This article is dedicated to you, the infrequent flyer but it can also serve to remind others about the many changes in air travel over the years. The first thing to do is find the cheapest ticket possible and then follow the six tips that can help you save money on baggage, seats and even snacks. It can also make your next trip hassle-free.
6 Tips for Infrequent Flyers
1. Most bags will cost you money
Every U.S. airline charges a fee for checked-bags, with one exception: Southwest (it actually gives you two checked-bags for free).
Many airlines charge for checked-bags and carry-on bags, including Spirit and Frontier. If you fly the super-cheap basic economy class on American and United, you will also pay for all bags.
- Suggestion: Use a carry-on. Most airlines don’t charge for them, but even when you have to pay, it’s worth it because carry-ons have another advantage: the bag that travels in the cabin with you is the bag that will not get lost.
You can always check the FareCompare Baggage Fee Chart to see how much that bag could cost you.
2. Even so-so seats can cost you
More and more airlines set aside ‘good’ economy seats – seats with a little extra legroom, seats near the front of the plane, or popular aisle and window seats – for those who pay more for their airfare (including premium economy tickets). Plus, some airlines will not let you choose your seat until check-in time which is 24 hours before departure.
- Suggestion: If you cannot choose seats when you book your flight, be ready to check for available seats the moment your check-in window begins (24 hours before departure time) and claim a seat then. The alternative is to pay extra for a seat which can run anywhere from a few dollars to $75 or more.
3. Refunds are rare
The cheapest airline tickets are almost always non-refundable, which means exactly what it says: If you decide to change the date of your flight (or make other schedule changes), you will be charged a change fee of up to $200 per ticket (the amount varies by airline). As far as humanly possible, be certain of your dates before you book a flight.
- Suggestion: You have 24 hours after purchasing tickets to change or cancel them with no financial penalty. Or, you can purchase refundable tickets, but these are almost always very expensive. Another idea is to check out travel insurance, but 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. You can always throw yourself on the mercy of the airlines; sometimes it works, but often it doesn’t.
4. You may have to fend for yourself during delays/cancellations
This will surprise some travelers but when flights are delayed or cancelled due to bad weather, airlines typically don’t provide vouchers for food or hotels. Bad weather is considered a force majeure event meaning it’s not the airline’s fault and you are on your own.
- Suggestion: Be polite and try to work with the gate agent. Sometimes they have vouchers for problems that are their fault and you might get lucky and snag one. Meanwhile, get on your phone and start checking with local hotels to see if any are offering discounts in the case of bad storms or whatever has delayed you.
5. Leave time for connecting flights
These days, airlines are very concerned with on-time arrivals and departures which leads us to a dirty little secret of the air travel industry: Sometimes, planes leave early and if you’re not on board the plane might leave without you. Get to the gate area with plenty of time to spare, which may mean leaving for the airport earlier than you planned but it’s a small inconvenience compared to missing a flight.
- Suggestion: When shopping for connecting flights, be sure to leave plenty of time between flights, an hour minimum 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 nations have similar programs the U.K.’s FastTrack program; search for yours by using keywords like airport, security and fast.
6. Don’t expect onboard freebies
Most airlines dropped free meals in economy years ago (although on a few routes, meals are making a comeback). Mostly, though, you’ll have to buy a sandwich and some of the ultra-discount airlines charge for small snacks, and even soda or water. As for blankets and pillows, these are very hard to find these days and the airlines that still offer them generally make you pay a fee.
- Suggestion:Pack a lunch; it’ll be tastier than anything the airlines have, and cheaper. Also, bring a jacket or dress in layers; planes can be chilly. Consider bringing your own neck pillow, too.