Baggage

Travel is enriching to the soul. But baggage can drain your spirit. Not to mention that it can also strain your back, chafe your hands, and occasionally vanish into thin air. That’s why I travel like a runaway bride, fleeing groom and unwanted wedding registry with just the clothes on my back.

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Okay, it’s not quite that bad, but my rule of thumb is that if I might need a luggage cart or a rolling suitcase, I have too much baggage.

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There are practical reasons for this rule; no matter where I go, I rarely use cabs.

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If you rely on mass transit, however, walking becomes an essential part of the process.

For instance, when I leave my home in Jackson Heights to go to JFK for a flight, I walk three blocks to the nearest bus stop. That bus route takes me to the subway stop. Getting on the subway itself involves walking from the bus drop-off point that is a few feet from the turnstile to the platform that is three flights of stairs below street level. There is an elevator, but it is slow and full of people who genuinely need it. So I usually dodge the crowds surging up from the underground, and clunk my way down and onto the E express train. As one of the few trains that takes people from Manhattan and Queens to the airport, it can be crowded with other travelers and their luggage. Once off of it, you have to walk up–or ride an escalator if you’re lucky–one flight, and go through the exit turnstile. Turnstiles, incidentally, are like a mythic passage; trying to get through one of those rotating bars with multiple bags is like being caught in a Greek tragedy.

After the turnstile, you walk to the elevator bank that will take you up two flights of stairs (past street level and commuter trains of the Long Island Rail Road). This elevator drops you off at the “Airtrain” level, which is the light rail that loops constantly around JFK’s terminals. But to get to that stop, you have to walk a few hundred feet, and while there is a moving walkway, it is out of service more often than not. At the end of this passageway, you go through another paid entrance, though this involves the plastic barriers that retract once you feed the fare card into the reader. It is a mythic passage for the modern age.  A hundred feet more and you finally arrive at the train. If I were wearing a pedometer, it might read about 2500 steps by this point, or approximately 1 mile. That is quite a ways to go with even one bag, let alone several. And that’s without adding in bad weather.

Once off the Airtrain, the remainder of your walk depends on the terminal you’re in. The train may drop you off a few hundred feet from the ticketing area, where you wander till you see your airline’s desks. At check-in, you might drop off your most cumbersome baggage (or that which is too large to be accepted as a carry-on). Since many airlines charge fees for even one checked bag, many passengers choose to fly with carry-ons that barely fit the regulations. I elect to do this because I worry about my luggage going on its own trip and because I hate waiting at baggage carousels at my destination. Staring at the rotating belt after a long flight, hating the muddy green unclaimed bag that has gone around 4 times while yours is nowhere to be seen, is its own particular circle of travel hell. (On my most recent trip to London, I overheard a man asking airline employees to help him retrieve his passport which had fallen and disappeared into the plates of the belt after he leaned over to help someone else get their bags; lesson: no good deed goes unpunished at the baggage carousel.)

The result of holding on to my bags, though, is that I have to continue carrying them. So I drag them from the ticketing area to the security line, where I have to haul them onto the table and into the plastic bins. And that is another reason to carry smaller, fewer pieces of luggage; when you’re short, everything is too high and you have to heave things onto surfaces without throwing your back out. Most security checks are quick, but sometimes, an officer will make me unzip a bag and will take out EVERYTHING I had fit in it with my Ninja-Tetris skills. So there I stand, belt off, no shoes, shoveling items back into bags so I can get them out of the way of the other people behind me. So another lesson: if there are fewer bags, there are fewer items to repack.

Away from the horror of that line, I then drag my baggage to the actual gate, which can sometimes be a football field away.

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While walkways are usually well-maintained here, they are frequently turned off if it’s early in the morning or late at night. So there you are, a beach vacationer who parked too far away and must tote the picnic basket, towels, beach umbrella, crying child, and water cooler.

Now imagine doing this in reverse when you land, especially in a country where you do not know anyone and must find your way around the mass transit system. On my latest trip to the U.K., I had to get from Heathrow airport

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to the city of Reading after landing at 6 p.m. and not getting through immigration till after 7:30. I walked out of the Customs area and followed directions to the  train that would take me from the arrival terminal to the one that houses the hub for inter-city buses. This involved walking to and from elevator banks into tunnels and on and off the train. At the correct terminal, I waited for the bus to start boarding, and took a moment to use the bathroom (having dragged my bags into a little stall–all stalls outside the U.S. are “little” and cannot accommodate a pile of luggage). The driver loaded one of my bags into the bus’s cargo hold and I took the smaller one with me into the bus.

After an hour’s ride, we arrived at the Reading station/bus terminal. I’d already looked up local bus routes and tried to ascertain the exact departure points but I have no sense of direction so I walked around the block peering at all the stops and then asked a bus driver for advice. He pointed me back to the first stop I had seen. Figures. So I lurched back to it and joined the thin queue of souls waiting in the freezing temperatures. The bus arrived and took me and my baggage to a stop about a 100 feet away from the hotel I was staying at. You think my journey would have ended here. But the hotel is a sprawling structure, with several building and I was assigned to a room about a quarter mile away, so that was one more trek to finish. Finally I arrived at the place I was to stay put for about two weeks.

I stared at my bags in the corner of the room and thought about hauling them back to the local bus,

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then the inter-city bus, then onto the plane,

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and then the Airtrain, and the subway, and the local bus, and then 3 blocks home. Can we have the Star Trek holo-deck already, please?

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