Travel tips

Hate customs lines? Get the Mobile Passport Control app

It’s not a secret. It’s free. And it can saves hours of time for travelers entering the United States after a long international flight.

Yet, so few people have downloaded and use the Mobile Passport Control app provided by the US Customs and Border Protection that you’ll feel like you’re getting away with something when you use it to breeze through the line ahead of everyone else – often ahead of even those who have paid for and are trying to use the Global Entry machines – at more than 20 airports and one sea port of entry, including:

  •     Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport (ATL)
  •     Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport (BWI)
  •     Boston Logan International Airport (BOS)
  •     Chicago O’Hare International Airport (ORD)
  •     Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport (DFW)
  •     Denver International Airport (DEN)
  •     Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport (FLL)
  •     Houston George Bush Intercontinental Airport (IAH)
  •     William P. Hobby Houston International Airport (HOU)
  •      Los Angeles International Airport (Terminals 4, 7 and TBIT)
  •     Miami International Airport (MIA)
  •     Minneapolis-Saint Paul International Airport (MSP)
  •     John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK)
  •     Newark Liberty International Airport (EWR)
  •     Orlando International Airport (MCO)
  •     Raleigh-Durham International Airport (RDU)
  •     Sacramento International Airport (SMF)
  •     San Francisco International Airport (SFO)
  •     San Jose International Airport (SJC)
  •     Seattle Sea-Tac Airport (SEA)
  •     Tampa International Airport (TPA)
  •     Washington Dulles International Airport (IAD)
  •     Port Everglades (PEV)

U.S. citizens and Canadian visitors can use the app, which can be downloaded from the Google Play Store and Apple App Store – and is now part of the Miami International Airport app.

Once you download the app you create a profile with your passport info and some other data and then, right before you land, you simply open the app and fill in some details about your current flight and answer the standard questions about whether or not you’re carrying more than $10,000 in cash or have been hanging about farm animals.

When your flight lands and you’ve taken your phone out of airport mode, you can submit your answers through the app and then just show the QR code that pops up to the customs officer as you sashay out of the arrivals area – past all those other people standing in line.



Hotels getting hacked + CDC Zika virus alert

sleeping on airplanes

Two stories I worked on for NBC News this week are tied to news about extra precautions travelers need to take while on the road.

For a story about hotels where data breaches and data-stealing malware have put guests’ credit card and other important information at risk, I talked to data security experts and checked up on what major chains, including Hyatt, Hilton , Starwood, Mandarin Oriental, Trump and others were doing to find and put a stop to the hacking.

Two babies

And in this story about the CDC’s travel alert about the Zika virus, I explored just the beginnings of the toll the tourism industry may take from advisories urging pregnant women and those hoping to be pregnant to take avoid traveling to areas of Latin America and The Caribbean where the virus has been spreading.

Health officials aren’t yet sure why, but believe the Zika virus can cause a catastrophic birth defect called microcephaly.

Tips for stress-free holiday travel

Thanksgiving postcard turkey


During the holidays, fog, snow, extreme weather, long lines at security checkpoints and other challenges may conspire to leave you stuck at the airport longer than you planned – or ever imagined.

No need to let a delay ruin your trip. Here are some tips to help time fly by.

Get ready for battle

The best offense is a good defense and this applies all the more when traveling during the holidays. Try to get a good night’s sleep before your flight so you arrive at the airport on-time, well-rested and ready for anything. Pack snacks, a little “mad money” and your good humor.

Make technology your co-pilot

Sign up for airline flight alerts and have them sent by phone, email and/or text message. More than one delivery method can’t hurt. On Twitter, “follow” your airline and all airports on your itinerary. Increasingly, Twitter is where news, updates and alerts appear first.

Re-confirm your flight online and get a boarding pass 24 hours before your flight. Mobile boarding passes are great, but print a paper copy just in case.

Checkpoint savvy

Prepare for the security checkpoint “experience” by making sure you and your carry-on are TSA-ready. Review the prohibited items list at, see if you qualify for TSA PreCheck and remember there are now rules that expedite the checkpoint passage for kids 12 and younger and adults 75 and older.

Access the amenities

Many airports now have their own apps and robust websites to guide you to upscale shops, fine-dining restaurants and bars offering everything from wine and tequila flights to massages.

During the holidays, airports often offer entertainment by carolers and musical groups, There may be photo ops with Santa and his elves, complimentary gift-wrapping, and free candy canes or other treats. Retail shops at the airport may also offer special discounts. Travelers should check the airport’s website in advance to see what they may be able to take advantage of.

Here are some other ways to make good use of your time stuck at the airport:

  • Get Cultured: These days, temporary and permanent art exhibits are found at almost every airport. There’s often a brochure to guide you, but sometimes you simply have to look around.
  • Stay Healthy: Medical clinics at O’Hare in Chicago, Hartsfield Atlanta and other airports offer flu shots for those on the go.
  • Stretch: San Francisco and Dallas-Fort Worth International airports have special spaces set aside for yoga, with loaner mats included.
  • Burn Calories: Bring you own pedometer or look for the mileage markings on walking paths inside airports in Indianapolis, Atlanta, Minneapolis-St.Paul, Baltimore, New Orleans and elsewhere. And don’t forget your sneakers.

