Summer is the time for vacations, weddings, and family gatherings. Often, we need to travel long distances to these events. And, in the twenty-first century, that usually means traveling by air. Unless you’re wealthy enough to hire a private jet, that will involve airline travel.
Airline travel has evolved dramatically over the years since the days of the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB) that regulated air travel. Back in the middle of the last century, airline tickets were very expensive, and only the wealthy could afford them. Everyone got dressed up to fly, the young, attractive flight attendants (who were called stewardesses) served great meals on real china with silverware, and the price for a ticket for a specific route was the same on every airline. Before airline deregulation in 1978, the only way for airlines to compete was by providing outstanding service. Flights were not usually too crowded, and passengers could reliably count on having an empty middle seat next to them.
Nowadays, of course, everything is different. There’s a good chance that everyone on a particular flight has paid a different price for a seat on the same flight. Some passengers may well pay more for parking at the airport than for their tickets. No one gets dressed up to fly any more, and inflight service is, shall we say, not the way it was in the old days. Flights are pretty much filled up to the gills, and just getting through the security screening can cast a shadow on your travel experience.
During the thirty years I flew as an airline pilot, I operated flights, and also traveled as a passenger, all over the world. I’d like to share some ideas that will make your next airline trip easier, smoother, and less expensive. Here are nine tips that will help make your next airline trip less of a hassle.
1. Do Your Homework
Usually, the sooner you start researching your ticketing options and making a reservation, the better. Airlines want to encourage flyers to book early, and often the ticket prices will be lower the further out from departure the reservation is made. The one exception to this is for last-minute tickets on some flights that are not heavily booked. It’s possible that a seat could be discounted very close to departure, because it’s better for the airline to sell a seat for any amount rather than let it go empty. But, in reality, that doesn’t happen very often any more, because flights are typically fairly full. You can snap up some pretty good bargains with judicious use of the internet.
One of the better sites for finding good deals is https://skiplagged.com/. If you’re not checking luggage, you may be able to find a ticket to your destination by circuitous routing. For example, you want to fly from Denver to San Francisco. It might cost less to buy a ticket from Denver to Reno, with a stop in San Francisco. Simply get off the flight in San Francisco. As long as you don’t have checked luggage, this will work.
Often, the best way to buy tickets for travel is with points in a frequent flyer program. Even if you’ve never accumulated points with a particular airline, you may be able to establish an account and transfer points from your credit card or other airline program, since points are pretty much universally fungible. Just use your points wisely, since the cost, in points, can vary widely. For example, a flight from Denver to San Francisco on United will cost 25,000 points, while the same flight on American is 12,500 points. Flying from Denver to London on United will cost you 65,000 points (plus a fee), while it’s only 30,000 points on American. For different dates or city pairs, the numbers could well be reversed, so it’s important to perform due diligence.
One last thing about reservations. When you make your reservation, be sure you know your name! You may be Betty Smith to all your friends, but if you make the reservation in that name and your driver’s license has Elizabeth A. Smith, you may find yourself delayed at the TSA checkpoint, since your ticket doesn’t exactly match your government-issued identification.
Check in for your flight online as soon as you can, usually 24 hours prior to departure. The sooner you check in, the better your chances for getting a seat you want. You can see the seating diagram for any flight at www.seatguru.com. It’s no surprise that no one wants a middle seat, so strike while the iron is hot.
2. Plan Your Trip To The Airport
Your stress will be minimized if you can accurately forecast how much time it will take to get to the airport, park, check in for the flight, and get through security screening. Here’s where it really makes sense to let your fingers do the walking by checking on the internet for traffic information, parking lot information, and TSA checkpoint information. Most airports have web sites that will give you this information. You don’t want to be running exactly on your planned schedule only to arrive at the airport and find that the close-in parking lot is full and you have to go to the overflow lot that’s 10 minutes away.
Planning your travel time to the airport can be a real conundrum. If you don’t give yourself enough time, you may miss your flight. If you give yourself too much time, you have to sit on your hands for perhaps hours at a crowded terminal (but there’s a fix for that we’ll discuss shortly). Overall, you’ll be less stressed if you have a little extra time at the airport.
