ReadWriteTrip is a series that chronicles the modern challenges of tech-savvy business travelers.
There is both science and strategy to consider when booking air travel, and the more you know the better you can control your travel experience—as well as how much it costs you.
I used to think I had little influence over the cost of my flights or my fate once I arrived at the airport, but nearly two decades of traveling more than 125,000 miles each year has taught me some tricks for making travel pleasant—or, at least, less terrible.
Here are the most important air travel tips to know.
Put Competition To Work For You
I’ve never loved flying Southwest Airlines, but I love to fly anywhere Southwest flies. The reason? My preferred airline—Delta—is forced to match fares on routes where it competes with Southwest.
There are other routes where Delta competes with United (e.g., SLC to SFO), but it can seem like the two carriers compete to see who can charge the most on those routes, not the least. I’m sure there are routes (JFK to SFO, maybe?) where there’s enough competition between the major airliners to lower fares, but for many of us, the key is to find a route where United, American or Delta compete with Southwest, Frontier or another discount carrier.
There are two ways to play this. First, I can book a ticket on my preferred airline on a route where it competes with a discount carrier. For example, I can generally fly from Salt Lake City to San Jose or San Francisco for roughly $1,000. Or I can fly into Oakland, a route on which Delta competes with Southwest, for $500 or less.
This may not seem smart if the alternative airport is inconvenient for your trip agenda. But if you’re a frequent flyer, booking your flight to Oakland doesn’t mean you’re going to Oakland. Here’s why.
Get To Know Your Co-Terminals
Each of the major airlines has its designated “co-terminals.” (Here are American’s.) These are distinct airports that the airline considers to be the same for routing purposes Delta, for example, treats Oakland, San Jose and San Francisco as co-terminals. The fares to these airports may be different when you book your flights, but when you head to the airport, they might as well be the same.
I regularly book travel to and from Oakland, only to change my flight to San Jose or San Francisco. Delta allows frequent fliers to do what’s called a “same-day confirmed” and change a flight within three hours of take-off for no charge, provided that I’m changing it to a co-terminal. While airline rules may vary, this is a tactic worth checking out. It has saved me and my companies a great deal of money and it’s super easy to do.
When Delayed, Don’t Wait In Line—Get On The Phone
If your flight gets delayed or canceled for mechanical or other reasons, immediately call your airline to change your flight. Don’t get in the line at the departure gate, and don’t expect that a “two-hour delay” will be anything less than three hours. Airlines often post the best-case revised departure time. Over the years I’ve come to expect the worst case, only to find my fears confirmed more often than not. That’s why you need to immediately contact someone who can rebook you on another flight. In these situations—particularly if you’re a frequent flier—airlines will tend to bend all sorts of rules and allow you to change your departure day, arrival city and almost anything else. But it’s easier to get this treatment over the phone than at the ticket counter where the ticketing agent is dealing with a horde of angry travelers. Save more time by putting the special toll-free number for your frequent-flier program in your address book—you can find it on the back of your card.
Choose Your Security Line Wisely
I know this will sound terrible, but never get in the security line with kids or people over the age of 70. Invariably, they slow things down. The TSA Pre program, for a time, made this point a non-issue, as only savvy business travelers were allowed to use the TSA Pre lines. No longer, as The Wall Street Journal reports: In an attempt to goose demand for TSA Pre, the TSA has started letting crowds of people into TSA Pre lines. As such, aim for the line with no kids and people wearing suits or other business attire.
The Middle Seat Gets The Armrest—Always
It’s surprising how few people know this unwritten rule, but it’s a rule all the same. If you’re in the middle seat, claim the armrests and defend them to the death!
There are, of course, countless other tips. But these are some of the tips that keep me sane and keep my employer flush with cash.