(My story: Stree-Free Holiday Travel Starts at the Airport first appeared on Travel Guard)


Tidbits for travelers: tips and useful tools


It’s hard to stay up to date on all the changes you might encounter at airports and on airplanes these days.

Cheat sheets come in handy.

In a blog post titled “Expedited airport security: We all want it but how do we get it?,” GateGuru put together a good run-down on how to get qualified to use the TSA’s expedited security lines at airports.

The take-away: you can pay to join some programs; you must qualify for others, but if you get ‘in’ you’ll save some time and hassle at many – but not all – airports.

And in a column “Handy Tips From Those in the Know,” in the New York Times, Joe Sharkey shares some great travel tips from expert travelers.

The take-away: In addition to reminding us to steer clear of the Cinnabons and to always wear clean underwear to the airport because “You never know when you’re going to get strip-searched,” Sharkey includes a travel tip from Christopher Schaberg, whose book “The Textual Life of Airports: Reading the Culture of Flight” (Continuum, 2011), is sitting here on my desk. “Pay attention not only to public art in airports, but also to your own place within, no matter how grim or humble a concourse might seem,” said Schaberg. “Think of your time spent in the airport as an art walk of sorts. You are actually part of a giant, living art piece, the architectural matrix and social swirl that we recognize as airport life.”

Sharkey didn’t ask for a travel tip from me, but if he had I would have told him: When you’re stuck at the airport, don’t just sit there, poke around. That’s how I found some wonderful art and history exhibits, my favorite skirt and shops selling everything from used books to locally-crafted treasures. And: don’t forget to look out the window.

Sleeping on airplanes

Some people have no trouble falling asleep on airplanes.

“They sit down, close the window shade and immediately go to sleep. It doesn’t look like they need any help at all,” said Carol Landis, a professor at the University of Washington in Seattle who researches sleep and the health consequences of disturbed sleep.

Others just stay awake on airplanes no matter what. “Maybe it’s because of an underlying anxiety about the reason for the trip, or about flying, or because they’re trying to sleep sitting up rather than lying down,” said Landis.

But squeezing in even a short in-flight cat nap can make a big difference in your trip. “You’ll feel like a new person when you wake up,” said Sara C. Mednick, author of “Take a Nap! Change Your Life” and an assistant professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside. “All studies show the more you sleep, the better.”

But how can you catch those 40 winks while squeezed in a metal tube going more than 400 mph?

Landis and Mednick agree on the basics.

“Don’t drink caffeinated coffee, tea, soda or eat chocolate or anything else with caffeine for six to eight hours before a flight and during it,” said Landis. Bring along earplugs and an eyeshade to block out light and sound. And pack a pillow and a blanket. “Your body temperature drops when you sleep,” said Mednick, “so being sufficiently warm is important.”

Thinking of taking a sleeping pill? Think twice. “We usually discourage sleeping medications,” said Dr. Flavia Consens, an associate professor at the University of Washington in the departments of neurology and anesthesiology and pain medicine who is a specialist in sleep medicine. “There’s less oxygen while you’re flying, and these medications lessen your drive to breathe. There’s also a concern that when travelers take these pills they don’t move around, and on a long flight, that increases the chances of DVT or deep vein thrombosis,” the formation of blood clots known sometimes as economy class syndrome.

To help passengers snooze, some airlines offer a variety of onboard sleep aids, including mood lighting, “do not disturb” stickers and other amenities.

“Right now the industry standard in long-haul business class is seats that can be turned into horizontal beds,” said Raymond Kollau, founder of “And for some economy class fliers, Air New Zealand offers the ‘Skycouch,’ which is three standard economy seats which can be changed into a single horizontal space.”

On late night departures, All Nippon Airways (ANA) hands out ‘Sleep Support Kits’ that include aromatherapy cards (‘Relax’ and ‘Refresh’) that emit a lavender or an ‘ANA Original Aroma’ scent when a small button is pressed. “And British Airways offers sleep advice podcasts from sleep expert Chris Idzikowski, aka Dr. Sleep, on its in-flight entertainment system and on its website,” said Kollau.

Podcasts and other audio programs that may help you sleep might soon be a regular feature on other airline entertainment systems as well. At the recent Airline Passenger Experience Association conference in Seattle, IFE Services announced that it is now the exclusive seller of the pzizz sleep system to airlines. The software application creates audio soundtracks that promise to either induce a power nap of between 10 and 90 minutes or a deep sleep of up to 10 hours.

If the program is offered for free, it can’t hurt to give it a try, but sleep experts say you’d be better off spending your money on an upgrade instead of a pre-recorded program.

“There’s no research that shows these special programs work,” said Mednick. “There’s music you learn to listen to that might help you sleep, but there’s no music that’s a sleep inducer.”

Instead, Mednick suggests bringing some of your sleep rituals from home with you onto the airplane. “Brush your teeth, change your clothes, and get into something that resembles pajamas. We are creatures of habit, so if you can create or simulate the sleep habits you have at home, the more your body will respond.”

(This originally appeared on Travel’s Overhead Bin)