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 Continental 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-Fort Lauderdale, Fla., trip around Memorial Day next year, American offered seats at $194 round-trip and Continental at $271. But the same trip over Christmas shows the pricing differences closer-in: American was $897, while Continental was $679.
Road warrior Bob MacKay, a marketing consultant from Anaheim, Calif., prefers calling airlines and having a reservationist search for upgrade availability. He recommends calling midday during the week — the best agents typically have the most seniority and work during normal business hours, not late at night or on weekends.
For last-minute personal trips, use airline mileage awards. If you face a high fare for a funeral or family emergency, better to spend 25,000 or 40,000 miles and save your cash for a cheap ticket to the beach. Besides, there are plenty of award seats to Des Moines in the winter; not so many to Hawaii.
What’s the best routing?
In the winter, avoid hubs in the north like Chicago if you have to make a connection. In the summer, avoid hubs in the south like Dallas-Fort Worth that can get hammered by thunderstorms. Also, consider driving the last leg of your itinerary. Instead of taking a regional airline to Iowa, drive from Chicago. That way if weather delays or cancels your regional airline leg, you don’t have to worry about missing a connection. You can drive back to Chicago and fly home from there.
When’s the best time to fly?
Middle of the day, if possible. Early morning flights typically mean long lines at security, especially on Monday mornings. Several hours worth of passengers show up at the same time. In the evening, flights often fall victim to delays accumulated during the day, and the weather is often worse after the heat of the day has built.
The Airbus A320 for narrow-body aircraft — the coach seats are wider than most Boeing Co. aircraft. For wide-body travel, the Boeing 777 stands out as a favorite for traveler comfort.
Here are a couple of things to consider in business class: If you’re tall, note that American and Delta have 60 inches of space for their 777 seats; Continental and United have only 55. British Airways set the standard with a 72-inch pitch and lie-flat seats. If your body is wider, however, Continental’s 777 business class seats have a 22-inch width; United, Delta, and American are no wider than 21 inches.
How to get the best seats
Use seatguru.com, which offers seat maps and recommendations for different planes. American’s Web site now lets you preview available seats before buying tickets. (I’m a window person myself — I like to see where I’m going, sideways. Others prefer the space and bathroom access to the aisle.) Research by airlines shows that the biggest determinant of how comfortable you feel isn’t legroom or hip room or in-flight entertainment — it’s whether the middle seat next to you is empty or not. Check the seating diagram of your flight on the airline’s Web site and see if the middle seat next to you is occupied. If so, can you move to improve your life?
Some airlines will block middle seats for elite-level travelers so that they are the last filled. And some travelers say you can still sweet-talk gate agents into blocking middle seats, perhaps as consolation for not getting an upgrade.
How else to prepare
Pack your bag as though a petty thief might be pawing through it. Because that just might happen. And pack a change of clothes and bathroom essentials in your carry-on as though your checked luggage might not arrive with you. Because that just might happen, too. TSA has had a flood of complaints about baggage problems and has caught some screeners red-handed with valuables.
When dressing for the airport, give up on lace-up shoes and sneakers. Wear something on your feet that’s easy to slip on and off because you will have to. And wear socks — those floors are dirty with all the barefoot masses. Frequent travelers know they need a belt with little or no metal — throw fashion to the wind. Underwire bras fall in the same category — metal only brings trouble.
Some travelers I know take a light hanging bag with a jogging suit inside for long overnight trips. Once in the air, you can change from business clothes to something more comfortable for sleeping, and hang your suit neatly. Some airlines, including Virgin Atlantic, now offer sleepsuits for front-cabin passengers.
At the Airport
How to get through lines
Better yet, avoid them altogether. For check-in, use self-service kiosks, which let you complete the job with the touch of a finger, and skycaps. (Tipping $1 a bag is still customary, but no matter how much you tip, it won’t affect whether your bag gets lost.) If you need to change your route or find another flight, don’t wait in line. Call the airline and have it set up on the phone, then get your boarding pass at a kiosk.
To avoid lines at security, it helps to know the airport layout. Airports with curved concourses like Dallas-Fort Worth and Kansas City have multiple checkpoints. But even Denver and Atlanta, with one central concourse for passenger check-in, have a second screening area. A long walk may be preferable to a long wait. “Stress-less travel is based on well-developed line-avoidance systems,” says Sam Buttrick, an executive with UBS Securities.
How to get through security
You need a routine — whatever works for you, do it the same way, every time. Here’s mine: Boarding pass goes in the breast pocket; passport, if needed, goes in suit-coat pocket, and watch, cellphone and Blackberry go in a briefcase. My license is in a flip-down wallet flap, so I can show the license and boarding pass with one hand, keep the other on my rolling bag. I never take my license out of the wallet, because it will surely get lost.
When it’s time to unload, I grab one tub for the laptop computer and another for shoes, coat, keys and other stuff. I empty pens, keys and change from my pockets into a shoe — easy to dump the change into a hand on the other end, rather than trying to pick it out of a plastic bin. I send my rolling bag and briefcase through the X-ray screener first, followed by laptop and shoes. That way I can repack easily on the other side — laptop goes back into outside pocket of rolling bag; shoes and change get taken care of after I’ve handled the laptop. You don’t want the laptop to walk off without you.
Frequent traveler John Lopinto, an electronics-manufacturing company president who lives in Medford, N.Y., goes even further and suggests getting yourself ready for security screening by putting metal objects in see-through sandwich bags. “It’s amazing how many people just stroll up to the security checkpoint at the airport like they were walking into Macy’s and then are shocked and indignant when they get pulled aside for a secondary check,” he says.
