By JeremySeven days—one whole week—spent in the air this year. Breaking it down a bit more; that’s 81,000 miles on forty-two flights in seventeen different airports spread over three continents. Not half bad.
Of course, you don’t fly that much and not learn a few tricks to pass on. With the holiday travel season fast approaching, here are a few tips and tricks:
-Almost every airline now offers online check-in. Use it to print tickets and sometimes even luggage labels at home and save time…but beware to read the fine print: some airlines consider online check-in to be your way of saying you’re at the airport even if you aren’t (which means if you miss your flight and checked in from home they may not owe you anything). So don’t run late.
-Some airports have multi-airline ticket kiosks in parking garages and transit stations. They save tons of time and are often underused. Some examples are Las Vegas McCarran and Seattle-Tacoma airports.
-Make sure you check your carriers policy on checked bags and any fees before coming to the airport. It’s not fun having to leave stuff behind. Also, know your destination airport code and try to check the label before your bag disappears. For example SJU (San Juan PR) and SJO (San Jose CA) are one letter yet thousands of miles apart.
-Those dastardly security lines:
-Place things you’ll have to remove from luggage like laptops, liquids & gels, etc in easy to access locations in your bags: nothing more frustrating than to watch someone tear apart a bag in the middle of the line while holding everyone up.
-If wearing a coat place items like cell phones, keys, and wallets in the pockets. When the coat comes through the scanner, slip it on and walk away instead of fumbling through the bin.
-Wear footwear that slips on and off easily. If that isn’t an option, loosen up (but don’t untie) your shoestrings so they can slip on in a hurry.
-Don’t like the body-scanners? Check out other security lines in the airport and see if one has the scanners turned off…usually there’s at least one. Or see if you qualify for TSA-Pre.
-Check things that you know will bring extra attention and don’t bring things aboard you know you shouldn’t. Most airports have a little exhibit showcasing things that have been confiscated at security…it’s unbelievable.
-You’ve probably seen it… the person sitting by themselves in a row, feet stretched out comfortably under their seat, while the luggage bin over the row—your row—is already full with their roll-on, briefcase, coat, wet umbrella, and shoes. Don’t be that guy. The overhead bin is for your largest carry-on; not everything you own. The rest goes under the seat. Doing otherwise isn’t fair to everyone else boarding after you. But, if you’re one of the lucky last ones on the plane and see coats and purses gunking up the bins you can politely ask surrounding passengers whose stuff it is. Usually they’ll fess up and take it back. Not comfortable doing that?...ask a flight attendant. Most will try to take care of it for you.
-If you want to board first, buy a ticket in first class! Now that we’re done laughing…for the majority of us stuck back in steerage there can be a few strategies, but they’re sort of hardcore. First, many airlines have monetized early boarding. For a little bit extra you can get boarding group one, for example, on Delta. Check with your carrier. Second, if you’ve got an airline credit card you might qualify. If you’ve got good credit and are in the market for more (think carefully before opening credit), consider an airline-based card if you travel more than 10k per year. Three, you can check how airlines board their planes. A little searching will usually find a frequent-flyer forum board describing the logic (or lack thereof); sometimes the airline posts it on their website. Book your seat accordingly.
-Alright, so we joked about buying first class…but there is increasingly a middle ground that can be surprisingly affordable: premium economy. This new offering usually offers a little more legroom and early boarding. Some add additional perks such as free booze and food and expedited security lines. American, Delta, jetBlue, Frontier, United, and Virgin America all have premium economy options. Upgrade costs per flight can range from $20 to well over $200 depending on carrier and distance flown. I’ve flown almost all of them and while Virgin America has the best by far I’ve only purchased an upgrade with my own money on Delta’s Economy Comfort.
-Keep your seat belt on when you’re seated. A) If you fall asleep and the fasten seatbelt light comes on the crew won’t wake you up. B) Dangerous turbulence can happen out of nowhere without warning. You wouldn’t want to end up like Stewie Griffin. C) In the extremely unlikely event of a rapid decompression resulting in the ceiling ripping off, you’ll be a little less likely to go with it.
-Keep hydrated…seriously. Those airplanes get dry fast. If you like a little liquor when you fly, definitely make sure to compliment it with water.
-Having a small stash of clean wipes with a high alcohol percentage are a great idea. Wipe down the tray and in the seatback pocket – and the armrests. Lots of pleasant bacteria and germs live there.
-The bathroom?...best time to use it is right before the credits roll on a movie.
And of course there are the super fun delay and cancellation questions…so a few quick ones:
Q: We've been sitting around on the runway for hours. Isn't there a rule about having to let us off eventually?
A: Yes there is...and it's three hours by law.
Q: We finally came back to the gate, and then the flight got cancelled. The next available flight isn't until tomorrow. Do I get a free hotel room?
A: Only if it's the airlines fault. And sometimes not even then. If your cancellation was caused by weather, act of God, or an idiot passenger who won't turn off their cell phone....you are out of luck. If it was because a crew timed out or the plane was broken then maybe. But even if the airline offers hotel rooms they won't likely give you one unless you ask.
Q: Well what about flying me home on another airline?
A: Airlines used to do this to be nice. Some still do, but others - like Southwest and Spirit - do not. It’s their choice.
Q: I ended up taking the first flight out the next morning, but it was oversold and I got involuntarily bumped. Do I get money?
A: Almost certainly, but only if you're flying a US carrier and only if it was involuntary. Most airlines will preempt this though and offer vouchers first, so if you took an airlines offer to get bumped in exchange for a free bag of pretzels thinking they’ll also cut you the check at the gate you’ll be sadly mistaken. Otherwise, how much money ($650-$1300) you get depends on how long you wind up stuck at the airport. If you do get hosed, take the cash...many vouchers have travel restrictions: cold hard cash has none.
Q: Finally home, but now my bag is missing…what do I do?
A: First, no matter what, DO NOT leave the airport until you’ve tracked down an employee from your airline and file a missing bag claim (same thing applies if your bag comes back damaged). Demand a copy of it to take home with you and take down the employees name whom you submitted it to. Second, the airline will want an itemized list of everything that was in the bag. Think long and hard about what was in it – and better yet take a picture of it before you leave. Sounds crazy, until you need it. Third, be patient but proactive. Lost bags are not an airlines top priority, so you sometimes have to push them into finding it for you. If the airline ultimately declares it lost for good they owe you some dough…about $3300 per bag regardless of what was inside it.