I’m not a travel expert (not even close), but what I can say with absolute certainty is that I know my way around airports and airline websites.
I grew up with a love for airports (weird, I know) and airplanes, and I feel fortunate to be able to view airplanes as a vehicle that takes me to somewhere new, rather than a vehicle that takes me away from my family, etc. I know that there are a lot of issues with planes and that for some, flying elicits negative emotions. That is a very real situation for some, and it’s important to recognize that. But for me, no matter how many cancelled flights or cramped seats there were, airplanes and airports held a special place in my heart. Being able to get myself from one place to another, on my own, is such a good feeling. The independence is empowering.
These days, the magic has worn off some. After traveling between California and Colorado at least five times a year for college, and now making those trips for only 2-3 days at a time, flying has started to become more about getting me from A to B rather than an exciting event on its own.
But no matter how much flying feels like a “waiting room,” I’m thankful for my experiences and all that they’ve taught me. Which is why I’d like to share what I’ve learned with all of you, in case you find it helpful.
I’ve only been out of the country three times (including being born in another country), so I’m not really familiar with international travel. But domestic travel? Here are some tips and tricks I learned along the way for domestic travel only, mostly based on my experiences flying through Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), Bob Hope Airport in Burbank (BUR) and Denver International Airport (DIA):
How to book: I like to compare my options so it usually takes me awhile to decide on a flight. I look at Expedia, Kayak, and Southwest’s website because Southwest flights don’t show up on the first two. I tend to search for flights one at a time rather than “roundtrip” because it’s easier for me to understand the costs that way. I also search for flights while in an “incognito/private” browser. I’ve heard that websites track what flights you’re looking at and then up the prices. I’m not sure if that’s actually true, but I don’t want to risk it.
When to book: There’s never a “right” time to book but sites like Expedia and Kayak will usually give you tips like “you should book now” or “prices are expected to drop.” My best advice is to monitor the various booking sites once you know when/where you want to go. If you see flights keep increasing, that may mean it’s time to book now. I’ve heard that flights are cheaper on Tuesdays and after holidays too. Whatever you do, just know that there is such as thing as booking too early and booking too late. Booking super early isn’t always the best deal.
In terms of international flights (the one place in this article that I’ll mention them), I don’t have any plans to go abroad but I like to dream, so I’m on the email list for Scott’s Cheap Flights. There’s a guy named Scott who spends his days scouring the internet in search of cheap flights to various international destinations. When there’s a good flight, he emails all of his subscribes saying which airlines, what cities you’d depart from/arrive in, and how long he thinks the cheap prices will last. If you ever decide to travel abroad and aren’t picky about the month you want to travel, Scott’s your man for knowing when to book!
Which airline to book: Most of my experiences have been with Southwest Airlines and the occasional Spirit flight, but I’ve also had a few flights on American Airlines, United, Frontier and Alaskan.
Why Southwest: Southwest is my favorite. I’m sure the deals for Southwest vary depending on where you’re flying to/from, but for my trips from CA to CO, Southwest is the best! You get comfort at a reasonable price. Unless you pick the fancier tickets, all flights are nonrefundable. BUT you get flight credit if you change/cancel your flight, and if you’re someone like me who travels every year, then having this credit “for a rainy day” isn’t an issue. The credit is good for up to one year. They even let you cancel your flight (and get flight credit) up to 10 mins before the flight takes off (or at least that’s what it was like when I last checked). My favorite hack is to book a flight on Southwest and then check back to see if that flight dropped in price. If it did, I will rebook the same exact flight and I end up getting credit toward my next flight. In the end you’re still paying the same amount towards flights, but at least this way you have some flexibility in your travel. Southwest also has a great deal for bags. Free personal item, carry on and two checked bags. That’s right, two checked bags for free! This is how I was able to make the big move to college in CA from my home in CO.
Why Spirit: If you’re looking for a plane to get you from A to B for the cheapest price, head on over to Spirit Airlines. They promise to get you there, but that’s all. Their most basic fare is called “bare fare” for a reason. With their bare fares, there are hidden fees around every corner. To avoid all hidden fees: let them randomly select your seat at check-in, choose to check-in online and print your ticket at home (they charge you at the airport to check-in and/or print your pass), only bring a personal item (carry-on bags aren’t free) and don’t order any food/drink (including water!). If you’re thinking to yourself, “well that doesn’t sound that great,” you’re right! BUT for all of those “don’ts,” there’s one big reason why Spirit is worth it: cheap, cheap flights. Only on Spirit have I been able to get an $85 round trip flight from CA to CO, whereas Southwest usually costs $80 one way. Spirit gets a lot of bad reviews online but a lot of the time that’s because customers go in expecting more than they should’ve.
