Rocky’s travel secrets for your holiday travel

With the start of the holiday travel season this Wednesday, planes will be fuller, patience shorter and the weather more worrisome. Traveling around the holidays can be a trying experience.

I’ve spent much of my life on airplanes. I’ve flown more than a million miles and earned more than 4 million frequent flier miles. “Up in the Air” felt strangely biographical. Over the years, I’ve developed strategies for coping with the hassles of air travel. I hope you don’t need any of them on your travels, but just in case, here they are:

The 36,000 foot view

  • It’s not about you. Don’t take flight cancellations or being involuntarily bumped personally. No one is out to get you. Running an airline is an incredibly hard business even on a good day. Add in miserable weather and high loads and a lot of people are going to be unhappy. As much as their decisions might inconvenience you, there’s usually (though not always) logic behind the decisions. Decisions take into account numerous factors including number of passengers inconvenienced, crew availability, availability of alternate flights and aircraft positioning.
  • Life’s not fair. The airline business is a business. It’s rarely first come, first served. If there’s a long standby list, the 100,000 mile traveler who walks up 5 minutes before they start clearing standbys will get the seat over someone who flies once a year on cheap tickets and has been waiting 2 hours. Although the rules vary by airline, priority lists typically take into account things like frequent flier status, class of service, previous inconvenience, whether you are in a connecting city and fare paid and time of check in. I’ve often watched as airlines denied boarding to people who booked their tickets months earlier and checked in well ahead of time.
  • OK, it’s a little about you. Despite these priority rules, gate agents do have some discretion to change your priority. If you’ve got a solid reason, it can’t hurt to ask. Customers who were bumped from previous flights sometimes get this kind of treatment. I’ve also seen this done for passengers traveling to distant international destinations with infrequent service. As a no-status, poor college student on a bargain ticket, I once had a kind gate agent bump a passenger off a flight for me because my brother was in the hospital.
  • Be nice. People want to help people who are nice to them. The fastest way to get an agent to not help you is to start making demands, threaten to sue or start swearing. I witnessed one passenger in Las Vegas call an agent a “bitch” under his breath as he walked away. She called the gate he was going to and told that agent about it.

Booking your tickets

You can increase your odds for a successful trip beginning with how you book, especially if you’re flying from, to or through places like Chicago, Minneapolis, Denver or the Northeast, which are susceptible to snowstorms.

  • Avoid regional jets, turbo props or other commuter flights. When airports such as Chicago get slammed with bad weather, airlines will cancel smaller planes first. It makes sense — with limited landing and takeoff slots, it’s better to use them for 150 passengers than 50 passengers. If the town you want to fly to can’t be reached on a mainline jet, consider an alternative airport within driving distance.
  • Avoid connections. It may be tempting to save $50 by flying through Chicago or Minneapolis, but each connection increases the risk of things going wrong. It also increases you odds of being stranded in a city that is neither your home nor your destination. Fly nonstop if possible. If you have to connect, try routing through a warm weather city like Atlanta, Houston or Dallas. Be careful to avoid “direct” flights, which look like nonstops but really have a connection.
  • Avoid smaller, startup carriers. Virgin America is my favorite domestic airline, but it’s tough to recommend it for snowy destinations during the holidays. Because they have a small fleet, it’s much harder to recover when things go really wrong, and a lot of passengers are stranded. A legacy carrier like Delta or United can send a rescue plane to reposition stranded carriers — one 747 can carry more than 3 small planes worth of passengers. The majors also have better automated systems for rebooking mass cancellations. This holiday season is likely to be even tougher for Virgin America passengers because the airline recently swapped out its reservation system. (Virgin America spokeswoman Abby Lunardini says the new system will allow the airline to offer automated rebooking in the future.)
  • Book flights for earlier in the day. Delays tend to cascade through the day. If you’re on the last flight out, you have few options.

Travel technology

The travel industry is one of the most eager adopters of technology. With the right tools, you can have a significant advantage over fellow travelers.

