I’m not an ultra frequent flyer, but I have spent time on some planes and had a short stint as a contract worker for an airline, in a sort-of actual airport. As such, I feel just as qualified as anybody else to provide a bunch of unsolicited travel advice to my friends on the internet.
So, here are my favorite logistical travel tips and tricks, beyond stuff like “learn a few words in the destination language.”
Get TSA PreCheck
You don’t have to take your shoes off, you can leave your laptop in your bag, you don’t need to present your quart-sized baggie of liquids, and there’s hardly ever a line. Even if you fly just once a year, this is 100% worth it. (Your membership lasts 5 years, so it's less than $20/year.)
If you don’t do the PreCheck thing, then make sure all the stuff you have to remove isn’t buried deep in your bag. Front zipper compartments are your friend here, or lay things across the top as close to the zipper as possible. And absolutely never inside a hard-sided rolly bag that you’d have to splay open at security.
Avoid checking a bag at all costs
Especially if you’re on a connecting flight. You might have a whole hour or two to get your human body from one plane to another, but your bag’s got a shorter deadline and a different, more logistically difficult journey. If you don’t want to get split up, go carry-on only.
Carry-on only also means you don't have to worry about getting to the airport as early or waiting in line to have your bag tagged and sent on its way. Once you land at your destination, you can just get off the plane and walk out the door. When you're flying domestically, this combined with TSA PreCheck is the fastest way in and out of an airport possible.
...Okay, the one time it is fine to check a bag
If I'm flying home from a trip and sick of my shit, I sometimes consider checking a bag. In fact, it can be pretty dang luxurious, even if you have to get to the airport a little earlier to do it.
As long as you don't have anything in there you wouldn't mind being separated from for a couple of days and you've removed all your valuables, pull out a pair of underpants and a toothbrush to keep with you (in case you're stranded on a layover) and enjoy making your way through the airport all unencumbered. Heck, even buy a bunch of shit in the airport to carry around instead! Your arms are (mostly) free, you can do anything! Without anything to stuff in the overhead bins, you can even be the last one to hop on the plane just before it takes off, like you're some kind of celebrity! LUX-UR-Y.
Check in for your flight online
Probably an obvious one, but always check in online 24 hours before your flight. Even if you're out at the bar partying it up the night before you fly... set an alarm and do it anyway. If you’ve stuck with the first two rules and you screenshot your boarding pass, then you’re basically walking a straight path to the gate when you get to the airport.
But there are two other good reasons to check in early:
1) While I'm not sure if things have changed in the years since I worked at an airline, there were regularly blocks of good seats pre-reserved that got released leading up to the flight. If you hated your seat assignment when you originally booked, you might be able to find a better one when it's time to check in online (or also the next day at the airport).
2) And in the event your flight’s been overbooked and no one volunteers to stay behind, passengers will get booted based on time of check in. You’re less likely to be involuntarily bumped if you've made sure to check in on time.
Take bribes from the airline
But speaking of overbooked flights, volunteering to take a later flight can be totally worth it. Airlines bribe people to volunteer with stuff like cash, vouchers, miles, all kinds of good stuff.
This is where flexibility pays! I’ve gotten my money back, a free re-booking on the next flight, plus a couple hundred dollars worth of flight credits all for simply agreeing to fly out on the next plane (or skip my trip entirely).
Particularly when the terminal’s super busy, or there’s been a cancellation and mobs of people are behaving at their worst, send some positive vibes to the staff. This doesn’t need to be complicated: chocolate, candy, snacks - all pretty easy to travel with or acquire in an airport. If I’m buying a bunch of souvenir food items to bring home for friends and family (like regional candy or something), I’ll get extra to also swing by the desk at the gate and/or the galley of the plane.
Heck yes, on occasion, nice things happen and you might get rewarded for this behavior. But don’t be a creep. Don’t expect anything in return. Just be happy you're helping undo of the damage of thousands of angry jerks that came before you, for the good of all future employees and travelers (yourself included).
Lounge it up
My credit card comes with a Priority Pass membership, which I overlooked for incredibly too long. When I finally remembered to activate my membership before a trip, I instantly morphed into my new travel alter-ego, "Bougie Chic Traveler Lady."
