If you travel a lot and have done so for years, there’s probably not a lot for you in this post. If you’re just starting a change where you will be traveling more, or if you only travel from time to time, you might get a tip or two out of this. I’ve clocked about 350,000 miles of travel in the last few years. I’ve learned a few things along the way. I’m sure there’s still a lot I don’t know, so I’d love to hear what you have learned, too!
Here are a few thoughts:
Pick an airline and stick with it. Sign up for the frequent miles program and always use your number when you book. On the boring domestic carriers (United, American, US Airways, etc.) you will earn status as you fly. Generally the bottom level of status starts at 25,000 miles within a calendar year. If you do 4 cross-country trips from NY to LA in a year, you’re going to be darn close to hitting that status. If you do a lot of short hops, you can earn status for segments.
Why do you care about elite status? A few reasons:
- Elite passengers get to use faster security lines; this saves a ton of time.
- Elite passengers don’t pay for checked baggage.
- Elite passengers board first, so there’s never an issue of checking a bag at the gate unless you’re late to board.
- Elite passengers have a better seat selection available to them in coach, sometimes these are seats with more leg room.
- Elite passengers get occasional first class upgrades when there’s room.
These are great perks and they do make for better quality of life when traveling. In addition to the above, elite status moves you up in the standby queue. This means if something goes wrong, whether you miss a flight or a flight is cancelled, you are ahead of other passengers in the queue. Elite passengers also get a different phone number to call for customer service.
So which airline should you pick? In my opinion, it depends on what city you live in. If you live in Philly, pick US Airways. Atlanta, Delta. Denver, United. Chicago, American or United. San Francisco, United. Dallas, American. You want to pick an airport that has a hub in your city. If you live in a different city, you should pick an airline that has a hub close to you or close to where you most frequently travel. Since I live in Boston, US Airways is the closest hub to me (Philly; I’m ignoring JFK and LGA because I try to avoid those airports as well as the DC airports).
You’ll note above that I have omitted Virgin America, JetBlue, and Southwest from the discussion. I like Virgin and JetBlue a lot, but both of them have a bad rewards program for frequent business travel. I absolutely adore Virgin but the flights are jam packed and expensive.
For some cities, you might pick two airlines to keep elite status on–Seattle has a big Alaskan Airlines presence, but if you go to Kansas City a lot, Alaskan may not be the best way to get there. If you live in Raleigh, I’d pick US Airways–Charlotte is close and from there, you can go anywhere, and JetBlue (direct flights to lots of cities).
On the day of travel, check the weather at your departure, connection, and destination cities. A snow storm or problems in any of those cities, either active or forecast, can lead to problems. If you catch what’s going on early enough, you can switch things around and possibly avoid problems. I once would have been stranded in Denver for a weekend if I hadn’t done this.
I also highly recommend using something like TripIt to manage and monitor your flights. TripIt will text me with gate changes and countdowns on layovers–when I land in a city, TripIt will text me what gate I am arriving at and how long I have to get to the next gate (and how long that is). I usually double check in the airport, but TripIt has always been right. At $50/yr, the pro version is a hugely useful tool. Just remember that TripIt will also text you 4 hours in advance of the trip, so if you have a 6 am flight, the 2 am text can be annoying. I put my phone in airplane mode the night before because of this.
Travel stress gets rough when things go wrong. There is nothing worse than being stranded or on stand-by for 24 hours. In the winter, avoid snowy cities for layovers. Do not change planes in Chicago, Detroit, or Minneapolis in the winter! This means if you’re booking on United, American, Northwestern (Delta), be careful and pay attention to where that city in the middle is. In the summer, you can get in trouble in Dallas with thunderstorms. There’s always something, somewhere that can go wrong (fog in San Francisco, anyone?), but avoiding layovers in snowy cities is critical during the winter!
Sometimes things go wrong because you miss your connection. Usually this is because your inbound flight is late. You can avoid this by avoiding extremely short connections–anything less than an hour is going to be tough. 90 minutes is a lot safer. But remember, with enough elite status, your airline is going to have you higher on a standby list than everyone else who wants on that next flight to Omaha. Also, when you are booking, try to avoid the last flight to anywhere. If you miss a connection or something goes wrong with your initial flight, there’s a chance to get on a later flight–If that wasn’t the last flight that day.
If something does go wrong, go stand in line with everyone else. But while you are in line, call the airline. Ideally you have attained at least the base level of elite status and can call that specific number–keep that number in your cell phone. The person on the other end of the phone isn’t dealing with 200 angry passengers in person and that person is going to be a lot calmer–especially if you are calmer. And you will be calmer, because you’re on the phone with the airline.
If things are going very wrong, it’s time to get creative and flexible. OK, all the flights to your destination airport are full, but what if you go to a nearby airport? Dayton isn’t that far from Columbus. What if you drive to some other airport and fly to your destination from there? If you’re stranded in Chicago, it’s a 3.5 hour drive to Indianapolis and a 6 hour drive to Louisville, Kentucky, either of which might have better weather or seats. National car rental is my favorite when it comes to one-way car rentals. Once I was at Myrtle Beach and facing a hurricane coming in. I drove to Charlotte 1-way and flew out from there. Another time I was in Philly but needed to be in Columbus in 12 hours. I drove the 480 miles, but I failed to think about flying to Dayton (80 miles away) until I was about 240 miles into the drive.
If you do bridge the gap with a 1-way rental, don’t forget to call the airline and tell them! If you’re driving from a connection airport and plan to pick-up the return itinerary at your final destination airport, you need to tell the airline or they are likely to decide you never made it to the destination and cancel your return itinerary!
Sometimes you just have to admit defeat and go hide in a hotel though. Try to pick one with a good bar.
Related post: Using travel rewards programs.
Some other notes from folks on Twitter:
- @Texiwill: Always get a confirmed seat… Nothing like showing up at the gate without a confirmed seat. (This is a very good point; if your boarding pass doesn’t have a seat on it, you don’t have a seat on the flight! -M)
- @PJNeal: Disagree with you re: JetBlue. Free flight benefits are amazing for frequent fliers. (I used to fly them 125-150 flights/yr) (I should have been more clear; it really depends on what your idea of benefits are. -M)
- This post intentionally doesn’t cover things such as picking a seat (check out SeatGuru) or how to pack for convenient security theater passage… another post.