Traveling by air can leave even the most seasoned traveler feeling helpless and trapped by the system. Between security lines and flight delays, there are many things out of our control when flying. But it doesn’t have to be a miserable experience. Smart travelers can take several steps before they fly to help solve any problems that creep up.
These five tips will make flying easier, even on the worst days:
Getting the Best Seat
A friend of mine who frequently flies between New York and Johannesburg on a South African Airways Airbus A340-600 always tries to get seat 73D. Why? It doesn't cost any more than other coach seats, but because of an emergency crew hatch on the floor there is no seat 72D. That means extra feet—not inches—of legroom.
How can you find out about such quirks?
SeatGuru.com and SeatExpert.com are two sites that detail each aircraft type and the pros and cons of each seat. And just because the seat you want is taken when you book a flight, it doesn't mean it will remain occupied. People change flights or get upgraded to even better seats. The first wave of upgrades starts five days before your departure. As people move up to first class, their prime seats open up for everybody else.
ExpertFlyer.com offers free notifications—for one flight at a time—when a window or aisle seat becomes vacant. For 99 cents, it sends an email if two adjacent seats become available.
I always prefer the first flight of the day even if it means getting out of bed long before sunrise. There's less of a chance of something going wrong and—if there is a problem—there is plenty of time to recover from the delay or get rebooked on a later flight.
However, flights leaving around 6 p.m. are often delayed because that's when everybody wants to fly, and the runways and surrounding airspace can handle only so much traffic at once.
Then there are certain late-night flights that are frequently delayed because of mechanical problems. If a jet being used for a 7 p.m. flight has an issue, the airline will often swap it with a similar jet reserved for the 9 p.m. flight. That gives mechanics time to fix the problem without delaying the 7 p.m. trip. If the issue still isn't resolved two hours later, another swap will be made with the 10:30 p.m. flight. If the problem persists, it's a big problem, because there are no more aircraft left to swap and the last flight is going to be late.
When you can’t book an early flight, it pays to check the on-time performance of the flight you are about to book. (To find out if your flight is frequently delayed, go here.)
Many times delays are caused by weather or congestion. Before you go to the airport, check the FAA’s site to determine what the air traffic control situation is like at the country's major airports. Its map highlights delays caused by fog, snow, or high winds and those caused by runway construction or congestion.
On your day of travel, set up alerts with the airline and third-party sites like FlightAware.com to learn about delays and gate changes. This can give you time to get to the airport early enough to catch an earlier flight or lets you be the first one to call and rebook on a later flight that isn't canceled.
Know Your Confirmation Number
The few numbers and letters that make up your confirmation number are the key to speeding you through the airport. Check-in kiosks ask for it. Phone representatives ask for it. If you need to be booked on a new flight or track a lost bag, it's all linked to this number.
Here's where it gets tricky: business travelers are often given several different confirmation numbers. My corporate travel department issues me a confirmation number for my trip. But that is very different from the number that American, Delta, Southwest, or United might give me. And that's the number I want to know at the airport. The same thing is true about bookings through Expedia, Priceline, or Orbitz.
Code-share flights also pose this same problem. Typically the issuing carrier and the operating carrier—the one you will actually fly on—have two different confirmation numbers. Airline partners have become much better at being able to see each other's data, but often you will still need the operating carrier's number to do things like select seats in advance online. To learn the partner airline's confirmation number, use Check My Trip.
Global Entry and TSA PreCheck
Thanks to TSA PreCheck, airport security doesn't have to be a hassle anymore.
Members of this trusted traveler program get to leave on their shoes, light jackets, and blazers as well as their belts, and can leave liquids—up to 3 ounces—and laptops in their bags. It not only brings a level of humanity back to the security process but also is much faster than the regular process. I can now routinely make it from the curb to the other side of security in two minutes.
TSA is quickly expanding this program to more airports and more fliers. The easiest way to use this special lane is to pay an enrollment fee and go for an in-person interview. Members of other government-trusted traveler programs like Global Entry and NEXUS and military members also get to participate.
Stay Loyal to One Airline
Most of the time it makes sense to book the cheapest nonstop flight. But if the price is just a few dollars more to fly on your preferred carrier, book it.
Why? Getting elite status can make anyone’s life much easier. Status starts when you fly 25,000 miles in one calendar year with an airline, but the best benefits are given to those who fly two to four times as many miles. Checking bags for free, using shorter security lines, and getting first-class upgrades are nice. But it's the other perks that can really save you.
When there are flight delays and cancelations, it's the elite members who get the first shot at open seats on a new flight. They have dedicated phone lines and agents. During really bad storms, it might take somebody without status an hour on the phone to even get through to an agent, let alone be rebooked on a new flight.