Sunday, January 6, 2019

Consultant Tips for Air Travel, Revisited

Back in 2012 I posted a series on How to be a Consultant, which included a segment on Air Travel. After several years of not having to travel at all, I resumed a grueling travel schedule in 2018. So, here's an updated review of what to expect in US air travel and some tips for making the best of it.

To set some context, my travel involved flying from Southern California to Dulles Airport in Washington DC and back, for a week at a time. I took approximately 46 air flights in 2018.

I knew when this started I was in for an adjustment: as bad as my memories of air travel were, several years had gone by and it was surely even worse now.

Tip #1: Choose Your Airline Carefully

All of my flights were on United Airlines, which brings me to Tip #1: choose your airline carefully.

While air travel is far less comfortable than it used to be across the board, that doesn't mean all of the airlines are exactly the same. For example, Southwest Airlines won't charge you for checked bags, even though nearly every other airline does. True, when one airline gets yet another nasty idea--like charging you for bags, or charging more for the better seats--most of the other airlines start doing the same thing. It's not 100% uniform, though, and some airlines have been known to back off from some of their more evil tactics when there is enough passenger backlash.

Now I know as I write this that you may have little to no choice in which airline you fly on: for some flights, one carrier is simpy dominant. That was the case for me, United Airlines was clearly the airline I would be using for my particular route. Still, if you're flying out of or into major airports you may find you do have a choice, and in those cases you should do some careful thinking about which airline to use. This is the age of Internet reviews, after all, so there is a great deal of online information to be found about airline experiences and rankings. You can even find reviews of particular seats on particular aircraft.

Tip #2: Leverage Airline Loyalty Programs

Now that you've determined the airline you'll be using, it's time to get the most out of them, which brings me to Tip #2: leverage airline loyalty programs. The constant reduction in service and new fees imposed by airlines is all about keeping their fares low so that you choose them when searching for a flight. Because of this environment, airlines tremendously value passenger loyalty, and they reward frequent flyers. Sign up for your airline's loyalty program, and be sure to specify your loyalty ID whenever you book a flight. You'll start accruing air miles, which will start paying off in benefits.

What kind of benefits can you expect? The specific benefits you get and what you have to do to qualify for them varies from one airline to another but can also be found online (here's United's MileagePlus).

In my earlier period of travel, I flew American Airlines, accrued air miles, and earned some status--but that was all ancient history now, and I was starting fresh with United.

Here's what I initially experienced, starting in early 2018 and having never flow United before. I was persona non grata:

  • When boarding, there were 5 boarding groups. I was almost always assigned Boarding Group 5, which meant I was one of the last few passengers on the plane.
  • Checking bags cost $30 for the first bag and $40 for the second

...and here's what things were like near the end of 2018, after I had been on 40+ United flights:

  • I had been awarded Premium Gold status
  • I was in Boarding Group 1 every time, first on board (well, first after some special groups like elite status passengers, military servicemen, and passengers with infants).
  • My checked bags were free
  • Special offers were extended to me when I made reservations
  • I was automatically added to upgrade lists in case there was a business class or first class seat available

That's quite a difference. The airlines may be mercilessly charging more and taking away comforts, but it feels amazing to get some special treatment and recognition for all that travel you're doing.

I should mention that another ingredient was using United's credit card, which accelerated my benefits. That's covered in the next tip.

Tip #3: Use the Airlines' Credit Card to Buy Your Tickets

Early on in my year of travel, I noticed that every United flight included an unwelcome push to sign up for their MileagePlus Explorer Credit Card. As much as I disklike aggressive sales to a captive audience, I had to admit the benefits sounded good given how frequently I was traveling. In the case of United's card, this included 50,000 air miles, Boarding Group 2, a free checked bag, and 2 day passes to the United Club lounge.

These benefits were real, and represented a way to "buy" my way into higher status simply by using the airline's credit card to reserve my flights. To be sure, these cards don't have a very good interest rate, but that didn't concern me in the least, since I expensed my flights promptly and always paid my bills in full.

After signing up for my card, I went from Boarding Group 5 to Boarding Group 2 on my very next flight and one of my checked bags was now free. I had jumpstarted my loyalty program!

After several months, the 50,000 miles were applied to my account--not to mention the miles I was getting for taking all those flights. I used these miles over the last year to buy quite a few flights for my daughter in Kentucky to come home to visit us in California in the summer and over the holidays.

As the loyalty program did it's thing, successive flights moved me to Silver and then Gold status. Now 2 checked bags were free, and I was in Boarding Group 1.

The United Club passes were also great (see Tip #4: Utilize Airline Lounges).

Note that the specific benefits change often with airline credit cards, so if you're planning to use a specific card, check what's currently being offered.

