TAR's 5 Travel Tips for Air Travel

This is the first installment of some simple tips when it comes to air travel.  These ideas are from years of traveling and learning the ins and outs or airlines and airports.  Following these five simple tips should help make your next journey a little bit easier.  

Tip #1: Know Your Airlines' Policies

This includes everything from check-in and boarding passes to baggage rules.  Don't be that person who shows up at the check-in desk and has no idea they have to pay for their bags.  Did you know airlines weigh your luggage?  Know the limit and plan accordingly.  Many airlines charge large fees for overweight bags.  

Is your bag oversized?  Airlines can also measure your luggage.  Refer to your airlines baggage rules on size limitations.  This especially applies to carry-on luggage.  Don't be that person trying to put a full sized suitcase into the overhead.  Just because TSA lets you through with the bag doesn't mean it will fit on the plane.  Some airlines, such as Spirit charge for carry on bags.

Know what time you must be at the airport.  At most airports airlines have a cutoff time for when you can check a bag.  If you arrive late they may deny your checked luggage.  This time increases for international flights.  The best bet is to check with your airline before your trip.

If you are traveling transcontinental or long distance find out if food will be available on board.  Many airlines, such as Southwest, offer a small snack and soft drinks.  If you're flying to Baltimore to Los Angeles you're bound to get hungry.  Other airlines may offer food for purchase.  Check into your options before you go.  I always carry granola bars in my carry on.  Sometimes you won't know when you'll have to go without food.  You can also purchase food in the terminal to carry on the plane.  Just make sure you don't purchase drinks before security, you'll be forced to throw them away.

 

Tip #2: Understand Airport Security Rules

Nothing is more annoying than standing in line for security behind a traveler who is clueless as to what's going on.  While security rules do change, they have been pretty stables for the past few years.  Understand the 3-1-1 rule.  If you have liquids over three ounces there's a good chance the TSA is going to throw them in the trash.  We have a link to the TSA on our resources page.  Unless told otherwise by TSA take off your shoes, jacket, hats, belts and remove everything from your pockets.  This includes phones and wallets.  Laptops must be isolated either in their own bin or in a TSA checkpoint approved laptop bag.  These bags are a great travel item if you fly often.  

Have your government issued photo ID and boarding pass ready when you head to the security line.  I can't tell you how many times I've seen people fumbling for their ID when they get to the checkpoint podium.  Airport security moves faster when everyone knows what's going on.  

If you travel often, find out if your airline is part of TSA's Pre-Check program.  This allows randomly selected passengers to skip the normal security lines and move to a shorter, less stringent security line.  You must provide your participating airline with some basic personal information, which they provide to the TSA.  

 

Tip #3: Getting A Good Seat

Seat selection varies by airline, but many airlines will sell you choice seats in advance.  US Airways, Spirit and JetBlue are among a few US airlines that do this.  If you want a confirmed seat of your choosing it's worth the $10-$20 to purchase a seat at the time of purchase.  These seats are often free to elite frequent fliers.  For example, Delta, US Air, American and United all give choice seats to their elite tier fliers for free.  

If you don't purchase a seat in advance there's a good chance you will be sitting near the rear of the plane or even worse in a middle seat.  Passengers near the rear also often board last.  Boarding last means there likely won't be room in the overhead for your bag.  Overhead bins fill up fast and elite passengers and passengers with preferred seats often get priority boarding.  

Say you make it to the airport and you didn't purchase a choice seat in advance.  You can still move before your flight.  As long as the gate agent isn't busy, step up to the podium and ask if there are any better seats available.  If you are friendly and ask politely I have found gate agents almost always accommodate this request when possible.  Now if your flight is full you're out of luck, but it never hurts to ask.

Some airlines, such as Delta and United, have agreements with credit card companies that give you access to preferred seating if you have their credit card.  This is another way to get access to these choice seats without paying.  Just keep in mind many of these credit cards may come with annual fees.  

I highly recommend using SeatGuru if you're unfamiliar with an airlines fleet.  We have a link on our resources page.  SeatGuru will show you airline seat maps for many of the most popular airlines as well as which seats to avoid.

Tip #4: Know Your Aircraft

In somewhat of a continuation of Tip #3, get to know the different airplanes your airline is using.  Many travelers have no idea what type of plane they're flying on and there's nothing wrong with that, but if you want to be a savvy traveler do your homework.  For example, your roller-board carry-on probably won't fit in the overhead of a regional jet, but it will easily fit on a Boeing 737.  

