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Handy Holiday Gifts For the Frequent Flier

By Keith L. Alexander
Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Barbara Stein remembers sitting in an hotel room in Carbondale, Ill., a few years ago, furious about missing a crucial Redskins game because it wasn't being televised where she was staying.

Now, the Arlington football fan doesn't worry about missing local games or her favorite TV shows. She purchased a Slingbox, a high-tech device that connects a home TV to the Internet and allows users to tap into their local programming through a Web-connected computer.

"I can now sit in my hotel room in Seattle and watch a Redskins game in real time, just like I would if I were home," said Stein, a policy analyst with the National Education Association. The $250 Slingbox is available at many electronics retailers or online at http://www.slingbox.com/ .

With crowded flights, long airport security lines and fewer free perks on airlines, one of the best gifts for frequent fliers might be a prescription for Xanax. But some frequent fliers suggest gifts that are more simple, fun or practical.

With airlines cutting meals and replacing them with cold sandwiches, Marilyn Baltz McQuinn, of Ventura County, Calif., says a great gift idea for the frequent fliers in your life is a gift card from a fast-food chain found in major airports, making it easy for them to pick up a quick burger or salad to take on the flight.

Boston frequent flier Jacki Lippman swears by the personal space ionizer that she wears around her neck during flights. The size of a small flip phone, the device retails for $30 to $70 on Web sites such as http://www.sharperimage.com/ or http://www.amazon.com/ . Lippman said that several of her co-workers snickered in disbelief when she purchased the device but that it came in handy during a recent 11-hour flight between Bombay and London. She was in the last row of the plane, near the lavatory, she said, and found that the ionizer "made life much more pleasant" during the long flight.

For the, ahem, larger-sized frequent flier in your life, Jeff De Cagna suggests purchasing a seat-belt extender. For years, the Arlington resident -- who stands at 6-feet-2 and weighs in at 350 pounds -- had to sheepishly ask flight attendants for the airline's extenders, a device that gives a traditional airplane seat belt a little extra length so it fits comfortably around his lap. Two years ago, De Cagna purchased his own from extenders from SuperSize World ( http://www.supersizeworld.com/ ), which sells products designed for large people. The extenders run between $60 and $70.

"To avoid hard feelings, give this one only to someone you really love and who really loves you," said De Cagna, a nonprofit industries consultant.

Inflatable travel pillows and small blankets that can be folded into a carry-on bag are also popular suggestions, especially now that airlines have either stopped providing pillows and blankets or have started charging for them.

For those travelers who have multiple devices that need charging, Jason K. Schechner, an engineer from Severn, Md., recommends a universal power brick by Targus or Kensington. The portable adapters, which are priced at $80 to $150, allow users to simultaneously charge multiple gadgets, such as laptops and cell phones.

Schechner also recommends a laptop case on wheels such as the Kensington Contour rolling case. Priced at $60 to $110, a rolling case allows Schechner to pull his laptop by hand, just like a carry-on bag.

Legal assistant Jennifer Sugiyama of Seattle recently purchased a fleece blanket and pillow from http://www.flight001.com/ . The site sells nearly 100 "kits" aimed at frequent fliers, including an assorted mini-candle aluminum kit for $15 to clear the air in hotel rooms, a $28 flight pack that includes Evian by Brumisateur Mineral Water Spray (to fight skin dehydration), dental floss and towelettes, and a $26 "shame on you kit" that includes a toothbrush, toothpaste, phone card, pain reliever and three condoms.

Holiday Travel Blues: Last year, it was US Airways that experienced a fiasco at Philadelphia International Airport that left thousands of travelers without their luggage. This year -- so far -- it seems to be United Airlines that has passengers fuming.

On Saturday, hundreds of United passengers were forced to wait in line for up to four hours to check in for flights leaving Chicago's O'Hare International Airport -- many standing outside in Chicago's often-unforgiving wintry air.

The airline, which has cut hundreds of jobs in the wake of financial troubles, had a backlog of passengers created by previously canceled flights and the flood of early holiday travelers. The company said that the problems were not related to recent layoffs and that staffing has since been increased to handle the holiday rush.

In his weekly employee message yesterday, Glenn F. Tilton, United's chairman and chief executive, said the airline would "identify" and "resolve" the causes of the problems.

"We disappointed our customers by not being prepared as we should have been for the extraordinary volume of passengers," Tilton said.

During last year's Christmas week, US Airways had its own customer service breakdown. The airline canceled more than 400 flights, affecting more than 46,000 passengers, and misplaced more than 72,000 pieces of luggage through its Philadelphia hub.

Since then, US Airways has hired 400 workers and invested $2 million in new baggage equipment, says company spokesman Carlo Bertolini.

"US Airways was fighting for survival last year while in bankruptcy. We're more stable now and can start spending money we need to spend to add infrastructure," Bertolini said.

If you notice any major problems as you travel this holiday season, e-mail me at alexanderk@washpost.com or call me at 800-627-1150, ext 47796. Please include your name, along with a daytime telephone number.

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