6 Essentials For Airline Travel Survival

BOSTON (TheStreet) -- If airline passengers want comfort, perks and entertainment during their trip, they'll need to treat their trip like a restaurant without a liquor license and bring their own.

It's been a banner month for the beleaguered U.S. flier, as rising fuel prices prompted American Airlines ( AMR) to raise round-trip fares by $10 -- a figure fellow network airline lemmings United ( UAL), U.S. Airways ( LCC), Delta ( DAL) and Continental will almost certainly match -- for the major airlines' seventh fare hike of the year. For those counting at home, that's a fare increase every $10 days.

Meanwhile, while American was adding $5 to its $25 fee for phone orders and JetBlue ( JBLU) was tacking on $5 to its $30 second-bag fee, Continental was taking away free pretzels and cookies and pocketing the $2.8 million it pays annually for the perk. The frugality reached its cruising altitude when Delta announced that it is creating a segment of its economy class for international flights called Economy Comfort, which includes a $80 to $160 fee for seats that recline 50% more than their standard counterparts. Forget that those fees also cover extra leg room, early boarding, "free" alcohol and 50% more of the lap of some poor six-foot schlub in standard economy who has to sit behind this section: Delta just monetized reclining.

Perhaps this shouldn't be a surprise in a marketplace where the fee for the first checked bag tops out at Allegiant Air's ( ALGT) $35 and where Spirit Airlines is instituting a $20- to $45-fee for carry-ons in April, but it's easy for passengers to complain about disappearing amenities when Greyhound offers customers free Wi-Fi, outlets and baggage storage and the network airlines don't.

It gets worse when you consider that the elimination of the horrific three-hour-plus waits inside an airplane before taking off have turned into a surge of pre-emptive flight cancellations. Nearly 900 more flights a month are being canceled since April by carriers who don't want to risk fines of $27,500 per passenger for violating the three-hour rule, according to an analysis this month by The Star-Ledger of New Jersey. For people with nowhere to go but on airplane that's not going anywhere, it could be a long wait in an unfriendly, expensive airport terminal.

Before fliers head there, TheStreet suggests packing an entertainment and travel survival kit full of the following six items that neither security can't take and fees can't touch:

An e-reader
With multifunctional smartphones, tablets, MP3 players and laptops at their disposal, why should an airline passenger take a seemingly one-dimensional e-reader along for the ride? Three reasons: Size, price and battery power.

At six to eight inches and five to 12 ounces, the average low-end e-reader is just slightly bulkier than a smartphone but much more svelte and portable than a tablet. Big-name e-readers such as Amazon's ( AMZN) Kindle, Barnes & Noble's ( BKS) Nook and Sony's ( SNE) Reader pocket edition can be had for $140 (or $50 less than current generation smartphones) to $200 (less than half the price of a tablet), but their biggest travel-friendly features are batteries that measure their life in weeks instead of hours. The Nook can hold charge for more than 10 days, the Sony reader can hold out for two weeks and a Wi-Fi-only Kindle can keep the pages turning for three weeks to a month.

"They're so low-energy and you don't have to worry about charging it," says Anne Banas, editor of SmarterTravel. "Even if you're delayed or stuck on the tarmac somewhere, you don't have to worry about battery power and you can still download books."

Yes, the readers can hold 1,500 to 3,500 books -- more than even the longest layover or delay requires -- and pull up periodicals in the column form the old folks love so well, but their built-in MP3 players, dictionaries and translators do a lot more for the literate flier than unburden him or her of a bagful of books.

Noise-canceling headphones
Why buy a $10 pair of Maxell headphones or a $300 Bose or Beats Studio By Dr. Dre headset when a pair of earplugs will do the job?

First off, they're not going to stick in your ears and irritate them or make you look like the old man at the rock show with the telltale tan studs sticking out of the places where the rock should be entering. Secondly, they're awfully squishy and padded and a lot more comfortable than earbuds that can slip out of a big guy's ears pretty easily or sit uncomfortably in a smaller customer's canals. The best reason, however, is that earplugs won't let you sleep blissfully in a terminal or listen to an airplane's radio channels while depriving them of $5 to $10 of your dollars.

