you to check in online the day of your flight or 24 hours beforehand. That reduces the cost to the airlines but more importantly it reduces your wait time. You won’t have to stand in line to do this at the airport and it’ll make your wait time for checking bags shorter. If you’ve just packed carry-on bags, you can go straight to the security lines which are sometimes in the opposite direction of the ticket counter which saves you more time walking. Time saved: 5-20 minutes.
Check your flight online. There are plenty of places to check your flight online and make sure it’s still on time. Most airline websites and airports also have this feature. The FAA even has a site where you can check delays across the flight system. While this isn’t a guarantee that your flight won’t take off on time, it can give you a heads up if your flight is canceled or if there are widespread problems that will probably delay your flight. I’ve actually seen it where somebody wasn’t even going to go to the airport until they saw that their flight had been delayed by 2 hours. They easily made it and saved the cost of a rebooking. Delays aren’t absolute though, and I’ve seen 90 minute delays become 30 minute delays, so don’t risk missing a flight. Time saved: 0-60 minutes.
Check airport facilities online. Many airports have implemented a feature where you can check the security lines and parking availability online. Some also allow you to sign up for alerts that will send you the approximate wait time on the day of your flight. The TSA’s site and others have similar features. Time saved: 0-20 minutes.
Cheat in the airport’s security line. A lot of people don’t realize this, but the security line you wait in is actually two lines. One is run by the airport, the other by the TSA. Why does this matter? Because the airport’s security line is, let’s just say, optional.
The airport’s security line is the one you wait in first. It extends from the last person in line up to the point where a TSA representative checks your ID. So why do I say they’re optional? Well, have you heard of the frequent flyer lines or the Fly Clear program? These allow you to get in a shortened line or skip the line altogether.
If you don’t want to go through the background checks and pay the costs of Fly Clear, you can become an instant frequent flyer. Most of the time nobody checks your ticket to see that you’re one of the elite. So you can just walk right on through. Time saved: 5-60 minutes.
Be prepared for the TSA line. Most people have gotten used to most of the rules, so things tend to progress fairly well. But every once in a while you get somebody will go through with belts, cellphones, keys, water bottles, etc. This delays them getting through, not to mention all the people behind them. Speed up your trip and ease frustration by doing it right the first time. Time saved: 5 minutes.
Be patient when boarding the plane. Some people get up and mob the front, though it doesn’t get them on the plane any sooner. In fact, it probably gets them even more stressed out. So just sit tight and relax. Down at the bottom of the ramp everybody stands in line again to get on the plane. Board later when most people have already boarded. You’ll be more relaxed and have a chance to walk around before you sit down. In effect, you’re gaining more personal time when you’re not sitting on the plane. Time saved: 10-15 minutes.
Relax and have a good attitude. This is the biggest thing you can do to ease your frustration. Have a good attitude and things will seem a lot easier, people friendlier and you can put your time to better use. Read, listen to music, walk around and explore, etc. Even the waiting can be made more bearable if you’ve got the right attitude and remember to relax. Frustration relieved: mucho.
Never trust a European for directions. In my experience, they tend to leave out important steps in instructions and have a poor sense of conveying direction. For example, when asking how to get to town from my hotel by foot, I was told “Take a right, right, then left at the big road and it will take you there along the footpath.” She didn’t know the names of the roads. And she neglected to mention that I would have to change footpaths and cross the big road. And she failed to mention that the big road was not the big road along which my footpath went. And she didn’t mention that the footpath on each side of the big road I was following stops. On one side it becomes impenetrable forest (meaning you have to backtrack 1/2km and go under) and on the other it becomes plowed fields with dirt that gets inside your sandals before giving way to a muddy tractor path.
The next person I asked for directions pointed me back the way I’d come and said that road would take me right there. When I explained that I’d been down that way with no luck and no signs telling me how to get to town, she pointed out the correct direction on the map – about 90 degrees away from the way she’d pointed. Unfortunately for me, she was covering up the fork in the road that I was to have taken. A kilometer or so later down the road with no sidewalk and a 30 degree tilt to the shoulder, I found a roadsign with a map on it, revealing the true path I was to have taken. At which point I was able to hop the railing, cut over to a road, and follow my best directional guess on how to get to town. It worked, too! Just as I realized I was on the right path with only a kilometer more to go, the rain began.
