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Almost everything about the passenger experience is more negotiable than you might think. There are lots of ways to hack this, especially if you plan to travel frequently. None of them are rocket science, but getting the basics right can make you infinitely happier while traveling.
Before You Book
By the time you choose a flight, some key aspects of your experience are set in stone. Make sure these choices are deliberate.
1. Choose your airline wisely, and stick to it. Pick an airline that provides frequent service to your home airport(s) and serves the cities you frequently visit. You could also consider what airport terminal they use and their customer service practices. Plan to fly this airline exclusively, even if cheaper fares occasionally pop up elsewhere. Loyalty will save you money in the long run because frequent fliers get all sorts of perks. Easier cancellations; access to competent customer service; and free food, drinks, and showers in airport lounges are all common benefits. Trust me, you want them.
2. Sign up for frequent flyer and rewards programs. Now that you've committed to an airline, you should maximize its ammenities. A frequent flier number is essential, but you may also want to consider credit cards that provide airline points. Many of these cards provide airport lounge access, free checked bags, and other convenient features.
3. Sign up for TSA PreCheck and/or Global Entry. TSA PreCheck is the Transportation Security Administration's risk-based screening program. Signing up requires paying a fee and allowing TSA to verify your status as a low-risk traveler, but the program allows you to expedite security screening every time you fly. That means keeping your shoes on and your laptop packed during screening. Global Entry has the same benefits and also provides expedited Customs and Border Control screening for international travel.
Choosing a Flight
Gathering information about specific flight options can make or break your experience.
4. Avoid flights with consistent delays. If you search flights online, you will occasionally learn that a specific flight is often delayed by over 30 minutes. Avoid these flights like the plague. The aviation system has its quirks, but Google and other travel websites have enough data to predict some of them.
5. Consider airport arrival and departure times. Are you flying early in the morning? Late at night? During lunch? If the flight is over 4 hours long, chances are you will be at the airport early or late according to the local time zone. Be sure to plan for that, and identify food options ahead of time.
6. Don't fly the day before Thanksgiving in the United States. I have done this every year for the last 5 years, and it is consistently my worst experience as a passenger. Demand is consistently high. Inclement weather is a given. Everyone working is grumpy. Just skip this if you can.
7. Pack light and ship the rest. If you have a lot of luggage with you, there is a good chance shipping it via Fedex will be cost competitive with a $40 checked bag fee. Carrying baggage on the plane can be great, but aircraft are not designed to accommodate a carry-on for every passenger.
8. Be prepared to gate check your bag or battle for bin space when you board. Note that you can avoid the aircraft bin space battle via frequent flier status.
9. Make sure your bag meets weight and size requirements. Get a luggage scale and a small measuring tape and leave them in your bag for safekeeping. They will come in handy as you pack.
10. Pack the airport essentials. Mine are an empty water bottle, a granola bar, a tiny tube of hand cream, socks, computer chargers, and a sleeping mask. Make a list that works for you and stick to it.
In the Terminal
11. Clear security as quickly as possible. Ideally you've avoided the bag check lines and qualify for expedited security, but the sooner you clear security, the more relaxed you will feel.
12. Check your flight status with the best available mobile technology. Knowing about possible delays earlier will allow you to adjust your plans as needed. I fly United, and their app has an amazing feature that shows cities from which aircraft are arriving. This is a huge help in anticipating weather delays, and the app has equally good or better information than the terminal monitors.
13. Take a bio break. Fill up that empty water bottle, use the restroom, and grab food if you need it. All of these activities will be more cumbersome on the aircraft than in the terminal.
14. Board early if you have a carry-on. This is annoying but necessary. Finding overhead bin space is the most important airport battle worth fighting. If you have a carry-on, be that person who gets in line extra early.