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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

christmas crackersThe trend-happy team at AAA expects some 5.4 million leisure travelers to fly this holiday season. We won’t speculate on how many will be schlepping their Christmas cacti, fruitcakes and eggnog through the security checkpoint, but we will offer a stern warning: season of merriment or not, the TSA has strict rules about what you can and cannot carry onto a plane.

Blogger Bob, lead blogger for the TSA, offered a few holiday do’s and dont’s on a recent post, and we filled in some of his key omissions, including snowman-shaped dry ice and Christmas-themed fauna.

Do bring your fruitcake. As a solid (sometimes too much of a solid), fruitcakes of all manner are permitted through the checkpoint. Fruitcakes doubling as weapons caches are not allowed.

Don’t bring Christmas crackers. These noise-making apparatuses (pictured above), often designed to look like candy or wooden soldiers, are prohibited on aircraft. The chemical that triggers the cap-gun pop and mental breakdown of a least favorite in-law when the crackers are torn is silver fulminate, which is highly explosive.

Do bring 3.4 ounces or less of eggnog. As a liquid, eggnog is allowed only within the limits set forth by the TSA’s always confounding 3-1-1 guidelines.

Don’t bring Yule logs. We’re actually a little confused about this one, but Blogger Bob says they should be placed in your checked baggage; perhaps this is because Yule logs are traditionally extremely large, so they probably won’t fit within the carry-on baggage size limits outlined by your airline.

Do bring your mini Christmas cactus. As long as you’re traveling between U.S. gateways, it’s fine to bring along a Christmas cactus or any other holiday-related plant. However, if you’re traveling internationally, you may have issues with customs, as many countries have restrictions on bringing agricultural products across international borders.

Maybe bring wrapped gifts. Blogger Bob confirms that wrapped gifts are allowed in carry-on luggage, but not encouraged. He explains: “If there’s something in the gift that needs to be inspected, we may have to open it. Our officers try their best not to mangle the gift wrap, but it’s not a guarantee and it also slows down the line for everybody else when we have to do this.”

Do bring a dry-ice snowman to keep your medications cool … if it’s not too heavy. The U.S. government has strict regulations regarding dry ice on airplanes. Passengers may bring 2 kilograms of the substance in carry-on luggage as long as it’s stored in a package that allows the venting of carbon dioxide gas. Still, a DOT spokesperson suggested to us at one point that travelers avoid packing dry ice in carry-on luggage. Individual TSA agents unfamiliar with DOT regulations may confiscate the substance and foil your plans to add a festive touch to your medical needs.

For more on what you can and can’t bring through airport checkpoints, peruse Airport Security Q&A.

— written by Dan Askin

airport securityIt’s now possible to skip those snaking security lines at the airport. Earlier this month, the TSA introduced a pilot program called “PreCheck,” which permits pre-screened passengers to go through an expedited security lane at select airports. Travelers who’ve joined the program can speed through airport security if they’re flying on Delta Air Lines out of Atlanta or Detroit, or flying on American Airlines out of Miami or Dallas.

Right now, PreCheck’s reach is pretty limited. But if you’re departing from an eligible airport sometime soon and you’re not a fan of shuffling languidly through security lines for the better part of an hour, you might want to think about signing up. This week, the TSA Blog published a post featuring detailed instructions on joining PreCheck. Here’s how it works:

First, if you are a “United States citizen and are currently a member of CBP’s eligible Trusted Traveler programs (Global Entry, SENTRI, NEXUS), you are automatically qualified to participate in the TSA PreCheck pilot as long as you are flying on a participating airline at a participating airport,” reports the TSA Blog. If you’re a member of a frequent flier program with Delta or American, you’re also eligible, and you should have received an e-mail with instructions on how to sign up for the program. Check your spam folder or call your airline’s customer service number if you can’t find the note — you need that e-mail to join.

For more information on how to sign up for the TSA’s PreCheck program, visit the TSA Blog.

Travelers who don’t meet the requirements for PreCheck (I’m right there with you) can still achieve an expeditious airport experience. Read 16 Ways to Get Through the Airport Faster for tips on zooming through your hub.

— written by Caroline Costello

A decade after 9/11, the travel industry has undergone immeasurable changes, from an airport security system overhaul to airline bankruptcies to soaring gas prices. To put it all in perspective, our friends at TravelPod (our sister site) created this infographic, which charts major changes in travel that have taken place since that tragic September day. Click on the image below to see a larger graphic, and read more about the state of travel after 9/11 in 10 Years Later: The Lessons and Promises of 9/11.

How have your travel experiences changed since 9/11? Share your stories in the comments.

Osama vs Travel

— written by Caroline Costello

In Airport Security Q&A, we provide a basic breakdown of TSA carry-on rules and security checkpoint do’s and don’ts. Still, we continue to receive scores of e-mails from justifiably confused travelers whose specific questions about all manner of packed possessions fall into the gray areas of TSA rules.

Here’s a medley of our latest reader e-mails, with answers provided by IndependentTraveler.com Editor Sarah Schlichter. Got your own burning airport security question? E-mail us or post your question in the comments, and we’ll do our best to solve your problem.

jalapenosQ: May I bring a 3-ounce can of jalapenos? I would take it in my carry-on.

A: I assume that your can of jalapenos would have some liquid in it, so as long as it’s smaller than 3.4 ounces and you put it in your single clear, quart-size, zip-top plastic bag with your other liquids and gels, you should be fine.

saucepanQ: Can I carry a 1.5-quart saucepan in my carry-on luggage?

A: As long as the sauce pan is empty, it’s no problem to bring it in your carry-on.

trail mixQ: I would like to carry chips, a 12-ounce bag of trail mix and a 12-ounce bag of chocolate bars. Will I be able to pass through security? I’m going to Barcelona.

A: Since those foods are solid items, you shouldn’t have a problem at security. But many countries have restrictions on nuts, seeds, fruits and other similar items, so you may want to contact the Spanish embassy before your trip to see whether your foods will be acceptable to bring into the country.

bug sprayQ: Can I take cockroach insecticide in my carry-on or in my checked luggage?

A: The TSA doesn’t permit aerosol insecticides in carry-on or checked bags. If the insecticide is in non-aerosol form, it should be okay to bring it in your checked luggage; however, if you want to bring it in your carry-on, it must adhere to the TSA’s liquid and gel rules. You may bring a non-aerosol container no larger than 3.4 ounces, and it must be in a quart-size plastic bag with other liquids and gels.

yogurtQ: Can you bring a container of yogurt through security?

A: Because yogurt is a gel-like substance, it is subject to the TSA’s 3.4-ounce limit; if your container is that size or smaller, you may put it in your single clear, quart-size, zip-top plastic bag with your other liquid/gel items to get it through the checkpoint. Otherwise, you’ll need to wait to purchase yogurt once you get into the secure part of the airport.

tiger lilyQ: I am traveling to California next week and want to bring flowers with me. Are they permissible (tiger lilies)?

A: Assuming you’re traveling from another location within the United States, it’s fine to bring along the flowers. If you’re coming into the U.S. from another country, you will most likely have issues at Customs, as there are restrictions on plants and other agricultural products when crossing international borders. You can contact the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol if you have further questions.

— written by Caroline Costello and Sarah Schlichter