The HFO Guide to Air Travel

So, you've booked yourself a skiing holiday, and you've realised that you've got the prospect of a flight to a foreign country ahead of you. What are you going to do about it?

The HFO have stood in queues at check-in desks across Europe to bring you this guide to the do's and don'ts of air travel. Take a moment to familiarise yourself with the location of the exit nearest to you, then read on...

Before you even set off...

Flying is the fastest way to get to your holiday destination. pick the right flights, and you may well get extra time on the pistes compared with other means of getting there. But even before you get on that plane, you need to be sure you've got yourself prepared for what can be - let's be frank here - quite an ordeal.

As we've said elsewhere, you need at least a basic level of fitness to go on a skiing holiday, and the first place that could become apparent is when you're forced to sit in a cramped seat for a couple of hours. Make sure you're up to it!

Apart from being fit, make sure you have something to do. Travel in general can be incredibly boring. Make sure you've got a book or a magazine to while away the hours. In the past a Walkman or Gameboy was an essential part of the average HFO member's travel kit. These days most folks have a bunch of entertainment loaded on to their phones, but if that's what you're planning to entertain yourself with, please remember to bring headphones for it or you may find yourself being lynched by other passengers.

Identification, please...

You might think it's really silly me raising the subject, but if you get to the check in desk and find you've forgotten your passport, you're unlikely to get much further. Your passport is one of a number of things that come in very useful when travelling, so make a list of them all before you pack and check that you have them with you.

To labour the point still further, if you have got your passport with you but the person on the desk notices that it expired last autumn, you're going to look really silly, aren't you? When does yours expire? Go and check it, right now.

And remember, it's got to be still valid when you come back to the UK as well - it's no good to you if it runs out half way through your trip.

It's good to talk

In these days of dual-, tri- and quad-band mobile phones, it's worth arranging for international roaming with your service provider. If you're travelling with friends, having your mobiles with you is a good way to make sure you don't lose each other!

If you don't sort out an international package, make sure that you remember to turn data roaming off or you could end up with a very nasty surprise on your next bill.

What are you carrying?

Air travel is not what it used to be. Sadly, the experience is a lot less pleasant in many regards. Remember that increased security arrangements now mean you can't take things like Swiss Army Penknives with you in the cabin, no matter how useful they are on the piste. Go through your pockets and hand luggage and put anything sharp or pointy (like nail clippers or penknives) in your suitcase.

Remember that many things, such as pressurized containers, cigarette lighters, lighter refills, party poppers, sparklers, solvents and paint aren't allowed on board at all by most airlines. Other useful things, such as avalanche rescue packs, may require approval from the airline before you fly - this is currently the case with British Airways, for example.

Check with your travel agent to make sure you know what restrictions exist on things you can take with you on your flight. If you don't, you may well be leaving them at the departure airport and it's highly unlikely that you'll get them back on the return trip.

Final check before departure

So, you've got everything you need. You've checked every item on your list. You've got your passport, and it's valid for the duration of your trip. You've got everyone who's supposed to be coming with you. You know which airport you're flying from. You know what flight you're on, what the airline is, which airport terminal you need to check in at (airports are big places, you know) and what the earliest time that you can check in is.

Is the taxi booked? If you're travelling by train, are there any engineering works taking place that might affect your journey? Have you got your train tickets? Or, if you're driving, is your car going to get you (and your luggage) there OK? Can you fit everybody in with all their stuff? You'd be amazed how much luggage and three people will fit in a Volkswagen Scirocco at four in the morning on the way to Gatwick, but maybe you ought to have a run through, just to make sure.

Have you organised parking at the airport? It's worth checking out. Paying in advance will usually get you a better price than just turning up and paying on the spot. Airport parking is not cheap! Have you allowed enough time to get from the long stay car park to the check in?

And have you filled up with petrol and checked the tyres and the windscreen washer bottle, just in case?

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Here We Go!

Leave yourself plenty of time to get to the airport. Set an alarm on your phone. If you're using an alarm clock as well, make sure it's working properly, and (speaking from personal experience here) if your clock radio has different settings for weekdays and the weekend, make sure you change the right one. Especially if you have to get to Manchester airport first thing in the morning, because believe me, it is not a good feeling when you wake up and realise that you're two and a half hours behind schedule. (I made it. Just.)

Has the car got enough petrol? Yes, I know I asked you last time, but it's best to make sure.

Travel Safely

Most ski trips start at ungodly times in the small hours of the morning. If you're driving, remember that your attention and general reflexes are unlikely to be operating at tip-top efficiency, no matter how many cups of coffee you had for breakfast. Allow yourself time to take things easily, and be safe. You're on holiday, after all.

It's worth checking the travel news on the web before you set off. The unexpected can happen, and my travel plans have been thrown into chaos more than once by circumstances completely outside my control. For example, one tour operator was so inept in getting us back home from a ski trip that we eventually went to the EasyJet desk at Geneva Airport and sorted out our own way home; on a non-skiing trip, my only ever visit to Cincinnati (complete with impromptu overnight stay) happened when I thought I'd be flying to Tampa. I got to my final destination a day later than expected. The point is: be prepared. It's always worth packing a spare set of underwear in your carry-on bag because you never know when you might need it.

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Join The Queue

This is generally agreed to be the next-to-worst part of the entire trip. The worst part is, of course, checking in on the way back...

Have your tickets and passport ready for inspection. Keep your baggage with you at all times. Don't agree to carry items for mysterious strangers who approach you at the airport, or anywhere else for that matter.

Know Your Suitcase

You're going to say this sounds stupid, but believe me it happens. Before you hand your bags over to the nice airline person behind the counter, make sure you know what they look like.

