For the past 25 years, I've had a job that entailed a ton of travel. I've probably flown about 1,500 individual flight segments, give or take a couple hundred, in that time. I'm going to give you all my tips in this post. The focus here will be on flying, though I have some other observations as well.
BEFORE YOU TAKE OFF
- I always had my travel handled by a corporate travel agent, so I'm not good at knowing when to buy tickets in order to save money. Airline ticket pricing is dynamic--it changes day to day, sometimes hour to hour, as flights fill and airlines attempt to match supply and demand. Recent research--specifically, this article from the Wall Street Journal in October (may be behind a paywall)--says that the best fares are available on Saturday and Sunday. During the week, the cheapest fares are on Tuesday. I'm not talking about travel dates, I'm talking the day you buy your ticket.
- A lot of people get their tickets from flight aggregators like Expedia or Travelocity rather than from the airlines. That's fine, but if you have to change planes, I would avoid itineraries that require you to change airlines, which often show up as the cheapest options. For one thing, that's pretty much out of the question if you're checking luggage, as you'd have to leave the secure area, wait at the baggage carousel, collect your bag, go check in for your next segment, and go through security again. But even if you're just carrying on, a ticket on a single airline generally means that the airline will accommodate you if you're at risk of a missed connection. (I've had flights delayed so connecting passengers could make it.) That won't happen if your connection's on a different airline--United won't care that Delta held you up; you'll just be another late person who missed the flight, not their problem.
- The single best way to avoid delays is to fly early in the day. Studies like this one show that the least delayed flights are the first ones of the day, and the delays grow steadily as the day progresses.
- Join TSA PreCheck. If you fly more than once a year, and don't want to waste a half hour or more of your life waiting to get through security, this is the single best tip I have. It's $85 for five years, which works out to $4.25 per flight if you fly only twice a year. For the $4.25, you get to keep your liquids and laptop in your carry-on, keep your shoes and light jacket on, and go through a metal detector instead of the x-ray machine. Seriously, this is one of the best and cheapest time-savers out there. Here's where you can get more information and apply.
- Don't check bags unless you have to. There are times when it's unavoidable--going away for over a week, going on a ski vacation, etc. At best, checked baggage costs you a lot of time both at check-in and after you land, at a price of $25 per bag on most airlines. At worst, have you ever dealt with lost luggage? If you do check a bag, do something to make your bag recognizable--bright-colored yarn or tape or luggage tag or something like that. When I buy luggage, I look for odd color combinations. (My current rollerboard is red and brown.) Black is not odd.
- If you must check bags, don't put anything expensive, or anything that you couldn't do without for a couple of days, in them. Electronics and jewelry should go in your carry-on, as well as prescription drugs. Also put items like orthotics (expensive) and your itinerary (can't do without) in your carry-on.
- Put an empty water bottle in your carry-on. Aircraft are very dry environments, and you should drink fluids in order to stay hydrated on any flights longer than a couple hours. And no, the five ounces of juice or soda that you get on the flight in a glass that's half full of ice doesn't help. Once you get through security, fill the water bottle in a drinking fountain. (Most, but not all, airports have drinking fountains, some with spigots specifically for water bottles.) I have an insulated water bottle and I pack several individual packets of 4C Totally Light 2 Go drink mix (100% of RDA for Vitamin C, sugar-free, masks the sometimes odd tastes of local drinking water) in my carry-on. Or, if you'd rather not pack a water bottle, you can spend $3.49 for a bottle of Dasani once you get past security. Easy choice in my book.
- Also pack a small bottle of hand sanitizer in your carry-on. More on that later.
- Select your seats when you make your reservation. The airlines block off a lot of seats and charge extra for tiny amenities like an extra six inches of legroom, so you're dealing with a limited selection to start out with. If you think you're going to have to use the bathroom during the flight, take an aisle seat so you don't have to climb over people. If you don't, take a window, so people won't have to climb over you to get to the bathroom. I also avoid exit row seats (which you generally can't book in advance anyway) because, trust me, if there's an emergency, you will be the last people off the plane, which isn't worth the extra legroom for a few hours as far as I'm concerned. I like the seats the row in front of the exit row. They don't recline, but you are absolutely guaranteed of not having a screaming child who pulls your hair in the row behind you.
AT THE AIRPORT
- If you are checking baggage, you'll need to check in at the counter. Allow yourself a lot of time, as this can be painfully slow. You'll need your photo ID, so have it ready. You can also save time by pre-paying for checked bags when you check in online.