Why United, Alaskan, American Airlines or Frontier: Frontier is based out of Colorado so their flights tend to be better when flying to/from Colorado. In my experience, Alaskan seems to have the best deals when flying to/from the Pacific Northwest. When you get down to the nitty gritty details, there are differences between these airlines (see below), but for the most part all of these airlines seem similar to me and seem interchangeable.
Which flight to book: This all depends on your personal preferences. Do you like early mornings or late nights? Most of the cheapest flights are at the extreme early/late times. Do you prefer nonstop or are you okay with layovers that may include changing planes? I prefer nonstop flights but if you’re going to pick a flight with a layover, make sure there’s enough time to get from flight to flight to avoid a missed connection.
The packing process is completely up to you and your preferences. Some people pack way in advance, others pack the day before (or even day of). Whatever floats your boat! But there are important things to pay attention to such as bag size and weight limitations, how many bags you can bring for free, and what you can bring in the bags (mostly applies to carry on).
Personal Item: Generally a purse or backpack. Size limitations vary so check your airline’s website beforehand.
Carry On: Not all airlines allow free carry-ons so be sure to check up on that, as well as the airline’s size policy. In terms of what you can and can’t bring, TSA has all of the info on their website. It’s pretty entertaining to see what you can and can’t bring. TSA has thought of everything! For liquids, all items must be less than 3.4 oz. You can buy travel size containers at Target and dollar stores and fill them up with your shampoo, toothpaste, etc. but the complimentary bottles in hotel bathrooms also work well. Empty film canisters too! All of your liquids must be able to fit in a one quart bag. And I always bring an empty water bottle that I fill up once I’m through security so that I avoid paying for water. There’s a lot of bags out there that are carry-on sized approved. Most bags will list it. But it’s important to check the sizes with a measuring tape just to be safe, especially if you’re using a bag that’s not a traditional carry-on such as a backpacker’s backpack. I’ve used the REI Flash 60 Pack before and it’s worked great!
Checked Bags: Unless you’re flying on Southwest, you will most likely have to pay for your checked bags. Weight is especially a factor here, so be sure to monitor how heavy your bags are getting. This is both a safety for you and the airline employees who are loading your bag onto the plane. There are two ways to weigh: 1. weight yourself on a scale without the bag and then weight yourself with the bag, then calculate the difference. 2. buy a luggage scale.
You can check in for your flight 24 hours in advance. If you already have a seat reserved on your flight, you can rest easy and check in whenever you want. Just remember to check in! But if your seat isn’t reserved, you may want to check in as soon as you can. For airlines where you seat is randomly selected at check-in, your seat assignment will shop up on your boarding pass once you’re checked-in. But for Southwest, all seats (aside from First Class etc.) are picked once on the plane. It’s important to check-in as soon as you can so that you get an earlier boarding number. The earlier you’re on the plane, the more likely it is that you’ll get a seat you want.
Saving your boarding pass: You always have the option to print your boarding pass, both at home and at the airport. Warning, Spirit charges you if you do it at the airport! These days most airlines also offer mobile boarding passes which you can access/use through your phone’s internet or Apple’s Wallet (essentially a digital wallet) if you have an iPhone. I usually do the latter.
“Congratulations! Today is your day. You’re off to Great Places! You’re off and away!”
Contrary to what Dr. Seuss says, traveling can be quite stressful if you’re not prepared. Even when you’re prepared, it can be stressful. But if you keep traveling, you’ll be a pro in no time.
Check the status of your flight: Always check. Weather in your area, in the area you’re heading to, or in the area your plane is coming from on its previous flight can all affect your departure times.
When to arrive at the airport: I try to get there 1.5 hours before the flight takes off. You can usually expect the flight to begin boarding about 40 minutes prior to take off, but getting there even earlier ensures that you have time to get through security and find your gate. DIA even has a handy place on their website that shows you what the security wait times are like.