Why? Because you need to be able to identify them when you get to baggage reclaim, and you're going to look pretty stupid if you end up with someone else's stuff. Don't assume you'll be able to identify a generic bag on sight as it trundles around the carousel, because believe me, there will be not one, not two, but dozens of suitcases that will look almost exactly like yours. Label it clearly, and put some form of identifying item on it that'll let you spot it quickly. Stickers are good. Scribbled marker pen is a good one, too. Ribbons and straps with your name on are less of a good idea, because they can get caught in baggage handling machinery and if you're lucky, they'll just get ripped off. If you're unlucky, the machinery will eat your luggage too. I've seen the aftermath when that happens and it wasn't pleasant for the traveller concerned.

You're Not There Yet

Pay close attention to the gate number and departure time you're told by the check-in agent. And when the time arrives, make sure you're at the right gate. The HFO have spent several miserable hours on the tarmac at the airport because some plonker checked in and then fell asleep in the airport bar for four hours. Don't let it be you!

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Booze, Fags, Perfume, Chocolate

It's worth remembering that most UK airports have chemists in the shopping area. You might want to stock up on things like ibuprofen tablets or deep heat at them - they might not be as cheap there as they are at normal high street chemists, but they'll almost certainly be far more expensive where you're going. The same goes for batteries for your camera.

If you do decide to avail yourself of that unmissable shopping opportunity, make sure you can carry it. If your purchase ends up being bottle-shaped, remember that bottles are fragile things. More than a dozen times we've seen people lose their supplies for the chalet because they'd stowed the carrier bag on their trolley and it fell off.

You're Still Not There Yet

Remember to keep an eye on the monitors to see if your flight is boarding. If the flight hasn't been called yet, Team HFO practice is to head to the nearest coffee bar for a cappucino and a danish pastry. The caffeine will help the fact that it's some ungodly hour in the morning and the sugar will keep you going until you can get on the plane.

Now Boarding

Ahh, those magic words. When your flight is called, you should already be at the gate. Follow directions given to you by the boarding team and make sure that you have your boarding pass and passport ready for inspection.

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Cleared For Take-off

Assuming that you've managed to catch the plane in time, find your seat and settle yourself for the journey. Did you know that the reason the aircraft cabin lights are dimmed on taxy and takeoff is so that if the plane has to be evacuated, your eyes will already be adjusted to the darkness outside?

Most European flights are so short you're not going to get an in-flight movie, but in most cases you will get something to eat. What you get depends on the airline you're flying with. Some are great, others are utterly dire.

Please Fasten Your Seat Belts

Always work on the principle that as soon as you're given a drink, the aircraft will hit turbulence. Also, assume that the messiest item you pick up on your fork will end up on your lap. Either way, make sure your napkin is where it ought to be.

I've got enough flight hours in to know that it's a good idea to always keep your seat belt fastened unless you're moving about. These days aircraft systems can give advance warning of turbulence, but these systems aren't infallible.

Sit back, and enjoy the flight. If you're lucky enough to get a window seat, don't forget to enjoy the view.

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Don't Be That Guy/Girl

Those fancy little signs that tell you to fasten your seatbelt are there for a reason. Just because you're back on the ground, it doesn't mean you should undo your seatbelt and it certainly doesn't mean that you can stand up. Wait until you're told it's okay to do so. Aircraft do occasionally make sudden movements whilst taxying, even once they've arrived at the arrival gate, and while I hasten to add that it's a very rare occurrence, it's not outside the realms of possibility for an aircraft to hit something - or for someone else to misoperate the walkway or drive a maintenance vehicle in to the aircraft.

More importantly, perhaps, just think of the wonderful lawsuits you could enjoy if that happens whilst you're standing up and getting your stuff out of the overhead bins, and you drop something heavy onto somebody else who then sues you. You've clearly been negligent, so they'd have a very strong case for damages against you. That's not really a good way to start your holiday.

Here We Are

Some airports have wonderful passenger arrival facilities, others just feel like cattle sheds. Either way, the only thing to do is relax and let things happen. First of all when you're finally allowed to get off the aircraft, you'll go through passport control, so make sure that you have your passport handy.

Spot the Suitcase

At this point you will (hopefully) be given the opportunity to demonstrate that you can remember what your bags looked like. Once you've reclaimed your bags, keep an eye on them - sadly, airports have been great places for opportunist thieves since the early days of air travel and I don't expect things to change any time soon.

Skis and snowboards tend to arrive at a separate, oversize baggage area because they don't fit on carousels, so if you're bringing your own gear with you, make sure you know where they're going to appear.

Next up will be customs, which you shouldn't need to worry about unless you really went overboard with the shopping in duty free. All the same, you should make sure that you're inside whatever the customs allowances are. Signs will clearly display this information.

You're Still Not There Yet

Eventually, you'll be out in the wide world again. You can marvel at how different things are compared with back home, or if you're an HFO die-hard it's more likely that you will cast a jaundiced eye over a vast expanse of tarmac, concrete and ugly buildings and start worrying about how little snow there seems to be.

Keep an eye on those bottles of duty free as you negotiate ramps, kerbs or steps. Many a bottle has made it no further than the coach park.

Find your holiday rep and transfer coach. In most case, the tour company rep will be pointing out the coach which will take you the rest of the way to the resort. Don't be the plonker who disappears off to the bar for a couple of hours. Tour operators run a tight schedule and the last thing they need is some berk disappearing between getting off the plane and getting in to the bus to the resort.

The transfer coach ride can last anything from half an hour to four hours. If traffic gets bad it could be even longer. See the HFO Guide to Coach Travel for survival hints on this part of the journey.

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