So when I got to town to meet my friends, I was dripping wet and three hours late. I went to an ATM and got some money to take the bus back to my hotel, but didn’t have any change for the driver. In my experience, the best place to get change is in a bar. After one beer I’d dried out a bit but it was still raining. After my second drink the rain had stopped so I went out to catch my bus. I checked the schedule and the map in the small area where I was waiting. Unfortunately, I didn’t know what stop I’d need to go to, only that I needed the end of the line. But which end? The next bus to come would be the last for the night. I decided I’d ask the driver so I turned around to wait…and watched the bus speed by. My fault for not jumping into the street I suppose. Taxi time. Fortunatley, I’d heard that taxis from the city to the hotel were cheap. 143 SEK ($24 US) later and I had been taken the 1.5 km in relative comfort.
…and boy are my legs tired! Ah yes, San Francisco, that wonderful peninsula and surrounding area which has more than 50 hills within the city limits. From which the dot-com revolution had its equivalent of the cosmological inflationary period. The legendary Haight-Ashbury area, formerly home to beat poets and radical hippies, has been transformed in the same manner as the Die Hard series of movies: A once great institution now mostly only good for outrageous incongruence and mocking. The Castro district, a place Fidel would almost certainly avoid…not that there’s anything wrong with it.
Mark Twain said about the city “the coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco.” Unfortunately, that’s not true this week as temperatures are hitting the mid 80s and low 90s. But then I’m in the middle of the city, not on the north side where the pacific breeze tends to keep the climate more moderate. Microclimates are plentiful in the city by the bay, and there can be a 10 degree (F) temperature swing just on the peninsula. Going inland can be more than twice that.
If you’ve never been out here, you could come for a month and not see it all. Becoming friends with a local will really help out with that. Alcatraz is cool and the Golden Gate bridge is pretty, but ditch the tourist trail as soon as you can and head out on your own to explore. Budget accommodations tend to be abundant in certain areas of the city, but be forewarned that you get what you pay for. Don’t expect to be pampered for under a couple of hundred bucks. On the mainland your luck is better for finding affordable places that are decent, and you can take BART back into the city.
I don’t have time to run down all of the great stuff that I’ve done here, but I want to highlight some cool things I’ve done here.
- In the Haight, track down a sausage shop called Rosamunde’s and get one of their gourmet sausages cooked up and grab a beer at the Toronado next door while you’re waiting for your secret knock on the wall to tell you your sausage is ready.
- Head out to Muir Woods (no relation) and hike through the redwoods. They are magnificent. Legend has it that there is a private biergarten somewhere that occasionally allows non-members in.
- Wine tours in the local areas are a fantastic way to ruin your palate for the $10 special at the grocery store. No more Thunderbird after that. Make sure you have a designated driver, too. I recommend Coppola and Miner wineries.
- Bay to Breakers annual run is awesome. What do you get when you take thousands of weirdos, dress them in costume, pump them full of alcohol, and tell them to run up and down hills for 7+ miles? QED, the answer is in the question. It is pure hilarity. Mix in some people in salmon costumes who start at the end of the course and swim upstream for added chaos.
- Alcatraz night tour. It’s way better than the day tour – kind of spooky. Still touristy, but it’s got a fascinating history.
So anyway, that’s my quick list. Here are some additional notes about accommodations, places to eat, etc.
- DeLessio cafe is a great place to grab breakfast or lunch.
- The Metro Hotel has friendly and knowledgeable staff, a great location, and is cheap. I won’t promise anything more about it than that.
- The Travelodge is a really cheap place to stay and they have parking onsite for an extra $10. Definitely better than getting ticketed or towed on the side streets.
- The Independent is a decent place to see a show. I went and watched Johnny Lloyd Rollins, Ki Theory, Silver State, and South. Good bands, all.
- Nick and I walked the Bay to Breakers course and back. A great time was had by all.
We woke up at 7:30 and were on the road by 8am. Our initial excitement was quickly tempered by the numbing cold. Our toes were numb and I worried about frostbite. The road was rough, the windows were frosted and we were nearly comatose.
We hadn’t slept very well the night before due to the near freezing conditions in our rooms.
In an attempt to stay healthy in the high altitude with all of the exertion from the day before, we’d all had quite a bit of the very weak tea they served. Tea was the best way to get clean water from the well which provided the hotel with water, since the water had been boiled. However, this caused us to have to get up to relieve ourselves all night long. Since the toilet was on the opposite side of the compound, across 20 meters of about -15C open air, it was quite a chore. Consequently, sometimes staying awake and shivering only a bit with a full bladder was preferable sometimes.