Note about car parking: I try to get a friend or my boyfriend to drive me to/from the airport, but sometimes that isn’t an option so I use Uber and Lyft when the prices are reasonable, and occasionally shared shuttles such as Super Shuttle and Prime Time (Prime Time is only available in CA). Shuttles must be reserved in advance and you must designate a pick up time (from your house or from the airport). If getting the shuttle at the airport, the pick up time just the earliest time you might get to the airport curb to be picked up. If getting the shuttle at your house, etc. to head to the airport, the pick up time is the exact time the shuttle will aim to get there. There are also times when I need to leave my car at the airport, especially for trips where I go to the airport after work on a Friday and fly back on a Monday before work. I don’t have much experience with parking my car at airports but I’ve enjoyed my two experiences with the LAX parking at the Marriott LAX. You reserve ahead of time and have the option for a covered spot or a non-covered spot. I went with the non-covered spot since it’s cheaper. Regardless, I think the prices are reasonable with this hotel. If going with un-covered, when you get to the parking lot, you have to find an empty spot (spaces aren’t reserved). It’s important to allow a little extra time so that you don’t feel rushed trying to search for a parking spot. If for some reason you can’t find a spot, tell one of the Marriott employees and they will valet you car for free (or so I’ve heard). Once parked, there’s a shuttle that (despite what negative reviews say) comes every 10-15 minutes to take you to the airport.
Security: At DIA, the bridge security that takes you to Concourse A is usually faster since not as many people know about it. From Concourse A, you can take the train to get to another Concourse. Have your boarding pass and license ready. Be prepared to take out your liquids and large digital devices, and take off your belt/shoes/bulky jackets. Any computers, tablets, big cameras etc. go in their own bin. Some of TSA’s approved items can still look sketchy on a scanner, so if you think one of your items may get flagged, it’s better just to pull it out of your pack ahead of time and place it in its own bin. Some of the things I’ve brought that looked suspicious: bundle of Christmas lights (a bundle of wires looks suspicious!), loaf of zucchini bread (looks like a big block on a scanner), and a box of beignet mix from New Orleans (they had to make sure the mix wasn’t opened/laced with anything). I also tried to take an unopened package of a Nerf gun and Nerf darts in my carry-on for a Christmas gift to a friend but they made me throw that away. For all other Christmas gifts, don’t wrap them before flying because a wrapped package could contain anything.
Once through security, always double check your gate and departure time.
Note about stand-by: I’ve only done it once so I don’t have any tips. I do know that I felt more at ease because I only had a carry-on with me. I would feel more stressed if there was a chance I made it on a flight through stand-by but my bag didn’t.
Note about giving up your seat: Most flights overbook. In the hour leading up to a flight, some flights will announce that they’re overbooked and are offering flight credit to anyone who gives up their seat. If you’re not in a hurry to get to your destination/can afford to get there a little off-schedule, then this is a good deal. Some airlines may offer up to $500 in credit PLUS a seat on the next flight out for no additional cost. Who can beat that?!
Once your flight is over, follow the signs to Baggage Claim. Even if you don’t have checked baggage, the baggage claim area is where the exits of the airport are. If picking up a checked bag, be sure to check the tag to make sure it’s yours. Many suitcases look alike these days. I found it helpful to put colorful yarn on my suitcases so that I could tell them apart.
At this point, the most hectic experience may reside with the person picking you up. Navigating airport traffic is tricky and sadly the only tip I have is to just sit back and take it slow, especially LAX. LAX is a nightmare. If you’re taking a Lyft or Uber from LAX, they only pick up from the Departure Level at various stops in between terminals (Terminal 1 and 2 has a stop in between, Terminal 3 and 4 have a stop, etc.). Another reason for going to the Departures area to be picked up is if the Arrivals area is even crazier than normal. When I fly home to CO before the holidays, my mom likes to pick me up at the Departures level since most travelers will be headed toward the Arrivals level.
Flying doesn’t have to be stressful and it doesn’t have to be an inconvenience. Take the time to know what you’re getting into, make sure your bags meet all the requirements, and bring along items to entertain yourself with. Yes, you’ll be in the same (sometimes cramped) airplane seat for awhile but you also have a chance to sit and read, catch up on work, draw, watch a movie, etc. How often do you get a chance to do this? On an airplane, you are forced to stay in the same place for awhile so you might as well enjoy it. Who knows, you might see a great sunset or sunrise too:
If you have any more tips and tricks, I’d love to hear about them!