11 Expert Secrets to Ease the Hassle and Expense of Flying
From booking a ticket to getting through security to the flight itself, air travel has become a lot less fun. So Cheapism.com reached out to air travel experts for their best tips on each step of the process. We spoke with insiders at Travelzoo, a hotel manager who flies an average of 100,000 miles annually, the president of Hotwire, and others. Here's what they had to say about making air travel less of a hassle from start to finish.
The Transportation Security Administration's PreCheck program costs $85 but lasts for five years, and its worth the price to save time at airports and avoid delays, says Michael McGilligan, general manager of the Hilton Chicago O'Hare Airport hotel. The program lets approved travelers use separate, expedited security lines. They can also keep their shoes, belts, and light jackets on when passing through security. According to TSA, 97 percent of passengers in the program waited less than five minutes to clear security in December 2016. In addition, membership means no longer having to remove liquids or laptops from carry-on bags in order to get cleared by security.
A lot of people focus on miles, but status is key with airlines, says Travelzoo Senior Editor Gabe Saglie. To earn status faster, fly one specific airline or alliance. "With enough airline miles under your belt, you can enjoy perks like preferred seats, early boarding, and checked bags, all at no cost," Saglie says. For infrequent flyers, he adds that Delta's loyalty program offers miles that don't expire, allowing them to accumulate over a long period of time. Even a few hundred miles is enough to redeem for merchandise and magazine subscriptions.
One of the best ways to save money on air travel is to avoid paying fees to check bags. Being aware of carry-on size and weight requirements can save travelers the hassle and expense of unexpectedly having to check a second bag, which can cost up to $100 at the gate. These parameters are not uniform across the industry. The Luggage List maintains an up-to-date chart for all major airlines.
Grainne Kelly, a former travel agent, says if travelers would prefer to check a bag but don't want to pay the fee, they may be able to check a roll-aboard carry-on bag for free at the gate. "Wait until everyone else boards the flight with their carry-ons, as the plane will likely run out of room for bags, and the attendant will then check your carry-on for free," says Kelly. "Always ask at the gate if there's room for your bag, or if they could check it. They're usually happy to check it."
Many hotels have day rooms that can ease the strain of a long layover, particularly when traveling with kids, says McGilligan. "For a fraction of the typical rate, you can spend four to five hours freshening up for the next leg of your trip, rather than sitting at the airport trying to keep track of the kids." The day rooms at the Hilton Chicago O'Hare, for instance, can be booked for about $80.
Another approach to surviving layovers, this one from Hotwire President Henrik Kjellberg, is to buy access to shower lounges. "It's so worth it," he says. "Being refreshed after a long journey makes all the difference." Kjellberg has visited shower facilities at London's Heathrow International Airport and Hong Kong International Airport. Access prices at Heathrow vary but can be as low as $30. In Hong Kong, the price is about $26.
Unless you're a celebrity flying on a private jet or have access to an in-flight shower in first class, traveling and looking great typically don't go hand-in-hand. A company called AirPretty has developed another option: a collection of travel-size beauty and comfort products. Among the items in the AirPretty Classic travel kit ($25) are a facial mist, moisturizing cream, lip balm, a makeup remover wipe, peppermint breath mints, apple blossom hand sanitizer, and a plush eye shade. To customize the selection and save some money, build your own with travel-size products from the drugstore.
Related: Don't Fly Without These 10 Cheap Travel Accessories
Do the prep work necessary to make the most of the flight, says McGilligan. If sleep is on the agenda, try to get an exit-row window seat for extra room to stretch out. Board the plane with a full stomach and have the right music or sleep app cued up. Planning to stay awake? An aisle seat allows a bit more breathing room and the option to get up and walk around. McGilligan suggests prepping a list of TV shows to catch up on or, if Wi-Fi is available, saving emails to respond to mid-flight.
Not every seat on a plane is created equal. SeatLink provides detailed reviews for all types of seats and flights -- from one-hour to 16-hour flights and from economy to business class. The site's database covers 202,750 seats on 1,256 airplane configurations across 234 airlines. Users can search the site by individual flight or by airline when booking to choose the best available seats.
The overwhelming opinion among frequent travelers seems to be that scoring seat upgrades has become increasingly difficult. Dan Suski, founder of SeatLink, offers this tip: If you were on the upgrade list but didn't clear, try to board as late as possible. "No-shows happen all the time," he says. "Airline revenue-management departments count on it, so wait until it looks like they're going to make last call for boarding and ask the gate agent if first or business class has boarded full -- you might get lucky."
Natasha Rachel Smith, consumer affairs editor for the website TopCashBack, advocates credit-card rewards programs for snagging upgrades, free checked baggage, complimentary lounge access, and other perks. She says one of the best cards for this is United Airlines' MileagePlus Explorer Card (through Chase). Perks include free checked bags for the cardholder and a companion, priority boarding for everyone on the reservation, and two passes every year to United's airport lounges.