Is flying today a game? You bet and the odds are stacked against you.
The objective for the airlines seems to be: let's wring as much cash out of passengers as possible. The goal for the flying public is to hang onto its collective wallet. So far, it is half-time and the airlines are winning.
To be fair, they've had some rough years lately, what with soaring oil prices and the Great Global Economic Belly Flop; they need the cash and face it -- shuttered airlines can't fly us anywhere.
The good news is: today's fees give casual coach passengers a chance at perks they normally wouldn't have a shot at in a million years -- perks that were long the sole domain of the elite frequent fliers.
The bad news is: the "specialness" of elite fliers is eroding; when anyone can pay to play (to get a cushier seat or earlier boarding), it makes the hard-earned, hard-flown status of frequent fliers less…well, less special.
Time for all of us to face reality and learn how to game the system.
Reality: Accept the fact that even the worst of the fees aren't going anywhere. They are here to stay. The nice thing about the vast majority of these fees, though, is that they are optional.
So here's the most simplistic way of gaming the system: travel in what I call "Youth Hostel Class." You know, grab a backpack and go and do not pay a penny for any extras. But if it's been awhile since your college days, chances are you want a bit of comfort. Me too.
So let me introduce you to the Seaney Seminar on Gaming the Airline Fee System and I'll have you saving money in no time.
First, did you know we are now in the midst of Fees 3.0?
Phase one was the introduction of the sushi menu of fees (American Airlines got that ball rolling with its first checked-bag fee back in 2008); Second Gen was making the purchase of these fees available everywhere, from kiosks to gate upgrades (and Virgin America even allows you to pay a fee to upgrade to first class right from your airplane seat).
The third generation of fees is the latest bundling strategy, like United's Premier Travel: you pay one fee to get early boarding, free bags and more, for a cheaper price than you'd pay for these services separately.
Now we're ready to get on with the gaming: these tips will help you either avoid fees altogether, or get the perks you want for the least amount of money.
#1 Check for Cheap Upgrades: The longer these elite seats sit empty, the cheaper they'll be.
Check the prices for upgrades online, then at the kiosk (even if you already printed your boarding pass at home) and finally, ask at the gate until you see the price you want. Sometimes, an airline will make you a last minute offer too cheap to refuse.
#2: Fly the Poor Man's First Class: Opt to for flights on the slow days.
The slowest days of the week to fly are Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Saturdays, which is when it's more likely that the middle seat next to you will be empty so you'll have more room than if you'd upgraded.
Bonus: these slow days are also the cheapest days to fly; use the money you save to purchase early boarding, then pack your favorite lunch, and you have a "faux first class" trip for a fraction of the cost.
#3: Sample the Airlines' "All You Can Eat" Buffets: Save on flights and bag fees.