Tip #4: Utilize Airline Lounges

In my earlier years as a traveling consultant, American Airlines had the Admiral's Club. I saw signs for this in the airport but didn't know what it was. One time, when I was traveling with an executive, I was brought into the lounge as a guest--and what an eye opening experience! Really comfortable chairs. Work tables with outlets. Internet. Free drinks. Snacks. Newspapers. Magazines. Most of all, pleasant and safe surroundings. Quite the difference from sitting at the gate.

In the original version of these airport lounges, frequent flyers with the means would pay hundreds of dollars for an annual membership. In these leaner times, fewer passengers are able or willing to do that, so the lounges also offer day passes. for example, at United's United Club lounge, I can buy a Day Pass for $59.

Tip #4 is to utilize airline lounges when warranted. You might not think you spend enough time in an airport to warrant the cost of an airline lounge, but there are times when you will: that delayed flight; that cancelled flight that strands you in the airport overnight; that bad weather that causes mass cancellations and disrupts the airline schedules across the board, packing the gates with too many people. These are the unpleasant times when you may spend quite a few extra hours in the airport. In times like that, I don't hesitate to buy a day pass for the nearest airline lounge.

I had received two United Club day passes with my United credit card. On one particularly bad trip where I had to spend a rough night in Denver International Airport, I used a club pass once the lounge opened at 5 am to get into a better place where I could clean-up, enjoy the free refreshments, and nap until my mid-day flight in peace and safety. I used my second pass on what I knew would be my final flight, deliberately getting to the airport early to enjoy a few hours of comfort before boarding.

Tip #5: Use Direct Flights

For most of my travel history, I've had connections on my flights--but this year I came to change my mind and now insist on direct flights. In my case, a direct flight would mean driving all the way to Los Angeles International (unthinkable, could be 3 hours on California freeways) or San Diego (90 miles away). So, I would drive the 40-50 miles to a nearby airport and settle for a connecting flight, usually in Denver.

At first I didn't think connecting flights were all that bad. After all, it gave you a chance to use the restroom and perhaps buy a meal or a snack (I'm a diabetic, so keeping my energy up is important). But I learned through sad experience that connecting flights can be really, really problematic.

The first issue with connecting flights is how little time you may have between flights. Since the airline system is really busy, it's not unusual for flights to be delayed along with the ripple effect that can have on the system. If your connection has a really short layover time, such as less than an hour, you are really taking your chances. I found frequent delays in my connections at DIA, and sometimes missed the last flight of the day back home. That meant going to customer service, trying to find a different flight to a different airport, and arranging for my wife to meet me. That could also mean your checked bags are on their way to the original airport. A missed connection is simply a mess.

Missing a connection, as bad as it can be, is nothing compared to what a systematic airline system failure can mean to a connection. On one of my flights home, which had a connection in Denver, there were a lot of thunderstorms wreaking havoc over Colorado. About half an hour before we were supposed to land at DIA, our pilot announced what was happening with the weather and that DIA was temporarily no longer accepting planes to land. He announced that we would be diverting to Colorado Springs, where we would wait until DIA re-opened and then fly back there. Well, okay, what can you do. Clearly I wouldn't be making my connecting flight. A few mnutes later, another announcement: Colorado Springs was now overwhelmed with planes and no longer accepting planes to land. Oh, and we were extremely low on fuel. The new plan was to land at a nearby airport named Grand Junction that none of us had ever heard of--possibly the smallest airport I have ever been to. An airport so small, there wasn't even a jetway to deplane passengers from a plane our size.

The captain did buy pizza for the entire 170 passengers while we were waiting at Grand Junction, which was a nice gesture. We did eventually get back to Denver hours later, where a line to United Customer Service literally stretched the entire length of Terminal B. There was no flight out. While I did receive a hotel voucher from the airline, I was also assured that there weren't any hotel rooms available. That meant spending the night in the airport. I tried to make a "bed" out of several chairs near a cafe. It was an extremely uncomfortable evening, trying to sleep this way in the brightly lit airport that remained noisy at all hours. Finally at 5 am the United Club opened and soon after some airport stores opened. I quickly purchased shaving items and a hairbrush, made myself more presentable, and headed to the lounge where the wait for my mid-day replacement flight was much more comfortable.

It took me 27 hours all-told to get home. It is for the above reasons that I decided to avoid connecting flights, and I have ever since. My wife has graciously driven the 90 miles to San Diego International to drop me off and pick me up where I can get a direct flight to Dulles airport. Direct flights are a far less worrisome way to fly.

Tip #6: Buy Premium Economy Seating

If you're traveling on business, you're no doubt subject to an expense policy. More likely than not, you're required to fly in Economy class in the main cabin. Today, however, there are multiple leves of Economy: your airline may offer a "Premium Economy" that offers a far better experience. In United's case "Economy Plus" is the name given to a subset of the main cabin with seats that have extra legroom, are closer to the front of the plane, and include power outlets. If it's permitted by your expense policy, these are the seats you want to be sitting in.

