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AARP Smart Guide to Air Travel

Sure, trips are all about the destination — but the journey can be enjoyable, too

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Flying is notorious for its slew of stressors: long security lines, flight delays and unexpected turbulence, to name a few. But there are a handful of ways to ease the chaos of air travel, and no one knows those anxiety-reducing tricks better than frequent fliers.

We talked with aviation sources, cabin crew members, miles and points gurus, travel agents and travel bloggers to learn their hard-earned tips for improving the art of air travel. The result? This, our jam-packed AARP Smart Guide to Air Travel — a resource that promises to make the journey almost as good as the arrival.


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BEFORE YOU GO

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Snag a deal, cancel later

Don’t let great flight deals pass you by. Willis Orlando, of the membership airfare club Scott’s Cheap Flights, recommends scooping up a limited-time deal, then taking advantage of a lesser-known rule in U.S. air travel if the logistics don’t end up working. “Under federal law, you have a right to cancel your flight within 24 hours, with no penalty whatsoever,” he says. He recommends using this option “if you’re flying from the U.S., and you want to book something now and figure things out later.”

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When to book trips

Urban legends abound when it comes to the best time to book trips. Naveen Dittakavi, founder and CEO of flight-deals resource Next Vacay, shared this advice: “For domestic trips, book your travel between one and four months out.” He added that if you book any closer than that, the flight might be sold out or overpriced. “With international trips, begin watching trends eight to nine months in advance, and plan to book your travel around seven to eight months before.” He also recommends flying between Tuesday and Thursday for prime deals. 

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Use flight-deal tools

For a monthly or yearly subscription, flight-deal services will do the work for you, scouring the internet for impressively cheap flights. But Dittakavi says sometimes even Google or Bing can get the job done — particularly with Google Flights. “It gives you a bird’s-eye view of the travel landscape, so it’s much easier to pick up trends and find those deals that’ll have you packing your bags almost quicker than you can book,” he says. “They also let you set alerts for specific flight routes you’re interested in.” These alerts notify you as soon as the price drops. Other similar sites include Skyscanner, Kayak, Momondo, FareFirst and InvisibleHand. 

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Book directly

It may be tempting to snag a flight through a third-party site, especially if it’s less expensive. But Dittakavi recommends booking directly with the airline. “There’s a chance the airline will go above and beyond for you if you book with them,” he says. “The problem with booking through sites like Expedia [Priceline, Hotwire or Booking.com] is that if you ever have a problem or challenge with the flight, you have to go through a third party to resolve [it] — whereas the airline is more likely to have a team to deal with the issue either in person or via a call service.”

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The best days for free upgrades

Avoiding certain days and times — especially the early-morning business-traveler rush — can increase your odds of getting a free upgrade, Dittakavi

 

says. “Choosing public holidays or flights in the middle of the nightare your best option, as you’ll be able to avoid the business traveler rush,” he says. “Since these types of flights are usually full of families, you’ll have an even better chance of landing a free upgrade if you’re in a couple or flying solo.” Of course, these free upgrades are far from guaranteed; your chances will increase even more if you’re a frequent flier with a specific airline. 

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Try trip stacking

The pandemic’s intermittent closing and reopening of country borders introduced a new air-travel trend: trip stacking. “Trip stacking is a strategy where a traveler will book multiple trips — at least two or more at the same time — to allow for vacation options in case a new pandemic-related restriction or border shutdown leads to a cancellation of one of the trips in the pipeline,” says luxury travel adviser Sandy Pappas, noting that travelers often opt for stacking one domestic and one international trip. “The U.S. tends to have very flexible cancellation policies, so it’s less anxiety-inducing for a traveler to know they have the option to cancel a domestic trip.”

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Try carbon offsetting

To make jet-setting a bit more sustainable, some travelers have turned to carbon offsetting, in which fliers invest in eco initiatives like tree planting to help offset the emissions from their flights. It’s hardly a fix for the fossil-fuel-dependent industry, but it’s better than nothing, says Susanne Etti, an environmental impact specialist for Intrepid Travel. Here’s how to start: “Carbon footprint calculators help to determine the number of emissions one should be offsetting,” Etti says, noting that the calculator on CarbonFootprint.com is a good option. “Once you have the number, look for programs that help to offset. Some of the main ones [can be found at] Carbonfund.org and Treepoints.green.”

More eco-friendly travel ideas

Carbon offsetting is one increasingly popular option for the sustainability-minded crowd, but Etti says it’s far from the only — or even best — way to travel green. She recommends road trips or train travel when possible. When you do have to fly, minimize stopovers and follow a lesser-known piece of sustainable travel advice: Pack light. “Weight has an impact on emissions,” Etti says. “Fuel consumption goes up with the weight of an aircraft.” 

