Aug. 25, 2010 — -- 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).
Airline Checked Bag Fees
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.
Last week, both JetBlue and Sun Country advertised "all you can fly" deals good for a month's worth of flights. Will this work for you? A rule of thumb is, if you plan to take more than two coast-to-coast flights in a month, the answer is probably yes.
Also look for "all you can check" bag deals, such as United's ongoing special, which allows you two free checked-bags on every flight for a full year for under $250 (and this includes free bags for your traveling partners).
#4: Check Bags Without Paying Fees: How to get freebies.
You need a credit card, so why not use one branded by your favorite airline? Most will help you rack up miles, plus Delta's and Continental's cards give you free checked-bags. Only you know if the annual card fee is worth the number of bag fees you'd pay for in the course of a year.
Other options: fly JetBlue or Southwest and get bags for free, or do what I do and use a carry on. Bonus: you'll escape the airport a lot sooner than the checked-bag brigade.
#5: Save on Change Fees: Pay for standby instead (though this can be risky).
Not all airlines offer this, but American, for instance, allows you to change your ticket within 12 hours of your flight by paying a $50 standby fee (which sure beats the carrier's $150 "change fee"). Caution: this is only good for same-day flights, for the same itinerary. Also, if the airline has no empty seats, you're out of luck.
#6: Avoid Peak Travel Surcharges: Avoid the most popular days to fly.
An easy way to save but it gets a little tricky around the holidays when the airlines load up on designated peak travel days. So be sure to glance at a chart that shows dates without airline surcharges and fly then.
#7: Avoid Multiple Passenger Upcharges: Don't pay this unnecessary extra.
Traveling with a friend? Or a crowd? Taking the easy way out by purchasing all the tickets all at once can cost you.
I know this sounds crazy, but if you go online and request two tickets and the airline only has one ticket priced at $100 but it also has two tickets priced at $200 apiece, the system will not split your order; it will fulfill your request by giving you the two $200 tickets. So buy tickets one-at-a-time and pay a total of $300, or buy both at once and pay $400. Case closed.
#8: Use Technology: It will pick up savings you will probably miss.
You could spend your life eyeballing your computer for deals, or sign up for airfare alerts, and don't forget Twitter and Facebook. And attention iPhone users: we now have a real-time airfare alert app just for you.
#9: Save on Airfare: Shop Tuesdays through Thursday
An old tip but a good one: the cheapest fares are usually available during sale periods -- even from airlines that didn't begin the sales -- and this time frame is typically Tuesday through Thursday.
Saving on airfare gives you some wiggle room to splurge on that roomier aisle seat or early boarding (or both).
#10: Hope for an Internet-Worthy Incident (but do not instigate one).
JetBlue didn't have to do this, but they have pretty savvy PR and marketing folks, so when their flight attendant went viral by bailing from his plane via the emergency slide , the airline gave all those passenger a voucher worth 100 bucks.
Hey, I'll take my savings anywhere I can find them.
This work is the opinion of the columnist and does not reflect the opinion of ABC News.
Rick Seaney is one of the country's leading experts on airfare, giving interviews and analysis to news organizations that include ABC News, The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Reuters, the Associated Press and Bloomberg. His website, FareCompare.com, offers consumers free, new-generation software, combined with expert insider tips to find the best airline ticket deals.