Top 10 Air Travel Tips

Posted on: 05/10/13 3:01 AM | by Jonathan McKee

Yesterday I covered the Top 10 Tips to Hoteling, so today I’ll tackle air travel.

I’m on a plane quite a bit. I seem to average 6 to 8 legs a month. I’ve learned a few tricks, quirks and tips over the years that make travel easier… or at least more bearable. I’ll try not to repeat the obvious ones I covered yesterday in my hotel post like, “stick with one airline.” But definitely do that to earn free flights and other perks. So here they are…

The Frequent Travelers Top 10 Air Travel Tips:

  1. Live in a hub city: My friends Mark, Doug, Greg… almost all my friends who travel like I do… live in hub cities. Their airline can get to most cities in one leg. I however, do not live in a hub city. That means it takes me two flight to get to most places. If you plan on flying for a living… live in a hub city!
  2. Take the first flight of the day: It’s this simple: the earlier your flight, the greater the chance of you getting to your destination. Later flights depend on earlier flights, earlier crews, earlier maintenance and weather conditions. If just one of those elements is off kilter, then the rest of the day collapses like dominos. It’s always worth it to start early.
  3. Always choose the nonstop: If you have the choice, always take the nonstop. Every stop is just an opportunity for cancelled connections, maintenance issues, weather, or other delays. But if you absolutely have to make a connection…
  4. Never check luggage: If your flight is ever cancelled or delayed and you have an opportunity to catch another flight, the first question the person at the gate will ask you is, “Did you check your luggage?” If you say yes, then they’ll say, “Sorry, we can’t help you.” Thanks to the new laws since 9/11, you can’t jump on another plane if your luggage is checked somewhere else. Solution: never check your luggage. If you fly a lot, this is really important because you’ll constantly need the freedom to jump to other flights.
  5. Get early boarding: Get that credit card that gives you priority boarding, or just fly a lot and you’ll get it. But priority boarding means getting your carry-on luggage near you. If you board late, you might have to put your luggage in the back or underneath which means 20 minute delay when you land which might cost you making your layover.
  6. No quick layover unless you’re willing to stay over: When you’re booking your flights, if you have to do a layover, never book one under an hour. Call me OCD, but it only takes a few times landing late in Chicago or Houston and running through the airport only to see your plane backing away from the gate because you had a 38 minute layover.
  7. Never fly anywhere you could drive: I often speak near Milwaukee. Milwaukee is under 2 hours from Chicago. I can fly directly to Chicago, get in a car and be in Milwaukee faster than taking a layover to Milwaukee… a flight that might be delayed or cancelled (especially the smaller planes—they are the first flights cancelled in bad weather). If you can handle a 2 or 3-hour drive… always make the drive instead of taking a layover.
  8. Bring your own food: I’ve only eaten one good airline meal in my entire life, and I’ve almost flown a million miles. I was upgraded to first from Korea in the upstairs of one of those big birds and enjoyed a wonderful filet minion. Every other meal I’ve had was easily trumped by the McDonald’s in the airport (how’s that for setting the bar low?). So stop by the airport deli before you board, or better yet, bring something good from outside the airport.
  9. Always Have Earplugs/Headset: Last month I had a lady behind me who talked for 3 ½ hours straight without breathing. It was truly amazing. Luckily, I had some noise cancelation headphones. The two people next to me didn’t and they both committed suicide before the flight ended.
  10. Slip on shoes: Nothing makes a smoother security experience than slip on shoes!

That’s it! What tips do you have?

14 Replies to “Top 10 Air Travel Tips”

  1. #9 and #10 are my favorites. 🙂 Curious, though, about being allowed to bring in food and drink from the outside? I’ve always had to throw my drinks away when going through security. Can you smuggle food in a suitcase? Also, my tip (probably since I am a pansy) is always have a jacket you can easily grab in your carryon. I flew to Phoenix this week and about froze to death on that plane!

    1. Security doesn’t mind food, but they don’t allow any liquids or gels over 3 ounces. So no drinks, no soups, no yogurt. But you can bring your own pizza (I have), 5 Guys Burgers (I have), sub sandwiches (I have)… you get the idea. Then buy a drink at the nearest concession stand through security.

    2. You can also bring fresh fruit/veggies. Pretty much any food that isn’t what Jonathan mentioned above will get through security.

    3. Food does carry-on well … but if you are flying internationally … you must consume that food on the flight … you cannot bring fresh fruit or veggies or some meats or open food into other countries … the same for returning to the US from abroad.

