Ok, so, let’s just say I visited probably a good 15+ countries before I was the age of 20. When I became gainfully employed, I then went on travel binges. There were spur of the moment trips with people I barely knew, and trips with people I really get along with that were planned well in advance. Trips local and far away, trips on rickety airplanes in economy, and trips in swanky business class. I am by no means a professional “business class” traveler that racks up hundreds of thousands of miles in airline travel a year, but, I’ve done a little legwork.
There were hard lessons learned. Tips discovered. Mistakes made. Here’s what I’ve gleaned so far — use it, and may it help you avoid tearing your hair out or collapsing in exhaustion or frustration down the line.
US TSA Pre-check: Keep some of your clothes on when you clear security
The internet is a beautiful thing, but sometimes airport services don’t make themselves particularly easy to find. Due to 9/11, TSA started putting American travellers through a bunch of hoopla; and after a few years of this suffering and competitive businesses like Global Entry / CLEAR, they’ve officially created a a TSA-Pre-check option that will generally let you travel within the US without a couple of the extra steps most people in line have to go through. You don’t get to bypass the wait in the line — you just get to keep your shoes and jacket on, your laptop in its bag, etc. You may be automatically vetted for this just for your travel history. I showed up at the airport one day outbound from my local area and TSA was running a “special” basically literally making everyone eligible for the program eligible that day, and ever since I’ve been on it in most cases (there have been one or two flights where weirdly it didn’t show up on my ticket).
Global Entry / CLEAR: Bypass normal passport line waits
I’m a fan of efficiency, so I’m not going to write out the details — go read this dude’s post on comparing the different services. I have a friend who swears by this, but I never use it. Basically, when you re-enter the US, there is the loooong passport/border protection security line. If you pay a yearly fee and get a background check through these programs, you get to speed on through past everyone else without going through the same depth of re-entry processing.
Personally, I don’t use this because 1) main US entry points like NYC and SFO are using automated passport scanning now, so there’s very little difference to me versus these two programs and 2) I don’t travel internationally often enough to warrant this. If I travelled 3-4 times a year out of the country, I’d do it, but for now it’s 1-2 times a year. I’m lazy. You have to set up an appointment in advance with these guys and then come into the airport for your appointment … ugh. No. Lazy.
Base Level Airline Mileage Membership: Bypass normal pre-boarding TSA lines
You don’t bypass them entirely, but if you have even BASIC elite, most airports count this as premium line status because you’ve spent enough money with the airline (or you use their credit card and pay an annual fee for benefits) to warrant this small kindness. USE IT. You don’t have to be a business/first class flyer and you DON’T (necessarily) have to buy the add-ons airlines try to sell you to bypass this. They usually try to package this alongside adding an extra bag or extra legroom/premium economy, but if you already have basic “bronze” or whatever color your airline uses, double check your perks. Chances are you can take advantage of this one, not only to get through security faster, but also to board before other economy people. Obviously the higher your level the sooner you get to get on the plane, too.
Economy Flyers: Give yourself plenty of time
There was a time when as an economy flyer, you’d have a bit of hassle waiting in the crowd but it wasn’t too bad. You could round down when airports suggested 90 minutes for domestic and 3 hours for international when managing getting to your flight on time. But flying is becoming more accessible to more of the world populace. Which means you can literally miss your flight because you are stuck in a security line because you thought arriving at the airport 1 hour early for a domestic flight would work. No. If you’re flying economy, 45 minutes to clear security quickly before the crazies, 15 min for getting to your boarding area at a leisurely pace (tack on 10 min to that for slipping in an extra potty break), and 20 min for waiting in a line to check yourself in at a machine (or 30 for checking yourself in with an agent).
That equals at least 90 min, on a day where things go smoothly. If you are flying a popular/busy route at peak times, turn that into 2 hours or you may very well regret it. It’s better to get there early and have time to decompress, etc., than miss your flight or not get the chance to pee because the line for the bathroom is 30 women long but your flight is boarding in 10 minutes. (Hello, LAX.) Unless you have a get out of jail card (premium security line access via mileage status or business/first tickets), planning in that extra time is FOR REAL.
Obvi, if you’re flying elite, you get to bypass all these shenanigans. Mileage status, even basic, can really be worth it, folks!
Airline Lounge Club Memberships
If you have certain credit cards, you may be able to take advantage of 1-2 free entries into a membership club in an airport. Usually the availability of a club via these routes is lower in the US (there are just fewer clubs that accept the membership access), but overseas these are far more common. You can also just outright buy an annual membership, use your miles to buy memberships, or of course, become an elite status flyer to get discounts or waived memberships. These clubs are somewhat useful domestically if you are ever cursed with a long layover somewhere, as they offer quieter, cleaner spaces, free food, free booze and drink, etc.
In the US, the benefits of these are pretty poor, just like our airlines. Overseas, however, these are crazy fabulous experiences. The lounges are filled to overflowing with a wide variety of hot and cold food, are bigger than hotel lobbies, there are game rooms and free computers and internet to use and sleeping rooms and shower rooms, and meeting rooms, and some even offer sleeping rooms. In Dubai, there was all this, plus a separate men and women’s spa when I flew Qatar Airways with a business class seat, and this was just the business class lounge, carpeted, lush, and blinged out with upscale everything. The first class lounge was separate, and presumably even more pimp! You can literally feed your whole family in there for three meals a day and pay less than you would in the airport if you have a long crazy layover so … take advantage when it makes sense.
Pack a healthy snack
I learned a hard lesson when I was trekking around airports on long layovers — especially if you are carrying luggage around with you, it can be hard to navigate a restaurant, and the restaurants in an airport can be expensive. Bring along a few healthy snacks just in case — power bars, dried fruit and nuts, etc — so that in a pinch when you get the munchies while between planes you have something to tide you over. These can also be useful on planes when you’re in economy and suffering.
Book hotels in or attached to the airport way in advance
I was a fool on a trip to Thailand that had several jumps before and after to other destinations. I had a layover that was 8 hours long that forced me to exit the airport with my luggage but would not allow me to check back in until 4 hours before the flight (this is true in general in every airport — you can check in online in advance, but not in person at the airport until 4 hours or less before your flight). So I had 2 suitcases, and I could barely see straight I was so exhausted from a long haul international flight I’d barely slept on. I’d planned, however, for two things: 1) you can deposit your luggage in storage with the airport for any length of time and 2) I knew there was an airport hotel. So I rolled up to the hotel desk in the airport and the guy gave me a piteous smile — they were all booked up solid. No room for me.
So I literally dozed hugging my suitcases and carryon to myself cursing my stupidity. Book it in advance!
You may be able to store your luggage in the airport for a little more freedom
Especially in international airports, which do a lot of international shipping, you can store your luggage and get a claim check and pay per hour or day. This means if you want to jump out of the airport on a long layover and explore a city, it’s easy to leave your luggage behind and carry the essentials with you as you sight-see.
That’s it for now — I’ve got another post coming up about surviving the plane. 😀