- Getting through security: Join TSA PreCheck, for crying out loud. Either way, the only things that you should put in bins are your heavy coat (or, if you don't have PreCheck, your lightweight coat) and, if you don't have PreCheck, your laptop (by itself in its own bin) and your bag of fluids. (Your tablet is not a laptop. Leave it in your carry-on. And if you don't know what I'm talking about re your bag of fluids, you need to get out more.) Don't put luggage in bins; it's unnecessary and wastes time for you and everybody else. Don't put your shoes in bins; it's rude because it means that the crud on the bottom of your shoes will get all over somebody else's coat or laptop. Get PreCheck so you don't have to take off your shoes. If you don't have PreCheck, your laptop goes in a bin by itself, everything else (coat, fluids) in another bin, and your luggage and shoes directly on the conveyor belt. If you do have PreCheck, put your metal (coins, keys, iPod, cell phone) in your carry-on. If you have items that won't fit in your carry-on (e.g., a belt with a big metal buckle) you can use a bin though I prefer one of the round "dog dishes" that they have, usually stacked up on top of the x-ray machine. If you don't have PreCheck, you need to take everything out of your pockets, including scraps of paper, gum, and other things won't set off a metal detector before you enter the x-ray.
- I go easy on fluid intake before a flight, because I think airplane bathrooms are disgusting. Also, on a lot of flights, you'll have limited, if any, opportunities to leave your seat. Drink from your water bottle during the flight, but go easy beforehand.
- If you're likely to need to power up your phone or laptop or tablet or MP3 player at the
I have one of these. It's cheap.
- Airport food gets a bad rap but I think a lot of it's OK. Packing your own food's fine if you disagree. Sandwiches, fruit, and stuff like that don't count as fluids when you go through security, so you can put them in your carry-on. I try not to eat a lot before or during flights anyway.
- Airport etiquette: Almost every flight is at or near capacity these days, so all the seats by the gate will be taken. Don't be a jerk by putting your coat or carry-on on an empty seat, or another jerk like me will come by and say, "Is that seat taken?" and make you move it all. And I know people will disagree with me about this, but if you fly Southwest, those big padded chairs should be used by people who have electronics to plug in. They have both power outlets and USB ports.
- Now that I've encouraged you to be nice in the seating area, I'm going to encourage you to be a jerk while boarding: Carry-on space can be really competitive. If you have a rollerboard and a bad seating group number/letter, it's OK to sneak ahead of people. Now, don't cheat. If you're in boarding group 5, trying to get on with boarding group 4 is pure evil and should get you consigned to hell. (The gate agent will hold you back anyway.) But get to the front of boarding group 5. (Ignore this if you don't have a large carry-on.) On the other hand, if you have time to kill when you land, and the gate agent asks for volunteers to check their bags, do it. There's almost no chance your bag will get lost unless you have a really tight connection--that generally happens between the front check-in counter and your airplane--and you'll save yourself the bag fee.
BOARDING THE PLANE
- Move it. There are a lot of people who have to get on the plane, and your pilot can lose your flight's take-off slot if everybody takes their time boarding. Now that I have TSA PreCheck and I don't have to fume at people who are morons in the security line (putting their bags and shoes in bins, not removing their fluids, carrying more than 3.5 ounces of liquids, putting other items in the bin with their laptop, not emptying their pockets before going through the x-ray), I save my fuming for people who are morons boarding the plane.
- I have gone back and forth on this a lot, and I know there are plenty of people who are going to disagree with me, but if you put anything other than a rollerboard or similar suitcase in the overhead, you're a selfish jerk. I don't care if you're 6' 6", put your damn briefcase or pocketbook or canvas bag or whatever on the floor of the seat in front of you. There's a limited amount of overhead space. Don't be selfish. If you put your skinny little briefcase in the overhead, I'm going to try to put my rollerboard right on top of it, and I hope I crush your laptop and the headphones for your iPod. ("Oops, sorry, I'm only 5'9", I didn't see them there.") Screw you.
- More practically, have anything you might want during the flight--laptop, reading materials, MP3 player--on the floor in front of you. If you put it in the overhead, you stand a chance of not being able to get it during your flight.
- Put nothing in the seatback pocket. Airplanes are loaded with bacteria and germs, and no place has more than the seatback pocket. I have seen people with colds sit on flights and spend the entire flight shoving their used tissues into the seatback pocket, and heard about parents putting dirty diapers in them. Do you want to put your paperback or tablet or water bottle in there, or dig your hands down there? I didn't think so. Seriously, I never, ever use them.
- One exception: Get out the safety card and look it over. You probably can figure out how to fasten your seat belt, but I always try to memorize (1) how to open the doors and windows in an emergency and (2) whether, in the case of a window exit, I'm supposed to slide down the front or the back of the wing. (It depends on the model of the plane.) I've never had to use this knowledge, but that's OK. After you review it, put the card back, and wash your hands with your hand sanitizer.
- Get your large stuff in the overhead, your small stuff on the floor in front of you, then sit down and pull down the armrests next to your seat. Most airlines put the armrests up for boarding. Pulling them down is the best way you can stave off a space incursion by the person sitting next to you. The armrest has saved me from being assimilated on some flights. (Note that this rule doesn't apply if you're sitting next to friends or family members. At least most of them.)