Lounges are a reliable source of bottomless snacks, clean bathrooms, comfy seats, and often even free booze, calming views, and fancy showers. Check to see if your credit card offers this, and DO! NOT! HESITATE! There is free food on the line here!
Bring power banks
You can never have too many power banks, as far as I’m concerned. They’re clutch on the plane (I have never had an outlet at my seat that worked properly), when there aren’t any seats near outlets at the gate, in hotels/AirBnbs that don’t have a convenient nightstand outlet, or when you’re out and about using up all your batteries looking at maps and calling Lyfts.
I also travel with a baby power strip that comes in handy in hotel rooms and public spaces with limited outlets. It's an easy way to be friendly to neighbors in cafes and airports, and to also never be out of luck because someone's already using an outlet.
Search on OTAs and metasearch engines, then book direct
OTAs are online travel agents: third-party aggregators like Expedia and Booking.com that get a commission when you book through them. Metasearch engines (Momondo, Google Flights, etc.) grab and and display pricing across a bunch of different travel sites and major companies. Both are super useful tools to find the best prices across multiple airlines and hotel properties. (Note: Southwest doesn’t list on OTAs, so I always price compare flights on their site with what I find on Hipmunk or Google Flights.)
When it’s time to book though, always book direct. If their pricing isn’t as cheap as what you’ve found via an OTA, call. Hotels almost always match the rate since it means they can avoid the commission.
Booking direct means fewer hassles if anything goes wrong, better chances for getting special requests filled, being able to use mileage accounts and rewards programs, and better service all around since you’re generating more actual revenue for the hotel than an OTA guest.
Use SeatGuru for long flights
Check SeatGuru for details about where the best seats on the actual type of plane you’ll be on will be. It shows you stuff like which seats are bad and why, how to find a spot behind a seat that has limited recline (very sneaky!), and where all the bathrooms are. This is super handy for longer flights or red-eyes, when you’re looking for a spot that will make it easiest for you to be vaguely comfortable.
Remember that you can get a flight refund within 24 hours
When you book directly with an airline, you always have 24 hours to cancel with no fee. This isn’t an airline rule, it’s a DOT regulation that applies to all major US airlines. (Technically, the rule is “as long as you book at least a week in advance,” but it doesn’t seem like that’s enforced very strictly as long as the flight’s at least a few days away.) Take advantage of this when you need to snag a good deal for you and your travel buddy, but won’t be able to check with them for a few hours.
Know what you’re booking
The price listed isn’t ever the full story. Check the fare classes on flights you're browsing, especially now that “Basic Economy” is a thing. The crappiest fare classes look the cheapest when you see them on a list, but you’ll end up paying extra fees for simple things like choosing a seat in advance or even bringing a carry-on.
With hotels, keep in mind that OTAs and search listings are listing prices before taxes and resort fees, which can vary enough from hotel to hotel to throw their entire "sort by price" situation off. And because I like traveling locally with my dog, I'm always on the lookout for outrageous dog fees, weight limits, and breed bans (aka doggie racism).
Email yourself copies of everything you need
Take photos of your credit cards (front and back), your ID, your passport, whatever would be super inconvenient to lose access to, and store them on Dropbox or email them to yourself. They'll be way easier to cancel and replace in case you lose them. Physical photocopies are good, but if you lose all of your stuff, you'll probably lose these too.
Make heavy use of a travel credit card
If you're good about paying your statements in full, you can really take advantage of those fancy-ass travel credit cards.
I put everything I possibly can on either my Chase Freedom Unlimited or Chase Sapphire Reserve card depending on which card gives me more points for the purchase. Heck, I even pay attention to when certain spending categories offer bonus points and those little promotional ways to get more points. As a result, I've been able to stack up enough Ultimate Rewards points to redeem for international flights, long hotel stays, and otherwise-crazy-expensive upgrades I'd never ever pay real money for. And did I mention free airport lounge access and TSA PreCheck?!
I'm still learning about how to best use my points, but even when I trade them in for something that's not the "optimal point value," I feel like I've won some kind of sweepstakes. Bougie Chic Traveler Lady strikes again!
If you have a favorite tip or some advice to share, let me know!