When it comes to air travel, things have never been more complicated or unpredictable than they are right now.
After Covid brought air travel to a screeching halt, airlines responded by cutting costs and laying off critical personnel. When air travel picked back up again after two years of pent-up travel demand, airlines were caught short-staffed and unprepared. According to the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics, in 2022, when airlines were unable to adequately staff flights yet continued to sell record-breaking numbers of tickets, the result was more than one in five flights being delayed.
Also in 2022, complaints by consumers against airlines skyrocketed to over 300% (compared to pre-pandemic levels), due to outdated technology resulting in operational issues, overbooked flights, staff shortages resulting in an unprecedented number of delays and cancellations, unpredictable weather patterns, and employee strikes demanding an increase in pay to meet the high costs of inflation.
As of late, the travel industry has been a bit of a “hot mess”, with air travel being, arguably, at the center of it.
Whether you are booked on one of my upcoming trips or not, you may want to bookmark this blog for future reference because, here, I’m going to address everything you need to know about airline travel, including when is the best time to book your flights; what to do if your flight is delayed or, worse, canceled; and even how to find to best seat on the plane.
So let’s dive in and demystify air travel in today’s world.
HOW (& WHEN) TO BOOK YOUR FLIGHTS
While there used to be some truth to the idea that certain days were better than others for snagging the best flight deals, nowadays, that’s really more of a myth than anything else.
According to Hayley Berg, lead economist at the popular booking app, Hopper, “There is no one day or ‘golden rule’ about when to book that applies to all travel…There’s a common myth that booking on Tuesday will guarantee a traveler the best price. The reality is prices change so often and depend on the route, the travel dates, etc., that there isn’t one day that guarantees you the best price.” (This is based on an analysis of eight years and 70 trillion bits of flight data.)
For domestic trips, you should start monitoring prices about 3-4 months prior to your departure date, and should probably book 1-2 months in advance.
When it comes to international travel, you’ll want to start a little earlier than that. Start looking 6-7 months in advance, and consider booking 3-5 months prior to your expected travel date.
Use a price-monitoring tool
Honestly, the best way to track fluctuating prices is to set up a flight tracker. Google Flights makes it easy to search for a flight based on your travel parameters and set up a flight tracker to notify you when prices start to decrease.
When it comes to getting the best deals on flights, when you travel will have more of an impact than when you book. For example, travel mid-week (like on Wednesday), will almost always be your cheapest option.
Book directly with the airline
Do your research on booking engines like Expedia, CheapOair, and elsewhere but, once you find that perfect flight, go directly to that airline’s website to book it. If something goes sideways with your flight, and you’ve booked it through a third-party booking engine, good luck getting somebody to take responsibility for it. The airline will tell you to contact the booking engine, and the booking engine will tell you to contact the airline. You’ll most likely end up going in circles with nobody claiming ownership over your flight (and probably didn’t end up saving enough to make that hassle worth it).
Conversely, if you’ve booked directly with the airline, you are increasing your chances that any problems can be rectified.
Have you ever been researching flights, only to have the price jump up during the booking process? This could be a result of normal price fluctuations that take place. However, some say that (when you’re poking around looking for the best deal) the search engine algorithms pay attention, and you could be driving up the price of your own ticket. I don’t know if this is true or not (some say it’s nothing more than another travel myth) but if you’re at all concerned about this, you can get around this by opening an incognito window when searching for flights.
If you’re using Google, click on the three horizontal dots on the top right-hand corner of the page and select “New Incognito Window.” Or, if you’re on a macOS, click command-shift-N. On Windows, click Ctrl-Shift-N. This opens a privacy window, allowing you to do some private browsing.
OTHER FLIGHT BOOKING TIPS & TRICKS
Choose the early flight
The earlier the flight, the better your chances of it taking off without delay. The weather is usually better in the morning before afternoon storms and other complications have had a chance to create delays.
Opt for nonstop flights whenever possible. This eliminates potential issues with connecting flights.
Opt for a longer layover
If you do have a layover, make sure your connections are long enough to handle potential delays. It’s no fun worrying about whether or not you’re going to make your connection because your first flight was delayed. Be sure to give yourself a bit of a buffer.
It is recommended you give yourself at least 60 minutes for domestic flights and two hours for international flights. I would consider these the minimum, especially if you’ve checked luggage and want to ensure your bags make the connecting flight.
