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The Budget Travel Guide to Flying

By Daniel Bortz
January 10, 2019
An image of airport passengers moving qjuickly through a terminal
Robwilson39/Dreamstime
How to find cheap flights, pack right, breeze through security, and maximize your flying experience from start to finish.

Every day approximately 2,661,000 passengers fly in and out of U.S. airports, according to the Federal Aviation Administration. Some people love to fly; others hate it. Case in point: Americans skipped 32 million trips in 2016 because they hate flying, a U.S. Travel Association survey found. But regardless of how you feel about being cruising in the air, there are certain things you should know before planning your next flight.

Here, we present the Budget Travel Guide to Flying, a breakdown of how to buy cheap tickets, pack efficiently, speed through security, observe onboard etiquette, retrieve checked luggage efficiently.

1. How to Book a Cheap Flight

If you’re watching your bottom line, you might be wondering what the best day is to hit the “buy” button. Unfortunately, there really isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution. FareCompare CEO Rick Seaney says the best time book is Tuesday afternoon at 3 p.m., but the 2018 Air Travel Outlook Report from Expedia and the Airlines Reporting Corporation (ARC), which examined billions of data points to identify travel patterns, said it’s cheapest to buy economy flights (both international and domestic) on Sunday. Meanwhile, the most recent CheapAir.com Annual Airfare Study looked at 921 million airfares from 2.9 million trips and found negligible cost differentials from day to day, with average lowest fares within $2 of each other—a change of less than 0.6 percent.

The good news? Though you might not be able to predict price drops by day of the week, if you pay attention to the calendar, you should be able to find bargains. Look at the research and you’ll see there’s a consensus: travelers typically get the best prices by booking flights at least three weeks in advance. Indeed, CheapAir.com recommends booking within a window of 21 to 105 days ahead, depending on the season, with a domestic-flight sweet spot of 54 days before departure. The Expedia/ARC report also pushes for a long lead time, recommending that bargain-minded economy travelers book 30-plus days in advance for the lowest ATPs, and Skyscanner suggests a 21-day cut-off as well.

2. How to Pack Light

U.S.-based airlines collected a record-breaking $4.5 billion in baggage fees in 2017. Of course, one way to avoid getting hit with a baggage fee is to only bring a carry-on bag, since most airlines still let you bring at least one carry-on bag for free. But, if you’re the type of person who tends to over-pack, you’ll need to make some adjustments in order to consolidate all your stuff. We recommend our expert packing tips from Hudson + Bleecker founder Eram Siddiqui.

3. How to Sail Through Security

One of the quickest and easiest ways to speed through airport security: get TSA PreCheck (tsa.gov). For $85, a five-year PreCheck status can speed you through airline check-in and security even on peak days at busy airports (there are more than 450 PreCheck lanes at more than 200 U.S. airports). Frequent international air travelers may want to consider getting Global Entry (cbp.gov) instead; for $100, you can skip the line at Customs when returning to the U.S. through automatic kiosks at select airports. Another way to get through security faster? Review the TSA Prohibited Items to avoid getting your bag stopped at the X-ray belt. Pro tip: if you’re concerned about items not listed, simply send a question to AskTSA on Facebook Messenger or Twitter.

4. How to Follow Onboard Etiquette

Flying can be stressful, but there are ways to keep calm at 36,000 feet—and ensure that others around you do the same. Here are some basic rules to follow:

  • Don’t recline in economy. Coach is tight enough as-is. The average “seat pitch”—the distance between a point on one seat and the same point on the seat directly in front of it—has decreased from 35 inches in the late 1960s to 31 inches today, and on some airlines has been reduced to 28 inches. The morale: by not reclining, you’re being conscientious of the passenger sitting behind you.
  • The middle seat passenger gets the armrests. The middle seat debate over who is entitled to the center armrests has been waging for decades. However, proper social etiquette says the person in the middle seat is entitled to both armrests. Australia-based airline Jetstar, in fact, recently created a policy that declared both armrests are made for the middle seat passenger.
  • Shoes can come off—socks stay on. In a recent British Airways survey, 59% of flyers said they think it’s OK for passengers to remove their shoes on a plane, but an overwhelming 87% said removing your socks is a no-no.