The airlines keep finding ways to stuff more seats on planes. That means we have been steadily losing seat width and leg room for years. Airlines may wedge you in tighter and tighter from side-to-side, but at least the extra legroom in a Premium Economy seat allows you to fully extend your legs. It also makes it easier to get in and out of your seat, possibly without having to ask other passengers to get up.

Power in the seat means you can charge your phone or tablet. However, set your expectations accordingly. In a row of 3 seats, there will only be 2 power outlets, so there's no guarantee you will have access to one. Also, there's a big difference between Boeing and Airbus planes: on Boeing planes, the outlets are between the seats, somewhere underneath where you're sitting. Your chances of actually seeing the outlets are zero, so you are left trying to plug your power cord into an outlet you can't even see--awkward and frustrating at best. Airbus, on the other hand, puts their outlets betweeen the seat backs in front of you at a height you can easily reach, which makes a world of difference. It's actually possible to use the outlets on an Airbus.

I was hoping in-seat power would also let me plug in a laptop, but I have yet to see 3-prong grounded outlets on planes. Still, you can work on a laptop off battery pretty effectively in a Premium Economy seat. In regular economy, you might not have enough room to fully open the laptop.

If Premium Economy seating isn't an option for you, consider an Exit Row which will also give you more legroom.

Under no circumstances should you consider a sub-Economy class such as "Basic Economy" which (depending on the airline) may not even allow carry-on bags.

Tip #7: Choose Your Seat Carefully

After so much travel, I became an expert seat-selector. My critieria:

  • The seat needed to be Economy Plus or Exit Row. I wanted/needed the extra legroom, and the in-seat power would be valuable.
  • The seat should ideally be near the front of the plane, so I wouldn't have to wait as long to get off. This was particularly crucial if the flight was the first leg of a connection. 
  • Never book the very first row of the main cabin, because there are no seatback pockets or storage in front of you.
  • Consider proximity to the restrooms. They might be near the front or near the back, depending on the model plane. 
  • Unless very familiar with the location, check online seat reviews to discover particularly good or bad seats. Although I never recline my airline seat, those who do would probably care if the seat is able to recline or not.

And then, there's the question of which seat to select:

  • Window seat: The thrill of looking out airplane windows died for me some 25 years ago, but the window seat is valuable for another reason: you only have one human being pressed up against you. The window side provides a place of refuge. On the other hand, it's more work to get out of your seat. If you're hesitant to bother the people between you and the aisle to get up and you have to go, you may have some uncomfortable waiting time ahad of you. If you're using armrest controls for viewing movies, be forewarned that the passenger in the middle seat may (will) inadvertently block your access and even accidentally change your volume or channel.
  • Middle seat: This is of course where you don't want to be, with people uncomfortably pressed up against you on both sides. Avoid at all costs.
  • Aisle seat: Like the window seat, you only have one person pressed up against you--but you have flight attendants and passengers on the way to/from the restrooms constantly bumping you. And, depending on model plane, you may have less than half the under-seat storage room that middle and window have. On the plus side, if you're using armrest controls for watching movies you probably won't have another passenger's elbow in the way. You also have unfettered access to get to the restroom.

So which is better, window or aisle? That's a tough call. When I started flying in 2018 I always opted for the window seat, but by the time my year of flying ended I had switched to the aisle seat.

Despite the above criteria, seat selection is sometimes very limited. I've been forced to book the dreaded middle seat on a handful of flights simply because nothing else was available. Even when this happens, don't lose hope. When checking in for your flight, take another look at the seat map and change your seat selection if something has opened up. This has even happened for me at the very last minute, when checking in at the airport kiosk.

Tip #8: Choose Your Plane Carefully

When you reserve your flight, the specific kind of plane is usually mentioned--and you should think about that just as carefully as you do the fare price or arrival time. Some planes are simply more uncomfortable than others.

I already mentioned the poor arrangement of in-seat power on Boeing planes earlier under Tip #6. If using the power outlets is not important, then I don't find much reason to differentiate between Airbus and Boeing planes. A lot of the comfort factors such as legroom / row-spacing is airline-dictated.

Figure out what is most important to you about plane model, and then check online flight reviews to determine what will make you most comfortable.

On Boeing planes, the model I would avoid whenever possible is the 757. Although I've never been able to find anything online to substantiate that seat width is narrower on 757s, every time I fly these planes the seats are noticably narrow and uncomfortable.

