Advice From Fellow Travelers
The airlines tell you to arrive early, the government tells you to weigh your toothpaste, and the flight attendants tell you to be thankful for your pretzels and stay out of the aisle. But the nation's skyway warriors are the ones who know the real tricks for beating the system and turning stressful travel into a tolerable, even pleasant, experience.
With planes and airports likely to be more crowded than ever this summer, occasional travelers may find themselves bewildered by long lines, merciless airline agents, and banks of machines that have replaced humans behind the counter. But regular travelers have learned how to take advantage of the best airline innovations and work around the worst.
"For frequent fliers, I think it's gotten much easier," says Jeff Bridges of Tampa, Fla. "I love the [check-in] kiosks and try to use them as much as possible. But for the less experienced traveler, these kiosks can be overwhelming and confusing."
To ease the burden on the flying public, U.S. News asked some of the nation's most seasoned fliers to share their travel secrets. A few balked. "If you publish people's little secrets, the airlines might turn around and close down these avenues," one traveler worried. "I'm keeping my most prized secrets to myself." But many other weighed in:
Planning your flight
Fly off-peak. Lines are shorter, and if something goes wrong you'll be competing with fewer passengers for the attention of agents. "Don't travel early morning Monday or Tuesday. That is a busy time for business travelers who tend to have laptops and other carry-on stuff that slows down the line." Leslie Goldfarb, Charlotte, N.C.
Book directly with the airline. Use sites like Orbitz, Travelocity, and Expedia to search for the best flights and fares. But once you've found them, make your reservation by calling the airline, or using its websiteit's easier to rebook if you need to change your plans, and there's a better chance the airline will waive any fees.
"One of my coworkers suggested sidestep.com and it has become a staple for me. It searches and compares all airline and discount websites, then you book directly with the airline or rental car agency, which is invaluable." Leslie Uffalussy, Seattle
Get a seat assignment when you book. "If the airline says they can't assign you a seat at the time of booking, that usually means that the flight is oversold and you are going to have to be at the airport extra early to sort things out." Leslie Goldfarb
Double-check your seat. The airline's seating charts can leave out important details, such as seats that don't recline or have the window removed. "For all my flights, I choose my seats after checking with seatguru.com. The site lists everything you need know to choose the best seat, from pitch, width, legroom, and placement of video monitors." Tami Jan, St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands
On your trip
Upgrade on the go. Electronic kiosks can help you check in quickly and also hunt for a better seat if you're on the second leg of a connecting flight. "Use the kiosks located throughout the terminals to update your seat assignment up to one hour prior to departure. Last-minute seats become available that weren't there upon check-in at your original city ... it works like a charm!"Jeff Bridges
Dress for a safari. Those travel jackets with pockets all over the place are great for stashing your valuables and knickknacks when going through security. "I wear a bolero-like travel vest with inside pockets: one for my air ticket, one for my passport, and maybe a few for other needed extras like money. The money one always has a zipper. The vest easily slips on and off for the security gates and is invisible under an outer jacket." Janet Livesay, Lake Oswego, Ore.
Pack for productivity. One way to weather a delay in the terminal is to plug in your laptop and get a little work done. But power outlets can be scarce. "Carry a 12-foot extension cord in your computer case with a three-prong adapter, to be able to piggyback off that one elusive power outlet that some kid has usurped." Guy Horanberg
Claim your space. You might not get that empty middle seat right next to you, but there are ways to discourage fellow passengers from invading your space. "This may be not so nice, but my biggest complaint is the individual who throws his or her seat back into my lap so that I cannot even move. I discovered that by turning the overhead air nozzle as far forward as you can, it blows air on the person's head. Most people give me a look but move their seats forward." Phil Alexander, Wadsworth, Ill.
If something goes wrong
Do simple contingency planning. If your flight is canceled, what's your plan? Better to think it through ahead of time than when you're standing in line with 100 other people. "Always have the airline's 800 reservation number with you. Worked for me twice in the last year when my flight was canceled. Airline reservations had me on the next flight out without standing in line with the whole planeload of passengers. Also carry the flight schedule showing other flights on the day of travel so you can know what is available." John Hagensick, Orange Park, Fla.
Don't take no for an answer. Always be politebut if you're trying to get rebooked or you're asking the airline for a favor, make a firm, reasonable case and ask to talk with a supervisor or customer-relations official if necessary. "When 'negotiating' with supervisors and customer relations, try to argue your case based on logic. Even if they have a policy that doesn't allow for something, supervisors can sometimes waive the policy if the argument is rational." Leslie Goldfarb
Use the club. At many airports, the big airlines have "clubs" with separate waiting rooms and dedicated agents. There's an annual fee, but many carriers also offer day passes for about $50which might suddenly seem pretty cheap if an agent at the club can quickly resolve a travel snafu. "Besides offering an oasis from the crowds, they can handle rebooking and get you wait-listed for a future flightand the lines are usually much, much smaller." Dave Olenzak, Washington, D.C.
Prepare to spend the night. Whether checking bags for a weeklong vacation or making a day trip with nothing more than a briefcase, it's a good idea to carry on a toothbrush, change of clothes, medicines, and other essentials in case you get stuck overnight. And if it looks like you won't be flying out till the next morning, don't wait for the airline to arrange a hotelthey rarely do that anymore. Instead, use your cellphone to book a nearby hotel room before all the other stranded travelers beat you to it.
Think of other ways to beat the hordes, too. "If the airline says they're ordering buses to take you to another airportconsider renting a car. The airlines aren't bus companies, and it can take hours to round up buses for passengers. The best bet here is to ask some fellow passengers if they want to split the cost of a car rental." David Olenzak
Get to know the agents. If you travel frequently from the same place, make a point of befriending the workers at the airport. Consolidating your travel on one carrier will help your frequent flier miles add up faster, but you'll also become a familiarand hopefully a friendlyface to the people behind the counter. That can pay off in a pinch. "I flirted for months with the security agent, and when my driver's license expired, he never noticed. Flirting works." Jaye Espy, Jackson, Miss.
Consider alternatives. "An option that works for me: Don't fly." Glenn Showalter, Seattle