I don't fly often. In many ways, I'm very thankful for this.
As an infrequent flier, though, I am vulnerable to being taken advantage of. People who fly every month or even every week have parts of their travel routine down to a science. I've traveled with fliers who not only have the basics down, but have the nuances of particular airports down so well that they just breeze through.
This is like anything else: The more you practice deliberately, the better you become.
Rules change all the time
The more time that goes in between your air trips, the more the rules have changed in the meantime. What you knew to be the rules as of your last flight may not be the case anymore.
Regardless, rules are rules. They still need to be followed, even if you find out about them in the middle of your security check. Even if you lose all of your personal hygiene supplies to TSA. Even if you need to pay extra fees for your slightly-oversized baggage.
Some extra prep can go a long way
My last flight, which was down to New Orleans to participate in FinCon, was the first I'd taken in quite a while — well over a year, I think. While I did manage not to get taken advantage of too badly, there are a number of things I would have done differently.
Here are a few of the preparations I made for my trip. Along the way I'll explain the places I could have done a bit better.
- When booking the flight, use an aggregator. Aggregators let you compare flight prices for a bunch of airlines side by side. Travelocity (check rebates) and CheapAir.com (check rebates) are fine choices. (I used Travelocity for my flight.) There's also Google Flights. If you have more time before buying your ticket, you have a few shots with Priceline.com (check rebates) to get a really cheap ticket.
- Be on the watch for upsells. Travelocity offered a number of opportunities for me to spend more money on my flight not only during the registration process, but after as well. Expect a number of cross-sells such as trip insurance, rental car and hotel combos, and more. This happens during the booking process, and after, with follow-on emails. (They already have your attention, so they'd be foolish not to milk it for all its worth.)
- Take some time to understand the rules for your ticket. Look at transferability. Can you transfer the ticket? What about changing the itinerary? Is there a cost? What about flight cancellations? Know what you are entitled to, and what you aren't.
- Take some time to understand the rules for your baggage. How many bags can you carry on? What are the size and weight limits for carry-on and checked baggage? What are the restrictions as to what liquids can be carried on? I took the extra step of making sure that each dimension restriction was met individually, not just the total. As it turned out, they didn't verify the size of my luggage, but I probably could have gotten away with a slightly bigger bag for carry-on.
- Think about the nature of the trip, and leave room for what you're taking back. Since I was going to a conference, I knew that I would be getting some swag, so I left room in my bags so I didn't have to check any baggage on the way back. My wife even suggested packing some of my socks and briefs that had seen better days, with the intention that I'd just throw them away there!
- Investigate parking options, if needed. If you're near the airport then there's no need to consider parking, but if you'll be parking your car near the airport, check around for garages that may have a better rate than the airport. I didn't do this and paid about twice what I needed to.
- Investigate options for getting from the destination airport to your hotel. Are there shuttles that give you a better deal than a taxi? Check around. I didn't do this, and may have paid more than I needed to.
- Check in at home, if possible. This turned out to be a big time-saver. I had my boarding pass in hand as I entered the airport. Since I wasn't planning to check any bags, I went straight to the security line.
- Be on the watch for more upsells on check-in! Yep … again. I was offered the opportunity to double or triple my airline miles for a fee. I was also offered the opportunity to rescue my paltry cache of miles from expiration. The airline miles I get only have marginal value because, well, I don't fly all that much. I got a few magazines subscriptions before with the miles from my last trip, and the 143 or so were what was left over from that.
- Plan not to check baggage, if possible. It's not only faster (see above) but it's also cheaper. There was a fee for any checked baggage, even the first one. I used to be able to get one checked for free. Now, that's complimentary only for people who fly a lot more than I do.
- Leave plenty of time to get to the airport. The standard guidance is to arrive at the airport two hours before departure for domestic flights, and three hours before departure for international flights. Since I was 70 miles away from the airport I used, I gave myself extra time above what Google Maps said the travel time would be. Since I'm an infrequent flier, I don't have as good a sense for how long traveling to the airport takes on different parts of the day. So, I recommend being really conservative even if it ends up that you sit at your terminal for a bit.
- Consider taking a longer, but more familiar, route to the airport. If you regularly travel along the fastest route to your airport, then this one may not apply to you. For me, there was a route that was about 30 minutes faster than one I knew pretty well, but I had never taken it before. I didn't want to risk missing my flight because I got lost.
- Bring snacks. This isn't absolutely necessary but it can save a bit of money. I brought 3 pounds of almonds that I ate not only on the plane but throughout the conference. Mainly, because I wanted something besides carbs at the conference. That, and I suspected that Ally Bank was going to bring their irresistible dipped Oreos, and I was correct. (I know that I didn't have nearly as many as Mrs. 1500 estimated she had, but, boy oh boy, it was a struggle!)
- Save those trial sizes that you get from your dental visits. Wanted to mention this last one because I totally dropped the ball. I completely forgot that I had a mouthwash and toothpaste trial size, and and bought new at the store for a really high unit price. D'OH!
If you're looking to take a trip soon, and you don't fly often, the best advice is to give yourself more cushion than you think you need, and plan a bit more than you otherwise would. That way you won't be completely scalped at every turn.
What other helpful tips do you have for someone who doesn't fly all that much? Leave them in the comments below!