Forget about the Sumo wrestler in the middle seat and the fact that you spend more time at the baggage carousel than at dinner. Put it all aside for a while and come with me on a survivor’s guide through the air travel jungle.
The old joke about air travel resembling buses with wings has come true. In some cases, it doesn’t even begin to depict the aggravations that can seem to be inherent in flying the crowded skies.
Greyhound doesn’t lock you in a bus and strand you on a driveway for hours. You may have a long journey, but your knees will work once you arrive. You know, going in, that if you’re going to get hungry or thirsty, you’d better plan ahead. And you’ve probably never circled the city waiting for a freeway to open up so you can reach your destination.
The Mice Are Happy
The airlines say that they are trying to treat us better. We were recently mailed a card that depicted two mice, happily gathering morsels and proclaiming with happy faces: “Crumbs!” It is, of course, all a matter of perception and perspective.
Start with what appears to be one of the hardest things for most consumers to accomplish — effective complaints and consumer activism. The airlines are (generally) making a lot of money. As a sad result, they can afford a certain percentage of disgruntled passengers. They know, that in many cases, they have a “captive audience.” Leisure travelers may be able to say no to flying; most business travelers accept it as a fact of life.
While certainly not your enemies, airlines are not your allies either. Their job is to make as much profit as possible. Part of your job, like it or not, is to make sure they do it with an acceptable measure of customer service.
You have three ways to hold them accountable. You can “vote with your wallet” and refuse giving your business to people who don’t deliver what they should deliver. Be aware of your air travel options and explore them.
The second way is to complain effectively. Short of lowering your blood pressure, it does no good at all to detail your travails to an empathetic friend. Save some energy for complaining to the people who have the power to make changes. Set reasonable standards and, when they are violated, complain when the violation occurs and — if the situation is not resolved to your satisfaction — complain after the fact, in writing. Don’t let the airlines ignore you or try to pacify you with form letters. Your allies include the media and consumer watchdog organizations. If, on any given day, 10 percent of airline passengers who have been ill-treated, complained, change would occur.
The third way is government action. Any air traveler who does not have an easy-to-access record of how to contact the Department of Transportation (www.dot.gov) and the U.S. Congress Commerce, Science and Transportation Subcommittee (www.senate.gov/~commerce) is missing the boat. These days, you should probably be writing to them as often as you write to your mother. Can we counter the airline lobbyists? Yes — but it will take more of an effort than we have been making.
In the meantime, there are other things you can do to make air travel less aggravating. Fly on a cheap ticket The main bonus of flying at appreciable discount is the money it saves. A secondary bonus is a little less of a sting when you experience crowded conditions. In air travel, the single best way of getting what you pay for is to pay less.
Select airlines and airports comparatively less crammed with people In the case of airports, a nearby alternate airport can not only save your sanity, but offer you lower fares. In the case of airlines, you can often fly in relative comfort for the same prices you’ve been paying for tickets on Sardine Air. Midwest Express offers business class style seating at Coach prices. Legend and American offer premium service out of Dallas Love Field. American has reconfigured hundreds of jets to make more room for each Coach passenger.
Join frequent flyer clubs, for every airline that serves your hometown airport(s)
By spending a little time to enroll, you have opened up your possibilities and freed yourself from the tyranny of the loyalty these programs were designed to engender. You will also receive offers not accessible to non-members and you are likely to receive a little better level of service. You won’t get the perks the elite level frequent flyers get, but gate agents translate any frequent flyer membership into a reason to give you better service. Even a small improvement helps.
Choose flight times outside of peak travel periods
Peak period flights may seem most convenient to your schedule but you can lose any advantage you gain by experiencing jammed rental car return facilities, long lines at the check-in counter and delayed flights. The airlines schedule more peak period flights than they can possibly get off the ground on time. They are unwilling to adjust their schedules. Fight back by adjusting your own. You will also find that many off-peak flights (and first and last flights of the day) come with lower ticket prices and more availability of low-fare seats.
Consider joining an airport club system
At one time, these clubs were the province of business travelers. Now, they also provide an escape for leisure travelers. In many cases, a good deal on just one ticket will save you enough money to cover a year’s membership. The clubs are not perfect. In fact, some are sometimes crowded themselves. Still and all, they generally change the travel experience into something more closely resembling pleasant.
Ask the travel agent how full the flight you want to book is running Particularly if booking without a lot of advance time, you’ll get a good idea of the crowds you might face. If the flight is booked at a high level, ask about alternate flights.
Handle ticket changes and any complexities of ticketing by telephone
You will still have to check in, but much of the prep work will be done in advance and your time at the counter will be minimized. Many of us have experienced the frustration of needing to accomplish a simple check-in on a tight time frame, and having the misfortune of being behind several people who want to ask the counter agent umpteen questions about everything from flight schedules to special meals. Do your part to avoid being one of them, both for your own sake and out of respect to other passengers.
Use the new techno bells and whistles They’re beginning to appear and they are convenient. If your airline allows online check-in and you have easy online access, use it. If your airline has a kiosk-type check-in facility, take advantage of it. If you travel on e-tickets, be sure to carry some type of confirmation, either printed from your computer or mailed by the airline or travel agent.
Carry (or purchase at an airport shop) a bottle of water The effects of dehydration (tiredness and a basic sense of feeling slightly under the weather) make any flight miserable. Having your own water supply may seem silly — you are not crossing the Sahara on foot. Yet chances are that you will have quite a wait for in-flight beverage service, particularly on heavily booked flights.
Tom Parsons is editor of Best Fares Magazine.