Tip #9: Plan Your Entertainment

You're going to spend hours and hours on an airplane: what will you do to pass the time? One option is to watch in-flight movies or TV. Airlines offer quite a few choices for this now, which could involve a screen on the seat in front of you, or streaming to your phone or other device. Just what options are available will vary by airline and model plane.

On United, for instance, you can watch TV and movies free using your phone, tablet, or laptop. No charge is nice, but will it actually work? I found in actual experience that neither my phone or laptop browser would work, apparently because of app version, browser version, or missing plug-ins. Despite attempting to get things configured in advance of my flight, I never did get streaming to a device of mine working--but others on the flight clearly did.

What I did end up using quite a bit on United, when available, was DirectTV via the seatback screen, with armrest controls (however, see my warning about being able to access the armrest control under Tip #7). This included live DirectTV, but also 8 or so featured movies on dedicated channels. This I found really was the best way to pass 5-6 hours of flying and helped the hours speed by.

When I didn't have personal entertainment, I would read or nap. Reading I would do on my phone via Amazon Kindle.

If you're going to use in-flight video entertainment, be sure to invest in some ear-buds.

Tip #10: Make a Conscientious Choice About Bags

I've heard it a million times from business travelers: don't check your bags, so you don't have to wait endlessly for them at Baggage Claim. This used to be a slam-dunk decision, but now it's not so clear-cut.

There simply isn't as much overhead space for carry-ons as there used to be on planes. Indeed, some of the lower-levels of economy don't even allow you to use the overhead bins. As the airline industry has stuffed flights fuller and fuller, the war for bags and the ensuing rage have only gotten worse. It's typical while waiting for boarding to start to hear an appeal asking for volunteers to check your carry-ons because there won't be enough room for everyone's bags. If this does happen, you'll pick up your bag at Baggage Claim but there won't be a charge.

Personally, I decided this madness simply isn't worth it: I always check my bags, and my status means no baggage fees. Yes, it means waiting at the carousel which is extra time. But you might well end up there anyway given how insufficent space there is on planes nowadays. Now, I just relax in my seat while the other passengers and flight attendants war over space in the overhead bins. I do carry on a laptop, which fits under the seat in front of me.

If you are going to carry on your bags, then ensure you are in a low boarding group (see tips #1-3) and choose a bag size that will fit comfortably in the overhead space. Or better yet, something that will fit under your seat.

If you are checking a bag, make sure your bag looks unique. You'll often see signs at baggage claim warning you that many bags look alike, and it's true. After one flight, I waited for my black wardrobe bag but it never showed up. Instead, someone else's black wardrobe bag was left on the carousel. Clearly, someone had mistakenly made off with my bag. I brought the other bag and my bag claim check to the airline baggage office, and they were able to call the other party and get them to come back to the airport to exchange bags. But, you won't have to worry about this if your bag is unique-enough looking to stand out.

Tip #11: Buy Bundles to Simpify Expenses

As previously mentioned, airlines keep adding new kinds of fees. Fees for bags. Fees for seats. If you're purchasing tickets that you will be expensing, this can cause wrinkles. For me, it was a lot easier getting approval and reimbursement of my air travel costs if I had a single charge rather than multiple on my credit card. When making reservations, I took advantage of bundles.

A bundle is an offer you can take when booking your flight that combines those extra fees for a particular cabin class or bag check fees. Using a bundle not only simplifies your expensing, it also prevents your accounting department from over-scrutinizing multiple individual charges.

Tip #12: Get TSA Pre✓

TSA Pre✓ is like a fast lane for air travel. It's a faster and easier path through airport security.

What TSA Pre✓ does for you is let you go through security on a different security line that is a world of difference from the regular security line. What do you usually encounter at the airport security line? Grim-faced security officers who order you around. Take off your belt. Take off your shoes. Remove your electronics. Reassemble yourself on the other side. It's a hassle and it's a pain. TSA Pre✓ is a parallel universe where the TSA actually likes you and treats you like a well-known friend. You're greeted with a friendly smile, and you don't need to remove anything.

TSA Pre✓ costs $85 a year at the time of this writing and is well worth it. If you're traveling internationally, go for the slightly more expensive Global Entry program. Signing up will require an online submission, then visiting an office at a nearby airport to get interviewed and fingerprinted. Then you'll wait for a backgound check, approval, and assignment of a Known Traveler Number. Once you have your KTN, make sure you specify it when making reservations. The TSA Pre✓ logo will appear on your boarding pass and you'll be able to go through the fast lane.

Tip #13: Stay Positive

All sorts of things can go wrong in air travel, and even under the best circumstances it's rarely comfortable. A huge factor in whether a flight is pleasant or unpleasant is the attitude of the passengers and crew. You can't control other peoples' attititudes, but you can maintain a positive attitide yourself--and that will influence others. Be the positive person on your flight who overlooks the shortcomings of others and helps make the experience better.

No comments: