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passport driver's licenseStarting next year, travelers from certain U.S. states may no longer be able to use their driver’s licenses to get through security checkpoints at the airport.

Time reports that the four states in question include New York, New Hampshire, Minnesota and Louisiana (as well as American Samoa), which currently issue driver’s licenses that do not meet the security requirements of the Real ID Act. This act was passed by Congress in 2005 in response to a recommendation from the 9/11 Commission; it sets minimum security standards for driver’s licenses and other identification cards.

Although implementation of parts of the act began last year, it will not affect air travelers until “no sooner than 2016,” says the Department of Homeland Security website; this is when the new standards will apply to travelers boarding any federally regulated commercial plane.

So what does this mean for you? If you’re a resident of one of the affected states, you’ll need to bring a passport or passport card to use as identification in order to board a domestic flight. For international flights, all U.S. citizens must continue to show their passports as usual.

How to Get a U.S. Passport
10 Things Not to Wear When Traveling Abroad

— written by Sarah Schlichter

prohibited items sign at airportAt a time when more than three ounces of liquid could get you into trouble with the TSA, it seems absurd that loaded guns are legal at many airports throughout the United States.

Earlier this month, as reported by Yahoo! Travel, a man brought a loaded semiautomatic rifle into the Hartsfield-Jackson airport in Atlanta in what seemed to be a cry for attention when he was there to drop his daughter off for a flight. According to laws in Georgia, he was within his rights to do so, but that didn’t stop police from questioning him or travelers who spotted the weapon from complaining about him.

According to website Florida Carry, 44 U.S. states allow individuals with permits to carry loaded guns into unrestricted airport areas. It’s acceptable as long as nobody attempts to take them through security. (Individual municipalities and airports have the authority to put more strict regulations in place to ban firearms from airports completely.)

What Not to Do at the Airport

A law is one thing, but good judgement is another, particularly at a sensitive place like an airport where edgy travelers — including children — can be easily spooked by that sort of display. Do you think an airport is the place to make a political statement by bringing a gun? Be sure to share your thoughts below.

— written by Ashley Kosciolek

tsa airport security lineFlying is a process. Getting to the airport. Checking bags. Removing shoes and laptops and toiletries and shuffling along through security checkpoints. Although I sometimes question whether all this adds up to better security or just security theater, it’s nice to think that the TSA agents are looking out for our safety by screening passengers. But who’s screening the TSA agents?

According to the TSA’s Aviation Security Advisory Committee, it would cost too much and be too logistically difficult to do complete security checks on all of its employees, and full scans wouldn’t help that much anyway since such screenings are “incapable of determining a person’s motivations, attitudes and capabilities to cause harm.”

But wouldn’t that also be true of the system’s effectiveness when scanning passengers — people who don’t have clearances that allow them access to restricted areas?

Apparently the issue of restricted access is being addressed, as well. CNN reports that the number of access points to these areas is being reduced. TSA employees will also have to undergo background checks once every two years and go through the same security screenings as everyone else when traveling as airline passengers themselves. Employees are also subject to random, unannounced screenings, and increased surveillance of baggage handling and cargo areas has been recommended to combat theft of passenger items by employees.

Airport Security Q&A
10 Things Not to Do at Airport Security

What do you think? Is the TSA doing enough to police its own? Leave your comments below.

— written by Ashley Kosciolek

Just when we’ve finally figured out how to comply with those complicated liquid and gel restrictions at airport security, they could be on the way out — at least in Europe.

Last week, London’s Heathrow Airport began installing screening devices that can test liquids, gels and aerosols in a variety of containers, reports the Los Angeles Times. The devices, made by the Ohio-based Battelle company, use radio waves and ultrasonic technology to scan for explosives. To see the machine in action, check out the following video from Battelle:

The Los Angeles Times reports that Heathrow will begin using the technology in January, but only for medicine and duty-free liquids. Assuming the initial results are good, the airport may start to permit other liquids and gels through the new screeners within the next year. The European Union is hoping to lift the liquid and gel ban in all of its airports by 2016.

Here in the U.S., Battelle’s liquid scanner is one of several types of technology being considered for use in airports, but the Los Angeles Times quotes a Transportation Security Administration (TSA) statement that doesn’t seem to bode well for any quick changes: “Liquid explosives are a serious threat, and we aren’t ready to move away from the ban on liquids.”

Bottom line: Don’t leave your quart-size bag at home just yet.

How to Hack Your Way to a Cheaper Flight

— written by Sarah Schlichter

shenandoah national park virginia autumn fallAs we enter day two of the limited U.S. government shutdown, so far travelers are mostly unaffected by the congressional deadlock. It’s business as usual at airports and border crossings, and passport applications are still being processed. However, travelers hoping to go leaf-peeping in a national park or visit the Smithsonian museums are out of luck.

All national parks, monuments, historic sites and other properties run by the National Park Service are closed (and you can’t even access their websites) during the shutdown. And this doesn’t just affect sites in the U.S. — the Normandy American Cemetery in France will also be closed for the duration of the shutdown, along with other overseas properties run by the American Battle Monuments Commission.

