Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Top Ten Flying Tips

In one year, I have been on 81 flights. 81 times I’ve turned off my cell phone and waited as the plane rocketed into the sky. 81 times I’ve stowed my tray table and returned my seat to its full, upright position in preparation for landing. I’ve adjusted my watch 77 times for a new a time zone and been through 18 different airports in four countries on two continents

Shortest flight: 31 minutes (Chapel Hill, NC to Washington, DC)
Longest flight: 11 hrs 45 mins (Denver, CO to Amsterdam, The Netherlands)

Here are the top ten tips I can give people making a quick visit to Airworld. The tips are not listed in any particular order of importance or anything, nor are they complete. I’m bored on this flight to DC, so I thought I’d share…

Top Ten Flying Tips

1. Avoid checking your bags.

Most airlines charge for any checked bags. United, for example, charges $15 per check bag, per flight. That means, if you’re on a round-trip voyage to New York, you will end up paying $30 to check one bag.

Fill a suitcase that falls within the size requirements with your clothes and bathroom supplies, and pack a backpack with the rest. There’s still a useless ban on liquids in the US, so make sure to not bring any liquids over 3 ounces. The liquid containers you do bring have to be packed in a clear plastic bag that can easily be placed, separately, on the security conveyor belt. I assume the TSA put this ban in effect to determine if there are any teeny, tiny bombs suspended in the liquid. I’ve lost two bottles of expensive cologne and countless bottles of water, shampoo, and mouthwash because of this.

If your bags are in your keeping throughout the trip, the airlines can’t lose them and you don’t have to wait around for them to show up on the baggage claim. Trust me, you don’t want to be in a position where, after 20 hours of straight travel, you find yourself Oslo, Norway listening to the helpful attendant say, in broken English, “Matthew J. Fox, please go to the lost baggage claim counter.” This has happened to me and it sucks.

2. Put an empty water bottle in your carry-on backpack.

Due to the completely useless, misguided, and draconian ban on carry-on liquids, you cannot pass through the security checkpoint with a full bottle of water. Whether you’ve purchased the bottle in the airport (within viewing distance of a TSA agent or not, you’ll still have to pitch it). However, you can get an empty bottle through. The theory is: Empty bottles cannot contain sizable amount s of the airplane-blowing-up fluid “Blowiquid.” Safe!

Once on the other side of the check-point, fill up the bottle at a water fountain (be sure not to use the fountains labeled “Blowiquid” or you might just blow yourself up with your bottle of water). This will save you having to pay $3+ for a bottle in the DMZ. Plus, the low air pressure / high altitude on the flight will dehydrate you much faster than at sea level. If you want to be at all functional when you land, make sure to drink lots of water.

3. Sign up for the frequent flier, rental car, hotel programs

These programs are free and can only benefit you. Most give sizable bonuses simply for signing up. It often takes a while to build up enough miles for a free flight or for an upgrade, but most point systems take forever to expire, so you’ll eventually get something free.

4. There is no need to arrive at the airport overly early.

When I started traveling for business, I would find myself clearing security and sitting down at the gate with 2 hours to spare. Unless it’s a holiday, Monday morning or Friday evening, or you’re traveling internationally, arriving at the airport an hour and a half early is plenty of time. If you’re not checking a bag, and you’ve checked in online, you can easily get to your gate with up to 20 minutes to spare. If you are checking a bag, most airlines will stop allowing the checking of any bags if you try less than 45 minutes before the plane takes off—also, there’s a 50lbs limit on all carry-on bags. If you go over that, you incur even more charges. Keep it in mind.

5. Check in online.

After you purchase your ticket, you will receive a confirmation code (a six character alphanumeric number), make note of it. 24 hours prior to take-off, you can check in online with that confirmation code and your last name. Go to the airline’s web site and look for the online check in section. This will guarantee you seats, and, many times allow you to pick the best seats.

Most airlines oversell popular flights. This means, if you don’t check in online, there is a good chance you will get bumped to the next flight.

Also, if you don’t have a bag to check, you can bypass the ticketing counter entirely. Just head straight to security with your printed ticket. This makes the process much faster.

Also, while you’re online checking in, be sure to sign up for that’s airline’s flight status updates. These can either be emailed or sent via text message to your phone. It’s much more convenient to find out your flight has been canceled or delayed before you leave for the airport.

6. If you’re on a short flight (2-3 hours), get an aisle seat. If it’s a long flight (more than 3 hours) get a window seat. Avoid the seating letters B and E like the plague.

Aisle seats have their perks. They allow you to stretch out your legs. You don’t have to climb over anyone to get to the bathroom and you will be the first person out of the row when the plane lands. Sadly, it also means that every person who walks down the two foot wide aisle will bash you with their elbows, bags, heads, etc. On long flights, a window seat gives you something to learn your head against other than the seat, and no one will have to crawl over you to get to the aisle or to vomit (sadly, also, this has never happened… at least to me).