  2. If you are traveling within the US I 100% recommend Southwest. I’ve flown with them tons and never had a problem. I know people love their big box, go-out-of-business-all-the-time carriers, but I love SWA for the following reasons.
    1. They do business the way I do business. Their employees love their jobs, they celebrate their employees, and take good care of them. They outclass their competition on this one.
    2. Flying like you, with no checked baggage, I’ve rerouted a ton simply by walking up to the gate agent and saying… “Can you help me get ____ faster?” Sometimes an appt or event ends early and I know I can just go to the airport and get moving. The gate agent is 100% empowered to make you happy if it doesn’t actually cost the company money. So if you have a ticket, there are seats available, boom. Done.
    3. I like that the company doesn’t cater to elite travelers. It’s no class travel. These are people who fly a lot, usually on someone else’s dime, and are the scourge of travel. They do offer perks for regular travelers. But those perks aren’t free first class tickets and a curtain helping them feel wealthy when they are just dudes like you and me. And they don’t have lounges. (Don’t get me wrong, I love me some lounge time! But it definitely increases the catered to effect of “special people” vs “everyone else.”
    4. I like that they’ve made money every year since they were created. That tells me a lot.
    5. I like that I have rarely had a flight delayed because of a mechanical failure. The reason is simple… they only have 1 type of plane to maintain!
    6. I like that its pretty easy to earn and use free tickets. All of my non-SWA miles are on US Air. I can’t ever figure out how to use them.

    1. I would agree- I love SWA for all those reasons- but I would amend it to say if you are flying in the “West.” SWA just isn’t set up to get me to the East Coast as easy yet. It’s like an elevator ride down a high rise with 10 stops. As soon as SWA starts doing more East Coast directs (and Hawaii)… I’m making the switch. Right now I just use them for up and down the West Coast (and yes, they are the most polite, most reliable… the just got it going on!!!!)

  3. My additional tips …
    Fly the same airline or it’s group for the entire distance of your trip out or back. Trying to find the lowest price on each leg may be possible online, but you are setting yourself up for troubles with your connections and will have much less help if a problem does occur.

    Be ready for airport security. Pay attention to the signs in line. Empty your pockets, and remove your jewelry and place them inside your carry-on bag. Shoe, jackets, belts must come off. Laptops separate from the carry-on. (they must be x-rayed separate from the contents of the carry-on) they can stay in a sleeve when removed from the bag, or if you have the split open bags that can lie flat with the laptop section alone that’s okay also. And yes, slip on shoes make it easier, pants that don’t require a belt, all good and easy at the security check point.

    If you must check bags … double check the airline tag placed on it. I have never lost a bag, but one time when checking the tags found that the counter agent grabbed the wrong tags and was sending my bags to the wrong airport. I was able to call it out and get it corrected – always double check.

    Remember those road trips growing up? Use the bathroom before you depart. Those airplane lavs are small, and get worse as the flight goes. Don’t stand in a line, use the one in the airport before you board (15-20 minutes before).

    If you fly a lot. Noise Cancelling Headphones!!! They are worth the price! I bit the bullet and purchased a set of BOSE before a 17 hour flight to Malaysia. I could not believe how much better I felt because my ears and brain had not been subjected to as much noise during the flight. I never fly without them. Never.

    Internationally, rules change at different airports in different countries. Sometimes for real, sometimes because of corruption, sometimes because they want to pick a fight with an American to see how they react. Be polite, ask questions, accept what they finally say and move on – it’s not worth a night or more in a foreign jail.

    There is a time to fight your case if you think you have been wronged during you trip. The counter agents, and security stations are not those places. And once you step through the door of the plane, what the flight crew says is law – really that’s what the law says. You can argue over the phone with the airline or visit their complaint desk at the bigger airports – but never on the plane and never at the security check points – again, be polite, ask questions, and move on – the other travelers will appreciate it.

    Plan your flight schedules … I’m always planning 2-3 hours on layovers … anything less as JM noted is setting yourself up for trouble. I live in the same area as JM. No direct flights, some travel requires an over-night layover. I simply cannot make it to that last transition point before the only flight of the day leaves for my final destination. So I start early, fly out on the first flight of the day. Have a 2-3 hour layover and then arrive around dinner time to my over-night layover. I collect my checked bags. I use an airport hotel with shuttle service so I don’t need a rental (a hotel chain I always use). And I enjoy dinner and catch up on reading, or watch a movie I downloaded from iTunes. It’s a full day of travel, yet very little stress because the key it to be at the last transition point in time for the next day’s flight.

    So covered the headphones, now I’ll finally recommend an e-reader. I used to travel with 3-4 paperbacks I’d read and discard, my Kindle takes up so little space in comparison. I need my Ultrabook for full computing while traveling so I haven’t gone to the tablet realm yet – but tablet or e-reader of choice makes taking books much easier.

