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 shows 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; United only has 55. British Airways set the standard with a 72-inch pitch and lie-flat seats. If your body is wider, however, United’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.