Banish germs

To try to avoid falling ill, pack these items on your carry-on for quick access: wipes containing at least 60 percent alcohol, travel-size botanical charcoal soap, touch screen–sensitive gloves, a medical face mask and an airplane-tray cover.


overhead view of the inside of a busy airport

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AT THE AIRPORT

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How to get lounge access

From free food to comfortable seating, lounges are arguably the best way to optimize airport time. David Slotnick, senior aviation business reporter at The Points Guy, recommends an airline credit card to access these airport hangouts. “The major three U.S. airlines offer credit cards that include full access to their lounges when you fly with that airline,” he says. So look for offers from United Airlines, Delta Air Lines and American Airlines. You can also sign up for a card like Chase Sapphire Reserve, which comes with Priority Pass Select, a membership that provides access to most lounges around the world.

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Or try LoungeBuddy

Don’t feel like signing up for another credit card? Amanda Williams, travel blogger behind the website A Dangerous Business, suggests her favorite lounge app: LoungeBuddy. “If you only find yourself wanting to use an airport lounge once or twice a year, you’re better off downloading the LoungeBuddy app, which allows you to pay for lounge access only when you want it,” she says. “And it’s often quite affordable.” Priority Pass also provides a similar service.

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Keep your personal information private

Connecting to public Wi-Fi gives savvy hackers easy access to your personal information. Avoid this scam: Use your smartphone’s hot spot to connect to the internet more securely. Or invest in a virtual private network (VPN), a service that encrypts your data to keep unscrupulous hackers from stealing sensitive information online. A VPN costs about $30 to $100 per year.

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Speed through security

To save time at the airport, sign up for at least one of two security options: TSA [Transportation Security Administration] PreCheck, a


trusted-traveler TSA program that expedites the screening process; and Clear, a privately run option that uses biometric data such as fingerprints and eye scans instead of government photo IDs. “When you use [Clear], you get to skip to the front of the security line,” Slotnick says. He adds that there’s value in having both programs, but Clear is currently only available at select airports. “If I could only choose one — between PreCheck and Clear — I’d choose the former.” (Note that those who sign up for Global Entry, a passenger-vetting customs program that expedites reentering the U.S., will automatically get TSA PreCheck.) Be aware, though, that look-alike websites for both programs claim to help you renew or enroll, but these sites are actually trying to con you out of money and personal information. Always make sure you’re on tsa.gov.

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Check your bags

Lost luggage may have curbed many of us from checking bags, but new technology — including bag-tracking features within airline apps — makes it much more reliable. That means no more navigating the tiny airport restroom with a roller bag, or scrambling for overhead space because you’re in the later boarding groups. “Tracking [bags] through the [airline] app is a great way to avoid anxiety,” Slotnick says, noting that bag checking has also become significantly more reliable in recent years. For most airlines, bag checking does still come with a fee; you can often avoid that charge by signing up for an airline’s credit card.

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Spend layovers sightseeing

If you have a bit of travel flexibility, and you want to optimize that downtime in transit, Orlando suggests being strategic about your flight and layover times. “I either want to have a really short layover — less than four and a half hours — or give me seven or eight hours or more, so I can really go out and enjoy where I am,” he says. He likes to fly through airports that are well connected to city centers, like in Amsterdam, in order to optimize a long layover. “Many airports offer tours that operate straight out of the airport.” This includes city tours and even guided layover safaris in destinations like Nairobi, Kenya.


airplane flight schedule board showing "cancelled" and "delayed" flights

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HANDLING TRANSIT HICCUPS

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Overcome flying fears

Some people don’t like flying because of the travel-day hassle. Others have a real fear that keeps them from stepping foot on a plane — and for that, blogger Coral Lee, who’s been a flight attendant and cabin manager for over a decade, suggests a fear-of-flying course. “There are many courses offered by airlines or former pilots,” Lee says. The curriculum includes information on the process of flying, turbulence and landing. Some courses conclude with practice flights taken alongside pilots. Several airports offer classes, including the Phoenix Sky Harbor International, Milwaukee Mitchell International Airport and San Francisco International Airport. “There are many airlines in Europe that offer fear-of-flying classes: Air France, Swiss, Air Europa, EasyJet, Virgin Atlantic and Lufthansa,” Lee notes. “I recommend British Airways’ Flying With Confidence course. It was one of the first ones (started 37 years ago). They offer one of the most complete programs, and they have a 98 percent success rate.”

