Today, travelers have more choices than ever regarding their airline travel. That's the good news. The bad news is most of us never imagined that we would have to pay extra for some of those choices. After all, they used to be available at no additional charge. I call it "the great unbundling." Sandwiched in between all of these optional charges are extra fees over which we have no control: fuel surcharges, passenger facility (airport) charges, TSA fees and such.
While budget-minded travelers may chafe at the idea of being nickel-and-dimed to death, there are a few extra charges that can help you be more comfortable on your trip.
1. The Global Entry card. I call this card the "shortcut to pre-check." It costs $100 for five years. The card is issued by Customs and Border Protection, and it's a big time saver when you are arriving back in the U.S. from an international trip. You have to fill out an application, show up for a personal interview and get photographed and fingerprinted. But the side benefit is that you are qualified for the pre-check line at TSA. Last weekend I was late to the airport in Portland. Because I had pre-check through my Global Entry card, I bypassed about 250 people in line. Without it, I would have missed my flight.
One note: Even if you pay the money and get the card, you may occasionally be pulled from the pre-check fast lane and have the opportunity to go through the traditional scope-or-grope line at the TSA checkpoint.
For international arrivals, you go to a kiosk instead of standing in line. There's a scanner and a camera on the kiosk. It's very fast -- and can save you a long wait.
2. Carry-on only. This advice does not work for everyone. If you have an overstuffed suitcase you're trying to drag on the plane, this may be the summer of your discontent. More and more airlines are cracking down on big bags in the cabin. Sure, they want to churn more bag fees. But there really are limits as to how much stuff will fit overhead. Conversely, there are real concerns about having your bags lost or stolen. I've chosen to cut down on the wardrobe so everything fits in a small suitcase and backpack. There are several resources for travelers to take a minimalist approach, including ScotteVest (vests, jackets and pants with lots and lots of pockets). Sarah Schlichter wrote a good article at IndependentTraveler.com with some carry-on tips for women.
Carry-on only speeds up your airport transit, since you don't have to stand in line to drop your bag. It gives you additional flexibility if you need to change your flight, since there are no bags to offload from the original flight. And when you arrive at your destination, there's no need to wait around at baggage claim.
3. Airport lounges. Airports are noisy, crowded places. Most airport lounges are much quieter, with free WiFi and a nice view. Here in Anchorage, there's just one: the Alaska Airlines Board Room. I'm a member. The cost is between $295 and $450 per year. If you don't fly very often this may not be a prudent investment. After all, you can buy lounge access for one day if you wish. But if you're a frequent traveler, you'll enjoy the quiet space and friendly staff. There are a few snacks, a nice espresso machine, beer, wine and some cocktails available. Alaska has lounges at Los Angeles/LAX, Portland and Seattle. At other airports, Board Room members can visit Delta's Sky Clubs. While Alaska Airlines allows two guests, Delta does not. You have to pay an extra $29 per person per visit.
4. Become an elite-level flyer. If you are not a frequent flyer, this doesn't apply to you. If you are, there are special benefits after you fly as few as 20,000 miles on Alaska Airlines, including:
a. Access to the best seats (exit row, bulkhead).
b. Early boarding
c. Priority check-in at select airports
d. Upgrades to first class
e. 50 percent mileage bonus on all flights
f. Dedicated reservations phone line
There are many more benefits that kick in when you reach the "MVP Gold" level at 40,000 miles including:
a. Fee waivers
b. 100 percent mileage bonus
c. Better chance of an upgrade
Both Delta's and United's mileage programs are being devalued as those airlines move to a system based on the amount you spend instead of miles flown. Like air fares, mileage plans are always changing.
However you reach that elite level, you should do it. The airlines always are looking for opportunities to reward their frequent flyers.
5. Take your time. This is easier said than done. And it can get expensive, if that means spending an extra day at the hotel. But another way to get some extra time is to take nonstop flights whenever possible. Pull out all the stops and you'll have fewer opportunities for cancelations or delays. Here's a quick reference of nonstop out-of-state flights:
Anchorage-Seattle: Alaska, Delta, JetBlue*
Anchorage-San Francisco: United
Anchorage-Los Angeles/LAX: Alaska
Anchorage-Long Beach: JetBlue*
Anchorage-Las Vegas: Alaska
Anchorage-Salt Lake City: Delta*
Anchorage-Denver: United, Frontier*
Anchorage-Chicago: United, Alaska
Anchorage-Minneapolis: Delta, Sun Country*
Anchorage-Newark: United* (Saturday-only)
Anchorage-Vancouver: Air Canada*
Fairbanks-Seattle: Alaska, Delta*
Fairbanks-Denver: Frontier*, United*
Juneau-Seattle: Alaska, Delta*
*= summer only
6. Onboard comfort. There are all sorts of ways to make your flight more bearable once you're on the plane. But you have to prepare in advance.
a. Bring your own food on board. Even if it's from an airport vendor, you'll probably enjoy it more than with the airline's snack selection.
b. Bring some good headphones. I like the Bose QC-15, but there are many other noise-canceling models.
c. Bring extra water. It's always a good idea.
d. Bring your own in-flight entertainment. This is one area where airlines are beefing up their offers, since they know a distracted cabin is a quiet cabin. But you cannot be sure of what's offered -- which is why I opt to bring my own device. Most airlines now offer seatback or free-standing IFE (including entertainment) such as the DigEplayer on Alaska Air.
e. Buy the in-flight Internet. Now that you can get an uninterrupted signal all the way from Anchorage to Seattle, Alaska Airlines has boosted the charge from $4.95 to $9.95 on Gogo.
f. Pillows, blankets, socks, eyeshades and earplugs: Season to taste. I don't use them, but many travelers love them.
7. Charge wisely. Credit card issuers are by far the most generous dispensers of airline rewards -- and the right card can save you money. I have two of the Alaska Airlines credit cards from Bank of America, primarily because of the $99 annual companion ticket (with taxes, a ticket to Portland from Anchorage costs $140 round-trip). Because of the companion pass, for example, I opted for a more-expensive nonstop flight between Anchorage and Portland!
American Express offers several award cards, including Delta's SkyMiles card. With that card, there is a special combination of statement credits, bonus SkyMiles points, plus early boarding and a first checked bag free.
If you're traveling outside of the U.S., I recommend a card that doesn't charge a 3 percent "foreign transaction fee," such as the Chase Sapphire Preferred card. There's a hefty mileage bonus when you are approved, which you could redeem for a free ticket on United Airlines.
These are just a few ideas to lessen the friction of air travel. Other on-the-ground tips include renting your own car (no matter what the relatives say) and reserving your own hotel room. Sometimes you need your own space -- and when you're traveling that costs a little more money. I consider those expenses an investment because I find that when I'm in a better mood, people treat me better. And that makes for an enjoyable trip!