Airport parking lots are congested, confusing and expensive. Some lots give you the option of either taking a ticket when you enter or simply swiping your credit card to time-stamp your entry into their system. I strongly recommend you take the ticket rather than using your credit card. If anything happens to your credit card (lost, stolen, card disabled) while you are on your trip you will have a major hassle when it’s time to pick up your car.
Depending on how paranoid (actually, I prefer to think of it as careful) you are, you may want to remove your car registration and garage door opener from the car when you park. Anyone who breaks into your car (and it happens more often than you might imagine) at the airport parking lot knows that you are away from home. If he can discern your home address from your registration and get access to your garage, you might have a very unpleasant surprise when you return from your trip.
It’s really easy to forget where you park. I see it all the time when I’m on the bus going from the terminal to the parking lot. The easy way to fix this is to take a picture with your smart phone of your car with the parking lot sign in the picture. An alternative is to simply send yourself an email reminder that you parked in the Pikes Peak lot, row B-17.
3. Speed Through Screening
Security screening is the least fun part of air travel. Everyone is tense, the TSA workers have a thankless job, the idiot in front of you at the magnetometer keeps setting off the alarm because he didn’t remove all metal objects from his pockets, and you’re going to need to really run to catch your flight. There’s a way to make this a bit easier: get TSA Pre-Check.
TSA Pre-Check is a program that allows some passengers to be background-checked so that they are considered lower risk, and they can therefore proceed through a special, quicker screening line. With Pre-Check you don’t need to remove your shoes, you can keep your computer in your bag, and life, in general, is much easier. All you have to do is make sure you don’t have any metal in your pockets.
Or prohibited items. Every week dozens of hand guns are confiscated at security checkpoints from people who simply forgot they had them in their pockets! If you typically carry pepper spray or any kind of weapon in your jacket, pocket or purse, be sure you leave it at home. It’s embarrassing and costly if you inadvertently bring it to the airport.
Getting Pre-Check printed on your boarding pass can be accomplished several ways. One way is to use the Clear service (www.clearme.com). At $179 per year, it’s a bit on the pricey side, but they guarantee you’ll get through security screening in 5 minutes or less. They have a special line at participating airports, and a Clear representative will escort you through the screening.
Another way is to get a Global Entry pass. The Global Entry program is used to expedite processing through Customs and Immigration for members who are returning from overseas, through use of a Global Entry kiosk. But you don’t have to be a world traveler to get the card. Simply apply at https://goes-app.cbp.dhs.gov/main/goes and pay the non-refundable $100 processing fee. Membership is valid for five years.
An even better (cheaper) way to get PreCheck is by obtaining a NEXUS card. It’s similar to Global Entry, is also valid for five years, and costs only $50. The only drawback is that obtaining it requires that you be interviewed at one of the few locations equipped to process applications, and all of them are near the northern border of the United States. I got my card when I was in Seattle on business.
Clear, Global Entry, and NEXUS all get you into the TSA Pre-Check line.
4. Pack smart
When you check luggage, you need to assume it will get lost. That is, you should never pack anything important or valuable into your checked luggage. There are a couple of reasons for this. First of all, there have been numerous cases of airline baggage handlers going through suitcases and stealing valuables. Additionally, there are innumerable opportunities for your luggage to misconnect, especially if you don’t have a direct flight. Eventually, your luggage will probably end up with you, delivered to your hotel or home. But that doesn’t help you much if there is something in that luggage you really need in a hurry.
About a year ago I witnessed something remarkable while I was waiting for a hotel van outside the baggage claim area at the Seattle-Tacoma Airport. A couple was waiting for a van pickup, and I overheard their conversation. The wife asked the husband if he had money to tip the driver. He said his wallet was in the backpack. I noticed the backpack had an airline baggage tag attached, which meant he had checked the bag instead of carrying it onboard. Now, putting a wallet into checked baggage is a really, really bad idea. But this story gets better. As he rummaged through the back pack, he realized that he had grabbed someone else’s bag, a bag that looked identical to his! Not only had he left his valuable – in this case, his wallet – in his checked bag, he hadn’t confirmed that he had retrieved his own bag at the claim area. For a brief moment, I looked around, to see if I was on Candid Camera.
