You don’t have to be a frequent flier to fly like one. Airline perks that may only be available to those with elite status can be yours, thanks to airline cards, programs, and some simple karma, which can make your flight less stressful.
“I still occasionally let the inconvenience of modern air travel get to me. No matter how much you plan or prepare, things like weather, mechanical problems, or even a late flight crew can throw off your whole itinerary,” said Jake Redman, founder of modhop.com, which reviews and explores travel options. “But having the right apps, memberships, and know-how can make miserable flight situations a little less miserable.”
To help make your next flight a little less uncomfortable, we asked some of the most frequent fliers out there for their personal tips on how to make the most out of flying and came up with these six simple rules. Don’t leave home without them.
Rule No. 1: Use your miles.
Brian Kelly is called “The Points Guy” for a reason. He’s flown from Newark to Singapore for about the cost of a ride on the New York City subway — and planned a 10-day, $15,000 trip to France for free, simply by racking up rewards points and miles. He didn’t do it all by flying, though he does a lot of that, too.
“You don’t need to be a hardcore business traveler to travel for free,” said Kelly. “It’s about maximizing your personal finances. People should think about miles and points as money in their wallet.”
It’ll take a little research on your end to find out what kind of rewards card is best for you. How often you fly and your spending habits will determine whether you should get a cash-back card or a branded airline rewards credit card, both of which can be used on everyday purchases to earn points and miles. Some perks of airline branded cards include free checked bags, priority boarding, passes to airline lounges, and seat upgrades.
“Because I’m savvy with points and miles, I’m almost always in first and business class,” said Kelly. “It really does make a big difference.”
Rule No. 2: Elite status can be bought.
You don’t have to be a frequent flier or elite status member to enjoy the same perks — though you can pay for it.
“Back in the day, airlines used to just spoil frequent fliers, but that’s changing,” said Kelly. “The trend now is there’s the ability for anyone to get an upgrade or lounge access. You can buy a better airline experience now more than ever in the past.”
Another option to receive frequent flier perks — without flying all the miles — is to join an airline’s trial preferred program.
“Under these programs, you are immediately given preferred status (for a
fee) and can keep that status if you fly a certain number of flights in a short period of time,” recommended frequent traveler Russ Ferguson, a Charlotte-NC-based attorney.
For example, on US Airways, you’d need 30 flights under your belt to gain Silver Status — and enjoy first class upgrades, priority boarding, and free checked bags. But for $200, you can get the elite status for 90 days and, if you fly 10 times during that period, keep it for a year. And thanks to the perks, it may end up paying for itself.
Rule No. 3: Always check in online.
“Most people don’t know this, but you can check-in online 24 hours before your flight,” said Mike Sprouse, a marketing agency head who’s traveled 2.5 million miles.
It only takes a minute, but checking in online can save you many times more that in time and patience at the airport by printing out your boarding pass or using a mobile boarding pass — avoiding the check-in line altogether. It may even lead to seat upgrades, as at check-in “the airport upgrade list is the one that matters regardless of whether you initially requested an upgrade,” said Sprouse. While you’re at it, you should also download smartphone apps like your airline’s to stay up-to-date on flight information, check or change your seat, and access your boarding pass, and ones like to TripIt to consolidate your travel itinerary.
Rule No. 4: Never check luggage.
This may not be as easy a rule to follow, depending on the trip, but it can save you significant time at both your departing and arriving airports if you can avoid the baggage drop-off and claim. Frequent fliers swear by this, too.
“I have a regimented packing system so that I never have more than a carry-on bag no matter what,” said travel writer Lee Abbamonte. “I never check bags.”
Rule No. 5: If all else fails, ask.
If you fail to secure an upgraded seat at the time of purchase or check-in, simply asking for one may be your ticket to first class or more legroom.
“My whole mantra is, it doesn’t hurt to ask,” said Kelly. “If you’re not proactively seeking a seat, you can’t expect an airline to give them to you.”
How it works: Seats are released 24 hours before a flight. Those toward the front of the cabin are reserved for elite fliers, the handicapped, and other special-needs fliers, and are usually the last to go, even right up until departure. So if these seats aren’t claimed, or an elite flier is bumped up to first class, you may be able to score it for yourself by asking an attendant at the gate.
Rule No. 6: Use your manners.
Not to sound condescending, but it helps to remember to be nice to the airport workers you come across, who often may be accustomed to the opposite.
“A lot of people get frustrated and annoyed with travel, but yelling at an airport employee isn’t going to get your anywhere,” said Kelly.
Instead, being courteous with security, gate agents, and flight attendants can help make their day — and yours.
“Getting mad at a gate agent or flight attendant will never get me a better seat or free drink in coach,” said Redman. “Beyond that, it’s good to have an arsenal of tools, apps, and information to help get into a good seat or put a backup plan into action.”