Wednesday, March 5, 2014

United's carry-on policy: Must your personal item be backpack-shaped?

As you've probably heard, United is using new bag-sizer templates to make sure what you take onto the plane is the size they'd like it to be. And my only objection has to do with the personal item size. We'll get to that in a moment.

I have absolutely no objection to the airline trying to put an end to people trying to cram massive suitcases into the overhead bins. The size that United allows -- the same size that American Airlines and Delta Air Lines list as acceptable on their web pages -- is 22 by 14 by 9. This is a small suitcase, but it absolutely is sufficient for a week in Europe, I'm here to tell you. (Of course, it's a bit tougher on men, who have much bigger shoes. But my husband can do it.) I haven't seen this size limit for overhead bins enforced at all in recent years, and the result is people having to push and push to get their behemoths into the bins. The push, of course, is partly the result of people trying avoid bag fees, and I don't blame them for that. But I do blame them for packing badly.

The under-the-seat thing is quite another matter. United now says that your personal item is only acceptable if it is 9 by 10 by 17. That's the size of a small backpack. OK. Fine. But it's also the SHAPE of a small backpack. Some of us -- say, over the age of 30 -- carry cloth bags or satchels rather than backpacks. They are not rectangular. They will not fit into the sizer.

Here's a more acceptable policy for grownups: American Airlines says the dimensions of your personal item can't be more than 36 inches. That allows a 15 by 15 by 5 square canvas bag to be placed under the seat in front of me.  I have taken such a bag on every U.S.-based airline. It fits quite easily, without cramming, under every commercial airline's seat. (I'm not talking about commuter planes here. I don't fly on those, and they can have a lot less space both in overhead bins and under seats.)

Delta just might have the most reasonable personal item policy of all, and it's rare (never?) that I accuse Delta of being reasonable. Delta's policy is that the item must fit under the seat, period. It doesn't have to be backpack-shaped, square or any other particular shape.

My experience with United recently is that it has a whole lot of rules but not a whole lot of customer service. The airlines I fly most are JetBlue, Southwest and American, and because I pack efficiently, I don't foresee a problem on those. I have a good many United miles, though, and I'm going to need to use those. Which mean, I guess, I need to go buy a backpack.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

The top four reasons I hate top five lists

"Five great places to eat duck fat." "Top ten beaches on the Gulf Coast." On and on and on it goes, the top five, top 10 and -- sometimes -- top 50. What if I like 13 beaches on the Gulf Coast? What if there's really only one place that does duck fat right?

Herewith, the top four reasons that I hate top five lists:

1. There are rarely exactly five things -- not four, not six -- that fit the category.

2. They're frequently aggregated lists. Some dude sitting in an office feeds "top five duck fat" into Google and rewrites the results to look original. (Yes, I know. Some of us do really personally research top-five lists. But I have the feeling that more do not.)

3. They're the trendy new way to deal with travel writing so that nobody has to be exposed to the ickiness of narrative. I happen to like narrative. Doing it right takes lots of reporting, of course, and not "we went here and then we went there." I think we have bad travel writing to blame, in part, for the popularity of top 5 and top 10 lists.

4. People actually believe these lists and adhere to them too strictly. Sure, I like to see what my fellow travelersdo so I can try to repeat the experiences. But if you only go to what others consider the top five restaurants in Des Moines, you'll never really know Des Moines.

That's it. No five. Deal with it.