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February 08, 2008

Miami International Airport Survival Guide

After my recent experience at Miami International (my third within the last year), I'm convinced that if that place was inscribed with a slogan, it'd read: "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free—and then torture them some more."

It's not that I expect immigration in a post 9-11 world to be a breeze. As a Washington, D.C., resident before and after the attacks, living with the hassles of this brave, newly-secure world is something I take in stride. But the level of chaos at Miami International is the traveler's equivalent of Dante's first circle of the hell. 

Of course part of this is due to the sheer volume of U.S. and international visitors that pass through this gateway—a mass of Caribbean, South and Central American, and European travelers teem through these international terminals. But places like Chicago O'Hare, Atlanta Hartsfield, and NYC's JFK rank higher in the list of portal airports—so Miami can't get off that easily. No, it's almost as if Miami International excels at making an already challenging task downright maddening. As one colleague put it, you should avoid the place till they tear it down and rebuild it (before muttering inconsolably about the revolting green-colored couches…).

If you can avoid the place, kudos. We envy you. For the rest of us, here are a few tips to make your next visit a bit more tolerable:

1. Whether Miami is your final destination or just your first stop in the States, you have to clear customs and immigration. First up, the cattle call that is U.S. immigration. Passport inspection at Miami is separated into non-U.S. travelers, who line up to the left as you enter the floor, and U.S. travelers, who queue to the right. If the lines are long (and if you're a U.S. citizen), go as far to the right as you can. But even that advice isn't straightforward; the architectural genius behind this terminal saw fit to stick a structure in front of a batch of passport-checking stations, and those lines are typically half the length of the others because most people don't know about 'em. So…go there.

2. The line, of course will move as fast as a flight from Tierra del Fuego to Gnome, Alaska—and that's even if you're lucky enough (unlike me) to not end up behind a group of ten non-U.S. citizen who got in the wrong line but were still allowed to pass through 2,000-step admissions process. But when you're through, then the real fun begins: Bag collection.  The PA, an airline rep, or the arrivals board might tell you to go to a particular luggage carousel—BUT DON'T BELIEVE THIS. Every time I passed through customs, my bags weren't anywhere near the assigned carousel. They were sitting on the floor between two carousels, nowhere near where they were supposed to be. This is when it's helpful to have a noticeable bag. When traveling with my family last December, the only way we were able to locate our bags amid a sea of black rollers was because I'd brought my unapologetically garish yellow duffel, which stood out like a neon sign amid a sea of charcoal grey rectangles. That saved us half an hour of fruitless searching, and more than a few psychic wrinkles of frustration.

3. If you're connecting to another flight, after collecting your bag, pack away any duty-free items into your checked luggage. Why? Because—as with all U.S. airports—you have to re-check your bags with your airline after clearing U.S. customs and then you go through security again, which (say it with me) prohibits any liquids over two ounces. Don't do this and that rare bottle of Irish whisky or Cayman Islands rum will be donated to a wide-smiling TSA agent.  Miami's international baggage re-claim area is a slightly saner place to re-pack than the luggage re-check area.

4. Ah yes. The re-check part. If your flight is within the hour, it's somewhat straightforward—just find a rep from your airline and pass it off. If it's over an hour, then they instruct you to follow some oddball color-coded schema painted on the terminal floor. It's like a nightmarish version of Chutes and Ladders that eventually deposits you to some dark corner of the airport where you kiss your luggage goodbye. But don't make it a long goodbye—you've still gotta go through security.

5. Expect this Pavlovian routine to take a bit longer; a variety of different languages typically means people sometimes unwittingly make it up to the x-ray machine with five two-liter bottles of Diet Coke. If you're pressed for time (say, your flight departs within 20 minutes), try the First Class line and hope for a sympathetic attendant who will recognize the desperate look of a caged animal and let you slide through.

6. After security, locate your gate—and the nearest airport bar. By this time, you'll be ready for a drink. 
-- Nathan Borchelt

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