Airlines have received a lot of press in the past year or two. From dragging passengers off the plane to perverts sitting next to unaccompanied minors…we’ve heard it all. The latest press is all about paying extra for good seats and having difficulty getting seats together without paying extra for them.
A lot of people travel more frequently than I do, but I used to work in the travel industry, and I fly pretty often. I’ve learned a few things along the way that can make your life easier when traveling by commercial airline.
TSA PRE-CHECK/GLOBAL ENTRY Travel a few times a year domestically? TSA Pre-Check is worth the money. Surely, you’ve stood in the regular line and watched people zip through the TSA Pre-Check line. For me, the biggest benefit, aside from expedited screening, is not taking off my shoes on that nasty airport floor, but there are others: you don’t have to remove your laptop or small liquids from your bag, and you don’t have to go through that body scanner. It costs $85 for five years of TSA Pre-Check. Apply online here. After applying online, schedule an appointment online and take documentation to a processing center to complete the process. When I went, I was there for less than 10 minutes. If you travel internationally more than once or twice a year, consider Global Entry, which is “a U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) program that allows expedited clearance for pre-approved, low-risk travelers upon arrival in the United States. Members enter the United States through automatic kiosks at select airports,” according to their website. It is $100; learn more by clicking here.
RESERVATIONS Two words: BOOK EARLY. It gives you the best possibility of getting a good fare and desirable seats and increases the chances of sitting with friends/family. Over the past few years, airlines have started charging extra for more desirable seats near the front of the cabin. I am most familiar with American Airlines, because they have a hub in Charlotte.
According to an interview (conducted in a Boeing 777) with American’s CEO in the Wall Street Journal, “American’s strategy now is to offer passengers more seating choices—a strategy seen clearly from Mr. Parker’s seat in the back of the reconfigured 777. Those interested in low fares sit in the back, where American has 146 basic coach seats. If you’re willing to pay more or have elite status, 66 coach seats provide extra legroom. You can pay several hundred dollars more and move up to premium economy: 24 seats that are 19 inches wide instead of 17 and have 38 inches row to row. Then there are 37 lie-flat business-class seats. Nearly half of the plane’s 273 seats offer extra room.” You can see the article here.
The lowest/most restrictive fares they offer are called Basic Economy. They are in the back of the plane. There are several restrictions, but the biggest one, in my opinion, is that you cannot get seat assignments till check-in, and for me, that is a big red flag. I don’t have a problem with American offering Basic Economy, but there is no way I would knowingly go to the airport without an advance seat assignment. If you do not have an advance seat assignment, there is a greater likelihood you will be stuck with the “leftover” seats or be bumped from the flight. However, according to a friend who is an industry insider, airlines aren’t overbooking like they used to, so the possibility of being bumped is much lower. (If you do get bumped, according to my insider, you can get “sweet” compensation in the way of vouchers that are good for two years…can be used for flights or upgrades.) Traveling as a family and want to be together? Book Main Cabin or better. Whatever you do, get advance seat assignements or pick a different flight. If you are unable to book seats together, try to book aisle seats and/or window seats for leverage. Aisle seats are prized, and if you offer someone a middle seat in exchange for an aisle seat, the answer will be, “No dice.” That being said, here is a trick to use if your child is seated next to a stranger: Walk the child to his/her seat. When buckling up your child, get the airsickness bag out of the seat back pocket. Open it. Hand it to your child, and say, “Honey, when you get sick, make sure you use this bag.” Do not whisper it. You want the person next to your child to hear. They will likely offer to trade seats! Whatever you do, do not ask your flight attendant to assist you in trading seats with someone. People booked early and likely paid more for their seats. Usually Main Cabin seats are about $20-$50 more (on American and United) than Basic Econ. If you can do Main Cabin, do it. With Main Cabin, you get advance seat assignment, overhead space (none with Basic Econ), and you can change your flights for a fee…not with Basic Economy. I prefer to think of that additional $20-$50 as the regular price and look at Basic Econ as the no frills, discount price. You can see a great skit from The Carol Burnett Show about a No Frills Airline here. It puts things in perspective with humor. Maybe airlines should show that skit on a monitor in the gate area.
UNACCOMPANIED MINORS Need to send your child on a flight unaccompanied? Arrive at the airport at least two hours before the flight. I’d have to be there three hours before for peace of mind. You will have extra paperwork, and you will need the full name (as it appears on ID), address, and phone number of the adult meeting your child. (That person must have ID.) You will be required to get a gate pass and walk the child to the gate. Before saying goodbye, remind your child to know where exits are, pay attention to the emergency demo, and if he/she is uncomfortable with their seat mate, let the flight attendants know. You can see me discussing this with my friend, Maureen, on Been There Moms here. Also, plan to be at the airport for a while; you are required to stay in the gate area till the plane is off the ground…not when it leaves the gate. You must wait until the gate agent tells you the plane is in the air.
CHECK BAG RESTRICTIONS before you pack. You already know there is a weight restriction for a checked bag, but did you know there is also a size restriction? Check your airline’s website. You do not want to be told at the airport your bag is too heavy or too large. While you’re at it, check carry-on restrictions. In American’s Basic Econ, you only get to carry on one bag that will fit underneath the seat in front of you. For Main Cabin, you can have two…one under the seat and one overhead. ***And while we’re talking luggage, take a picture of all checked bags before you check them. If they don’t arrive when you do, you will have a picture to show the baggage agent. Also, hang on to your claim checks till you have your bags in hand. If you’re like me, it might help to take a picture of your claim checks too.***
CHECK IN EARLY You’ve heard it a million times, but people don’t take it seriously. Arrive early! I check in online, but still, I prefer to get there two hours before domestic flights and three hours before international flights. Folks may call that extreme, but I’ve never missed a flight or panicked at security, wondering if I would make the flight. Make it easy on yourself; arrive early. You never know how long the lines will be. Why risk the stress? Using Mobile Boarding Pass? Take a screen shot of it beforehand, so you can access it quickly. I always print mine. My husband and I saw a couple in Miami struggle for five minutes trying to pull up their boarding passes on their phones. Once you clear security, it’s time to go relax and wait. I have TSA Pre-check, but I still arrive extra early, giving me time to relax or check email before boarding.
RELAX AND ENJOY YOUR FLIGHT Once your group number has been called and you have boarded, relax. Enjoy the flight. Maybe you try to sleep or catch up on emails (if WiFi is offered). It might mean playing games on your phone or reading a book or magazine. Just relax and let the professionals do the work.
***Does the idea of being in the air cause you stress? It’s likely the loss of control causing you anxiety. Check back soon. I’ll write about ways to empower yourself inflight.***