Some random musings and thoughts about air travel, which I have been observing over the last couple of years of travel for work and pleasure. Your mileage may vary.
Flight Times and Arrival Times
There’s been a lot of chatter recently about the stated flight times from airlines and how they seem to be over stating them, which would naturally lead to an easier set of circumstances for being seen as more timely. My suspicion here is that this is less about ratings, and more about managing risk with the promises you make to customers.
In other words, this is about underpromising and over delivering. Most travelers rely on the estimated time of arrival, and care far less about the time of departure. And in my travels, I’d say only 20-30% of the time flights are actually late in boarding. What really matters is the time you are getting there (perhaps because people are picking you up, perhaps because you have a connecting flight, or perhaps because you have events that depend on a timely arrival). Either way, by far, arriving on time is the most important part of your flight estimate. But, with increasing traffic at airports, late arrivals for those on connecting flights, and just fewer planes to grab a spare one if the incoming flight was delayed — it’s a tough act to manage.
So yes, when the airline says the flight departs at noon and lands at 4pm, giving you a 4 hour flight time — but other sources say the actual flying time is 3 hours and 30 minutes — they aren’t playing a game to impress you with being early. No, rather, the airline knows that they will likely get you there by 4pm.
On the one hand, this is a bit maddening. On the other, it typically means you spend less time stuffed in that sardine can than you were prepared for. Either way, even when I take off late, it’s very rare that I land late. So it’s hard to complain about that. So next time your flight is Boarding late, don’t stress until the captain comes on the overhead to tell you when you’ll actually land.
Carry On Travel
I am a huge fan of carrying on my bags, and for a good 97% of the flying I do, I am carry on only. However, I don’t do it in the same way most people think, because for me ‘carry on’ means fitting your bag under the seat in front of you.
If you have to use the overhead bin for your carryon luggage, then I would suggest checking your bag. (I’ll get to avoiding those costs in the next section.) The biggest headache with travel right now is the battle for overhead bin space, and that adds a lot of stress to your travel. Also, if your bag is too large to fit at your feet, it’s going to be a real pain as you move through the airport with the bag.
So I don’t even mess with it. If I can’t take a GR1, and put it at my feet, then I pack a suitcase and check it. With the only exception to that being if I know I will need to be fairly mobile with my baggage upon landing (which is very rare when I am carrying that much stuff). Even then, you can check a backpack inside one of those clear plastic bags the airlines give you, and not worry about a thing.
Everyone knows that if you collect “miles” from flying you can exchange those for “free” flights (not really, I mean, nothing is free) and maybe even gain status. Gaining status is a pretty big deal, so my advice is to only fly one airline as much as possible (same advice with hotels, stay at the same chain as much as possible). I’d pick from the most dominant airline at your closest airport.
There’s another trick too, that’s Airline credit cards. If you get one of those you not only get free miles, but you often get other perks. For instance the Alaska Airlines Visa card (costs about $100 a year) nets you a companion ticket (buy one ticket full price, get another sometimes free, or for $109 — typically worth the price of the card and the fee), but this card also gets you free checked bags. As I mentioned above, if you have this, the card will pay for itself in checked bag fees and the companion ticket — the extra miles are another great perk too. Each airline typically has their own cards, and you usually get the most bonus miles for signing up if you do so on a flight.
I use three apps when I travel: the airline’s app, Apple’s Wallet, and App in the Air. The first two are self explanatory, but the latter is what I use for keeping track of all my schedules. You pay for a subscription, but it’s a fantastic tool. It offers views/maps of the local airport, and near real time alerts of changes to your flight status.
It’s typically faster to notify you than systems from airlines, and sometimes even when you are in the airport. I’ve been sitting at a gate before and received a notification that the gate changed, looked over and the gate sign is not updated. It wasn’t for another 10 minutes that the gate agent announced the change — I’ll never doubt that app again. It also tries to estimate security wait times, which is helpful if you have not flown out of that airport before. All in all, it’s my go to travel app.
Properly Breaking up a Flight Journey
Simple rule, I’ve learned the hard way: 2 equal length legs of a journey are far better than one long leg and one short one. If the entire world is conspiring against you, and you cannot get a non-stop flight, pick the one with the most equal durations of flying times and try to get a 2 hour layover. That’s enough to pee, stretch, eat, and not stress if your incoming flight is delayed. Also: it’s always better to fly in and out of larger airports as there’s far better food options.
They are vastly better then in years past. I used to hate TSA staff at security check points, but they are far better now. The rules are largely the same, and often a bit arbitrary, but it’s been quite some time since I ran into someone at TSA who made the trip worse. Low bar, but it’s something.
Clear and Pre-Check
TSA’s Pre-Check program used to be a great hack at the airport to move through security much faster. But I’ve been to plenty of airports now where the Pre-Check line is significantly longer than the standard line.
This is in part because there are fewer pre-check screening stations open, but also partly because tons of people have Pre-Check now. There’s still benefits to it as you generally don’t need to undress and then go through a nudey-scanner, but again low bar. That said, I still prefer Pre-Check even if the line is longer, but there’s another trick.
Clear is pretty sweet. My dad added me to his Clear family plan a little while ago, and it’s really nice. With Clear you still will want Pre-Check, but what it does is allows you to skip to the front of the Pre-Check line. The routine is fast too, you walk up, scan your finger prints (or iris, but I’ve yet to have to do that), then a Clear Agent walks you to the front of the Pre-Check line (where the TSA person is checking your ID and boarding pass) and you flash your boarding pass at the TSA agent and walk through. It’s been quite some time since I’ve spent more than 10 minutes in a security line. Love it. Clear is at limited airports, but worth it if your home airport is Clear.
Traveling a lot you get your go to food down. I tend to never arrive at the airport at a normal meal time, and since I don’t want my body completely out of whack, I tend not to eat at the “wrong” time. So my go to is to grab a turkey sandwich which is pretty safely at every newsstand store in Airports, and a bottle of water (never drink water on an airplane). Those two things will get me through the flight without an issue, and the sandwich won’t stink to high hell and annoy those sitting near you. They also produce the least amount of garbage which you’ll have to deal with on the plane — and have yet to cause me an upset stomach.
Specific Observations of Airlines
In the past year I’ve flown three airlines, here’s my thoughts on each:
- Alaska: this is my preferred airline by a large margin. It has a massive hub in Seattle, and good flight times. They are fast and efficient with how they board planes. They have a Premium class which gets you free booze and a little snack box, and gobs of extra leg room. However, it can be pricey to sit in, and unless you have MVP status with them, they don’t open all those seats up for sale. And if you want a first class ticket, it’s nearly impossible to get without MVP status on the airline — yes even if you are paying.
- United: Fuck these guys. At least they don’t reserve first class for their status customers, but they almost are always late. And seriously, last resort airline — and I say that having flown Spirit airlines and I gotta say it would be a toss up for me which I’d rather fly.
- American: I’ve only had one trip with them and one flight was late and that caused me to dash across the Charlotte airport to catch my connecting flight. So that was annoying. However, they do something interesting with their premium-but-not-first-class seats: if you don’t pay for them, you don’t get them. What I mean here is that if there are standbys on United or Alaska, they will seat those people in the premium seats to fill the plane. This makes sense. American appears to not do this, as I saw a standby list, saw the main cabin full (this is on two flights) and yet premium was sparsely occupied. This was great as one leg I got an entire row to myself, the other leg the middle seat was not occupied. Good stuff, still prefer Alaska though.
I hope that helps someone.