First off, pay for the ticket using a credit card that includes traveler’s assistance. That information is in the fine print of the agreement, or can be checked on the credit card’s website. When something confusing or tricky happens in the midst of your travel plans, if you bought the airfare with a credit card that offers traveler’s assistance as one of the benefits, you have a little help coming from them. Have those domestic and overseas phone numbers in your phone’s contacts list plus written on a paper in your wallet in case your phone breaks or is stolen.
They have experience and will talk you through tricky situations. They can look things up on a computer monitor for you. They might have someone on staff who speaks the language you need, or can muddle through with a translation program like Google translate. It’s free. The stress of travel added to the noise and strangeness of the airport can leave you literally unable to dream up what to do next. They can talk you through it.
Most airline flights are milk runs. By that I mean the airline will have a 7:10 AM or a 4:35 PM flight from city A to city B every day of the week. If the time doesn’t work for you, it’s unlikely looking at next week or next month is going to produce a slightly later flight. You’ll need to look at another airline or make this time work for you. While the flights are milk runs, the gate may not be the same from day to day. Generally, an airline has a range of gates it has reserved in each airport and the next plane goes to an empty one. They don’t give it a lot of deep thought. Gates are decided one to three hours before the plane pulls into that airport.
While the flight is exactly the same time, the price is usually lower on Tues-Thursday, and higher Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday. There are always exceptions. The real rule is, popular times and flights cost more, and unpopular ones cost less.
Three Ironies of air travel:
One: taking two flights with a layover in between can be cheaper than just going straight there. Taking three planes, cooling your heels in two hub cities, is usually even cheaper.
Two: flight prices between the same two cities can vary widely by time of day and day of week, with the airlines charging more for ‘desirable’ flights.
Three: is there is no relationship between distance and cost of flight. Don’t expect it. It can be cheaper to fly to Frankfurt, Germany than to Des Moines, Iowa. Round trip from Boston to Charlotte NC with a layover in Chicago can be cheaper than flying Chicago to Charlotte round trip, same flight. Do not assume it always costs more to fly to Rome than to Seattle WA.
Infrequent flyers are tempted to make decisions about where to go based an idea that farther away equals more money; heck, even old hands do it. For years I didn’t go to Hawaii because I thought airfare would be expensive—it ended up costing no more than going to DisneyWorld in peak season!
Airlines now sell only one-way trips. Unlike ten years ago, there is no financial hit for going there on one airline and returning on another.
As a convenience, some websites will show an estimate of the full round-trip when selecting the first leg, but the actual cost will be based on the return trip flight you pick; you’ll see when you get that far. Other airlines show just the first leg price. Check which way this site is doing it, or you might find the price appears to have doubled at the very end.
The corollary is that you can fly to one city and return from another. Some websites have a multi-city option, use it if it’s there.
Bid websites for air travel. Priceline.com is tops in this line. Doing this is fine for a mad-weekend or a repeat visit to a city in the US that you’ve flown to before, but I cannot say too strongly, don’t do this on a trip where time is precious. The savings are likely to be a poor trade for the inconvenient travel times and multiple layovers. These are only for old hands at traveling.
You can find out what flight times and costs are out there using websites like Kayak.com, Tripadvisor.com, Expedia.com, Travelocity.com, Bing.com, Skyscanner.com, Orbitz.com, Momondo.com, Vayama.com and others. Enter the date there and the date back between the two destinations. Let these travel sites do the searching for you, but when you find the flights to-and-fro that you like, don’t buy from them. Go right to that airline’s website to make the booking. AA.com, Delta.com, USAir.com, United.com, Jetblue.com, AirFrance.us, etc.
There are two very important reasons: one, if the flight is delayed or cancelled for reasons other than weather and you bought your ticket from the airline, they comply with what’s called Rule 240 to you get on another plane to that destination as soon as possible, even if it means using a competitor’s plane. If you can’t fly until the next day, they will put you up in a free hotel room overnight for free and give you free transportation to and from this free hotel; did I mention it’s all free? If you bought your ticket from ‘a third party’ which is what the search sites are, you have to contact them for help by phone, they don’t have a counter in the airport. Their customers are the ones sleeping in the airport overnight.
