Commercial airline travel doesn’t have to be a debacle. You can definitely reduce your travel anxiety with a good plan. Follow our best tips on flying and you’ll find your destination relaxed and ready.
A Middle-Seat Manifesto
Rushing to catch a flight at Washington Reagan National Airport a few weeks ago, Amy Haywood Hughes passed through a metal detector with no alarm. But then she was ordered to go through again — after removing her suit jacket.
“I was wearing only a camisole underneath,” says Ms. Hughes, a hospital vice president from Savannah, Ga. Like many travelers recently, Ms. Hughes had run into the new Transportation Security Administration rule meant to protect against hidden explosives in clothing.
After refusing to take off her jacket, she had to submit to a pat-down by a TSA official who ran the backs of her hands around her breasts. “Have we reached the point where businesswomen who are platinum frequent fliers must now strip to their skivvies just to catch a plane?” she asks.
These days, almost every airline trip is fraught with uncertainty — long lines, changing security procedures, baggage fees, and bizarre ticketing rules. What’s more, planes are more crowded than ever. Last year, U.S. airlines filled 73.4% of their seats — up from 63.5% a decade earlier.
Seats are being squeezed ever tighter. American Airlines has given up on its “More Room in Coach” effort and even stripped pillows off half its planes.
But for all that, there are ways to make your time in the sky more than just a stratospheric nightmare. This guide — based on nearly three years of writing The Wall Street Journal’s Middle Seat column, a decade of industry reporting, and countless hours wedged between armrests — offers some strategies.
Among them: How to skip those maddening check-in lines using only your index finger, which device pro travelers use to keep from spilling their loose change at security (hint: you’ve probably got a pair of these), and which is the best plane to fly if you’re really tall, or need to lose a few pounds of baggage around your waistline.
We’ll even tell you how to avoid the public display of underwear without getting patted down, which Ms. Hughes later learned. Some tips are simply common sense; some are carefully air-tested strategies from veteran road warriors.
The good news is that fares are cheaper than ever, and travelers have more choices of routes and fares. Some are even good choices. New airlines offer better entertainment and better value. New technologies make long hours in airports and airplanes more productive.
Eventually, the next generation of airplanes might even be comfortable — they may have bigger seats for our bigger bottoms, and more humidity in desert-dry cabins to help with jetlag and even blood clots.
“It’s like camping,” says Ron Goodenow a frequent flier and technology-company executive from Boston. “One can be surrounded by some very good and beautiful things, but must simply be prepared for the worst.”
With the holiday travel season taking off, here’s the Middle Seat Manifesto.
Before You Go
Are frequent-flier programs still important?
Yes, and you should belong to two: One airline with international service and one discount carrier. Concentrating your travel in two programs helps move you closer to elite status — a key determinant of travel convenience, such as first-class upgrades, better coach seating (like a place by the exit), priority boarding, and express lanes at some security checkpoints.
How to Get the Best Fare
Always check our Best Senior Airline Discounts: Senior Flight Discounts before you buy.
Shop early and often. I recommend using one of the big online travel vendors — Expedia, Travelocity, or Orbitz — and add a tool called Sidestep.com, which searches airline Web sites and other outlets you wouldn’t think of. Like the stock market, you typically aren’t going to find the absolute bottom unless you’re just plain lucky. Go into your search knowing what a good price is for your route, and then grab it.
Steve Landes, president of the South Florida Airline Commuters Association, works in New York and commutes home to Florida on weekends. He has been studying airline pricing so closely for so long that he picks up characteristics of revenue pricing programming at various airlines. He says some airlines, like American, Delta, and JetBlue, offer low prices early for busy holiday periods and raise the price as the inventory of cheaper seats sells out.
Other airlines such as United start higher with their pricing and then cut the fare closer to the departure date if they have unsold seats. Mr. Landes’s advice: “Pick an airline that uses the old system of starting low and pricing up as seats sell.”
I tested his theory this week. For a New York to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., trip around Memorial Day, American Airlines offered seats at $86 round-trip and United at $97. But the same trip over Christmas shows the pricing differences closer: American was $147, while United was $188.