If you do miss your connecting flight due to a delay in your first flight, most airlines will rebook you on the next flight for free. You may have to fly on standby, however, depending on seat availability.
*Note: If you booked flights from one airline but any leg of the flight is operated by another airline, contact the airline through which you originally booked your flights.
Unless you’ve purchased basic economy tickets, you should have the option to select your seats prior to check-in. You may even have the option to upgrade to a section closer to the front of the plane, or a seat with more legroom. You may end up having to pay to upgrade your seat, but, it might be worth it. Want to know which seats are the best? Check out the seat map for your particular plane (the type of plane should be listed in your reservation) at www.seatguru.com.
Also, when it comes to selecting your seats, there are a few things to keep in mind:
1. If you are prone to motion sickness, avoid seats in the back of the plane as they are more likely to feel intense turbulence. (Seats in the middle of the plane, and over the wing, experience the least amount of turbulence, so keep this in mind if this is an issue for you.) Also, the further back your seats, the longer it will take to deplane, which could be an issue if you have a tight connecting flight.
2. Avoid seats by the toilets to avoid any unpleasant odors (I always bring a small, travel-sized bottle of air freshener with me on the plane); also, this is where people tend to congregate while waiting in line. You'll also be listening to the sound of flushing toilets throughout the flight.
3. The seats by the front usually make for a smoother ride, often get served first by the flight attendants, and are the first to deplane upon landing. However, you'll often pay a little more for these.
4. Exit row seats usually provide more legroom but, again, there's often a fee to upgrade to those seats, and they come with some downsides. For example, you'll be required to put your personal items in the overhead bin, rather than below the seat, making it a little hard to get to some of the items needed throughout the flight. Also, depending on the type of aircraft and where those exit rows are, other passengers may tend to congregate in that area since there is extra space.
5. Window seats give you a great view, and you're less likely to be bothered by other passengers when they get up to go to the bathroom. However, if you tend to feel claustrophobic, you're probably better off choosing an aisle seat.
6. Bulkhead seats are nice if you don't want to have to deal with the seat in front of you reclining their seat into your space, but again you'll be expected to stow your personal items in the overhead bin, and there are no seats in front of you for in-flight entertainment (so you'll likely be required to stow away the entertainment during takeoff and landing). Plus, this tends to be where bassinets tend to be placed, so you're more likely to be listening to crying kids in this area of the plane.
7. Arguably the worst seat on the plane is the middle seat. You'll likely find it difficult to have elbow room, as those in the window and aisle seats may (consciously or unconsciously) claim ownership of the armrests. You'll also have to move every time the person in the window seat needs to get up, and you'll have to ask the person in the aisle seat to move every time you do. Plus, good luck trying to sleep, unless you're okay with leaning into one of your neighbors.
Again, check out www.seatguru.com to see which seats are the best option on your next flight.
Avoid checking a bag
As I mentioned in my YouTube video (How to Never Check a Bag Again), whenever possible, avoid checking a bag. Not only does this circumvent the chances of your bag being lost or delayed, if there is a last-minute change to your flight, you’ll have your bags with you (reducing the chances they’ll get delayed in transit).
Plus, while waiting for 30-45 minutes for your luggage is normal (and even expected), I’ve waited for as long as an hour for my checked back to appear on that conveyor belt. Even worse is waiting for an hour only to realize your bag is never coming out.
If you must check a bag
If you must check a bag, take a picture of it so that (if it’s lost) you can show the airline what it looks like. It’s also not a bad idea to put a colorful ribbon or other identifier on it. This is a good argument for buying an easily identifiable, brightly colored suitcase.
Also, consider putting an AirTag in it for easy tracking.
What to do when your luggage is a “no-show”
If your luggage fails to show up on that conveyor belt, look around to see if it’s sitting somewhere, unclaimed. If that fails, get in line at the airline’s baggage desk. If your connecting itinerary was with more than one airline, you’ll want to file the claim with the operating carrier of the last flight. (You’ll have to wait in line to file a missing bag report.)
Be sure to ask what the airline will cover and always make them come to you. Give them your local address and DO NOT offer or agree to return to the airport to retrieve your bags. If your luggage hasn’t arrived with you, it’s the airline’s responsibility to return it to you, and they should be willing to do so at their own expense.
