Ask Gadling: How do I standby for an earlier flight?

It wasn’t too long ago that it was easy enough to walk up to the counter of an earlier departing flight to a destination of your choice and hitch a ride. The notion, at least back then, was that the empty space you saved on your next flight was insurance for the airline in case something went wrong – you were one less passenger that they had to deal with.

These days of a la carte pricing brought and end to that perk. Simply put, any benefit that a passenger might be able to reap was identified and squashed by the airlines, in this case, by means of a fee. That said, it’s still possible to stand by for an earlier flight, you just need to know the lay of the current land.

Lets start with the basics: in order to have a chance at standing by on an earlier flight, check to make sure that the routing and airline are identical. If you’re flying on American from Los Angeles to Seattle, for example, you can neither fly a two leg flight from LA-Portland-Seattle nor can you fly on the American Airlines codeshare operated by Alaska Airlines.

There also has to be space on the flight. Mind you, can still join the standby list on a full flight, but chances are low that you’re actually going to be awarded a ticket.

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Not sure how full the flight is? Check out seatcounter.com before you even leave home or work to see your chances of getting a seat. Or, give the airline a quick call and ask for “availability” on the flights prior to yours.

Second, you usually have to be willing to pay. This fee ranges from $50 on upwards and is only waived for some elites on some airlines. American Airlines and Delta, for example, will let elite passengers standby for free, while almost ALL elites on United have to pay (get with the program guys!). Southwest doesn’t charge anyone.

Of course you can always try to sweet talk your way out of this fee. The best way to do this is to analyze your later departing flight and try to reason with the gate agent about your itinerary. If the later flight is overbooked, for example, they may waive your standby fee in lieu of paying to bump a later passenger. If the later flight is delayed or canceled, the same may hold true. There’s also an outside chance that they can forget or take pity on you, so it doesn’t hurt to try to standby (and then balk when they try to charge you).

The key to the whole standby game, however, lies in empowered passengers knowing available routes and loads. To get a head start on this, do your savvy web research (seatcounter) or even call the airline on the way to the airport. Once educated, you have a bit of leverage for negotiating your way onto a flight.

[flickr image via Chloester]

Ask Gadling: How do I protect my camera from the elements?


For many travelers, their camera is one of the most expensive items they’ll be carrying on their trip. Today we’re tackling a question submitted by Larry, from Omaha, Nebraska:

“I’m taking my new camera on a trip to the Serengeti that will involve sand and rain (and possibly mud). I really don’t want it to get damaged, but I plan to use it a lot and don’t really know what I’m supposed to do to keep it clean and safe. Am I supposed to have supplies of some kind? Is there some part of the camera I should check every day to make sure it’s okay?”

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GADLING: This is an awesome question, and while I’ve not taken my camera to the Serengeti, I have battled against sand, sea and salt on several beach and rainforest trips over the 16 or so years I’ve been a photographer. The following are some of the tricks I’ve picked up along the way that should help minimize any potential damage to your camera from the elements.

Use an all-weather camera bag
. You likely won’t have your camera out all the time, and when you’re trudging along your path in a deluge, you’ll want to be sure that your camera isn’t getting wet in the process. Consider buying a water-resistant bag for your camera, lenses and related gear, so you don’t have to worry about whether your expensive camera is getting completely soaked because of an ineffective bag. There are several kinds of bags: backpack-style, satchel, or even fanny-pack style — so visit your favourite camera store, check out their selection, and choose the one that feels most comfortable to you.

Keep a UV filter on your lens. This is a good idea anyway, regardless of whether you’re actually going to be traveling in challenging climates. Keeping the UV filter on your lens protects your lens from wind-blown grit and debris like sand and salt. Sure, if the filter gets scratched you’ll need to buy another filter, but better a $32 dollar filter than a $700 lens.

Purchase an air blower. You should never reach inside your camera when the lens is off, but sometimes the temptation is irresistible, particularly when you know there’s just a little bit of grit sitting on the inside of the your lens, perhaps on the mirror or sensor. The problem is, of course, that the slightest pressure might scratch the mirror. So instead, use an air blower to help whisk that bit of dirt off the mirror.

Keep a pack of baby wipes on hand. When it comes time to handle your camera, you want to make sure your hands are clean. Keeping baby wipes on hand will ensure that you can clean up on a moment’s notice.

All this said, there are a few practices you can be sure to do religiously, in order to help protect your camera and which cost little to nothing:

1. Even if your camera bag is waterproof, consider keeping your camera in a sealable plastic bag. Even the most water-tight bag can get sand and dust blown into it when you’re reaching in to grab your camera. Consider traveling with a few gallon-size plastic bags, and store your camera in one before putting it into your camera bag.

2. Try to minimize changing lenses in situ. If the sand, wind and rain are particularly bad, you really shouldn’t change your lenses — consider traveling with a lens that has a long focal range (a zoom lens), or with multiple camera bodies with different lenses on them. As much as possible, keep your lens attached to the camera body, so nothing can get inside the camera.

3. If you must change lenses, do it inside, as quickly as possible. If necessary, create a shelter using your rain poncho; in any event protect the camera from any wind or dust before you do it.

And, of course, if you can avoid changing lenses at all during your trip, this is ideal — the less you expose the interior workings of your camera body to the elements, the better.

At a minimum, doing all of the above will help protect your camera — and of course, getting your camera serviced by a reputable camera store before and after your trip is always a good idea.

