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The Budget Travel Guide to Flying

By Daniel Bortz
September 29, 2021
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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Travel Tips

How to Fly With Just a Carry-On

In an era of airline cutbacks, overbooked flights, and delays, delays, delays, there’s a long list of reasons why traveling with only a carry-on is preferable to checking a bag: Your luggage stays in your sight, so there's less risk of loss or damage; you won’t have to jump through hoops to retrieve your belongings if you miss your connection and get stranded overnight; it’s less expensive (no checked-bag fees!); and you'll save the time otherwise spent at baggage claim. Of course, if you’re a food and beverage connoisseur, you may find yourself checking a bag full of goodies for your return leg, but whether you’re aiming to avoid overweight baggage charges or keep your gear close at hand in the overhead bin, our tips will have you zipping through those security scanners in no time. 1. Prepare to Rewear First things first: Check the weather where you’re headed, count the number of days you’ll be away, and tally up how many outfits you’ll need. Will you be doing a lot of walking, hiking, or working out? Will you have to change into something nice for dinner? Does your hotel have a pool? Pack twice as many pairs of underwear and socks as you think you’ll need, and plan to mix and match a capsule collection of basics for everything else. Undergarments aside, you can rewear pretty much anything at least twice, especially if you manage to avoid spills and stains. (A travel-size laundry kit will help if you’re accident-prone.) Shoes and bulky top layers take up the most space, so pick a few items you absolutely have to have and work around them; some hotels will provide workout gear, including sneakers, for a nominal fee, so do your research before you leave. Wear the things that take up the most space on the plane, and always, always pack a swimsuit. You just never know. 2. Pick the Proper Personal Item If you’re traveling in basic economy, you probably won't have the luxury of overhead-bin space, and your carry-on will have to fit under the seat in front of you. In that case, we recommend a slim backpack with a 24-liter capacity or less—Cotopaxi’s Nazca pack and Timbuk2’s Never Check Expandable pack are both good options. If you're a light packer, a sleek little underseater is all you need, and Delsey makes a nice one. If you’re in plain old economy class, though, you can stash your rollaboard overhead and use your personal item as another packing tool. Pro-tip: Stash toiletries at the top of your bag where you can easily pull them out for screening, and group food items together so you won’t have to repack completely if and when those organic materials trigger the scanner. 3. Don’t Sweat the Liquids Rule Technically, the TSA’s 3-1-1 mandate—as many 3.4-ounce bottles as you can fit in a clear, plastic, quart-sized bag—is still in place, but you can usually get by with keeping your liquids in a regular Dopp kit or toiletries bag instead of a ziplock, as long as the bottles themselves aren’t larger than the prescribed 3.4-ounce volume. If you’re attached to your daily routine, decant large bottles of product into smaller travel-sized ones, or pick up what you need once you land; if you’re not, rely on your hotel or Airbnb to provide passable alternatives for the length of your stay. To streamline your kit even further, consider solid perfumes and facial bar soaps or wipes instead of liquid versions. 4. Shop Accordingly on the Ground It’s hard to resist a good souvenir shop, and honestly, you shouldn’t have to—mementos are a great way to remind you of experiences and adventures past. We highly recommend bringing at least one reusable, packable bag for the treasures you pick up on the road, and/or traveling with enough room in your suitcase to accommodate potential purchases. (We know of at least one shopaholic who carries a mostly empty suitcase for just that reason). If space is at a premium and you can’t cram anything else into your carry-on, plenty of stores will ship purchases back for you; if you’re going big and your suitcase is exceptionally heavy, sending it home with a mailing service like Luggage Free instead of paying the airlines’ overweight baggage fees may make more sense. Just be sure to run the numbers before you buy out the store, as costs vary based on where you’re going and what carrier you’re flying with.