State parks are a good alternative to consider for those seeking hiking trails, outdoor recreation and scenic landscapes while the national parks are closed. Thrillist has put together a list of state parks near popular national properties such as Yellowstone, Zion and Acadia.

If the shutdown continues, travelers may start to see a slowdown at airports and ports as more employees may be furloughed or those who are covering for furloughed employees begin to burn out. Already, one third of the Federal Aviation Administration’s workforce has been furloughed, the (Newark) Star-Ledger reports. FAA officials said the furloughs have so far not affected daily flight operations or safety.

A spokesperson for the Transportation Security Administration, which is part of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, told the Star-Ledger that staffing at airport security checkpoints will not be reduced. At cruise ports and border patrol checkpoints, U.S. Customs and Border Control will most likely be unaffected, as “they have been deemed law enforcement necessary or necessary for the safety of life and protection of property,” the CPB states on its website.

For travelers in the process of getting a passport, the longer the shutdown continues the greater the chance the passport won’t come. At the moment, passport services are functioning as normal with a processing time of up to four weeks for routine applications and two weeks for expedited service. For some people, though, actually picking up their passport could already be a problem as any passport agency located in a government building affected by the shutdown “may become unsupported,” the Department of State wrote on its website.

10 Things Not to Wear When Traveling Abroad

The Department of State will continue to provide emergency services as necessary to U.S. citizens overseas.

Has your trip been affected by the shutdown?

— written by Dori Saltzman and Sarah Schlichter

airport securityFollowing an outpouring of opposition from flight attendants and government officials, the Transportation Security Administration recently decided to scrap its plan to allow passengers to carry small knives (of 2.36 inches or less) once again on planes — a practice that’s been prohibited since the attacks of September 11, 2001.

It got us thinking: while some travel-related policies are meant to keep us safe — like the in-cabin knife ban that has been upheld — there are others that seem to serve no purpose whatsoever for consumers. Below, we examine four of them.

Currency Conversion Charges
If you’ve ever used your credit card abroad and been hit with fees for currency conversion, you’re not alone. In some cases, the fees are a percentage of the amount charged — which can add up to a heck of a lot if you’re paying for something expensive like a hotel room. Does it really cost anything for card companies to convert the charges, or is it just one more way for them to make money?

The Best Way to Carry Money Overseas

Airport Security Shoe Removal
If I’m wearing tall, cavernous boots that could hide a bomb or stilettos so high they might double as weaponry, I understand this rule; if I’m wearing flip-flops, I don’t. But wait! The TSA is making exceptions of late. If you’re really young or really old, you can leave your shoes on. As we all know, terrorists are only between the ages of 13 and 74.

Nontransferable Tickets
It’s a concept that’s so rigid it serves only to sell more seats on planes. Life happens, and, sure, airlines can accommodate changes … for the right price, of course. Spelled your name wrong during the booking process? Perhaps you’ll get a sympathetic ear on the phone, and you’ll be allowed to change it without too much of a hassle. Or maybe you’ll be forced to pay a change fee or, worse yet, rebook completely. But forget about simply switching the name on your companion ticket if your flaky friend decides she can’t accompany you on that expensive vacation after all.

What Not to Do at the Airport

Mandatory Extra Fees
Raise your hand if you’ve booked a hotel or a rental car for one price and been slapped with “mandatory extras” after the fact. I recently took a trip to the Dominican Republic, where the driving conditions are so perilous that I was forced to pay for insurance on my rental car, even though my insurance provider back in the U.S. had me covered. And let’s not forget about the time I went to Las Vegas with friends, only to be pummeled with a “resort fee” because — gasp! — our hotel had a pool (which, to be honest, is a standard amenity at any hotel worth its salt). Let’s get it straight: if something is “mandatory,” it’s not an “extra” — it’s part of the price.

Which travel policies do you think are silly, unfair or outdated? Post them in the comments.

— written by Ashley Kosciolek

eye retina scannerUSA Today ran an article yesterday about changes being made at Dallas’ Love Field airport to bring it closer to offering what the International Air Transport Association (IATA) calls “the checkpoint of the future.” The changes include the installation of 500 hi-def security cameras capable of tracking passenger movements from the parking garages to the gates and even onto the tarmac.

As part of the system, which is intended to allow passengers to move virtually non-stop from curb to gate, fliers would be identified by biometric measures (either iris or fingerprint scanning) and would pass through screening tunnels (a la the film “Total Recall”) where they’d undergo electronic scans capable of detecting metal objects, explosives, liquids and more.

The object of such a futuristic checkpoint is to be faster, less intrusive and easier to get through.

Now, I like the idea of getting through security faster. Taking off my shoes and taking my laptop out of its cover are annoying, especially when hundreds of people are doing the same.

According to the USA Today article, the FAA projects that the number of people flying in the U.S. will nearly double over the next 20 years to 1.2 billion. That’s a whole lotta time spent taking off shoes and belts, checking through pockets for change and finding out at the last minute that no, ma’am, you can’t bring that bottle of water through security with you.