At around 9am, we approached a checkpoint. We all had to get out of the relative comfort of the Land Cruiser and go into the unheated building. The process of looking over our paperwork took us about a half hour, during which we were cold, but were at least moving around and out of the wind. The same wouldn’t be true of our second checkpoint where we stood out in the wind. A couple of us had to use the toilet which necessitated crossing the checkpoint without papers of any kind and going into a ramshackle shack. However, this checkpoint was faster and we were on our way up the mountain quickly.
Around 10 in the morning, our toes warmed up and the windows got clear, but the road got a little more rocky and icy. We didn’t notice these things. We had crested the top of a hill and paused at a scenic overlook. From this vantage point, we could see four of the 8,000 meter peaks in the Himalaya range.
The day was perfect. Though the day before had seen snow and heavy cloud cover, our visit would have neither of those things. From the overlook point, each of the highest peaks was creating its own weather; clouds were bellowing from them, turning them into chimneys at the top of the Earth. China has its smokestacks, regurgitating trash into the sky, making you weep for the shame they don’t feel. Tibet has majestic mountains lifting air to become billowy balloons of white, marring the blue with beauty and bringing a tear to your eye for that reason. The moment left all of us with a prescient sense that China was indeed a whole different world away from this place, not its master.
The ride down into the valley and back up, up, up towards the base camp felt like the stream must feel coming down from its heights — our limbs, words, and minds tumbling over one another without concern for their final destination. It was onward at any consequence. The final checkpoint unmanned, we passed through with momentum growing as we sped uphill.
We reached the end of the road, the Rong Phu monastery across from the newly built Chinese hotel with its satellite dishes and antennae like hairs on a bar of soap. We were the first Land Cruiser, but several others quickly followed. By this time, we were headed off towards the mountain which was calling us in a tune we didn’t hear but felt as a moth feels the draw of the fire. Our driver didn’t have time to give us instruction or deadlines, we simply gravitated towards that landmark.
As we walked along the road and up and over hills as shortcuts, we hardly noticed the vehicle starting from the place past which only emergency vehicles were allowed. In less than an hour we had covered probably a kilometer and a half, by which time the Land Cruiser had caught up with us. Though it was prohibited, there were no officials to challenge us, let alone stop or prohibit us from continuing. Our experienced driver tackled the ice and flowing water skillfully and carefully propelling us toward our destination. We emerged from the winding road on a flat where perhaps thousands of adventurers had come before us to camp and plan before heading beyond where we would go.
We danced and played in the snow and on the ice. We climbed the outhouse and the hills around. We stood in wonder looking up at the mountains around us, the farthest from us, we knew, the highest in the world. We were higher, both in spirit as in body, than most people would ever aspire to be. We drank a toast of Jack Daniels to celebrate.
But Everest was not a place of jubilation for all. This was evidenced by the many gravestones we found on the low hills around. These were monuments for men who headed on past our footprints without retracing them. One stone marked the place of the first descent attempted by snowboard. One was for a husband and wife team who were not underneath their names. There were remains, too, of people who had died in the camp before trying and after successfully ascending the mountain to which we now stood, nearly prostrate reading markers. A humbling reminder that not all days were this beautiful and not all people were this joyous.
On the way back down the mountain in the Land Cruiser, we drank our oxygen. We’d each brought 2 bottles for the ascent but hadn’t needed them. Sucking on it coming down kept us giddy, whether from physiological or psychological effects, we didn’t know. We didn’t care. We all felt like we’d touched the Gods; modern day Icari with our wax intact. We passed through Shegar, our previous night’s resting place, and felt as if it were at sea level. We continued on back across our route, things seeming to be much less consequential than when we first passed them.
We slept in Shegatse in the Tenzin Hotel. We arrived after dark and checked into our rooms. They were expensive and fancy, but we felt we had earned them. Showers, heaters, television — we were living in luxury compared to the previous three nights. It was nice for the hour we were awake to enjoy it. But it was late and we were tired. We fell asleep quickly and deeply.
After our incredible and long day, we slept in until about 9am. This was the first night of the Tibetan new year and our driver wanted to get back to Lasa and his family as soon as possible. We wanted to get back too because we had heard so many things about the holiday that we didn’t want to miss any part of it.
The drive back was uneventful and we had a chance to reflect on all we’d seen and done in the last few days. It was really incredible to us. Even 24 hours after being in that place, we still enjoyed talking about it to each other as if the others weren’t there. We told the same stories over again that we’d shared the night before on the drive East.
The monuments at EBC marked empty graves, but the spirits of those fallen were present where their bones weren’t. And we’d taken a bit of that fervor with us while still leaving it there intact. It was one of the greatest experiences of any of our lives and one we will all tell many times over, hopefully to spread what we’d caught on that mountain on the far side of the globe.