If you need to take any medications, even if it’s hours after your expected arrival, bring them along with you in your hand-carried bag. There are lots of opportunities for your flight to be delayed, either before takeoff, inflight, or after landing. You don’t want to find yourself in an airplane in a holding pattern, with your insulin in your packed bag, when you need it.
My little story has another moral. Make your checked bag distinctive-looking. You can find a multi-colored luggage strap at many travel stores, or just design your own luggage tag. By the way, it’s a really good idea not to put your name and address on that luggage tag. Use your first initial and telephone number, and perhaps your email address instead. And, of course, when you retrieve your luggage, check the claim check number against the airline baggage tag, to make sure it really is your own bag.
5. Dress right
It would be really nice if everyone on the plane dressed like they did in the past. Watch the 1954 movie The High and the Mighty to see what that looked like. But that ship sailed a long time ago, and it’s not really my business if airline terminals now look like Greyhound bus terminals.
My concern is that those passengers wearing cutoff shorts, flip-flop sandals or high heels could be at great risk of injury in the event of an aircraft evacuation. And evacuations, while rare (perhaps two per month in the United States), are always a possibility. If you’re wearing shoes that don’t provide good footing, you could find yourself being injured when you otherwise wouldn’t have been hurt if you’d been wearing better shoes. If you’re wearing stiletto heels, you could puncture the inflatable escape slide used for evacuation on larger airplanes. And if you think taking off those shoes is a good idea, think again. Anyone who evacuates an airplane may well find herself on the tarmac surrounded by jagged strips of metal or pools of jet fuel. Additionally, if you’re wearing high heels you are at greater risk of falling when you walk down the aircraft aisle to use the lavatory. My suggestion: wear lace-up shoes or sneakers for your flight, and save the fashion show for later, after you arrive at your destination.
If you’re a woman, you should be wearing slacks, and absolutely no nylons! Friction from sliding down an escape slide will cause your nylons to administer a second-degree burn. For your other clothing, I recommend you bring along a sweater or jacket, since it sometimes gets chilly in the cabin, and complimentary blankets went the way of complimentary meals long ago. The outside air temperature at cruise altitude is typically -30 degrees celsius or colder, so the airplane cools off quite quickly. And sometimes the air conditioning is intentionally set to a cool temperature to help the flight attendants, who can work up quite a sweat running up and down the aisle.
6. Lounge around
If you’ve arrived at the airport with plenty of time to spare, or are waiting at a stopover between flights, it would really be nice to have someplace quiet to unwind, away from the madding crowds. That’s where airport lounges come in. In a lounge, sometimes called an airline club room, you’ll find a wide range of amenities, from snacks and drinks to full buffets and showers. They’re not normally inexpensive, but usually they’re well worth it, especially if you can get into them for a reduced face or for free.
Typically, airline lounges are membership clubs, with annual dues costing $500 or more, but most of them offer one-time access for a fee, perhaps $50. But you can get in for less than that: you can usually find one-time passes online for a discount at eBay or other merchandising sites. A typical price for a pass to the United Airlines Red Carpet Club is $19.99. Here’s an example: http://www.ebay.com/itm/United-club-one-time-lounge-pass-valid-thru-9-30-2016-w-tracking-/271863000124?pt=LH_DefaultDomain_0&hash=item3f4c4c2c3c .
But why pay anything for lounge access when you can get in for free? If you have an American Express Platinum Card, you can get access to pretty much every airline lounge (except United/Continental) if you have a ticket on that airline. If you’re at one of the airports that has a Centurion Lounge, your American Express card gets you in for free, and the Centurion Lounges are some of the nicest I’ve seen, with great food, drinks, and amenities. They’re at five airports right now (maybe six by the time you read this). You can find out more at http://thecenturionlounge.com/.