Good luck, Larry, and happy travels!

Ask Gadling: How can I make camping more comfortable?

Today, we’re tackling a question from Penelope Duncan of King of Prussia, Pennsylvania.
“My boyfriend organized a camping trip with another couple. The problem is, I have never been camping, never had a desire to go camping and dread the very idea of camping. I prefer hotels, nice dinners and bathing. I want to show my boyfriend that I am willing to enjoy his interests, but I also want to be comfortable. How can I make camping more luxurious?”
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Gadling: First of all, good for you for not declining the invitation. You’re already ahead of the game by simply opening yourself up to a new experience and not turning what should be an awesomely fantastic weekend outdoors into an irrational fight about thread counts. So, now you’re locked into this camping trip and you’re more into massages than mosquito nets. Well, it’s not as hard as you think to add comfort to a camping trip.

First and foremost, outfit yourself with the proper gear. Gadling has covered essential camping gear before. You won’t spend very much time actually inside your tent, but psychologically, it will help you get excited about the trip if you know that you’ll have a spacious place to sleep. Rather than shoehorning yourselves into a tiny tent, you and your boyfriend should share a structure made for up to six people. The added square footage and headroom will stave off any claustrophobia, allow you to stand up fully inside the tent and keep all of your gear inside and nearby. Just as if you had your luggage at the foot of your bed in a hotel!

Throw an air mattress and some camping pillows inside and you’re basically sleeping in a bed. In fact, if you put a fitted sheet on the mattress and use an unzipped two-person sleeping bag as a blanket, you’ll be able to snuggle up with your boyfriend and not have to deal with the difficulties of canoodling while rolled up like a burrito.

What you will spend much of your time doing while camping is cooking and eating. Food is not just fuel when you’re spending the weekend in nature. It is very much a social activity. You’ll spend many hours sitting around the campfire shooting the poop, laughing and just enjoying each other’s company. While hot dogs and beans may be camping traditions, they are not required. Meal time is the perfect opportunity to add luxury to your camping trip. There’s no reason why you can’t pack up your spice rack, store some gorgeous fresh fish in a cooler (perhaps you even caught them yourselves) and add a few bottles of wine in with the cases of beer.

If you happen to enjoy cooking, you could even champion that activity. Store your spices, seasonings, cooking utensils, etc. in a tackle box or toolkit and show everyone how creative and talented you are. Is your boyfriend the cook? Work with him in advance to plan a menu, help him shop for the food and be his sous chef on the campsite. It will be a fantastic shared activity and you can even buy ridiculous aprons for the event.

As for activities, choose a campsite with a lake or some other large body of water. This will allow you to rent a boat. Kayaking and canoeing may be more closely associated with camping, but there’s no rule that states that you can’t have a motor in your vessel. Splurge on a boat large enough for some sunbathing. You might not be on a yacht and you’ll have to cut up your own strawberries, but if you pack a bottle of champagne, you’ll feel like you’re on a cruise regardless of how much your hair smells like smoke.

It’s not that challenging to make camping comfortable. In fact, with a little forethought and some culinary upgrades, you may end up having a more luxurious weekend than you would have had you stayed home.

Whatever you do, resist the urge to rent a cabin. Cabins are for cheaters.

Ask Gadling: How do I get bumped from a flight?

Today’s question comes from Mary in San Jose, CA:

Hi, I’m flying from San Jose to Appleton, WI. I’d like to know what to do if I get bumped? Will they let me call the person waiting for me to let them know I won’t be on time?

Gadling: What Mary’s referring to is the legendary “bump,” the notion that if a flight is oversold that the airline will offer passengers compensation to skip it and take the next best route. Rarely, they may even involuntarily bump passengers and offer a higher rate of compensation, but this event is pretty uncommon — lots of people usually volunteer for the initial bump call because they want vouchers for future travel.

Should you find yourself on an overbooked flight, Mary, gate agents will first likely make an announcement in the gate area asking if anyone is willing to change flights for a travel voucher. For a domestic flight, this is usually around $300, but this can be slightly more or less.

If you hear this announcement, you want to be the first person up to that counter to volunteer — there will be plenty of other willing people in the same boat as you.

View more Ask Gadling: Travel Advice from an Expert or send your question to ask [at] gadling [dot] com.

Before you run up to the gate all helter-skelter though, make sure you’re well prepared for the consequences. If there are no alternative routes home that day, you may be forced to spend the night in your current city or worse, even in the airport. You also may be forced to endure long layovers either at your current location or somewhere en route on the way home. Is that worth the flight voucher? Only you can tell.

Not sure if your flight is overbooked? You can always go to seatcounter.com to check how full your flights are. It can be difficult to read, but if you look up your flight and see lots of red zeroes next to it then you can bet that it’s overbooked.

Alternatively, you can always call the airline to ask how full the flight is — they’re not legally obligated to tell you if the flight is overbooked, but they’ll give you a good indication. And if you find the right agent, he or she will tell you how overbooked it is.

As a rule of thumb, Mary, assume that your flight isn’t overbooked and that it’s going to operate as normal. If you do get bumped, you should have plenty of time to reorient your return trip, make a few calls and get yourself in order for your next flight(s).

If you want more details on the whole process and how to engineer it to your advantage, check out Gadling’s Guide to Getting Bumped that we published a couple of years back.

[photo credit via the strangely familiar davitydave on flickr]