How to screw up a summer vacation flight? So many ways. But this one takes the cake.
A friend who shall be nameless was looking forward to a Caribbean island vacation. The big day arrives, the family gets to the airport precisely 55 minutes before take-off and disaster strikes. Too late, AirTran said, and the family was barred from boarding.
My friend somehow missed a key section on airport arrival times for international flights on AirTran's website, which says, "Passengers will not be accepted at the ticket counter less than 60 minutes prior to the scheduled departure."
It gets worse: All the other flights that day were full. He was lucky in one respect, though; for reasons that still aren't quite clear to me, my friend did not have to pay more for the new tickets, just that awful change fee and a hotel for the night near the airport. But that set him back a wallet-wrenching $625.
How else can you screw up a summer vacation flight? Let us count the ways:
1. Failure to plan ahead.
This summer, don't be thinking you can give in to last-minute "getaway urges," unless not going is an option (sure, a last-minute deal is theoretically possible, but unlikely this year). Plan your vacation ahead of time or be prepared for serious sticker shock. Those of you who want to depart on a flight in late June or the first week in July should definitely be thinking about buying tickets now.
To get the best deals, you typically have a pretty long shopping-window for domestic flights: between about three months before departure and up until two or three weeks from take-off. Not this year, though, thanks to rising oil prices and pent-up demand; we're advising folks to buy tickets earlier in this 70-day shopping window. Sooner rather than later is the watch-word this summer; remember, we've already seen three airfare hikes so far this year and will likely see a couple more before the busy summer travel season kicks off.
2. Failure to fly to the 'right' airport.
A good rule of thumb is, the bigger the airport the cheaper the flights. Sure, it might be more convenient to fly into a small regional airport that dumps you onto the doorstep of your vacation getaway, but you may pay dearly.
Fly into the nearest big airport (and bonus points if it's an airline hub) because even though you might have to drive an additional hour or two to get to summer fun, you might have even more fun with the money you'll save.
There are exceptions to the "bigger is better" rule; for example, there are four smaller airports near sprawling Los Angeles International -- Burbank, Long Beach, Ontario and Orange County -- and on a number of routes, these "little guys" have cheaper prices than larger LAX.
3. Failure to add up all the airline fees.
Two checked bags per person? Oh, please; on United and other airlines that would cost a family of four an extra $480 round-trip. Just one checked bag? OK, now we're down to a mere $200. I've said it before, I'll say it again: Use a carry-on. Think of the money you'll save, and think of the quicker airport getaways you'll make.
Oh, wait. Forget all that if you'll be traveling on Spirit or Allegiant. Both now have carry-on bag fees that can cost as much as $45 each way (if you check your bag at the gate). You absolutely have to take a sizeable suitcase? Then fly JetBlue or Southwest, the lone domestic airlines that'll still give you checked bags for free.
If you must check a bag and pay a fee, then fill up just one big 50-pounder for the entire family but don't cross over that magical poundage mark. On some airlines, the fee for an overweight bag is twice the price of checking a second suitcase.
4. Failure to follow TSA rules.
You might hate those airport security rules, but don't make a stand at the start of a trip or you could face major delays (or even get a cup of coffee hurled at you). You can always fill out a complaint form when you get home. Meantime, forget about bringing suntan lotion if the tube is more than 3.4 ounces. The same holds true for self-tanner if you'll be staying indoors. Bottles of wine are OK in checked bags but if your suitcase isn't hard-shelled, you might want to think twice about that.
And no weapons, please. TSA officers confiscated 24 loaded guns in a single week last month. In nearly every case, it's because the traveler "forgot" about it. The good news: You can take your iPad along without removing it from its case (that is, unless a TSA officer insists on having a closer look).
5. Failure to plan on delays
Summer thunderstorms in a single large city can easily snarl air traffic from coast to coast (case in point: the recent hail in Dallas that resulted in delays for days). It's always possible to get stuck in the airport for a while, so plan accordingly, especially if traveling with kids. Make sure you have fresh batteries and chargers with you, and something to keep the kids (and you) occupied with.
Air travel can feel like a maze -- with all those twists and turns and frustrations that await you -- so prepare like a seasoned traveler for any eventuality. That way, at your next dinner party, you'll be the one listening to the latest airline horror story, and not the poor soul recounting the tale.