The hectic summer travel season is only weeks away, so what better time than now to improve your air travel literacy? You can start by listening to the business travelers who are on the road for weeks at a stretch. They have the best advice for surviving summer travel.
It’s easy to miss them sometimes. They’re the ones quietly sitting in the exit row seat, finishing a spreadsheet on their laptop computers. You might not even know you’re staying in a hotel with one, because they check in late and leave early.
About 1 in 10 people travel for business, and if you’re lucky enough to sit next to a road warrior on your next flight, you might learn a thing or two about improving your air travel experience. Such secrets include sage advice about where and when to book, how to travel more comfortably, and insider tips for surviving a crowded flight.
Book direct and fly nonstop
Michael Stanat, the director of global operations for the market research firm SIS International, says repeated flights have taught him to book directly with the airline and to avoid connections. “It is your safe bet in case you get delayed,” he says. “If you get stranded, you can rebook or get rerouted much easier than if you booked with an online agency. It may be more expensive to fly nonstop, but if your flight is delayed because of a missed connection, especially cross-country, you may be on the hook for a lot more.”
Cheaper isn’t always better
“The cheapest fare is not always the best,” warns Sherrie Wilkolaski, who publishes the magazine Luxe Beat. If your plans change, you may pay more in fees, surcharges and penalties. Often, it’s better to choose a more expensive ticket with fewer restrictions.
Rebecca Washuta, a nutrition and wellness consultant who has spent weeks at a time on the road, says she avoids early morning flights because they are crowded and more expensive. “If your schedule allows, take a mid-morning flight,” advises Washuta. “You’ll likely have a row to yourself, and you’ll have a better chance of getting bumped up to first class.”
Get to the airport with time to spare
Leisure travelers often wait until the last minute to head to the airport. But Tommy Goodwin, head of field operations at Eventbrite, says years on the road have taught him to do the opposite. “I arrive at the airport early so I’m not stressed out,” he says. “Nearly all airports have Wi-Fi so you can work if you need to, and most major airports have great restaurants, bars, retail and even spas.”
Membership has its privileges
Real road warriors invest in premium security access programs such as Global Entry and Clear, according to Sheree Sekou, a leadership consultant and frequent corporate traveler. “It mitigates unnecessary delays,” she says. “Without the Clear premium access program, I’m certain I would have missed several flights throughout the years.”
Be nice to the crew
That’s the advice of David Decker, a national distribution executive for Royal Neighbors of America, an insurance organization. “Say ‘hi’ when boarding and ‘thank you’ when they serve you,” he says. You’d be surprised at how few passengers do this. But when it comes time to ask for a favor, like an extra drink or if you have to move seats, “this common decency goes a long way, and the crew remembers that during the flight.”
Never miss opportunities to eat
Airline food is scarce, and the quality is often questionable. “Never pass up an opportunity for a meal,” says author and astrophysicist Jeff Hester. Too many air travelers subsist on Cheetos and then gorge themselves on their next meal, he adds. “Don’t stuff yourself senseless, but eat when you get a chance. You don’t know when you might see food again,” he adds.
Be a volunteer
Whether a flight attendant asks you to switch seats with another passenger or give up your seat altogether, do it. The rewards can be considerable, from the goodwill of the crew to money, according to Mark Ortiz, a frequent traveler who founded the company ReviewingThis. “You can get cash compensation for the inconvenience,” he says. The trick is to ask. Airlines may offer a flight voucher; federal regulations limit cash compensation to a maximum of $1,350.
Don’t forget your ‘cheat sheet’
Electronic tickets are convenient, but they have one flaw: Smartphones can run out of battery power, leaving you without vital travel information. That’s why Brad Daniel, a frequent air traveler who runs a marketing agency in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, carries a “cheat sheet” with his itinerary. “I make it a practice to have flight number, terminal and departure time printed,” he says. “I can’t tell you how many times this cheat sheet comes in handy.” By the way, it works for the rest of your itinerary, including your car rental and hotel.
Most of these veteran road warriors learned these tricks the hard way, which is to say, they made mistakes. They booked the wrong ticket class, took their flight crew for granted or relied on their battery-challenged smartphones. But now you don’t have to.
More summer travel advice
• Know the code. Every airport has a three-letter code, known as the International Air Transport Association’s location identifier. When you check your luggage, make sure it has the right airport code. And assume nothing, especially if you’re flying from Chicago (where O’Hare is designated ORD) to Orlando (MCO).
• What’s the difference between a nonstop and direct flight? A direct flight stops en route from A to B, but you stay on the same aircraft. A nonstop flight goes from A to B without landing anywhere else. It helps to know that if you want to fly somewhere without a stop.
• OK, on second thought, maybe you need a travel agent. A qualified travel adviser can help you sort through the stuff you don’t know and find you the best deals. You can find one using the American Society of Travel Advisors website.