5. How to Retrieve Your Luggage (and Deal With Lost Bags)

Want to efficiently pick up your checked bags? Don’t hog the belt in baggage claim. Leave about 3 feet of space between you and the belt so that other passengers can collect their luggage without pushing you aside.

Concerned about lost luggage? Don’t worry: statistically, just two or three out of every 1,000 travelers' bags will be lost or damaged, one LuggageHero survey found. But if you’re one of the unlucky few to have your luggage go MIA, file a report with the airline immediately, while you’re still at the airport. Don’t leave the airport until you have a copy for your personal records. You should get your money back for any fees paid to check a bag that goes missing, but you’ll probably have to advocate for a refund, so be prepared to make your case.

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6 Items That Will Help You Meet Your 2019 Goals

New year, new you—if only it were that simple. Resolutions are definitely easier to make than they are to keep, but we’ve found a few items that'll keep you on track, whether you’re packing a lunch to save money for upcoming adventures or trying to stick to a new routine while you’re on the road. 1. Plan Your Year (Courtesy ban.do) If you’re a Budget Travel reader, the odds are good that you’ve got trip-planning on the brain. Get excited for your upcoming travel with this super-cute analog organizer: With sections dedicated to dream destinations (think: cities to see, people to visit, food to try), plus packing lists, postcards, and stickers galore, you can sketch out the next few years with your own personal flair. Paradiso travel planner, $30; bando.com. 2. No More Hangovers (Courtesy Flyby) Did you wake up on New Year’s Day with a pounding head and swear, "Never again?" Next time, be prepared for a big night out: This liver-friendly supplement, rich with vitamin B, milk thistle, ginseng, and more, just might help you recover. Each little packet contains three capsules, so stash a few in your Dopp kit and order another round. Recovery supplements, $20; flyby.co. 3. Drink More Water (Courtesy OtterBox) Proper hydration can be a challenge when you’re on the move, so a serious drinking vessel is a must-have. This hefty 20-ounce tumbler boasts a copper lining that maintains cold temps for hours at a time, and its sweat-resistant design will keep things mess-free. Pair it with the straw lid for an additional $10, and leave it in your car for easy sipping on the road. Elevation 20 Tumbler, $30; otterbox.com. 4. Pack Your Lunch (Courtesy monbento) Packing a midday meal is a tried-and-true way to save a few bucks, but let’s be honest: It’s much less fun than eating out every day. Package it properly, though, and you’ll hardly miss the restaurants. This one is airtight and roomy, with two stackable, BPA-free compartments and an elastic band to keep everything in place. MB Original Porcelaine, $28 (discounted through 2/1/19; regularly $40); monbento.com. 5. Clean Up Your Act (Courtesy GO SMILE) If investing in self-care—and taking better selfies—is on your list, stash a set of these travel-friendly stain erasers in your bag for quick cleanup on the go, especially if you’re not planning on cutting out coffee or red wine anytime soon. (Hey, you can only do so much.) With cleaner teeth and fresher breath, you’ll improve your dental hygiene and cop a brighter smile. So go ahead, flash those pearly whites for the camera.GO SMILE Stain Erasers, from $14 for 14; ulta.com. 6. Focus Your Intentions (Courtesy Penguin Random House) Having goals is all well and good, but implementing them is what really counts. Get your thoughts in order and put your ambitions into practice with The Bullet Journal Method, a system devised by author Ryder Carroll that focuses on living intentionally. With a mission of encouraging readers “become mindful about how we spend our two most valuable resources in life: our time and our energy,” the method aims to help you accomplish more by concentrating on what’s important and paring back on the rest. Map out the next 12 months and learn new techniques for working through your to-do list, and by the time December rolls around, you’ll be sitting pretty.The Bullet Journal Method, $26; amazon.com.