Airline customers: sleep in hotel for free.
Travel search website customers: sleep on floor in airport.
Which one are you?
In the event this delay happens, when they are preparing the voucher for the hotel, ask to stay where the pilots stay. It’s always the nicest place.
The later in the day, the higher the odds of a plane being late or delayed. Planes often land for only thirty minutes then are back up in the air, so issues anywhere causes delays right down the line.
Travel sites reveal airfare cost a day or two on either side of your travel day, which might show you can save $100 or $200 by flexing your travel plans. If making this decision merely to save money, please do the math on all the costs. Will you have to incur another hotel night and three more restaurant meals? Will parking cost another $22? Every time I’ve done the math, airfare that’s $200 less by shifting one extra day ends up saving pennies.
Conversely, lopping a day or two off this precious trip when you might never come this way again to save an amount like $150 will seem absolutely ludicrous four years from now. If you are gearing the trip to your available vacation days and you opt to spend one of those days padding around the house in stocking feet instead of eating the best gelato in Rome from Cremeria Monteforte while gazing at the Pantheon, come over here I want to smack the side of your head. Ditto if you are visiting the grandbaby for the first time. Or anything. Shopping by price is prudent, but it can be a slippery slope; depriving yourself of a day’s worth of pleasure for $30 or even $230 just doesn’t make sense.
There can be other issues involved with shifting plans left or right. There’s got to be another way to belt-tighten $200 over the next year; sell underappreciated gifts on EBay, grow peppers in pots, or my favorite, saving money by eating less, a.k.a. dieting.
To get a low price regardless of seat, set up a travel ‘bot to keep an eye on prices for those to-from airports on a range of dates instead of checking constantly. It will email or even text you. Kayak.com and other sites have the feature.
I will be honest with you; when you sign up for having the search site email you when your flight price goes down, they will use the email to send you daily emails if not more, and their affiliates may use it to also. Someday retailers will figure out that abusing their customers with daily emails is stupid, but for the short time when you need them, bear with it. After you have the flight booked you can block them or unsubscribe.
When to buy? That is a factor of where you wish to sit. The earlier, the more seat choice. How far ahead you can book depends on the airline. Some allow up to a year in advance, others only six months.
Most airlines allow you to view available seats a screen or two before you pay. You can check the seat availability, and decide to drop the money when there’s still a few of your favorite location left, whether window, aisle, near the front, left or right.
Spell accurately. When you buy the ticket online, type the name that is on your ID. If you use a nickname or change the spelling even a little, it will mean hassle and possibly not getting on your flight. When buying a ticket for a traveling companion, get the spelling of their name exactly as it is on the ID they will use.
Picking the seats. Sitting side by side is an obvious choice. Consider selecting aisle seats in the same row for both people. You’re side by side for easy conversation but neither sits in a middle seat.
When both parties wish a window seat and one is a minor, put the minor behind the adult, not the other way around.
Parents instinctively want to keep an eye on a minor child or teenager, but on an airplane a minor is much less anxious if he or she can see the parent at will, knows when the parent gets up or speaks to someone, and can alert the parent instantly without turning his or her head, or simply dart out a hand to poke a shoulder, if some issue arises. A parent in front can hear what is said behind them, often more clearly than they can hear the person next to them. If you are given split seating a few rows apart, place the minor more to the rear for the same reasons.
Flight prices drop when there are only middle seats left. If you book late when only middle seats are available, or you hate your row, it’s still possible to snag a better seat. Begin checking online for newly-available seats two or three days before the flight, and persist. Phone too, asking what seats are available. If nothing, inquire two or three hours before the flight. If still nothing, inquire at the booth at the gate. When passengers buy slightly more legroom seats and exit row seats, which are offered only on the day of flight, their old seats become available. Then there are last minute cancellations. Finally, the first row of coach opens up. Many airlines leave booking that first row for last, saving them to offer to women with babies or toddlers; if your flight has none or only one, the seat can be yours.
Pick a seat assignment when you book the flight, even if you don’t care. Each airline website is different, so hunt for that seat availability button, icon or cartoon of a seat. If you missed it, you can always open your reservation using the confirmation number, find the seat map and pick your seats. You aren’t stuck; you can change it as much as you like. If you check that plane on Seatguru.com later on and find your seat does not have a window or is a non-reclining seat, there’s still time to change.
