Sept. 23, 2013 -- A flight attendant with a U.S. legacy carrier once told me, "I wish more passengers would say hello or even smile," adding, "It doesn't cost anything." Not taking sides here since a lot of flyers I know claim cabin crew members never smile at them!
But let's focus on the free smiles. Keyword: free.
Even though we are half-a-decade into the Fee Generation where every little extra comes with a price tag, you can still get a few old and new perks for nothing. Here's a list of freebies along with some context for proper perspective:
1. Miles club memberships
These aren't the magical programs they used to be but they're not dead yet and if you fly a lot you still earn great freebies like upgrades, early boarding and zero-fee checked-bags. Fly a whole lot and you might even get a free flight or two.
You don't fly much? Join anyway. It's free and you might be surprised at how quickly the miles from unexpected trips and airline-branded credit cards can add up. And depending on your airline, you can always donate miles to charity or use them to buy flowers for Mother's Day (United) or get that Belgian waffle maker you've had your eye on (Delta).
2. Free bags
Hard to believe but two U.S. airlines still offer free checked-bags: JetBlue (one) and Southwest (two). How long will it last? No one at these airlines is saying one way or the other so enjoy it while you can. Enjoy the free carry-on baggage, too which is still available on most airlines but that's trending in the other direction thanks to carry-on fees slapped on by Allegiant, Frontier (in some cases) and Spirit.
3. Free nanny service
File this under 'whimsical' but Mideast-based Emirates seems to think the idea of flight attendants wearing aprons full of crayons will lure customers. Yes, but can they do potty-training?
4. Free drinks
I'm not talking about alcoholic beverages; as far as I'm aware, no airline ever says "Drinks are on the house" unless it's a very special occasion (or a very long delay). Actually, I can think of another exception; back in the early days of Southwest, they tried to lure business travelers with free bottles of booze. Worked like a charm.
But forget cocktails; how about free Cokes and coffee? Don't say that's nothing; Starbucks charges nearly two bucks for a plain cup of java and McDonald's dollar menu, which includes some soft drinks, is currently testing higher prices. A penny here, a penny there, it all adds up and you'll see what I mean next time you fly Spirit or Frontier and are forced to ding your Visa for a small bottle of water.
5. Gourmet treats
There's more to in-air dining that noshing on nuts. Okay, not much more, unless you're in first or business class, but how does "Europe's favorite cookie" sound? People have raved about the free Biscoff cookies on Delta for years now and recently American's been serving them as well.
I like them too so I'm willing to overlook that these gourmet treats are also available at your local Safeway and Wal-Mart and that if you read the fine print on the label, you'll see these that at least some of these "European" delicacies are made in the U.S.A.
6. Free entertainment
Free TV. This should warm the hearts of anyone who can still remember pre-cable days (sure, you only got three channels but you didn't spend hours waiting for the cable or dish guy). There's always something to watch on JetBlue and Virgin America seatback screens even if you don't want to pay for the football game, and other airlines like Frontier are adding more TV and movies. The legacy carriers have some catching up to do in economy but there's movement there, too.
Maybe the latter should follow Southwest's lead and start streaming free live TV. The only drawback is Southwest has no screens so if you don't bring your own electronic device you don't get to watch.
7. Roomier seats
Many airlines today make you pay more for a measly extra inch or even aisle and exit rows seats (unless it's getting real close to departure time and they've had no takers). The good news is on some airlines, all seats are a little roomier than the usual and this includes JetBlue and Virgin America. One reason these two always seem to have more of the good stuff is because both are relatively young airlines, with youthful planes.
Check out an airline seat guide before you fly and you might discover you too can be sitting pretty for free.
8. Freedom to fly
Not so long ago, flying was only for the rich. That is no longer true. A great example is the cost of a flight from Baltimore to San Juan, Puerto Rico. This Caribbean jaunt costs less than $280 round-trip today but back in 1965 Pan Am charged a hefty airfare (adjusted to today's dollars) of $906.
See? There is something to smile about.