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Don’t miss a flight-delay refund

The European Union has strict rules that give passengers compensation when their flight’s delayed more than three hours, Orlando says. “You’ll find your [EU] flights are delayed much less frequently than they are in the United States. That’s because the EU has strict rules, where there is guaranteed compensation,” he adds. “There are set levels of compensation based on how long the delay is.” You can either fill out paperwork for compensation on your own or hire a service like AirHelp to file a delay for you. (Sadly, you won’t get this kind of compensation when flying within the U.S.)

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Save documents in multiple places

Nothing’s worse than checking your pockets, only to realize your paper travel documents are missing. That’s why Shondra Cheris, of the travel agency Black Will Travel, recommends having digital copies of everything — boarding documents (via the airline app), passports, visa forms and COVID tests. “Save digital copies to your cloud, Google Drive or email,” she says.  This way, as long as you have your phone or laptop, you can access important travel documents in a pinch. Equally important is having paper


versions of important documents, in case something happens to your phone in transit. This means printouts of scanned travel IDs, tickets, flight confirmation emails and anything necessary for your trip. (Use a folder to keep printouts organized in your backpack.) 

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Deal with flight delays in person

“If your flight is delayed, find someone to talk to immediately,” says Pappas, adding that you should head to the gate or find an airline representative. These days, in-person communication is more efficient than trying to handle an issue by phone. “Right now, there is a huge problem with long wait times on the phone, so it’s better to deal with this in person, immediately, at the gate.”

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Know the minimum connecting time

One way to get ahead of major travel hiccups is giving yourself enough time to connect to that next flight. But how much time is actually enough time? “For international flights, I recommend leaving two to three hours for layovers, to ensure you are safe on timing and to avoid unnecessary stressors that could get in the way,” Pappas says. “Every airport has its own legal connection time [known as a minimum connecting time, or MCT]. There is a set amount of MCT that’s considered necessary to transfer from one flight to another.”

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Flexible plan? Give up your seat

If you’re willing to surrender your spot on an overbooked airplane, make the most of it. Instead of naming an amount the airline will pay you to fly later (usually a dollar amount of transferable credits for that carrier), some ask you to name your price, giving you several suggested dollar amounts. While stats on average compensation aren’t readily available, the lower your bid, the more likely it will be accepted. But the higher your bid, well, the bigger your possible payoff. Seth Miller, an aviation analyst at PaxEx.Aero, says he always picks the highest amount. “It’s way easier to negotiate down, if necessary, than to increase the bid later,” he notes. You may even be able to get an alternate form of payment. Delta, for instance, offers gift cards, while United offers MileagePlus miles.


man looks out airplane window at clouds

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OPTIMIZE FLIGHT TIME

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Fill bottles before boarding

There are certain do’s and don’ts when it comes to ordering food and drink on the airplane, and one of the biggest beverage tips Lee suggests is to bring your own water. “You might not always get bottled water [from airplane service],” Lee notes. “Sometimes it’s tap water from the aircraft. And even though tap water is potable, it’s not very good quality.” She also suggests bringing your own instant coffee packets instead of drinking the java served on the airplane.

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Hate turbulence? Try a wing seat

A flight may start out peacefully, but the second turbulence hits, the nerves — and potential motion sickness — ensue. “The best way to minimize turbulence is to sit over the wing,” Slotnick says. “You’ll still feel it, but it’s a little bit less.” To find these over-the-wing seats, Slotnick recommends perusing the plane’s seat map (or, again, SeatGuru) when selecting your seats. 

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Pick the perfect seat

An airplane seat can make or break your flight. But how do you know if one seat’s better than another? “Use SeatGuru, which offers ratings of seats on the plane,” Slotnick says. “But make sure to compare [SeatGuru’s] seat


map to the one your airline gives, to make sure everything is accurate.” And if you’d rather sleep without being bothered, Slotnick suggests the window seat. If you want the flexibility to get up and stretch or use the facilities at a moment’s notice, go the aisle route. SeatGuru belongs to the TripAdvisor family. Other similar apps include SeatExpert, ExpertFlyer, SeatLink and Skytrax.

Fearful flyer? Tell the cabin team

Mid-flight bumps can make even the most seasoned jet-setter uneasy. But if you find turbulence particularly spikes your nerves, let the cabin crew know as you board. “If a passenger tells us they’re worried, we will keep an eye on them,” Lee says. “We will try to explain to them what is happening during the flight, especially if we encounter significant turbulence.”

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Pack a seat-back bag

For everything from medicine to headphones, it’s helpful to have your important items handy while flying. “I add a little plastic pouch with flight essentials that I can pull out of my carry-on to keep close at hand,” Williams says. “This will have things like ChapStick, hand lotion, a face wipe or two, a travel-size toothbrush and tube of toothpaste. It’s amazing how refreshed you can feel after washing your face and brushing your teeth after hours in the air!”


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