Airlines fly two types of aircraft regional planes and mainline planes.  Regional aircraft are smaller and normally operated by a company contracted by the airline to fly those routes.  For example you may see Delta Connection, Operated by Pinnacle Airlines.  While the plane may say Delta on the outside, the flight crew works for another company.  Regional planes have the least amount of overhead bin space.  Bags that are carried on board are often gate-checked and put in the cargo hold for the flight.  The one good thing about regional aircraft is they rarely have a middle seat.  Most of them are setup in a 2-2 configuration.  The other positive, regionals rarely fly long distances, so at most you may spend two hours on a regional jet.  My favorite regional aircraft are Embraer 190/175's and CRJ900/700's.  Avoid ERJ and CRJ200 aircraft if at all possible.  

Mainline aircraft are another story.  Some are great, some are not so good.  Personally, my favorite narrow body mainline aircraft is the Boeing 757-200.  Boeing hasn't made this plane in a decade, but it's still a work horse for many airlines.  Not far behind is the Airbus A320/A319.  The Boeing 737 is ok, but not one of my favorites.  Most single aisle aircraft are configured in a 3-3 setup in coach and 2-2 setup in first class.  The major exceptions are the MD80/90, which are still heavily used by American and Delta, the Boeing 717 used by AirTran and a few others, and the DC-9, which is almost extinct.  These aircraft are setup in a 2-3 pattern.  The MD80/90 is a great aircraft if you're traveling with one other person and can get the two seats together.  No one gets a middle seat in this scenario.  

Many people often think a wide body, or twin aisle, airplane means more space.  This is not always the case.  There are many old Boeing 767's criss crossing the US every day that are tight and cramped.  Airlines often use different configurations on aircraft used on international routes.  If you really want space to stretch out you'll often have to look at premium economy, business class or pricey first class seats.  Many airlines, such as British Airways and Air France have a true premium economy product that includes a bigger seat and more legroom.     

Tip #5: Take Advantage of Frequent Flier Programs

Make sure you take advantage of frequent flier programs.  If you fly more than a few times a year this can really come in handy.  Airline programs have several benefits.

  • You earn miles or points that can be redeemed for travel.
  • You earn elite tier status that comes with benefits such as free bags and upgrades.
  • Many frequent flier accounts are tied to online accounts making it easier to track your trips online.

Most airlines have some sort of benefit that allows you to cash in points for free travel.  One many of the legacy carriers flights start as low as 25,000 miles.  While that may sound like a high amount, remember many airline credit cards give you a point for every dollar you spend.  Between flying and credit card transactions points add up fast.  Many airline programs also offer bonus miles.  More on that in a moment.  

Miles and points can also be used for upgrades on some airlines.  For example, Delta allows you to upgrade to first class on domestic flights for relatively few miles.  The key is to watch for eligible fare codes and upgrade inventory.  

In addition to earning miles that you can turn into free tickets, many airlines offer elite tiers for their frequent fliers.  If you've ever wondered about those people sitting in first at the front of the plane, many of them didn't pay for those seats.  As a Delta Platinum Medallion member I was upgraded on nearly 90% of all domestic flights I flew last year.  Now that's a little high for hub fliers, but you get the idea.  Tiers are usually set around 25,000, 50,000, 75,000, 100,000 and 125,000.  Elite points are different from normal frequent flier miles and are more difficult to accumulate.    With each tier your benefits go up.  This includes upgrade priority, priority security lines, priority check-in, etc.  Elite tiers also often offer fliers bonus frequent flier points.  Low tiers may earn a 25% bonus and higher tiers may earn over a 100% bonus.  As a Delta Platinum I earn a 100% bonus.  So if I fly 500 miles I get 1000 frequent flier miles.  See how fast miles can add up?  A trip from New York City to LA would accumulate more than 10,000 frequent flier miles.  

Elite members also receive benefits such as preferred seats, exit rows, priority boarding, a dedicated phone line for customer service, alliance status and free bags.  I haven't paid to check a bag in years and I check bags all the time.  Every airline and every program is different, but they all have some similarities.  

Summary

This is just a brief overview and quick 5 Tips on air travel.  We'll expand on this in the future and dive deeper into airline elite programs.  If you want to know more about Delta's SkyMiles program check out our previous article