Travel TipsProduct Reviews

The Best Neck Pillows for Every Kind of Traveler

Anyone who’s impulse-bought a seemingly suitable neck pillow just before boarding a redeye, only to discover midway through the flight that it’s a glorified beanbag, knows that the proper structure and support can make or break a long-haul flight. Functionality is key: First and foremost, you need to keep your head upright (too much bobbing up and down, and you’ll wake abruptly; leaning too much to one side or the other, and you’ll wake with a cricked neck). But portability and design are also important. We like models that don’t take up too much space in your bag, or come with a case that attaches to your carry-on—you don’t want something that’s going to be up against your face coming into contact with those notorious airplane germs. Comfort is subjective, but whether you’re a side-sleeper or someone who wants to feel cocooned in their seat, our picks will have you deplaning well-rested and refreshed, ready to take on that next adventure. 1. The Standout (Courtesy Cabeau) With firm memory-foam padding up to the ears, a cool, quick-drying fabric cover to keep you from overheating in fluctuating cabin temps, adjustable chin straps for a customized fit, and more straps that attach to your seatback to keep it all in place, Cabeau’s Evolution S3 pillow is our pick of the bunch. At just under 12 ounces, it’s slightly heavier than the others we tried, and the extra level of padding makes it difficult to use with over-ear headphones, but it easily rolls up to a quarter of its size to fit inside the included travel case—and at six inches wide by five-and-a-half inches high, it’s not a problem to find space for it in your bag (and it won’t be in the way if you decide to attach it to your suitcase, either). It even has a zippered pocket for keeping small essentials, like lip balm or eye drops, close at hand. Grade: ACabeau Evolution S3 Travel Pillow, $40; amazon.com. 2. The Utilitarian One (Courtesy Travelrest) A close runner-up, Travelrest’s thermo-sensitive memory-foam pillow may look like your standard, u-shaped model, but this version provides substantial cushioning without making you sweat, even with a plush velour cover. This well-padded headrest has an angled back that won't force your head forward, and a Velcro tab under the chin that allows you to adjust the fit, which does give it a bit of a doctor-prescribed cervical collar feel. But that's not necessarily a bad thing, given the quality construction and level of support. It comes with a set of earplugs and a small bag to carry it in, but our tester had trouble cramming the stiff foam into the little sack from her seat in coach, where the elbow room is nonexistent. Grade: A- Travelrest Ultimate Memory Foam Travel Pillow, $40; amazon.com. 3. The Cozy One (Courtesy BCOZZY) This one may require some personal adjustments (our tester found it a bit tight at first), but once you’ve figured out the best way to wrap it around your neck, get ready for some solid Zs. With a cushiony filling that keeps your chin from dropping mid-nap and a soft microfleece fabric on one side and microsuede on the other, the BCOZZY pillow is best for overnight flights, or those lasting six hours or more: Though it has a Velcro strap that’ll attach to your carry-on handle, it’s bulkier than other neck pillows and doesn’t really squish down much. If you prefer to stash it in your tote, it’ll occupy substantial real estate—and for shorter trips, the space-comfort trade-off may not be worth it. Grade: B+BCOZZY Chin-Supporting Travel Pillow, $30; amazon.com. (Budget Travel readers receive 20% off with coupon code BUDGETTRAVEL, good through April 15, 2019.) 4. The Compact One (Courtesy Trtl) When you’re committed to traveling light, the Trtl pillow is a good bet. It folds to take up the least amount of room in your bag, and its scarf-like style offers a unique form of support: Instead of bracing your head at 360 degrees, a fleece-covered plastic insert nestles into the side of your neck to prop you up while you snooze, and the fabric wraps around to secure it snugly in place. Our tester had a hard time finding a comfy fit, but we’ve heard from others that they won’t fly with anything else. (The company recommends experimenting before you travel and suggests this video with tips on how best to wear.) It’s ideal for those who lean to one side or the other while they sleep, so if your head tends to roll around a bit, this may not be the model for you. Grade: BTrtl Pillow, $30; trtltravel.com.

