6 Things Infrequent Flyers Must Know

Since I have to fly a lot, I sometimes forget not everyone does. So this article is dedicated to you – the infrequent flyer – to help you stay abreast of some of the changes that have occurred in air travel recently, changes you might not be familiar with.

Forgive me if I’m telling you something you already know, but I think some will benefit, even some of you seasoned travelers who may not have been paying close attention to the news.

Listen as I chat about this with FareCompare Editor Anne McDermott – you’ll hear a couple of extra insights:

6 Tips for the Infrequent Flyer

1. Most Checked-Bags are No Longer Free

Believe it or not, some people still don’t know that most checked-bags aren’t free. In fact, for families, these fees – which can cost as much as $70 round-trip for a second checked-bag – can be staggering.

What to do: Two airlines still offer this service at no charge – JetBlue gives you one free checked-bag, while Southwest gives you two. Another important note: Spirit Airlines not only charges for checked-bags – it is also the only airline to charge you for a carry-on bag.

See the U.S. Airline Fee Chart

2. The Best Seats on a Plane May Cost You

More and more airlines are setting aside their “best seats” for elite miles members or for those who pay to sit in these best locations (and this can sometimes include aisle and window seats).

What to do: If you’re not a miles member, sign up! And if you cannot choose your seat when you book your flight – sometimes you can, sometimes you can’t – be sure to do so at the earliest time you are allowed to check-in which is typically 24 hours before departure.

How to Get More Legroom on Your Next Flight

3. Refunds are Rare

Most of the cheapest airline tickets are non-refundable, and that means if you decide to skip your trip or make changes to your itinerary, you will pay a hefty change fee – as much as $150 per ticket – as well as any difference in airfare. In most cases, you will not get your money back simply because you decide not to fly.

What to do: You can pay more for a refundable ticket, or investigate the cost of travel insurance but make sure it covers what you need it to cover. If there’s a serious emergency that precludes you from flying, contact the airline directly and see if they can work with you.

4. Bad Weather Delays/Cancelations and Hotels/Food

This will surprise some travelers but when flights are canceled due to bad weather, the airlines typically will not give you a voucher for free food and a free hotel room. Bad weather is considered a force majeure event and therefore not the airlines’ fault, so you’re on your own.

What to Do When Bad Weather Cancels or Delays Your Flight

What to do: Be polite and try to work with the gate agent. Sometimes they have hotel vouchers for problems that are their fault and you might be lucky to snag one, but don’t count on it. Check with local hotels and see if they can offer any discounts.

5. Leave Time for Connecting Flights (Especially International Destinations)

Airlines typically list suggested airport arrival times on their websites, and for international flights this can be up to three hours. Sometimes they even require your presence at the gate for a certain period of time before departure, and this is important because planes can and do leave early. If you’re not at the gate by the specific time, your plane may leave without you.

What to do: Find out when you must be at the gate, and be there. If planning a flight that will take you to one airport where you will then fly to an international destination – say, from Kansas City to JFK then on to London – give yourself several hours to make that international flight connection. I like to give myself a full day in my international departure city in case of delays.

6. No More Free Meals in Coach

You probably already know that if you want a sandwich in coach, you’ll have to pay for it. I hope you also know to bring a credit card, because no U.S. airline accepts cash anymore.

What to do: Pack your own lunch. It’ll be tastier than anything the airlines sell you, and cheaper.

More from Rick Seaney:

Q&A for the Infrequent Flyer


Updated: November 17, 2014