"I put them on during long international flights even when I'm not listening to music or anything because I love to cancel out the noise," Banas says. "There's also multi-use because you don't have to purchase headsets from the cabin crew."

A water bottle
Wait, won't security take my water bottle away because of the liquid limit? Absolutely, if you have water in it.

Water's generally one of the better purchases you can make in an airport, mostly because balking at the $2 to $4 bottles won't make you dehydrate any less once your plane takes off. A savvy passenger, however, knows that nearly every airport on the planet has water fountains or, at least, bathroom taps once you've stepped through security and put your shoes and accessories back on. The savings only increase when you bring that same bottle on the plane, where even non-alcoholic beverages now cost $2 to $3 on carriers such as Allegiant and Spirit.

Cheap, you say? It's funny that when an airline such as U.S. Airways tries to cut beverage service, as it did unsuccessfully in 2008, it's considered a frugal business decision. When fliers try to save on those same beverage expenses and prepare for delays and other mishaps that could increase those same beverage costs substantially -- at above-average retail prices, no less -- they're considered cheap. Pardon them if they don't waste their free water by weeping over it.

"There have been so many incidents with people on the tarmac and rationed food and water," Banas says of bringing along water bottles. "That's a great one, because you're not adding to landfills and being more eco-friendly in general."

Granola, protein, candy or any other bar-shaped food
If airlines' once-free meals are now $2 to $11 and free pretzels and cookies just aren't coming, you may as well load up as heavily and efficiently as you can. While great as onboard freebies, bags of pretzels or chips are fragile, bulky and take up precious space in a carry-on. Bananas and other fruits, while filling, don't keep very well during long trips and are easily bruised in transit.

The individually wrapped bar, however, is a clean, compact and cost-effective way to tide yourself over during long trips or when it looks like you're not going anywhere for a while.

"Even protein bars could count as a meal when you're really stuck in a bad situation, and you'll have no problems getting them through security," Banas says. "I recently took a whole bag of granola bars with me to Europe for three weeks for that reason, and they came in handy in so many situations."

A pillow-and-blanket pack
U.S. Airways feels its blanket and pillow set is worth $7 of a passenger's pocket change (and a $10 discount on SkyMall products). American kicks that set's cost up to $8, Virgin America sees that and raises it to $12 while Allegiant charges a cool $15.

At least they're offering. Delta, Southwest Airlines ( LUV), Air Tran and Alaska Airlines ( ALK) ditched those amenities altogether, while United will only extend the courtesy if you're willing to pack a passport and take it abroad. And you're unlikely to get anything if you're stuck in a terminal rather than on a plane.

Companies such as Travelpro, Lewis N. Clark and Conair saw the airplane-fee trend coming and have made $15 to $23 blanket-and-pillow sets that fold into small travel-sized totes for fliers who like getting taken only once. The better sets come with blindfolds and earplugs, but their key advantage over the airline rentals just might be that they're clean.

"A thin portable blanket and pillow set could go a long way," Banas says. "You don't want the ones in the cabin because sometimes you have to pay for them and, even when you get them for free, you don't know if they've been laundered."

Moisture
Passengers are signing up to spend hours in a giant dehumidifier once they buy their tickets. No perk the airlines ever offered could offset that.

Because some folks just don't dry out as well as others, Banas recommends bringing a small bag filled with lip balm, moisturizer and other products that can live outside of the carry-on. The small bag creates easy access, while the products within make sure you're not kissing loved ones or hailing cabs through chapped lips and that you don't have the skin of a long-buried, centuries-old member of Egyptian royalty while making a presentation.

Plus, you'll want to look as good as possible while the baggage clerk tells you your $35 piece of checked luggage won't be arriving for another couple of days.

-- Written by Jason Notte in Boston.

>To contact the writer of this article, click here: Jason Notte.

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Jason Notte is a reporter for TheStreet.com. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Huffington Post, Esquire.com, Time Out New York, the Boston Herald, The Boston Phoenix, Metro newspaper and the Colorado Springs Independent.

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