Not all airlines allow third-party buyers to pre-pick the seat. This means buyers through the search websites get assigned what is left on the day of the flight, after the airline customers booked the good seats weeks ago. This is another compelling reason to buy only from the airline, never the search engine.
If you’re really new at commercial flight, you might ask: what’s the big deal about seat location? In general, window seats have a view but due to the curve of the plane have slightly curtailed foot space. People under 5’2” will not notice it. I’m 5’5” and I barely notice it. The under-seat space for a big purse or small backpack is smaller than the middle or aisle seat.
Aisle seats are considered roomier because there’s an option of sticking a leg out into the aisle. It’s a nice concept, but in practice it’s risky. Odds are every flight ends with at least one aisle passenger sporting a nasty new bruise on aisle-side arm or leg. Many a traveler leaves the plane limping after their foot is crunched by a cart wheel or stepped on by someone walking by.
Middle seats are the least desirable. Comfort depends on claiming rights to one or more of the armrests. The end people ought to lean towards their owned armrest and leave both for the middle guy. However, what actually happens is more related to back pain and weight.
Get the frequent flyer card. It only takes a few minutes. It’s an on-line application. Look for it in the toolbar on the top. You receive your frequent flyer number immediately. Write it down. Most airlines run special deals for members only. You might get them when you book using your number, or might need to enter a code (if you book without using the code, try phoning later with the code to have it applied). When any behind-the-scenes choice between customers is made, the card-holder gets the nod.
Price changes. On the internet, the price can literally change (always higher) if you poke around a site too much or revisit over a few days. How it does it is with cookies, little markers that appear from your computer visiting their site. This is not the same as malware that counts keystrokes; the part of the software that sees the computer at portal XDF433599-4403-3885 popped back three times in forty minutes so changes the pricing profile from D1 to D2 doesn’t know or care who you are. This is why doing the searching and thinking at one of the multi-airline search sites and then opening the airline’s website to book, when you have credit card in hand, gets you the best price. One visit, like a hawk, swoop and off with your prize.
Some experienced travelers go so far as to conduct their initial searches on their work computer, decide, and then swoop in at home. Some even hike to the local library to do the preliminary searches, then go home to book. I’m not kidding about this, the website keeps track of ‘node’ and how long it is poking around, and the more you look like a serious buyer, up goes the price. It’s not peanuts either, it can be $200 to $500.
On one business trip from Boston to Atlanta, the first time I looked, the cost of the flights were the same regardless of time of day; later than afternoon when I went to book, only the before 7 AM and after 8 PM flights were that price; the nice mid-day flights were almost double. For grins, two days later I checked again, and all flights had returned to the same low price.
Seat map. I prefer the airlines like Delta that provide a ‘View Seats’ button (the words are the button) right at the deciding point, instead of putting it just before you give the credit card number. Either way, be aware you can go entirely through the process, even up to entering a credit card number, and end the whole thing by clicking the upper right hand X to close the internet window. There are lots of ways to exit the process and only one path to getting a charge on your charge card, so step off whenever you feel like it by just leaving the site.
Prices vary mainly by flight month and how close the flight day is. The example here is for July 10th, searched six weeks before that date, Boston to Rome. This is the round trip price even though the return trip isn’t showing here. A Friday flight for May 16, booked in January, was only $1030. Wait until May 8th and that same flight was $2050 with only middle seats left.
FCO is Rome’s airport.
Once you have figured out the airline’s website, bought ticket(s) and picked seat(s), the airline will send you an email. Print this out, you will need the code written there the day before the trip to print out the boarding passes. Stuff happens, things get deleted. Print it upon receipt.
Don’t thank your lucky stars if you book a seat on a flight only half-full three weeks before takeoff. Airlines cancel routes less than 90% full on the day of the flight. Then the stranded passengers stand in lines to get seats on another flight to that destination over the next one to three days.
Having bought directly from the airline’s website and not from one of the search websites is worth its weight in gold at this point. Search website buyers have to run around finagling a new flight from scratch and fight to get reimbursed for the cancelled flight weeks later. The ones who booked with the airline have priority for getting another flight without paying more.
