Know the difference between “direct” and “nonstop” flights, and always opt for the latter. Unlike nonstops, direct flights can touch down at other airports on the way to their ultimate destinations, says Macon Dunnagan, a baggage handler with US Airways. And while stops are built in to the total travel time, the potential delays they can cause aren’t.
Make sure you buy your ticket under the exact name that appears on your ID. It might seem obvious to you that Betsy is a nickname for Elizabeth, but it may not to a skycap, a desk agent, or a security officer―any of whom could ask you to show ID with that name before boarding, says Delta Air Lines public-relations rep Katie Connell.
Select your seats ASAP. “If you have a disability and need a premium seat in the bulkhead, tell the agent when you make your reservation rather than at the airport,” says David Martin, a Delta passenger-service specialist who creates the airline’s policies for customers with disabilities. Other passengers might be able to nab those seats 24 hours before the flight, when they’re made available to everyone through the airline’s website.
Get to your gateway city as early as you can. “Since delays stack up as the day progresses, it’s smart to book the first flight you can into a hub [if you have a connecting flight],” says Dunnagan.
Double-check foreign document requirements. Some countries―like Chile, Kenya, and India―require a visa for entry; others, like South Africa, won’t allow entrance unless a traveler’s passport contains at least two blank, unstamped pages. You need to be aware of such requirements before you make your flight reservations or you could get stuck Stateside, according to a source at the U.S. Department of State Bureau of Consular Affairs. For a complete list of entrance regulations, visit travel.state.gov/.
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Set your luggage apart from the pack. “When passengers use ribbons and bows, they can be torn off in the transporting process,” says Chris Gossner, a customer-service supervisor with US Airways for more than 20 years. Your best move: Buy a suitcase in an unusual color, such as bright blue.
Stockpile samples. Freida Burton, a US Airways flight attendant for almost 31 years, carries samples of cosmetics and prescription creams, which she requests from her doctor. Go to walmart.triaddigital.com or freesamplesblog.com for a variety of freebie offers. Or take advantage of Sephora’s and Kiehls’s policies of giving three free samples with any online order.
BYO blanket (and disinfecting wipes, too). “I hate to say it, but tray tables are rarely cleaned, so wipe them off before you use them,” says Sarah Scott, a former US Airways flight attendant. “And steer clear of the blankets and pillows. They’re only washed when they look dirty.”
Pack your electronics in a single layer. “When things are tossed in haphazardly or jumbled together, we spend more time determining what they are [from the X-ray] and have to manually check bags,” says Sterling Payne, a spokesperson for the Transportation Security Administration (TSA).
Do your own bag check before you leave. Keep from getting stalled in security and losing innocent (but sharp) items you forgot were in your bag―hello, nail scissors! “If you think through the screening process as you’re packing, you’ll be fine,” says Stephanie Carter Naar, a transportation security officer based in Washington, D.C.
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Know your airport's code. It's easy for luggage-destination tags to get mixed up at a curbside check-in. Learn the three-letter airport code for your destination and make sure your skycap labels the bag properly. The codes aren't always intuitive (for example, New Orleans's Louis Armstrong Airport is MSY), so check the list at airport-technology.com, especially if your destination has more than one airport. "Cities with multiple airports can cause problems if passengers don't know which they're flying into," says Tim Wagner, a spokesperson for American Airlines.
Ask about your options. Stuck with your children at Boston's Logan Airport? An airport employee can direct you to terminal C, where a baggage carousel–style slide anchors a play area. Tired of the same old food-court choices? In the Austin, Texas, airport, make a beeline for Salt Lick―it serves up some of the state's best barbecue. You can even get through security faster by seeking out additional lines: "Airports will often open another line during peak times, so it pays to ask," TSA spokesperson Sterling Payne says.
Exercise caution in duty-free shops. "Not everything in duty-free is a bargain," says Janice Mosher, director of the Customer Service Center for U.S. Customs. "If you really want that bottle of perfume, find out what it costs in your local department store first." And consider the three-ounce rule when stocking up on things like alcohol and olive oil. "If you are transferring to another domestic flight after clearing customs in the U.S., you'll have to put your liquid duty-free purchases in a checked bag," Mosher says.
Spring for an afternoon in the lounge. For a fee―usually about $50 a day, which you can pay on the spot―you can take advantage of the snacks, uncrowded bathrooms, and comfy chairs at most airline club lounges, plus you can get help from the club's dedicated ticket agents. "Several times when it's looked like I would be stuck somewhere for another day, a club agent has pulled a rabbit out of his hat," says Bill Coffield, an attorney who flies between 50,000 and 100,000 miles a year.
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Bring a car seat for your child. "Car seats aren't just safer for children," notes Veda Shook, a flight attendant who has been with Alaska Airlines for 16 years. "They also help kids stay calmer, since they're used to being in them." Shook suggests investing in a car seat-stroller combination. "The seat slides right out of the stroller part, which you can check at the gate," she says.
Corral your in-flight necessities. Blocking the aisle during boarding while you dig for gum, a book, or a snack can delay the entire plane. Dezirae Bridges, a Delta flight attendant for 11 years, suggests packing small must-haves in a resealable gallon-size bag that you can toss onto the seat while you put away everything else.
Stow your bag near your seat. "It's tempting to toss your suitcase into the first empty space you see, but that slows down deplaning, as passengers who had to stow their bags near the back move downstream to collect their belongings," says Beth Jones (not her real name), a US Airways flight attendant with 34 years under her (safety) belt.
Call for help. If you've missed a connection, don't stand in line to rebook with a gate agent. Instead, use your cell phone to call the airline's customer-service number (tuck it in your wallet before leaving). You may speak to someone faster, giving you a better shot at a seat on the next flight.
Utilize cell-phone lots. Free-parking areas where drivers can wait for the "I'm here" call for 30 minutes or longer have sprung up at more than 50 airports in the last few years. For a complete list of these lots, visit the Airports Council International website at aci-na.org.
Get fed fast. To have dinner waiting in your hotel room when you arrive, call and order room service from the road. "It can save a hungry half hour," says Barbara Talbott, an executive with Four Seasons Hotels in Toronto who flies about 20 times a year.