Out There: One bag blues

The new one-bag policy – taken by most major airlines with the exception of Aeroflot – alters the whole going-to- America experience.

El Al plane (photo credit: Courtesy)
El Al plane
(photo credit: Courtesy)
There is little doubt that 2011 will go down in history as a year of enormous change.
It is the year that saw Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali swept from power in Tunisia; Hosni Mubarak toppled in Egypt; Muammar Gaddafi killed in Libya; and the implosion of Syria. It is also a year that brought Europe to the brink of economic abyss; saw the targeted killing of Osama bin Laden; the independence of South Sudan; the rise of Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow; and the end of Matisyahu’s beard.
The enormity of that much change has the mind reeling, and it will – probably – all have an impact on us here in some way or another. Tebow’s rise and the true significance of a clean-cut Matisyahu might be more difficult to fathom in the short term, but one need not hold a degree in international relations to understand the impact of the Arab revolt on us – though exactly how, to what degree, and in what manner, is still to be determined.
The same cannot be said for another major change that took place this year: the decision of most airlines flying the US-Israel route to do away with two free, 23-kilogram pieces of luggage per passenger. That is a micro-change that will have immediate and deep implications for those who fly back and forth to the US, or who have family members who do so.
This new one-bag policy – taken by most major airlines with the exception of Aeroflot – alters the whole going-to- America experience. It changes the very essence of how one looks at trips to the US, what these trips are for, how time should be spent there, whether it pays to bring back boxes of Hot Tamales and jugs of Skippy peanut butter, and whether you can do a friend a favor and take back a winter coat for a relative studying in Jerusalem.
I am no big shopper. I don’t enjoy it, and am not particularly quick or good at it. Yet every time I fly to the States, I feel an urge welling up from somewhere deep inside to buy things. Not expensive luxury items like computers or iPads or mini televisions. No, I’m talking underwear for the kids, books for The Wife, and food for the family.
This urge to buy food is a holdover from 30 years ago when you really did need to go to the US and buy staples like peanut butter, Taster’s Choice coffee and Celestial Seasonings tea, because they weren’t available here.
Even when those items became available, I still bought them oversees because they were cheaper. It became a of habit. Go to the US, visit dad, give him a hug and then head over to Costco and buy an eight-pound jug of jelly beans and five-pound bag of assorted Hershey’s chocolate.
BUT NOW if you buy 13 pounds of candy, that only leaves 37 pounds for everything else – such as the clothes you have to wear while you’re there. It presents a dilemma: is it worth paying the airline an additional $70 for the privilege of bringing another bag?
This could be a word-problem on a psychometric exam: If boys’ T-shirts in the US are $8.99 for 12, about 1/4 cheaper than in Israel, yet you have to pay $70 for a second piece of luggage, how many shirts will you have to buy to make the purchase worthwhile?
The Wife felt this dilemma very keenly on a recent trip to Chicago to see her parents. Cashing in on mileage points, she flew LOT airlines, which not only limits you to one bag, but actually weighs your carry-on item so you can’t sneak extra weight on board.
(I’ve actually had carry-on bags crammed chock-full with batteries and Reese’s Pieces weigh almost as much as the check-through luggage.) The Wife was conflicted, nay tormented, by the new luggage policy.
What should she do? On the one hand, the US Wal-Mart buying spree was engrained in her after all these years; on the other hand, it doesn’t seem to financially make sense anymore.
I talked her into paying for a second bag, because beyond the utility of buying all those cheaper food items, there is also the diversion value of shopping.
“Have a nice vacation,” The Wife was told before her journey by Israeli colleagues, unaware that part of the purpose of the trip was to look into care for her elderly father, not necessarily a joyous vacation activity.
Israelis hear “trip to the US” and think about the Grand Canyon and Broadway musicals. They don’t realize that for those from the US, the outlook is a bit different.
Two weeks spending concentrated time with parents or in-laws, though not without its moments of loveliness, is not always relaxing. That is a lot of concentrated time. Obviously you can’t just sit around idle all day, you have to do something. But if you’re going back to the place of your birth, what are you going to do? Visit the mint? Go to the natural history museum?
So you shop. You go to Target and Sears and Safeway. I’ve had trips where half the time I shop, and the other half I spend taking things out of containers and stuffing them strategically inside duffle bags, between the socks and the sweaters, so nothing breaks.
The one-bag limit now changes that whole dynamic. It means you can’t just shop now as a diversion, as a thing to do, because you don’t have the room to schlep back all those purchases. And without the shopping, what you’re left with is a whole lot of time sitting around the table talking.
Which is why I advised The Wife to pay for the other bag. That much talking is no way to spend a trip to the US.