Always check in for your flight
It’s important to always check in for your flight. At the very least, this could mean getting into one of the earlier boarding zones (increasing the likelihood there will still be plenty of overhead bin space needed for your carry-ons).
But, more importantly, airlines often oversell flights, anticipating no-shows and last-minute cancellations. If you fail to check in, you might be one of the unlucky ones who gets bumped from that flight. Increase your chances of making it on an overbooked flight by checking in as soon as check-in opens (24 hours prior to departure). I like to set an alarm on my phone to remind me exactly 24 hours prior to my scheduled departure.
Track your flight
About 24 hours prior to your flight (right around the time you check in for your flight), visit www.flightaware.com to find your particular flight number and turn on notifications so you’ll be immediately notified of any schedule changes. My understanding is this is the same service pilots and flight attendants use to stay abreast of changing flight schedules, so you’ll often be notified of delays or cancellations here, first, before the airline has even had a chance to update you.
If your flight is delayed or canceled, this could give you a leg up if you need to get in line to speak to an airline attendant, allowing you to be a step or two ahead of the rest.
WHEN YOUR FLIGHT IS DELAYED
If your flight is delayed or canceled, you may be entitled to compensation by the airlines, unless that delay is a result of bad weather, air traffic delays, or mechanical issues. Still, if you find yourself with a delayed flight for any one of these reasons, it doesn’t hurt to ask the original airline for a ticket on another airline. They aren’t required to comply but, it can’t hurt to ask.
Airlines are also not required to provide you with food vouchers during these delays however, again, it doesn’t hurt to ask. Keep in mind that the more civil you are when you ask, the better your chances of a positive outcome.
Another situation that does not require compensation is a tarmac delay. The U.S. Department of Transportation prohibits tarmac delays over three hours unless the pilot deems there is a safety issue involved with taxiing to the gate and deplaning passengers, or if air traffic control determines there would be significant interruptions in airport operations if it permitted the pilot to taxi to the gate (or another location) to deplane passengers.
If you encounter a tarmac delay on a U.S. airline operating an international flight, however, the same DOT time limits don’t apply. At that point, any time limits and corresponding protocols are determined by the airline.
U.S. airlines are required to keep the lavatories open and to provide passengers with food and water within two hours after a tarmac delay begins, on both domestic and international flights.
HOW TO HANDLE AIRLINE DELAYS AND CANCELATIONS GRACEFULLY
If you love to travel, like we do, eventually you’ll encounter a less-than-ideal travel scenario that will, more than likely, be somehow related to your flight. In order to best prepare for flights (especially long, international flights), here are some things you can do to take it all in stride:
WHEN YOUR FLIGHT IS CANCELLED
Due to how complicated airline travel has become, I know a lot of travel advisors who simply won’t book air; the liability is too high, and travelers often expect their TA to work miracles from afar. The truth is, if you’re at the airport and your flight has been canceled, your best bet is to deal with it directly by doing the following:
Always remember, the airline representative you speak with is not responsible for the delay and is likely doing the best they can while receiving an onslaught of frustrations coming at them from unhappy customers. If you’re able to breathe through the situation and not lose your cool, you might be surprised at what that airline rep is willing to do for you.
Whatever happens, always keep any proof of delays or cancellations. DO NOT THROW AWAY YOUR TICKETS. If you purchased travel insurance (which is always recommended and, more and more, being required by some tour operators), you’ll need something to provide to the insurance company. They’re not going to take your word for it. Keep your old tickets and keep your new tickets. Take screenshots of any notifications you get.
*Remember, federal law entitles you to a full cash refund regardless of the reason your flight was canceled. Often airlines will offer you a travel voucher, but this may come with an expiration date that doesn’t serve you, and you are not required to accept it. You are entitled to a full cash refund. If you have any problem with this, file an Air Travel Complaint with the U.S. Department of Transportation.
While air travel can, undoubtedly, be a little complicated these days, it’s still the fastest and easiest way for us to get out and see the world. However, if we plan ahead and have the right attitude, it’s still possible to enjoy flying. Do your homework and be prepared. The rest is out of your hands. You will eventually get where you’re going, and the more you take that which is outside of your control in stride, the more enjoyable your whole trip will be.
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