All commercial travel is tedious these days. Start with long lines to check bags and pass through security. Then wait in a crowded terminal, only to endure cramped, uncomfortable conditions once aboard and for the duration of the flight. For the frequent flyer the experience can be downright depressing. Many business travelers, including CEOs, travel coach these days foregoing luxury in response to stockholder cost concerns. What’s a budget traveler to do?
There’s power in knowledge, and opportunity to avoid some of the more formidable disadvantages while taking advantage of available benefits.
Know when and where to expect delays
Find out if the itinerary includes a portion that is chronically late and plan accordingly. The Wall Street Journal recently reported on the woes of United Express Flight 4352 from Cincinnati to Newark, NJ. The leg ran late more often (81% of the time!) than any other U.S. flight over the past two years. Flights to and from Newark lead the Department of Transportation’s “chronically late” list – capturing all of the top 10 spots.
But don’t blame United Express or the Newark airport. The main problem is over-crowded airspace. Newark runs at or near peak capacity all the time, so there’s never a window in which to make up time when backlogs develop.
Tip: Check your flight’s on-time record on FlightStats.com. Look for the chronically late flight list on DOT Air Travel Consumer Report. And provide a phone number when buying your ticket so the airline can alert you of changes or delays.
Traveling internationally, expect delays getting through Customs, particularly during heavy tourism months. Miami’s North and New York’s JFK terminals recorded the longest wait times last year. During peak times, the wait can be up to 3 hours or longer in Miami, San Francisco and JFK’s Delta terminals. If your itinerary permits, re-enter via Chicago, Orlando, Seattle, Washington DC or Los Angeles – where average wait times last year were between 20 and 30 minutes.
Airlines are not responsible for overnight lodging if you miss a connection due to long lines at Customs, or if a flight is late or cancelled due to weather.
Tip: U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) offers a trusted traveler program called Global Entry for U.S. citizens. Bypass lines and go straight to a computer terminal that will read your passport and fingerprints, ask a few identity verification questions, and welcome you back home.
Understand what you’ll pay for
In search of new revenue anywhere they can get it, airlines charge fees for everything except access to the lavatory, it seems. In addition to nominal fees for food and movies, payment is often expected for early boarding or to check luggage. Want to upgrade your seat? The tab can be as high as $159 or more each way for a few inches of extra legroom. Business class is appropriately named. For instance, a ticket at that semi-luxury level to Frankfurt, Germany is priced four times higher than a coach ticket. Want to change an itinerary? Expect to be hit with a $200 change fee for coach class on several major airlines (United, Delta, American and U.S. Airways). Southwest Airlines remains popular for its no change fees policy.
Frequent travelers might consider a service subscription for their most desired add-ons. United sells a year’s worth of Economy Plus seat upgrades for $499 ($699 for couples).
Tip: Before you choose the airline you’ll be most loyal to, research how easy they make it to redeem award travel. Southwest, for example, allows any open seat on any flight to be purchased with reward points. Delta and U.S. Airways, however, have significantly less award availability (only 36%).
If you travel for business, use a rewards card. Do a little homework first. Research the card that best meets your needs and spending habits. Some cards earn points that can be used for a menu of rewards including merchandise, airfare, lodging or upgrades. For anyone most interested in upgrades and free travel on a favorite airline, look at that airline’s credit card. Find one that maximizes reward earnings for travel purchases made with that particular card. If you’re using a company credit card, make suggestions to the finance department. They might be willing to obtain the card of your choice.
For travelers who buy an extra seat for comfort or to accommodate a large item like a musical instrument, it’s essential to research the airline’s rewards policy. Two tickets should fetch twice the rewards. Not so. Some airlines (Delta, American) explicitly state that only a person can collect miles. So, when it comes time to redeem an upgrade or awards ticket, you’ll still have to pay for that extra seat. Those who try to collect double miles anyway can find themselves stripped of their miles from both accounts, and banned from the loyalty program. Find an airline (United) that gives double miles for purchasing that extra seat.
Tip: If interested in switching airlines but afraid to lose your hard-won elite status, talk to a rep at the airline you want to switch to. Most airlines will offer a status match provided certain conditions are met.
Avoid jet lag
Travelers use all sorts of tricks to neutralize jet lag. They adjust their sleep schedule, take over-the-counter melatonin, force themselves to eat (or not eat) and sleep on local time, and seek out bright sunlight. No matter what combination of strategies, get plenty of rest before the trip even begins. And pick up a pair of compression stockings before a long-haul flight – wearing them will give you great benefit on prolonged flights. Sitting for extended periods can lead to something called “economy class stroke syndrome,” as well as edema, clotting and other problems related to normal blood flow.
Tip: Business class upgrade is nice if you can afford it. Try to book on an airline that features fully reclineable seats. Nearly all of United’s fleet is equipped with horizontal sleeper seats. For Delta, all of the 777, 747 and 767-400s have them, with 767-300s and A330s to follow by mid-2014. American Airlines plans to begin installation of flat recliners in 2014. For international carriers, you’ll find horizontal seats on Virgin Atlantic, British Airways, Cathay Pacific, Singapore, Swiss, Iberia and Etihad Airlines. For international flights to the U.S., Quantas, Air New Zealand, Emirates and LAN Airlines are 100% equipped.
Dress to impress and be nice
Coordinated accessories might not get you a first-class seat, but they certainly won’t hurt if an upgrade is up for grabs. People who present themselves well often have the advantage. Flip-flops worn for the momentary convenience of the security screening will not win points. Indeed, travelers – even with coach tickets – who make a habit of dressing nicely report being treated more politely, and get more freebies, than someone who looks to be on their way to a pool party. Demeanor counts. And never abandon courtesy even in the face of delays, cancelations and other misadventures. If favors are to be had, the lady and gentleman will win every time.
Tip: Be comfortable but dressed. Wide-legged pants and full skirts help get ladies through enforced seated hours. Choose fabrics that are not easily wrinkled. High heels are a disaster. Choose a stylish and comfortable flat instead. Jeans work with a tailored jacket and great bag. Men can skip the bag.
Kimberly Rotter is a personal finance writer in San Diego, CA. She brings nearly 20 years of practical knowledge along with a solid post-graduate education in business and marketing. You can find more of her articles on Credit Card Insider.
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