Premium coach seats. They are coach seats with a few more inches of legroom. If you buy one, you might be allowed to board first too. Each airline features them differently in the online seat maps. They appear available and selectable, but the next day if you revisit the site you’re listed has having no seat assignment. That’s because you didn’t pay for it.
Airline rules change faster than web technology or software can adjust to. The airlines aren’t going to discourage choosing a premium seat, but they haven’t figured out how make a seat choice lead directly to a credit card payment page. Also, they can’t seem to tell you what the extra charge would be by clicking it.
That’s as of this writing; it could have changed last week. Selecting a premium seat then leaving without paying could mean no seat assignment.
The cost of premium seats might drop to say, $39 on flight day that were $129 reserved four months ahead. If you wait, they could all be taken by flight time. It’s a gamble.
Picking a seat doesn’t mean it’s yours. You also have to get your boarding pass early. If a plane has a handful of empty seats, it’s yours. But most flights are overbooked, and an hour or two before the flight your seat will be handed to a no-seat-assignment guy. If you’re in line, you could literally be just behind the guy who usurps your seat. So print out the boarding pass the night before, or arrive three or four hours early to stand in the boarding pass line, then go eat or explore the airport.
Tip: Hotels will print out your boarding pass for you. Either they direct you to the computer for this in their business center, or will do it at the desk using your airline confirmation number.
Non-stop flights never land between start and end. Direct flights will land. It’s just as annoying as transferring to a new plane because they make the passengers get off with all their carry-ons. You cannot sleep or stay on the plane through the pit stop.
There are big planes and little planes. Commuter, connector or regional designations are cues that it could be a smaller propeller plane. Little planes hold twenty to ninety people and have next to no carry-on space. Passengers often go outside to board these planes by climbing up a steep staircase, and the bigger bags are tagged and set aside for tucking into … somewhere under the plane. If you have carry-on luggage and one of the legs of your trip is a small plane, the airline does what’s called ‘gate checking’ of your bigger carry-on items. When the plane lands, a handler fetches out the carry-ons, often lining them up on the pavement, and you find your bag. Don’t be surprised if you still have to go to the carousel to pick up your checked baggage. Airline policy pretends not to know they have these small planes. The situation is upsetting to people who meant to keep their carry-ons close to themselves at all times but now must hand it over. In the airline’s mind this isn’t really checking a bag, it’s stashing a bag a bit farther away from the passenger, that’s all. Women can keep their purse and anyone can keep something the size of a string bag with them. Something as big as a briefcase might not make the cut. See the chapter Packing the Bag for a string bag picture.
Picking the flight by connecting city. Frequent travelers do this often. For travel to Italy, for instance, you may have a choice of layover within the US, say Newark, Detroit or Boston, and layover outside the US, say in France, Spain or England. Although it can seem exciting to spend an hour in a bonus country, lean in favor of the US layover. Three reasons: one, a two-leg trip with one short and one long leg means less-interrupted sleep; maybe you’ll sleep on only the long leg. Two, less stress. If you get lost in Newark you ask questions and understand the answers, but not so in France. Three, if your checked luggage doesn’t make it, friends or family back home can take the reins in sorting it out and getting it to you without incurring international calls.
If you have a choice between a one hour gap between flights or a three hour gap, what you chose depends upon your tolerance for risk. Shorter means more risk. On flights to your destination the longer gap is safer, even with carry-on luggage only, because this provides space if the first flight lands late. It is unknown and unknowable what gates the two planes will be parked, close or far away. My experience is they are usually about as far apart as they can be more often than not, meaning twenty minutes minimum from one to the other. If you’re seated in row 27 it might take fifteen minutes just to get off the plane. If you’re not an old pro at this airport or with flying in general, stick with layovers longer than ninety minutes.
Early morning flights have the best on-time performance, so short layovers are less of a gamble in the AM. Odds of luggage not making it to the connecting plane go up after 5 PM. A two-hour layover provides the best odds. A very long layover, say five hours, is also risky, because they have to stash your bag in the corner for half their shift or over a shift change and it could be forgotten.