Just about 6 million people fly every day, making lines longer and taking up the seat next to you on your flight. Despite all that air travel, we don't all love to fly. In fact, as many as 40 percent of Americans are anxious about it, but we can all make the experience a little easier on ourselves with a little planning ahead and a few expert tips [source: Baskas].
Smart travelers, for example, try to avoid passing through the most notoriously stressful airports whenever possible; in the U.S. those are Chicago O'Hare, Los Angeles International and John F. Kennedy International [source: Concur]. Stressful airports are those with the longest lines and the poorest customer service -- and you won't be impressed with the food or the cleanliness of the bathrooms, either. And did you know some airports are better than others if you're trying to make a connection? The best in the U.S., for instance, are Atlanta, Charlotte, Dallas/Forth Worth, Houston, Detroit, and Minneapolis/St. Paul [source: Creager].
Now that you know about the best airports, let's talk about the best way to navigate airport travel from booking to boarding, beginning with the best day of the week to fly.
Travel Midweek When Airports are Less Crowded
What day of the week you want to fly will determine how much you pay for your seat. Most often, you'll find the best fares -- for both domestic and international flights -- fall on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, the two most unpopular days of the week to travel. Think about it: Most people start their vacations on the weekends, and business travel booms on Mondays and again at the end of the week, leaving Tuesdays and Wednesdays for those who can be a little flexible with their schedule.
Smart travelers take advantage of that decreased demand for seats on Tuesdays and Wednesdays to score good ticket prices. By traveling on those days they get an additional perk: Fewer fellow passengers means shorter lines at the airport.
Use Expedited Screening Programs
If you're a frequent flier -- or just want frequent-flier perks -- consider looking into expedited security screening programs.
While only 7 percent of fliers were eligible for these programs at the end of 2012, more and new types of expedited screening options are currently being made available across more airlines and more airports [source: Stellin].
The Transportation Security Administration (TSA), for example, has a trusted traveler program, PreCheck. Membership in PreCheck is based on how risky you look to the TSA. Frequent fliers determined to be low-risk are allowed to stay full-dressed -- yes, that means you get to wear your belt and shoes -- and keep items such as liquids and your laptop packed in your carry-on bag while going through security screening.
Pre-approved fliers who travel internationally may qualify for expedited customs upon re-entering the U.S. through the Customs and Border Protection's (CBP) Global Entry (GE) program. CBP's GE program uses biometrics; every member's fingerprints are kept on file and used as verification to clear you through the security checkpoint in a snap.
CBP also runs other trusted traveler programs such as SENTRI (for travel between the U.S. and Mexico) and NEXUS (for travel between the U.S. and Canada).
You may qualify for expedited screening because of your age or your active military status, as well as your security clearance status rather than through a program. For example, seniors age 75 or older and kids age 12 and under may qualify for expedited screening just based on their age.
Know What You Can and Can't Carry on the Plane
Follow the 3-1-1 rule for packing liquids in your carry-on bag. That means each passenger may bring as many 3.4 ounce (or less) bottles of liquids, gels and aerosols that can be packed in one quart-sized, clear plastic zip-top bag -- 3 ounces, 1 bag, 1 person. Liquid medications, breast milk and baby formula are exceptions to this rule. Remember, water is NOT an exception to the 3-1-1 rule.
In addition to limiting liquids, TSA prohibits packing certain items in carry-on luggage. Don't pack explosives, flammable items, firearms and certain sharp objects in your carry-on bag. You'd be surprised what fliers hope to bring with them on their travel. TSA reports having found everything from loaded and unloaded firearms, live eels, a grenade launcher, even a coral-covered explosively viable cannonball (to be fair, the cannonball was in a checked bag) [sources: Berman, TSA Blog]. It's best to verify the current list of what's okay and what's not before packing. In March 2013, for example, small knives and some sporting equipment (such as hockey sticks and golf clubs) were added to the safe list, having been banned after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Some items are best packed in your check bags, shipped separately, or left at home.
Dress Smartly; Don't Wear Jewelry
There are rules and regulations for going through an airport security checkpoint, and what you wear can help determine if you sail through screening or are given a pat-down.
Let's talk about clothing first. You may be asked to remove any loose-fitting clothing, so don't pull on your warm sweater until you're at the gate or on the plane. Be smart when picking out accessories and jewelry; pack them or don't wear any. You'll be asked to remove any metal jewelry, along with scarves, hats, belts, coats, and jackets -- and you'll be asked to remove your shoes, so consider wearing a pair that slip on or are easy to remove, rather than those that have laces or buckles or are otherwise time consuming or fussy.
The TSA does allow passengers with head coverings and religious attire to wear it throughout the screening process, although additional inspection may be required.
Check in Online
You arrive at the airport, you're parked, you're ready to go, and ... you're waiting at the ticket counter. If it's within an hour or two of your flight, sorry, most airlines will make you check in at the ticket counter, which means waiting in those lines. But you can skip the whole thing if you check in online, which most major airlines will allow you to do within 24 hours of your flight's departure time.
When you check in online you can also -- and should -- print your boarding pass, or send a mobile boarding pass to your smartphone. That's another step done before you even set foot in the airport.