Road TripsTravel Tips

Summer Road Trip Forecast & Tips

If you’re planning to take a family vacation in 2019, you’re in good company: A recent AAA survey predicts that nearly 100 million Americans (that’s about 4 in 10 adults) are planning to do the same. With that data in mind, AAA shared some stats, know-how, and trip inspiration that every Budget Traveler should know. By the Numbers According to AAA’s survey, two-thirds of family travelers will take a summer getaway, with more than half of them planning to make that getaway a road trip. One factor that’s inspiring travelers to plan road trips and scenic drives is the lower cost of gas, down about one quarter compared with last year. Gas prices are expected to rise, but remain lower this summer than last. AAA reports that a third of Americans surveyed said they would add another road trip to their summer plans if gas prices stay down, Planning Your Route “To make the most of their vacations, AAA recommends families plan and research as far ahead as possible to avoid missing out on popular activities and fun,” says Stacey Barber, executive director, AAA Travel Information & Content. Budget Travel has been covering great American road trips for more than 20 years, and offers a wealth of itineraries and advice. It turns out, AAA’s top routes for summer travel (according to AAA member road trip routing data) align very much with some of Budget Travel’s all-time favorite U.S. road trips, including the National Parks of the Southwest, the Pacific Coast Highway, the Blue Ridge Parkway, and the mountains of New England. READ: 5 Perfect U.S. Road Trips Tips for a Successful Family Road Trip We also echo AAA’s common-sense road trip tips, which you can start implementing as early as, well, right now, to ensure a smooth summer excursion: Pack smart. Bring books, games, and music, information on your destination, and healthy snack. Stay safe. Stop every 100 miles, or every two hours, to help stay alert. Make sure all passengers are safely wearing seatbelts or sitting in child safety seats. Be patient. Be prepared to hit traffic, and reduce your chance of delays by hitting the road earlier or later than most drivers, especially on holiday weekends. Map out your route. Sure, GPS is awesome, but it’s always best to map out your route in advance, including reliable lodging, restaurants, and gas stations, especially if you’re traveling a relatively remote area where you may lose cellular service for a time. Get your car ready. Have your car inspected and tuned up, carry a flashlight, extra batteries, flares or reflective triangle, jumper cables, a first-aid kit, and plenty of water.

Travel Tips

How to Do Greece on a Budget

Dreaming of lazy afternoons on the Aegean, and mornings spent wandering ancient ruins and quaint cobblestone streets? You’re not alone: Greece is a hugely popular tourist destination, welcoming some 30 million visitors in 2018. But even though demand is high, a Hellenic vacation doesn’t have to break the bank. Here are three tried-and-true tips for stretching those euros as far as they’ll go. 1. Spend Up Front to Save Later A good travel agent will worry about the details for you, freeing you up to explore. (Maya Stanton) We were sipping Aperol spritzes and watching the sunset at an oceanfront café on the island of Naxos when the call came in: The ferries, shut down for the past few days due to high winds and turbulent seas, were up and running again. At this point, we’d already had to rework our itinerary, flying into Naxos instead of taking the boat from Athens and skipping our day in Mykonos, and if we wanted to be on the ferry to Santorini the next morning, we’d need to book it to the nearest ticket office on the double—a chance we would’ve missed without that alert. In most cases, I prefer to DIY my travel, but for this trip, we worked with an agent for just such an occasion: Given the probability of ferry strikes and weather-related cancellations, not to mention a serious lack of communication from the various companies about said cancellations, hiring someone to look out for your interests is a solid investment. Before you plunk down that credit card, though, contact a few places to get quotes (we used Dolphin Hellas; dolphin-hellas.gr), and pay close attention to how quickly they reply, and how thoroughly they address your questions and concerns—you want someone who will move quickly and efficiently on your behalf, and a high level of care and a speedy response time in the planning stages forecasts the consideration you’ll receive on the ground. 2. Travel at the Right Time Sights like the Parthenon won't be deserted in shoulder season, but they'll be much less crowded than they are in the summer. (Anyaivanova/Dreamstime) Looking for a great summer getaway? This is not the place for peaceful days at the beach or leisurely strolls through postcard-perfect villages and towns. Greece is at peak capacity from June to August, meaning overflowing crowds, high hotel rates, and packed-to-the brim restaurants and attractions. To bring down your bill—and avoid the mobs—visit during shoulder season, when the streets may be bustling but elbow room is far easier to come by. In spring and fall, the weather’s just as idyllic, and though you’ll still file in with the hordes to see the Parthenon and navigate the narrow footpaths of Oia, on Santorini, it’s much worse in July. 3. Pick Your Priorities Go cheap on accommodations so you have more to spend on food and drink. (Maya Stanton) The bad news: You probably won’t be able to find a travel agent who’s willing to book your ferry tickets alone. The good: In addition to taking care of the nitty-gritties, like transfers and hotels, as well as last-minute schedule changes, like putting you on a flight when the ferries are canceled and extending hotel stays when necessary, an effective agent will help allocate your dollars to align with your personal priorities. Can’t get a good night’s sleep without downy pillows and luxe linens? They’ll book you in at five-star hotels (and charge you accordingly). Prefer to spend less on accommodations so there’s more in the budget for dining and activities? No judgement—or flea-trap motels—here. Of course, you can do this on your own as well, but since you’re paying for the service, let them reserve your rooms and buy your museum tickets while you do the important work of restaurant research and souvenir shopping.