Hints and Secrets for Coping With the Airlines, Part 1

If you’re like me, you probably think that airlines have become something of a necessary evil. Yes, you have to rely on them to get you from point A to point B, but when problems crop up, the experience can cause tempers to rise to the boiling point. Flight delays, cancellations, strikes, apathetic employees, and now time-consuming security measures, can test the resolve of the most patient flyer.

Ron recalls a flight he and his wife were taking from Miami back to Colorado. When he suddenly realized that they didn’t have their tickets, he went to the ticket agent, who was less than amused and wanted to charge them a hefty fee for the inconvenience and paperwork that this would cause him. Despite Ron’s pleadings, the agent still wouldn’t budge. What to do? Ron followed one of his “rules of life”: “When in doubt, climb the ladder.”

In other words, a call to the airline’s toll-free number and a request to speak to a supervisor resulted in newly issued tickets with no fee. The ticket agent was not so happy, but as Ron likes to say (borrowing from Captain Kirk!), “I like to think that there are always options.” This is certainly true when it comes to airline travel.

In our combined years of traveling, we have come up with a number of tips on coping with the airlines. Here are some of them that we happily pass on to you.

• Begin your trip planning by calling the airline’s toll-free number and asking for the lowest possible price. Some airlines give it to you right away, while others make you ask nicely! A price quote for roundtrip airfare from Denver to Los Angeles in January, for example, was $463.50. When we asked the agent to “fare shop” the lowest available price on that route, she told us that if we left on a Tuesday or Wednesday and returned on one of those days as well, the price would drop to $381.50, a savings of $82.00. Other airlines might have other days that make their computer spit out a lower fare. Advance purchases (usually 14 or 21 days before you’d like to travel) may also factor into the equation. Don’t take the first answer as the gospel. Always ask for the lowest possible fare for your route, or to “fare shop” for the best price.

• If you can, be flexible. Vary your days and times of travel. Sometimes just modifying your date to include a Saturday night stay can lower your price.

• Compare. In the blink of a keystroke, Internet sites such as www.travelocity.com, www.sidestep.com, or www.smarterliving.com, can provide you with a good comparison of fares and schedules, right on-line.

• Check with smaller airlines that provide service to your destinations. Upstart companies like Jet Blue (www.jetblue.com) can save you up to 65% over larger competitors.

• Check nearby airports (at least when you’re fare shopping). Instead of flying from Denver, check on prices from Colorado Springs. Skip the busy Los Angeles International Airport and check on Burbank, Santa Ana (John Wayne), or Ontario. Forget Washington, DC’s Reagan National Airport or Dulles International and look at Baltimore-Washington International instead. You may find that you can save enough money for a rental car and hotel room if needed. And you may well be able to skip the crowds and commotion at the larger airports. Sites like Kayak.com and Sidestep.com offer alternative airport options.

•Enroll in frequent flyer programs. Ron and his wife have taken at least eight trips for free using their Mileage Plus awards from United Airlines. Carol recently flew to London and home from Paris on US Airways frequent flyer miles. Remember, however, that blackout dates may apply when and where you want to go (it’s unlikely, for example, that you’re going to be able to use your frequent flyer miles for a Christmas jaunt. And Hawaii may be much more difficult to get to than, say, Des Moines.) It pays to compare.

• Book the first flight of the day. The later you leave, the greater the likelihood of delays and cancellations.

•Check with consolidators for low-cost air travel. Historically, these companies have dealt only with international flights, but many have now started offering domestic fares as well. Websites such as www. lowestfare.com, www.cheaptickets.com, and www.flycheap.com, are all worth checking out.

Excerpted and adapted from the ebook “Fly Cheap, Stay Cheap, Travel Cheap” by Ron Stern.