Arrive Early to the Airport
It used to be you could arrive at the airport about an hour or so before a domestic flight, and about two hours before an international one. That was plenty of time to print your boarding pass, pass through security and maybe have a snack before boarding your flight. It's now recommended air travelers give themselves more time at the airport. If you're flying domestically, plan to be at the airport at least 60 to 90 minutes before your flight is scheduled to depart, more if you're checking luggage. Some airports and airlines recommend even earlier airport arrival times, two hours or more, especially for international flights. Give yourself plenty of time.
Streaming a movie while you wait at the gate sure is convenient, but there are a few things to consider before you use airport WiFi -- not only when using your laptop but when using your smartphone or tablet, too. Airport WiFi is public WiFi, and public WiFi is unprotected. Don't send personal information while using public WiFi -- you risk losing your Facebook password or even banking information to a hacker. Always browse using a secure (SSL) connection, even when you're just checking your e-mail, and disable sharing.
Also remember to plan ahead. Some airports offer free WiFi and some will make you pay; some don't have WiFi at all.
Walk the (Security) Line
Even if you've packed your carry-on bag wisely and you're perfectly dressed for your security screening, there are still a few things you can do to get through the checkpoint more quickly and easily, and (hopefully) without holding up your fellow passengers or being selected for a pat-down.
First, have your boarding pass and your ID ready -- and ready doesn't mean still securely stored inside your bag. Have them in your hand. Acceptable forms of ID for U.S. citizens include, among others, a driver's license (or other state-issued ID card), passport or passport card, or military ID -- TSA maintains an online list of acceptable forms of ID.
Unless you're a member of an expedited security screening program, you'll be expected to remove your coat or jacket, your shoes, belt and any jewelry you might be wearing (remember, you can streamline this process even more by leaving jewelry and other accessories at home or packing them). Begin this process before you reach the security agent to avoid holding up your fellow passengers -- they don't want to wait for you and hundreds of other fellow travelers to tie and untie shoes. Additionally, your bag of liquids should be ready to be X-rayed. If you travel with your laptop, consider a checkpoint-friendly laptop bag, which eliminates the need for you to remove your laptop from your carry-on for screening.
Know Your Rights When Luggage is Lost
In 2012, about 1.8 million bags were damaged, lost, or stolen by major U.S. carriers. While that may seem like a lot of lost luggage -- it's roughly 1 bungled bag per 333 travelers -- it's actually 2.5 times less than the 4.5 million pieces of luggage that were damaged or lost five years prior [source: Yogerst].
Most lost bags are just delayed, usually accidentally loaded onto a different flight (maybe to your destination, but maybe not). However mishandled, a missing bag is a missing bag and there are a few steps you can take to help get your luggage back, or at least get reimbursed for damage or loss.
The most important thing to do when your bag fails to arrive at baggage claim -- or if it arrives damaged -- is report the problem to the airline. Don't leave the airport without filing a report (get a copy) and getting a phone number for follow-up. Also, don't be shy about asking for reimbursement for emergency costs. The airline representative is also likely allowed to cover some additional expenses you may have while your luggage is being tracked down, or can tell you how to go about being reimbursed for them later (each airline will have its own reimbursement rules).
Airlines will search for your luggage but it won't be fast. Expect to wait anywhere between a week to a month or more before your case is closed and your bags are either returned or declared officially lost. Expect more paperwork if your bag is determined permanently gone, this time to estimate the bag's value. Since 2009, the baggage liability limit (that's the maximum they'll reimburse you for a lost checked bag) is $3,300 per passenger traveling on a domestic flight and $1,500 per passenger traveling on an international flight [source: Yogerst].
Don't Stand in the Customer Service Line
Smart travelers use their smartphones as travel assistants. From your mobile screen, you can check your flight status, check your gate information and even check into your flight. And when problems arise -- which they will -- use your smartphone to solve the problem; don't stand in the customer service line.
Before you travel, make note of your airline's customer service number, and if you have a smartphone download airline apps not only for the easy check in but for easier customer service as well. While your fellow passengers wait for an agent at the customer service counter, you'll have faster access to help through your phone's browser, an app, or a call to your airline's customer service number. If you're flying through a major hub, chances are good that the airport has an app of its own, which comes in handy not only when you're trying to make a tight connection and need to figure out the quickest path from gate to gate but also when you need to quickly find alternative flight routes because your plane's been grounded.
Who's gonna get you the best hotel deal or tell you not to take that cruise during an outbreak of the latest super bug? A travel adviser, that's who.
Author's Note: 10 Travel-savvy Airport Tips
I was 6 years old the first time I ever flew, and it was in a four-seater Cessna with my brother, my father and his flight instructor. I loved it. A few years later I had my first experience with a major airport and airline, and a traveler was born. But over the years of air travel -- and all the changes that have come to pass -- I've developed a travel anxiety: not having enough time at the airport from curbside to gate, despite my best efforts.
More Great Links
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- Berman, Mark. "TSA regularly finds loaded guns, hand grenades and more." The Washington Post. 2013. (March 7, 2013) http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/dr-gridlock/wp/2013/01/28/tsa-regularly-finds-loaded-guns-hand-grenades-and-more/
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- U.S. Department of Homeland Security. "Join Frequent Traveler Programs." (March 7, 2013) http://www.dhs.gov/how-do-i/join-frequent-traveler-programs
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