You’ve got your plane tickets booked and hotel reservations made for your upcoming trip. Now you just need to get there. If you’re not travel junkies like us here at Thrifty Traveler, you might be dreading this part. However, it doesn’t have to be that way.
Below, we’ll show you some travel tips to speed through airport security, make your time at the airport more comfortable and snag the best seat on the plane.
Pack in a Carry On
Let me count the ways in which your trip will be better if you pack in a carry on rather than check a bag. You can skip the long check-in queues and baggage fees. This allows you to check in online and head straight to security.
You don’t have to wait at baggage claim or worry about lost luggage. And above all, you’ve just got less stuff to keep track of or worry about. It allows you to focus squarely on enjoying your trip. We preach about traveling with a carry on all the time. It’s perhaps the biggest change you can make in your travels.
My first major trip traveling with just a carry on took me from Thailand to Vietnam and Japan in 16 days. By packing smart in a carry-on, I saved hundreds of dollars and could schedule flights with shorter layovers, maximizing my travel time and minimizing idle airport hours.
Everyone can do it, no matter where you’re headed or for how long. Your first trip with just a carry-on, you’ll feel the mental weight of luggage and packing lift and wonder why you didn’t do it sooner.
Thrifty Tip: Read a few travel tips on how to pack for your next trip here.
Skip the Lines at Security
Standing in line to file through security stinks, there’s no doubt about it. It adds pointless extra time and needless anxiety to your trip. Two programs can help you avoid it all.
The first option is TSA PreCheck, a popular government-run security program that gets you in a shorter, dedicated queue at the airport. You get to keep your shoes, belt and a light jacket on. No need to take your laptop or carry-on approved liquids out of your bag either.
The catch with PreCheck is that not every airline participates, so your ability to get through security faster depends on what airline you’re flying. But more airlines join every month, and more than 50 are already in the program – including all the major domestic carriers.
PreCheck costs $85 for a five-year membership. And, better yet, you get PreCheck with Global Entry, the traveler program that helps you get through immigration faster when returning to the United States. At $100 for five years of both programs, it makes Global Entry a no-brainer.
A handful of credit cards offer credits that cover the fees for either Global Entry or PreCheck. Check our list of credit card perks to see if your card is included.
Another option is CLEAR, an independent trusted traveler program involving both fingerprints and a retinal scan. You can enroll online and finalize your membership at the airport. If you frequently depart from a Delta hub city, CLEAR is worth a look.
Unlike the five-year membership for PreCheck, CLEAR has an annual fee, and it’s hefty: $179 per year. Delta flyers can get some big savings. It costs $99 for a general SkyMiles member, and only $79 per year if you hold one of Delta’s co-branded American Express cards or status with Delta. CLEAR is free for top-tier Diamond Medallion status members.
Relax in the Lounge While You Wait
You’ve cleared security, but you’ve got 90 minutes until your flight departs. You need a haven away from the bustle of the airport, a comfortable place to sit and charge your phone. A drink wouldn’t hurt, either.
You’re looking for an airport lounge. At a minimum, you’ll get free drinks and snacks and far better seating than the stiff chairs at your gate. In major hubs and overseas, you might find full buffets, a la carte dining, showers and even private sleeping rooms.
Airlines operate their own lounges, and there are networks of independent lounges scattered across the world as well. But unfortunately, you can’t just waltz into them. If you’re flying international business class, you’re in luck. You’ve got access to your airline’s lounge (or a partner airline lounge).
One of the best ways to get free entry into lounges is by holding some premium credit cards. One of our favorites is the Platinum Card from American Express, which opens more lounge doors than any other credit card. You’ll get access to the nine posh Centurion Lounges in the US, 1,000 Priority Pass lounges worldwide and can get into Delta Sky Clubs if you’re flying Delta that day. You can also access Escape Lounges, which is our favorite at our Minneapolis-St. Paul (MSP) home base.
Don’t have lounge access with a credit card or your boarding pass? Download one of our favorite travel apps, Loungebuddy. Check out your airport and see if you can buy a day pass to a lounge. Depending on the lounge and the length of your layover, it could be worth it!
Snag An Empty Row
As airplane seats have gotten smaller and legroom has shrunk, everyone wants a row to themselves. Even an empty seat next to them will do.
Airlines aren’t making it easy as flights are more full than ever. However, you can and should scope out your flight in advance to see if there’s an empty row for you to snag.
Many airlines display these seating charts when you log in to manage your booking and select a seat. Another great tool is ExpertFlyer.com, a powerful platform for frequent flyers that the everyday traveler can also use to their advantage.
By creating a seat alert and entering your flight information, you can see whether your flight will go out nearly empty or if you should change your seat selection. You can also set up alerts to get notifications when certain seats become available, though you may need to pay for those.
It will just take a few minutes, but doing your homework before your flight can help you locate an empty row or an open seat for a last-minute seat change. And in economy, that extra space can make or break a flight.
Get the Best Seat in the House – or Avoid the Worst One
As long as you’re not flying Southwest or basic economy, you’ve got to pick your seat. It can be a bit overwhelming, and if you don’t do your research, you could end up in a windowless seat or with a big metal box limiting your legroom.
Check out Seatguru.com, a user-friendly site that provides seat maps of every plane with advice on which seats are the best and worst. This can help you identify seats with extra legroom, those missing a window or seats that could get bumped by the beverage cart. It can be a real lifesaver, giving you information that the airlines never will and making your seat selection a breeze.
There are some overall principles to keep in mind when picking your seat. The seats at the front of every cabin section – called the “bulkhead” – will always have extra legroom. But you may have a smaller entertainment monitor and immobile armrests.
Any seats near the galley, where flight attendants prepare food and guests use the bathroom, might be a bit disruptive due to more foot traffic. Plus no one wants to sit near bathroom smells.
If you’re brave and want to sit in the last row, keep in mind that on many planes you won’t be able to recline your seat much. Or at all. And of course, seats near the wing may have the most Instagrammable views. However, the tradeoff may be more noise from the engine.
From mindset hacks to free resources to carrying the right credit cards, the tools are out there. You can make your trip through the airport and on the plane far more comfortable. Do it right with these travel tips, and you might even enjoy yourself.