6 Things Infrequent Flyers Should Know

Passengers in airport

This article is dedicated to you, the traveler who doesn’t fly much. Others may like it too because we can all use reminders on saving money and how to have a hassle-free trip. First, find the cheapest ticket possible. Then, check out these six things infrequent flyers should know.

1. Bag fees aren’t cheap

Every U.S. airline charges a fee for checked-bags, with one exception: Southwest (it actually gives you two checked-bags for free). Some airlines give you a free carry-on, some charge for carry-ons and checked-bags; see our Baggage Fee Chart for more information or check with your airline.

Suggestion: Use a carry-on. Even if you have to pay for it, it’s worth it because carry-ons travel in the cabin with you so airlines can’t lose them.

2. Seat fees and how to avoid them

More and more airlines set aside popular economy seats – those with a little extra legroom, those located by aisles or windows, even seats with nothing much to recommend them except they are closer to the front of the cabin – and force passengers to pay a price for these seats. In fact, some airlines such as Spirit don’t allow passengers to choose any seat at all unless they pay the fee (if you don’t pay the fee, you will get a seat but it will be assigned randomly and will likely be a middle seat).

Suggestion: The moment check-in begins (24 hours before departure time), look at available seats and claim the best you can find; then, return to seat selection a few more times to see if you can improve your position. If you’re on an airline that charges for all selected seats and you don’t mind sitting in the middle, don’t pay.

3. Refunds

The cheapest airline tickets are almost always non-refundable, which means exactly that – you cannot get a refund. Sure, you are allowed to change most tickets but only by paying a change fee which can be very expensive (up to $200 per ticket for U.S. flights). Try to be absolutely certain of your dates before booking a flight to avoid this fee.

Suggestion: Another way to avoid change fees is to make any needed changes within 24 hours of purchasing your ticket; that’s the grace period from the fee mandated by law. Or, purchase refundable tickets, but these are almost always very expensive. Another idea is to look into travel insurance but you need to be certain it covers what you need it to cover before you buy. Finally, if there is a serious emergency (such as a death), call the airline and see what they can do for you but be warned, not all carriers offer refunds in such cases.

4. Food and hotels

This will surprise some travelers but when flights are delayed or cancelled due to bad weather, or sometimes even mechanical problems, airlines typically don’t provide vouchers for food or hotels. If you’re stuck in a strange airport, you may be on your own.

Suggestion: If you’re in this situation, talk to the gate agent; remain calm and polite as the two of you try and work out a mutually agreeable solution (gate agents get tired of being yelled at for something that’s not their fault). Meanwhile, get on your phone and start checking with local hotels to see if any offer discounts in situations like yours; they may not but you won’t know until you ask.

5. Don’t be late getting to the airport

Airlines are very concerned with on-time arrivals and departures statistics; in other words, they don’t want a reputation for tardiness. Now here’s a dirty little secret of the air travel industry: Sometimes, planes leave early and yes, if you’re not on board, the plane might leave without you. Don’t be late getting to the airport or through security or arriving at the gate. Leave home with plenty of time to spare. You might have to sit around the airport for a while but that’s a small inconvenience compared to missing a flight.

Suggestion: When shopping for connecting flights, be sure to leave plenty of time between flights, at least one hour between domestic flights, at least three hours (or several) between international flights. Sign up for the TSA PreCheck program for a faster security experience and try Global Entry for international travel (it includes PreCheck). Other countries have similar programs like the U.K.’s FastTrack.

6. There are no freebies

OK, there may be one or two but for most of us traveling in economy, there are no freebies. Most airlines dropped free meals in economy years ago (although on a few routes, these meals are making a comeback). Generally, you’ll have to buy food on a plane; the ultra-discount airlines like Spirit will even charge for coffee and soda. As for blankets and pillows, these are also rarely seen in economy class.

Suggestion: Pack a lunch; it’ll be tastier than anything the airlines have, and cheaper. Also, bring a jacket for warmth or dress in layers as planes can be chilly. Might want to bring a neck pillow, too.

Rick Seaney
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