A quick sub-tip: If you’re going to sleep on the flight, make sure to buckle your belt on the outside of the blanket so that the damn flight attendants won’t come around and wake you up to make sure your seat-belt is on. They can see it on the top of the blanket a go bother someone else.

7. Airworld is mean. Be aggressive in everything or be prepared to be run over.

If you want to get on the plane with any hopes of having overhead space to place your bag(s), wedge your way to the front of the line. If someone is kicking the back of your seat, turn around and tell them to stop or get a flight attendant. If you’ve been directed to a security line that is really long, look for a shorter one and cut over to it. No one is going to spare you any unnecessary courtesy. Most are like me, who fly every week of the year and will take any advantage possible to get through the maze of lines and checkpoints faster. Most us aren’t going on vacation or having an adventure. We’re working and want to get through the system as fast as possible.

If you want a can of Coke and a cup of coffee and another bag of pretzels; ask for them. Flight attendants are trained 70% safety, 20% security, and 10% hospitality. They really don’t care how many complimentary bags of nuts they hand out. Just ask. If they say no, punch them. They love that.

8. If you are traveling for an emergency (funeral, health concern, etc), call the airline directly and ask them for their reduced emergency fare

When my grandma died this past year, she was to be buried less than 48 hours after dying. This kind of radically-quick burial, make it very difficult for people who live on the other side of country to get to the funeral home before the person is buried. As a result, the round trip, less-than-24-hour-notice tickets from Denver to Grand Rapids were nearly $1000.00 for the two of us. This isn’t a trivial amount of money. I ended up calling the airlines and asking if they had any specials for people who were traveling for funerals, etc. They confirmed that yes, there were. We had to provide them with the name of the mortuary and funeral director, complete with telephone number. In the end, however, we ended up getting the same tickets for $300.00 total; a significant drop. Keep it mind.

9. Book in advance, but not too far in advance.

If you can avoid traveling on Saturday and if you can purchase your ticket 2-3 weeks before the flight, your tickets will be significantly less. In addition, there is much more availability in seating. You should be able to avoid the dreaded B and E seats.

However, if you book a month or more earlier, there is a good chance the flight you want will be canceled or have its details changed. If you can avoid booking that far in advance, do it. If not, ask the reservationist if the flight is a daily commuter flight. If so, it should still be there when you try to take it.

10. If you need/want something, butter up the counter agent.

“Hey, I have a question for you.”


“How much would I have to pay you to get this plane to arrive early?

“Hahaha… you.”

“But seriously, I need anything other than a center seat. I’m sure a charming/intelligent/green person like yourself could do this for me.”

“Hhahaha… you. Here you go!”

And so forth. It’s amazing what these attendants can do, if willing. They have the power to change anyone’s seat, get you on a flight, and bump you up the standby line. It’s hardly ever what they can do. It’s always a matter of whether or not they want to. You have to make them want to.

They are supposed to use their powers to help people with a high standing in their frequent flier program (Premier, Premier Executive, 1K, Gold Alliance, etc) as they spend the most money with the airline, etc. However, I’ve gotten them to do things for me that they refused for the Gold Pass carrying curmudgeon in front of me because I said I feel sorry that they have to put up with those types of people. HAHAH!!! Bastard that I am. (see #7 again).

Curmudgeon: “I DEMAND that you get me on this flight!”
Attendant: “I’m sorry, sir. We’re completely booked.”
Curmudgeon: “Do you see this?” He shoves his Gold Pass in the dude’s face.
Attendant: “Yep. There it is. In my face.”
Curmudgeon: “This mean I can get you fired!!!”
Attendant: “I’m sorry, sir. We’re completel-“
Curmudgeon: “Nevermind!”
Me: “Damn. What an asshole.”
Attendant: “Can I help you sir?”
Me: “Are people with those cards always like that?”
Attendant: “Sometimes.”
Me: “It must take some amazing patience to deal with them.”
Attendant: “Sometimes.”
Me: “Look, I need to get on this flight, but I heard what you said to that guy…”
Attendant: “I’ll see what I can do.”



planner5 said...

Very good travel advice!

Mandy said...

You are doing such a great job with your position as well as keeping your head up about the whole traveling bit. Thanks for all the great information in your post. Love you!

Angie said...

My favorite line in this advice entry is "if they say no, punch them. they love this"

after 81 flights, you could probably write a How to book and then fly around the world (haha) to promote it! I am so kidding! :-)

angelin said...

When booking flights try to book the seats at the same time. I’ve found it better to book two seats of two with two window seats, allowing the children to have a window seat each. It helps to keep them occupied while waiting to take off. Most children, especially the younger ones, are fascinated by watching the other planes, the luggage being loaded and refuelling.