DURING THE FLIGHT
- If the light's on saying you should stay in your seat, then stay in your damn seat. This shouldn't be tricky. The pilots don't leave the light on because they're messing with you. There was a United flight a few years ago on which a passenger got up when the fasten seat belts light was on, the plane hit turbulence, and the passenger hit her head and died. You do not have a Constitutional right to go to the bathroom or get your laptop out of the overhead (where you shouldn't have put it in the first place). And if I'm in the aisle or middle seat next to you, I'm not unbuckling my seat belt to let you out. So just wait.
- Don't be these people: The kid who plays the MP3 player so loud the sound leaks out of the headphones. The person who watches a movie or plays a game on their tablet computer without headphones. (If your electronic device emits sounds of any kind, either mute it or use headphones.) The parent who lets his or her kid (1) play some electronic game that emits noises or (2) speak in a loud voice. The parent who not only lets their kid speak in a loud voice, but speaks in a loud voice as well. Inside voices, people. A lot of passengers on your flight are doing work, or trying to sleep, or just enjoying a respite from their phone. Don't be a selfish oaf and ruin it.
- Whether to recline your seat or not has become a controversial topic. Me, I never do it (unless the person behind me is being a jerk), and I'm not fond of people who do it. Airplane seats are more comfortable than most chairs, and the recline they offer isn't enough to, say, make sleeping easy. By the same token, though, I can see why some people like it. But if you recline your seat, you should check whether the person behind you is using a laptop, and if so, give them a warning. I've almost had the screen of my laptop snapped off more than once by quick seat reclines in front of me.
- As I said, airplanes are germ factories, and the longer the flight, the worse. Do everything you can not to touch your mouth, eyes, or nose during flights unless you wash your hands with hand sanitizer first.
ONCE YOU LAND
- I do one last hand sanitizer wash before I leave the plane.
- If you need to use the bathroom, the rest rooms closest to your gate are probably going to be crowded. Keep walking to less busy parts of the airport. If you're changing planes, you'll probably find one en route. Food court bathrooms are usually pretty un-crowded. If you're leaving the airport, and there's a bathroom near baggage claim (my airport has one), that's usually the best bet to avoid crowds.
- If you're catching a cab or renting a car, walk briskly. You want to get there ahead of all the other people doing the exact same thing.
ON THE GROUND
- Car rentals: If your schedule allows you time to do this, you can generally save money on car rentals by renting from any location other than the airport. For example, I just checked on the Hertz website, and it costs $62 per day to rent a Corolla at the San Francisco airport for a couple days the week before Christmas. If you pick up and return to the Hertz location on Ellis Street in San Francisco, it's $45 per day. You need to balance the savings against the cost of getting to the non-airport location, of course.
- Driving: If you regularly visit a city that has toll roads with the option of a transponder (e.g., EZPass in the Northeast, FasTrak in California), get the transponder even if you don't live there. You'll save time and, in most cases, money on tolls.
- Trains: Amtrak has its issues, but it's a lot more comfortable and, in most cases, convenient than air travel. It can be subject to delays, though, so if you have a tight connection, I recommend going to the Amtrak website and click the Status tab to check the on-time performance of the train you're thinking of taking. (It's archived for the past several days.) Also, I strongly recommend booking two one-way tickets rather than one round trip unless you can save money going round trip. Amtrak recently changed its policy on changes and cancellations, and while it's nowhere near as onerous as the stuff the airlines pull, it's sufficiently byzantine that I find it preferable to deal with my reservations one at a time. Incidentally, Amtrak gives AAA members a 10% discount provided you book three days in advance, which is a nice perk.
- Ground transportation: If you visit a city regularly that has public transportation that doesn't use the same roads as cars (subways, elevated trains, light rail), it pays to know how they work and to have a fare card. If you need to get from the East 50s in New York to a train at Penn Station at rush hour, you're better off taking the E train than a cab. Ditto CTA's Blue Line to O'Hare, or the BART to SFO, or the METRO Blue Line to MSP.
- Hotels: If you're not already a member, join a hotel's frequent stayer program before you make a reservation with them. That way you'll get any perks (e.g., expedited check-in, a nominal gift on arrival, free wi-fi in your room) immediately. Also, check carefully for discounts when you make a reservation, but also check the discounts against the regular rates. For example, Omni Hotels (which has a great frequent stayer program) offer a senor citizen discount starting at age 55. On the other hand, some hotels will run specials that aren't available if you use discounts, so the regular rate on special could be lower than the senior citizen or AAA or AARP rate to which the special doesn't apply. Oh, and tip the housekeepers every day you're in a hotel. They have a tough job, they do it well, and they get paid peanuts.