    And I never fly SWA … the only airline that has always found a way to treat me with disrespect each time I’ve flown them – I finally decided to take my business to the other airlines. Now to be fair, SWA isn’t usually the easiest airline to fly to my destinations, so it’s much easier to ignore them … which brings one final and important tip …

    My brother was flying SWA to join me in NY on a trip. Sacramento to Syracuse required three airplanes. His first leg arrived late and he just made it in time for the second leg, but only a middle seat was available and there was no room for his carry-on bag. So they “checked it at the gate”. IF THAT EVER HAPPENS make sure you know where you are supposed to get your bag. He thought it was checked through to the end of his day of travel – when it was only checked through to the end of that flight.
    It took two days for SWA to find his bag and return it to him. His would not have lost his luggage if he had gone and picked it up at the end of that second leg before he grabbed his third plane.

    I should stop here … have to start packing, leaving on a plane for a two week vacation in a few days … don’t want to forget anything (LOL)

    1. Good tips Joe. But personally I have to agree with Adam’s opinion of SWA. I’m sorry SWA disrespected you. That’s really bizarre. SWA has NEVER treated me with disrespect, where United does about 1 in every 4 flights. 🙂 And I don’t want to meddle, but your brother should have known better when he gate checked the bag. When you gate-check, you always pick up your bag at the end of the flight. I’m not calling out your brother, I’m just saying that one wasn’t SWA’s fault. SWA rocks.

      1. The comment about my brother and his experience on SWA with the gate-check was completely his fault, absolutely. The point was to “tip” inexperienced flyers to the fact of what to do if your bag is gate-checked. And I kept reminding him of that fact for the rest of his trip (LOL).

        My personal experience with SWA is mine … they lost my business with multiple incidents where they treated me poorly. I realize others have good experiences with them. I simply don’t.

        The final straw was when they wouldn’t let me sit in the exit row because I was too big – I use a seatbelt extension. And then proceeded to seat a much older man with a cane and oxygen mask in that row instead. When I reviewed the situation with an SWA rep later over the phone they insisted that they followed FAA regulations. Which they technically did, but the reason I was excluded is not in the FAA specific regs, they are airline specific additions to the FAA regs – which technically makes them FAA regs. You can be too young to sit in that row, and you can be to big to sit in that row. But you cannot be too small or too old or too weak to sit in that row. JM. If you were on a plane with me. And we found ourselves in a situation where we had to go thru and emergency exit. Do you want me to be the first to that door? Or do you want an 80 year old with his cane and oxygen tank first to that door? SWA was the first airline to implement the size rule on the exit rows. Most other airlines followed suit over the next five years. I took offense to the way SWA handled the situation that day. And I take offense to the rule in general. (for those who don’t know me, I’m a former police officer, 6’4″ tall, and a little over 300lbs)

    2. RE: “If you must check bags … double check the airline tag placed on it”.
      AND know that you can’t get those bags until they arrive at that specific location.
      Seems odd to say, but I got caught once. Leaving for a three leg trip home, the gate agent said he would check the bags all the way. Except I was going just two legs that day, overnighting at the second stop, and then continuing home the next day. DOH! Waited for luggage that wasn’t coming after the second stop. Only had gym shorts and t-shirt in carry-on, so had something to wear while I did a load of laundry at midnight in the hotel. (see other tips below about change of clothes in carry-on when checking luggage) And yes, my luggage arrived without problem at my final stop.

  4. One more tip to be aware of … AIRLINE TICKETS.
    Please understand what you are paying for and not paying for when you purchase your airline tickets. You will see several options when you purchase them … several options much cheaper than others all for the same seat. But understand what the cost is and what it means. The cheap tickets usually mean they are non-refundable, so use it or lose it AND if you want to make changes later, additional fees apply – read the fine print and understand what that will be – and then make you selection. Know your situation and understand what you are purchasing.

    One time I flew, I noticed the non-refundable seat was $50 less than the full fare seat. But the change fee for the cheaper ticket was $100. I knew my trip might be extended, so I purchased the full fare ticket … and extended my trip at no charge later.

  5. If you’re traveling long haul with a stop-over, or internationally with more than a couple legs, ALWAYS pack a change of clothes in your carry-on. I’ve been on the in-experienced and unfortunate end of having to wear the same clothes for a few days because of canceled flights, which results in being put up in hotels, and more often than not they keep your “checked-in” luggage at the airport! Oh and a toothbrush too!!

    1. Great tip … been there … done that … and in addition I usually pack extra underwear, socks and a shirt also.

  6. And here’s one most aren’t aware of … your Passport Expiration date … not what you think. Most countries will not allow you to enter with your “valid” passport unless you have at least 3-6 months left before it expires. And sometimes they base their decision on when you are scheduled to leave … so 3-6 months expired from when you are scheduled to go back home. So before you travel with your passport, make sure you check it 6-8 weeks before you leave so you have time to renew it if necessary.

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