A traveler’s tales of turbulence, anxiety

One of my more unusual travel challenges this month will be to figure out how to safely transport a case of Berghoff and Capital Brewery beer – two of Wisconsin’s finest labels – to Japan.

Should I lug it around O’Hare as a carry-on? Invest in bubble wrap, say a prayer and send it as checked baggage? Thank the donors, but scrap the idea and just buy a round of Sapporo for our hosts during this cultural exchange?

All of life should be as amusingly complicated.

A longtime friend, who works in a hospital, has access to surgical masks, which I also may add that to my packing list. That’s even though Japan has merely two confirmed cases of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) as I write this.

A Madison travel agent says she got 2,500 extra frequent flyer miles in Minneapolis last month, after waiting four hours to board a flight to Tokyo. The plane had come in from Beijing, with a stop in Tokyo, and the buzz was that people got panicky after a passenger began coughing. Ambulances arrived and apparently everybody on board was quarantined until medical personnel gave the all-clear sign.

Tales of turbulence, like embellished fish stories, used to be about as dramatic as air travel would get for most of us. Now we talk about how our underwire bras or suspenders set off the metal detector, or how an expired driver’s license sparked a full body wanding.

Not that long ago, an airport security guard confiscated my guy’s moustache trimmer and kindly suggested that it could be sent through as checked luggage, in its own little box. How odd, we thought.

We debate about whether gifts will stay wrapped if they are inside of checked baggage (there’s no guarantee) and whether it’s OK to pack a pointed-edge scissors (yes, in checked baggage).

Until March, I never had to adjust travel plans on short notice. But I was in for a surprise when my companion to Phoenix decided that he was terrified of flying. It surprised him, too. We had flown a couple of times before, uneventfully, and assumed this trip would be the same.

The size of our turboprop – 46 seats – and its noisiness probably were factors, even though the connecting flight in St. Louis, on a plane that was three times as big, didn’t lessen the anxiety. Ghosts of Sept. 11 probably resurfaced, too, even though we had discussed and dismissed them months earlier.

Mild nervousness can snowball into a full-blown panic attack – particularly if you’ve had a heart attack and wonder if this could be the start of another one. So even though we had fun at baseball games, an art fair and the Best of the West Festival, it became clear that the way home would not be a simple reversal of the journey that took us away.

When I book lodging for multiple days, I look for in-room Internet access. That’s what we had in Phoenix, and it enabled me to easily compare transportation options. The goal was a nonstop flight to Milwaukee or Chicago, then a bus ride back to Madison.

To simply change our return ticket, the cost would have been about $850 more per person. What we opted for were one-way tickets on Southwest Airlines, at $199 each.

People can’t be more gracious than Diane in San Antonio, a Southwest reservation agent. She sympathized with our situation, and the seats were held without a hassle – or even the exchange of a credit card number. If we changed our minds, it would be no problem and no penalty.

The seats didn’t mysteriously disappear or increase in price. What I saw online is what I got, and that is a departure from the way other airlines sometimes operate. It is an industry where multiple prices – with hundreds of dollars of difference – exist for every seat.

Although it is no-frills flying, Southwest is not much different than how you’d fly elsewhere. Truth be told, the bag of Wheat Thins and sleeve of Snackwell’s cookies that we got was more generous than food on other flights that I’ve experienced lately.

Airline dining, even at its best, never was much to brag about. Now even Midwest Airlines (formerly Midwest Express) has dropped that amenity, in favor of gourmet lunches that customers can purchase.

The biggest challenge regarding Southwest is its reputation for short hops to lesser known cities. It can be aggravating; my first experience was from Chicago to San Antonio, Texas, a three-part journey that seemed to take all day.

This time, it was just a nonstop flight, but the landing was at Chicago’s Midway Airport, not O’Hare International. That has its own challenges, althoughVan Galder Bus added service from Midway to Madison a few months ago, making it easy to get home.

The Southwest circuit includes St. Louis, too, which is the next closest departure point for Wisconsin travelers. Brandy King, airline spokeswoman, says more than 100 airport and government reps invite Southwest to expand into their areas each year.

Maybe more of that will happen in 2004, she says, if the economy and airline industry improve. Norfolk, Va., was the last destination added, in October 2001; “we look for markets that are underserved and overpriced” by other airlines, King says.

No fare on Southwest is more than $299 one way, she notes, and the average one-way ticket is around $84. For more, go to www.southwest.com.

As an aside, it cost nothing for me to change an airline ticket home from Oklahoma City this spring. That was after the war in Iraq began; most airlines temporarily have suspended the $100 penalty that is typically imposed to change a ticket, allowing one free change per ticket.

It all depends upon the type of ticket change, though. I merely altered my departure time from late afternoon to morning. To get a nonstop flight home, it would have been significantly more expensive.

The same goes for my curiosity about departing from Madison instead of Chicago – there would have been no $100 penalty, but the cost of adding a Madison-Chicago link late in the game would have been more than $200.

Last, I offer a plug for Orbitz.com. Its airline tickets often include access to a coupon that is good for two days of free parking near a major airport. Take advantage of it!

I’ve used it to park at AviStar, near O’Hare, a couple of times, for a savings of $20 per trip. The staff is friendly, the facility is secure and the airport shuttle is free/prompt.