6 Things Infrequent Flyers Should Know

At the airport

This article is dedicated to you, the traveler who doesn’t fly much. But others may like it too because, well, we can all use tips on saving money and having a hassle-free trip, right? First, go ahead and 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). As for carry-on bags, Some airlines let you bring one onboard for free, some airlines charge for this. See our Baggage Fee Chart for more information or check with your airline for the latest updates (these fees can and do change without warning).

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

2. Avoid seat fees

More and more airlines set aside popular economy seats – those with a little extra legroom, those located by aisles or windows, even those with nothing much to recommend them except they are closer to the front of the cabin – and force passengers to pay a fee for these seats. In fact, some airlines such as Spirit don’t allow passengers to choose any seat at all unless they pay a seat fee (if you don’t pay, you’ll still 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), look at available seats and claim the best one you see; 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 pre-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 you can’t get a refund for them. You are allowed to change most tickets, but only by paying a change fee which can be very expensive (up to $200 per ticket). Try to be absolutely certain of your dates before booking a flight to avoid this fee.

Suggestion: By law, you are allowed to change any ticket (or get a refund) – for free – if you do so within 24 hours of purchase, so if you change your mind about your ticket, act fast. Another idea: If you’re not sure about your itinerary, purchase refundable tickets, but these are almost always very expensive. Another idea: Look into travel insurance and see if ticket refunds are ever an option (and remember to read all the fine print in any insurance policy). Finally, if there is a serious emergency (such as illness or death), call the airline and see what they can help you change tickets (or get a refund) without paying a fee, but don’t expect much.

4. Food & hotel vouchers

This may surprise some travelers but when flights are delayed or canceled due to bad weather or mechanical problems, airlines typically don’t provide vouchers for food or hotels, nor does the law require this. Some may do this, but purely as a courtesy.

Suggestion: If you’re stuck in a strange airport with few options, talk to the gate agent and see if they can help or can offer any ideas. In the meantime, get on your phone and start checking with local hotels to see if any offer discounts in situations like yours;  you won’t know until you ask.

5. Go to the airport early

Airlines don’t want a reputation for tardiness which is why they are so concerned with on-time arrival and departures statistics which get published each month by the Department of Transportation. Sometimes planes will even leave a few minutes early, and if you’re not on board, the plane will leave without you. Don’t be late! Leave home with plenty of time to get through the airport traffic and lines at security.

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

6. No freebies

When it comes to traveling in economy class, there are hardly any freebies. Most airlines dropped free meals in economy years ago (although on a few routes, a few, modest meals are making a comeback). Generally, though, you’ll have to pay for snacks and some ultra-discount airlines (like Spirit) will also charge for coffee and soda. As for blankets and pillows, these have pretty much disappeared altogether.

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

Rick Seaney
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