The Budget Travel Guide to Flying

Busy airport conceptualAn image of airport passengers moving qjuickly through a terminal
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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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