Travel Tips

The 2019 Women’s March: What Every Traveler Should Know

We know that hundreds of thousands of you are considering making the trip to Washington, D.C., for the third annual Women’s March on Saturday, January 19. Read on for important logistical tips. And while the current partial federal government shutdown may not allow you to squeeze in visits to the Smithsonian and other cultural gems, which are currently closed, we do have the lowdown on three relevant places that are open that you may want to see before heading home. For in-depth information on planning your trip to the march, visit womensmarch.com/2019. Getting There Amtrak will be your best option for getting in and out of D.C., either for a day trip or a weekend stay. Trains arrive in Union Station, which is centrally located for getting to the march and other points of interest. Where to Stay At this point, D.C. hotels and home rentals will likely be booked up or pricey. If you’re planning to travel from the mid-Atlantic or Southeast, consider making it a (long) day trip; you can also try booking lodging across the Potomac in Northern Virginia or in nearby Baltimore (a destination in its own right). What to Bring to the March First of all, don’t bring your luggage—store it at your lodging or at Union Station. Do bring small backpacks and bags, packed with refillable water bottles (water stations will be available) and healthy snacks (nuts, dried fruits, whole grains) to help you power through the day. Do we really need to remind you to wear walking shoes? And, of course, dress in layers for the changeable weather in D.C. March Location and Schedule On Saturday, January 19, marchers can begin gathering at 10 a.m. on the National Mall between 12th and 3rd Streets. The march steps off at 11 a.m. The rally takes place at the Lincoln Memorial starting at 1:30 p.m. (don’t expect to get too close, but watch and listen from a distance like most marchers). There will be a Support Station set up at Constitution Gardens, north of the reflecting pool at 21st and Constitution Avenue NW, offering toilets, water stations, heating and medic stations, and a “lost person” tent. The rally is scheduled to end at 4 p.m. Public Transportation You can access the gathering location (on the National Mall between 12th and 3rd Streets) from several Metro stations, including Metro Center, Penn Quarter/Navy Memorial, L’Enfant Plaza, and Smithsonian Metro. The march organizers recommend the following Metro stations for leaving the rally: Smithsonian Metro, Farragut North (at 17th and K Street NW), and Farragut West (18th and I Street NW). If you plan to use the Metro the day of the march, buy a D.C. Metro card in advance at smartrip.wmata.com/storefront. Visit the National Museum of Women in the Arts If you wake up in D.C. on Sunday morning wondering what you could do to possibly top the experience of participating in the march, head to the National Museum of Women in the Arts (nmwa.org), the only museum in the world devoted entirely to women artists, with a permanent collection of more than 4,500 works by more than 1,000 women. Visit the Newseum After exercising your 1st Amendment right to free speech on Saturday, head to the Newseum (newseum.org) to educate yourself and celebrate our nation’s free press at this highly engaging, interactive museum dedicated entirely to the news. In addition to the permanent collection, there’s still time to catch “1968: Civil Rights at 50,” devoted to the year in which Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Kennedy were assassinated. Visit the Martin Luther King Memorial In West Potomac Park, next to the National Mall, the memorial to Martin Luther King, Jr., packs a powerful emotional impact any day of the year, but perhaps especially during the national holiday that honors him (Monday, January 21). The understated design of the civil rights leader’s sculpture and the presentation of some of his most inspiring quotes have made this spot one of the most photographed and cherished by visitors to Washington, perhaps especially those visitors who are dedicating themselves to fulfilling the promise of our nation’s founding principles.