Dealing With Airline Snafus
What if my flight is canceled?
Know your rights. If it’s the airline’s fault, you are entitled to quick rebooking or overnight accommodation, including meals. Check Rule 240 of the airline’s “Contract of Carriage,” available on each airline’s Web site or at ticket counters. However, if the delay is the result of weather, you’re likely on your own.
If your flight does get canceled, never stand in line waiting for help. Get on the phone with the airline quick — there may be only a few seats available on the last flight out. If you’re stuck, don’t wait for the airline to find you a hotel. Get to it yourself.
And don’t be afraid to buy another ticket on another airline, if the price is reasonable. Sometimes that’s even cheaper than paying for another hotel and more meals. If your original flight gets canceled, the airline will refund that or give you a credit to use later.
In the Air
What else to carry
Carrying water is a smart thing, especially for long trips, since beverage cart service can be a long time coming (and never drink airplane tap water). Road warriors suggest carrying antibacterial soaps and lotions you can use without water to fight travel germs. To beat boredom, some swear by DVD players; others like a good book. (Your airport may let you both rent players and buy books with resale deals at your destination.) Just make sure you have a way of sustaining yourself for many hours since even short flights can turn into long ordeals. Same goes for food.
When to go to the bathroom
This is key. You want to make sure you make your pit stop on the plane, not once you’ve landed. Rushing from the plane to a bathroom can slow you up and put you behind 10 other people in the taxi line. And don’t wait until the end of a movie to make your move. When the credits roll, there’s a mad scramble.
If you can, make use of airport shower facilities if arriving from overnight flights. It’s a great way to shake jet lag, and even if you aren’t an elite-level customer, sometimes a good travel agent can get you access to the showers, even if you’re traveling in coach and not a member of the airline’s club.
An alternative, if you or your company can afford it, is to reserve a hotel for the previous night prior to your arrival overseas. That way you can get right into a room when you land early in the morning, rather than waiting for the normal check-in time.
If your bags don’t make it with you, don’t leave the airline’s “lost baggage” desk without first getting a local phone number for the airline’s baggage office. They’re a better bet than an 800 number.
How to call home
This is perhaps the most important Middle Seat travel tip. Woe is the traveler who calls home and expounds on the wonderful meal in the exciting city you just had with a dozen fascinating people — while your spouse was changing diapers and stirring macaroni and cheese. I made this mistake once, calling home years ago from a dinner with a bunch of journalists covering a big story. We had enjoyed some fabulous wine and great food. My wife, on the other hand, had two babies throwing up hourly.
Rare is the travel story with a happy ending. But here’s one: Ms. Hughes, the traveler who faced the choice of going through security in her unmentionables or undergoing a security groping, e-mailed the TSA to protest its policy as unkind to women. She got results. A TSA official called her and said that based in part on her e-mail, the agency revised its policy. The new rule: A woman doesn’t have to remove a jacket if it’s her “outermost garment.” The TSA also said that it has tried to educate its screeners that a woman’s business suit is different from a man’s, and even that it is harassment for a male screener to ask a female to remove her outermost garment.
Ms. Hughes tested the policy revision herself recently. Asked to remove her jacket, she told the agent it was her “outermost garment.” The agent responded, “You mean you’re not wearing a blouse?” Ms. Hughes recalls. When she said no, the agent let her walk through. “Here’s to reclaiming the friendly skies,” Ms. Hughes says.
Middle-Seat Wish List
The skies could be friendlier. Here are 10 improvements we’d like to see in air travel:
- REAL-TIME WAIT TIME at TSA checkpoints. The Transportation Security Administration keeps track of how long it takes to get through its screening lines. Let’s post the data on the TSA’s Web site the way the Federal Aviation Administration makes real-time information available about airport delays. If you know the lines are long, you can leave early.
- BETTER MANAGEMENT of security lines. Airlines know how many passengers are coming. Why isn’t TSA staffing better aligned with flight schedules and passenger bookings? What’s more, maybe travelers should be assigned screening times at busy periods, especially in the morning. If your flight doesn’t leave until 9 a.m. but you’re in line at 7 a.m., you might make someone miss a 7:30 a.m. flight.
- A PRIORITY-LANE list from airlines. Some airports have special lanes for elite-level frequent fliers, and some don’t. Why don’t airlines tell us where they are, and where they aren’t?
- BAGGAGE TRACKING. FedEx can keep track of your package, but an airline typically has no idea where your bag is when it gets lost. Airlines need to move faster on this. The technology is getting cheap.
- BLOCK THE MIDDLE SEAT next to elite-level customers, if possible. United and some others do this; all airlines should.
- BULKHEAD BAGGAGE STORING. Continental has cutouts in its cabin dividers so that people sitting in bulkhead seats can store bags on the floor in front of them. Why haven’t others done this? It’s handy.
- AIR-TRAFFIC CONTROL AUDIO. United Airlines lets you listen in to communications between air controllers and your plane. It’s an interesting way to ease boredom and keep track of your flight’s progress — even if you aren’t a pilot and don’t know all the lingo. Other airlines should offer it as well.
- IMPROVE GATE DISPLAYS. Delta now has displays that show your rank on the standby list or the list for first-class upgrades. Quite handy.
- AIRPORT POWER PORTS. Our lives run longer on batteries than they used to, but sometimes batteries alone aren’t enough. Airport terminals need more power plugs for passengers. It seems airlines hide them as much as possible, perhaps to force power users into their airport clubs.
- SIMPLIFIED AIRLINE PRICING. Hey, we can dream.
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