7. Bring your own food
Call me a cheapskate, but I really rebel at paying $3.75 for a bottle of water at an airport shop. Now, we all know you can’t bring a bottle of water through security, due to the 3-ounce rule. But that doesn’t stop you from bring a water bottle through security, an empty bottle. Once you’re past the TSA checkpoint, you can fill your bottle from a drinking fountain, to carry onto the plane with you. Many airports, such as Atlanta, have sanitized bottle-filling stations next to their drinking fountains.
And I really recommend you bring your own water onboard. The cabin air is really dry on air carrier aircraft, and it’s important to stay hydrated. But don’t even think about using the airplane’s potable water! Some time ago, the Wall Street Journal conducted a test of the potable water on 14 domestic and international flights. They found that contamination was the rule, not the exception, with organisms ranging from salmonella to e.coli. It’s true, the potable water system is used to make coffee, but that’s probably safer, since the water gets heated to near-boiling when the coffee is being made. You’ll be much better off bringing your own water!
I have no idea if the snack boxes the airline sells are safe or not, I just know they’re terribly overpriced, and mostly junk food. I recommend you bring some snack bars, protein bars, or home-made sandwiches with you, especially when you consider how much the inflight meals cost. (As an aside, you can probably snag some take-along food at one of those airport lounges.)
8. Stay clean
If I’ve grossed you out talking about the airplane’s water supply, tighten your seatbelt. But wait – not yet, until you read this paragraph. Airline seat belts and belt buckles are some of the most germ-ridden places on an airplane, along with tray tables. Whoever was the last person to sit in your seat used that seat belt buckle, and there’s no telling what virus or bacteria was on his/her hands. And tray tables are routinely (you read right) used to change diapers! By the way, more often than you’d believe, those dirty diapers end up in the seat-back pocket right in front of you.
I strongly recommend you always carry hand sanitizer and sanitizing wipes with you when you travel, and as soon as you take your seat, wipe down the seat belt, arm rest, safety information card and tray table. And, while you’re thinking about it, pack your own reading material. That inflight magazine is being stored in the seat-back pocket.
9. Pay attention
I just mentioned the passenger information card, and you’re probably thinking, “I just won’t touch it.” That would be a mistake. That safety information card is your lifeline in the event of an airplane emergency, and I guarantee you that you’ll be the only person on that plane who has looked at it.
An interesting thing happened to me when I was flying on a U.S. Air flight from La Guardia airport about a week after the “miracle on the Hudson”. As you may know, not one person on that entire plane grabbed a seat cushion as the plane was sinking, even though it had been pointed out as the individual flotation device during the safety briefing and was shown on the safety information card. On the particular flight I was on, while Captain Sully’s heroic event was still being discussed on every news channel, not one passenger, other than myself, even paid attention to the safety briefing! And it was on the exact same aircraft model – an Airbus A-320 – as Sully was flying on U.S. Air Flight 1549!
I don’t care how often you have flown, I guarantee you will learn something if you read – really read – your safety information card the next time you fly. You’ll find out that A-319 you’re on may look just like an A-320, but it only has one overwing exit on each side of the airplane, instead of two. Or that the overwing exits on a Boeing 737-900 are hinged at the top and open upward, while those on a 737-300 are plug-type exits that must be removed. The list goes on.
There’s a residual benefit of reading the safety information card: the flight attendants conducting the safety briefing will notice, and will appreciate your attention. Not too long ago, I was traveling in a coach seat, and, as usual, I took out the safety information card and paid attention to the safety briefing before takeoff. Later, at cruise, the flight attendant handed me one of the snack boxes she had been selling. I told her I thought there was some mistake, since I hadn’t paid for an inflight meal. She smiled at me and said, “This is your reward for paying attention to the safety briefing!”
Dr. Nolly (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a retired airline pilot who now consults for airline training departments and conducts simulator training in the B777. He has written a series of aviation action novels about the Vietnam War, and has written a nonfiction book, Insider Air Travel Secrets: Straight Advice From Your Captain. His website is www.genolly.com.