Travel Tips

Airline Food: What You Need to Know

It’s happened to the best of us: You’re sitting 35,000 feet in the air and hunger takes hold. Like, uncompromising, I-just-ran-from-a-jaguar-caliber hunger. And the temptation to eat anything that passes through your field of vision is severe. That diet? That commitment to cut back on additives and processed food? Out the window. But it’s important to remember as the food lands on your seat-back tray that all airplane food is not equal. In the 2018-2019 Airline Food Study conducted by the Hunter College NYC Food Policy Center, Dr. Charles Platkin, the executive director and editor of DietDetective.com, undertook an exceptionally thorough investigation of 11 airlines’ food options, from snacks to meals, and provided the calorie count for each, as well as other bits of information, like the exercise equivalent for each calorie count, health ratings, prices, nutrition information, and even how transparent each airline is with nutrition information. He even includes which flights each option is available based on takeoff time and flight duration. Numbers Don't Lie Coming out on top is Alaska Airlines, with the study noting that “Alaska’s meals are now on the lighter, better, and healthier side, having gone from ‘Island hash’ and teriyaki chicken bowls, for example, to Fall Harvest Salad on coast-to-coast flights.” The airline, which helpfully lists nutrition information on its app, allows main cabin passengers to reserve food from 12 hours to two weeks prior to the flight. There were plenty of other interesting finds across the study as well. For instance, generally speaking, calorie counts have decreased. The average number of calories per menu choice in 2016 was 392, in 2017 it was 405 calories, and this year it dipped down to 373. American and Hawaiian Airlines have improved their offerings the most since the last study. On another happy note, the study noted that American and Delta serve complimentary meals in economy class on domestic flights, the likes of which haven’t been seen in over a decade. The Challenges of In-Flight Dining There’s a reason you get ravenous on a flight, even if you ate before takeoff. And even if the food might not look quite as inviting as a meal at a five-star restaurant, you’re likely to scarf it down nonetheless. Thing is, your body and your senses react differently to air at high altitudes than they do on the ground. For one, your senses are dulled, which means your taste buds need food that’s high in salt and fat for your brain to register feeling satisfied. It’s largely why tomato juice is so popular with flyers. Challenges abound when it comes to serving food a mile in the air. Top among them are the logistics of the cabin. The time and space constraints that flight attendants deal with, not to mention interruptions that turbulence or passenger issues could cause, make food prep and service far more challenging than they are in a kitchen on earth. Plus the trays and plates are small, and equipment isn’t exactly designed to the same standards as a restaurant. “Meat can be served medium-rare on a plane in flight, but if there’s turbulence, the hostess can’t get up and take it out of the oven at the right time,” Daniel Dilworth, director of Culinary Development for Danny Meyer’s Union Square’s catering business, told The New York Times in 2016 when Delta teamed up with the high-profile restaurant group to serve fine-dining-caliber meals in its Delta One cabin. “So it’s probably best just not to try to serve meat done to medium-rare.” Celebrity Chefs Pitch In Delta wasn’t the first airline to recruit a celebrity chef to get a leg up in the increasingly competitive market for first-class passengers. Air France distinguished itself a few years ago by getting Alain Ducasse to endorse several food and wine pairings in its elite cabins, while United Airlines partnered with Charlie Trotter to develop menus and worked with alumni of his restaurant after he passed away in 2013. These efforts to stand out are nothing new. Writing in The New York Times in 1973, longtime food journalist Raymond Sokolov notes that the competition—or “food wars,” as he calls it—began in 1962, when American collaborated with the famous New York restaurant 21 to develop first-class menus on cross-country flights: “Redchecked tablecloths, modeled after ‘21's’ napery, were used and the New York‐Los Angeles flight was dubbed Flight 21. Then TWA introduced its Royal Ambassador service. And then, in 1964, Eastern Airlines used famous Miami restaurants for its Captain's Table flights from New York to Miami. More recently, stewardesses have been set to tossing salads and carving steaks on carts. James Beard and Charles Chevillot have consulted with American (their casseroles were reportedly practical and delicious but not popular with steak‐loving passengers). And now United has hired Trader Vic.” There are certainly more celebrity chefs now than ever before, so time will tell who gets recruited to design a gourmet mile-high menu next.