16 Ways to Get Through the Airport Faster

Here’s another telling statistic from the article — before September 11, 2011, 350 people passed through checkpoints each hour. A November 2012 survey of 142 airports found that on average only 149 people now make it through each hour.

But the question is: How much am I willing to give up to get through security faster?

Do I really want hundreds of Big Brother-style cameras tracking my every step from the moment I get out of my car? Do I want my fingerprints or iris pattern in a computer record? I’m not really sure I do.

What do you think?

— written by Dori Saltzman

elderly woman suitcase airportOlder travelers at select U.S. airports will no longer have to take off their shoes at the security checkpoint as of Monday, March 19. It’s part of a new set of screening procedures that the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is testing for fliers age 75 and up.

The new measures go beyond just leaving your shoes on. Older travelers will also be permitted to make a second pass through the full body scanner if any anomalies are spotted (as opposed to submitting immediately to a pat-down), and will be able to go through the machine without removing light outerwear. The TSA says screeners will also rely more heavily on explosives trace detection.

Senior Travel Deals

Of course, there’s no guarantee that older travelers won’t face a pat-down or have to take off their shoes: “These changes in protocol for passengers 75 and older could ultimately reduce — though not eliminate — pat-downs that would have otherwise been conducted to resolve anomalies,” says the TSA statement. “If anomalies are detected during security screening that cannot be resolved through other procedures, passengers may be required to remove their shoes to complete the screening process.”

The new screening procedures for seniors initially will only apply in a limited number of security lanes at the following four airports: Chicago O’Hare (ORD), Denver International (DEN), Orlando International (MCO) and Portland International (PDX). You won’t need to show ID to prove your age, says the TSA; instead, officers will “make a visual assessment” to decide which passengers are eligible for the new screening procedures.

The modified screening procedures, which are similar to those instituted in the fall for children age 12 and under, are meant to help the TSA focus its efforts on more risky travelers. To learn more, see our Airport Security Q&A.

— written by Sarah Schlichter

airport departure gates signThere’s good news in the air for U.S. travelers: The TSA’s PreCheck program — which allows fliers who’ve been vetted by the agency to scoot through security lines faster — has been such a success during a trial phase that the agency has decided to expand it to 28 more airports nationwide.

Among the airports slated to get PreCheck by the end of the year are those in the Washington D.C. area (Reagan National, Dulles and BWI), the New York City area (Newark, LaGuardia, JFK), Orlando, Philadelphia and Chicago O’Hare.

According to the TSA blog, “Eligible participants include certain frequent [fliers] from participating airlines as well as members of Customs and Border Protection’s (CBP) Trusted Traveler programs (Global Entry, SENTRI, and NEXUS) who are U.S. citizens and fly on a participating airline.” That means not everyone can get in on the fun; up to this point, participating airlines consisted of Delta and American only, but WLKY reports that Alaska, United and US Airways may be added later this year.

Here’s how it works: After a traveler is pre-screened, info is embedded in the barcode on his or her boarding pass. Passengers can then use one of the special PreCheck lanes, where they may not be required to take off their shoes, belt or coat and remove their laptops from carrying bags. Visit the TSA’s blog for more information and how to enroll.

For our part, we’re always in favor of ways to get through security faster (presuming no safety is compromised), and you can check out these tips to do it: 16 Ways to Get Through the Airport Faster.

— written by John Deiner

full body scanner tsa airport securityEvery Wednesday, we’ll feature one practical travel tip here, on our blog. Get our clever weekly tips and other travel resources in your inbox by subscribing to our blog or signing up for our newsletter.

Just how safe are those full body scanners that are becoming a familiar fixture in airports around the U.S.? Not safe enough, says the European Union, which banned backscatter X-ray machines in airports across Europe last month, citing traveler health concerns.

Because the machines emit ionizing radiation, some scientists suggest that passengers who pass through the scanners could be at increased risk of cancer. One researcher interviewed by PBS/ProPublica predicts that the machines could potentially “give 100 travelers cancer every year.” (See the video below for the full report.)

The TSA staunchly maintains that the machines are safe. A spokesperson told us last year that “each full body scan with backscatter produces less than 10 microREM of emission, the equivalent to the exposure each person receives in about two minutes of airplane flight at altitude.” To read the entire statement we received from the TSA, see From Pat-Downs to Full Body Scanners: The TSA Firestorm.

The backscatter machines are one of two types of full body scanners used at U.S. airports. Millimeter wave machines (which are still legal in Europe) are generally considered the safer option because they use lower-frequency electromagnetic waves instead of radiation.

If you’re concerned about the backscatter machines, you have a few options. Before you step through the security checkpoint, ask the TSA agent which type of machine is in use. If your lane has a backscatter scanner instead of a millimeter wave machine, you may want to skip the scan entirely and choose a pat-down by a same-gender TSA agent instead. Also, keep an eye out for the old-fashioned metal detectors, which are still in use in many security lanes across the U.S.

Are you concerned about the safety of the backscatter machines?

— written by Sarah Schlichter