Travel Tips

5 Mishaps That Made Me a Better Traveler

My best-laid plans went awry. And I'm glad. Ok, maybe I’m exaggerating just a little. But I can tell you that, this past July, I was forced to face some of my most nagging travel fears (what if… I miss my connection, my flight is canceled, my bank card stops working, my kid gets sick…) when all of them actually came true. Here, a few minor and not-so-minor disasters that made me a better traveler. 1. My bank card stopped working Yup. I tried to pay for lunch at a Boston Market in Oakland (long story, don’t judge), and the cheerful young woman behind the counter announced, “Oh, sorry, your card is invalid.” What I learned: I should have told my bank back in New York that I was going to be traveling in California. It turned out the bank blocked my California transaction as suspicious, but was easily able to unblock it. And I got to eat those delicious Boston Market mashed potatoes. 2. I was told I couldn't rent a car using a debit card Huh? I had plenty of hard-earned (and carefully saved) money in my checking account, yet I was being told I could not use my debit card to rent a car. What I learned: The dude at the rental counter was basically, um, lying. Or at least exaggerating to an unforgivable extent. Most rental car agencies (including the one we were using) will rent you a car using a debit card, but they first put a hold on the estimated rental total (days rented, distance you plan to cover), and may ask to see your flight itinerary to confirm that you’re actually taking the car where you say you are taking it. The process is a bit of a hassle for travelers and agency employees alike, which is why, I suppose, that dude flat-out lied to my face until pressed to tell the truth. 3. I missed a flight connection Sorry, but I hate layovers and connecting flights, mostly for the same reason you may hate them: My fear of a missed connection. I always imagined the missed connection leading to disaster, sleeping on an airport floor, sustained only by expensive airport food. What I learned: It turns out, at least in our case, dealing with our missed connection was as easy as stepping up to a friendly gate agent who re-ticketed us on the next available flight. (Psst: We were lucky enough to be flying Southwest, which deals with this kind of thing exceptionally well.) 4. My flight got canceled This one was not quite as easy to handle as the missed connection I just mentioned. We boarded a flight, the plane began taxiing toward takeoff, then the pilot slowed us down, stopped, and announced there was a mechanical problem and we’d have to get off the plane. Of course, I appreciated the pilot’s unwillingness to take to the skies with a broken plane, but I also knew the chaos that a cancelled or long-delayed flight would cause for every passenger onboard, and that our chances of making it home that day were fading with the afternoon sun. What I learned: Long story short, we walked away with $800 in vouchers for future flights on that airline. Our secret weapons were chocolate and patience (I know, Chocolate & Patience sounds like the name of a long-lost Noel Coward play). After an hourlong wait on a seemingly endless line to get re-ticketed, my wife offered the gate agent a chocolate bar. The agent smiled wearily and said, “Can you tell how much I needed this?” Although we did miss any chance of getting home that day, we were booked on a flight for the next morning and took home not only our happy memories of a vacation in Southern California but also those much-appreciated vouchers. 5. My child got sick an hour before boarding I know I risk sounding churlish when I admit that I really like flying alone, and the more traveling companions I have, the greater my anxiety. That goes for flying with my kids especially. It’s not that I don’t enjoy traveling with them, it’s that my tendency to catastrophize travel mishaps is perhaps at its most pronounced when it comes to the safety and happiness of my children. So, when one of my daughters admitted that she wasn’t feeling at all well shortly before we were scheduled to board a transcontinental flight, I panicked. My wife, however, remained calm and approached a gate agent, asking (politely) for any special accommodations to ease our child’s situation. What I learned: Telling airline professionals what’s wrong and asking for help is not the same as being a “doting parent,” (parents: please read the previous sentence aloud several times) and it is far better than keeping it to yourself. We were given “pre-boarding” privileges that allowed my child to get comfortably situated for a sleep-filled flight. Has a travel mishap ever taught you a valuable lesson? Share it in a comment below.

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