  • Sign up for your airline’s text alerts. Some carriers will re-book you automatically when there are cancellations or delays and text the updated information to you.
  • Get the right apps. My must-have travel apps are Kayak, TripIt, GateGuru and Priceline. Kayak lets you quickly search for alternate flights. TripIt keeps tabs on your itinerary. (Pro members get real-time alerts and alternative flight suggestions.) GateGuru will show you all the bars, restaurants and other amenities at the airport. (They are even categorized as inside or outside security.) Priceline can help you get a cheap room if you find yourself stuck. These apps are all available on iPhone and Android.
  • Follow your airline on Twitter. Airlines will post systemwide updates on their Twitter feeds. Some airlines, like Virgin America, actively monitor mentions and will try to help with some concerns. (Don’t waste your SMS on United.)
  • Put your cell phone and laptop chargers in your carry on. If you suffer long delays, there’s a good chance you’ll run out of power. You might need these tools to help book your next flight. If you find that you’re running out of power, look for a “power save” mode, which usually lets you eke out some more use by dimming the screen or throttling the processor.
  • Put a pair of headphones in your laptop bag. With a laptop, headphones and Wifi, you can amuse yourself while you wait for your next flight. I’ve spent many delays watching Hulu. It won’t make your delay any shorter, but it will feel like it.
  • Buy a travel power strip. Finding power in some airports can be a real challenge. And when you do find an outlet, there’s a good chance someone beat you to it. I love my Monster 3-in-1 plus USB power strip.

At the airport

  • Look at the departure boards for other flights to your destination. If your flight is canceled, look to see which gate the next flight to your destination is going out from. If it’s in the next hour, high tail it to that gate and ask the agent to get you on that flight. Again, be on your phone with reservations as you’re walking and standing in line. (A Bluetooth headset is great for this.) If your flight is a few hours away, chances are no one is working that flight yet.
  • Call the airline when your flight is canceled. Usually the gate agent will tell you to go to the customer service desk for help. Don’t do it. At least not before you call the airline. Get on your cell phone with reservations and ask them for help. Ideally, you’ll do this while you’re walking toward customer service or standing in line. It’s a good idea to have the phone number in your speed dial so you don’t have to fumble for it. With advances in technology, a phone rep can rebook you and email a new boarding pass to you. That sure beats waiting in a 90 minute line at the airport! Phone reps generally can’t issue hotel or food vouchers. But if the cancellation or delay was because of weather, you typically wouldn’t get them anyway.
  • Look for an empty gate with an unoccupied agent. Gate agents can help you with other flights, but won’t do it if they’re busy running their own flight. Be polite, ask respectfully and you might save yourself a long wait in line.
  • Consider an airline club day pass. Airlines sell memberships to executive lounges. These provide an oasis from the masses. The agents seem to be among the best trained and more lenient in interpreting the rules. A day pass will cost $35-$50, but can be well worth it when the rest of the airport is a madhouse.
  • Be flexible. If you’re traveling to an area with multiple airports within reasonable driving distance, consider taking flights there. If the change was the airline’s fault, they’ll usually pay to get you where you should’ve been. If it was weather or air-traffic control related, you’re on your own.
  • Call your friends. If you’re stuck and have a well-traveled friend, give them a call. I have a couple of people I can call when I get stuck to look up flight availability, hotels and other alternatives. Because they’re not dealing with dozens of other people, they can look at a wider range of options. Although they can’t rebook your flight, they can give you a good picture of what your choices are. With options in hand, you become a gate agent’s friend by making their job easier.
  • If you have a really sticky problem, try FlyerTalk. FlyerTalk is the ultimate travel resource. It’s populated by ultra-frequent travelers. Many of them know more about airline reservations and ticketing than the typical reservations agent. Do a search to see if your problem is already covered. If it isn’t, pick the appropriate forum for your airline and post your question. Be sure you provide all the pertinent information, but don’t post things like confirmation numbers.
  • Don’t put too much stock in the flight status boards. When there is extreme weather and a lot of cancellations, the flight status boards are usually fiction. The times shown are best guesses and can change frequently. It’s important to know that they can also become earlier. I’ve seen a flight go from a scheduled 9:30 p.m. to 12:30 a.m. back to an on time departure. It actually left at 11:00 p.m., so the people who relied on the 12:30 a.m. time missed it. If you leave the gate area, use your cell phone or laptop and check on the flight every 15 minutes or so.
  • If the entire airport is shut down for the day, leave. If you’re at your origin airport, go home. If you’re at a connecting city, get a hotel room. No good will come of waiting in the customer service lines. It will just be a maddening experience. Away from the airport, take a deep breath, relax, get some cocoa (or bourbon) and check the airline’s Web site. Many airlines will post the details of travel waivers and give you online re-booking options.

Most of all, remember that it is the holidays and many people are in the same boat. Instead of whining and moping, chat up your neighbors or head to the bar. I once spent a long delay helping other passengers research alternative flight options on my laptop.

Bon voyage!

Rocky Agrawal is an analyst focused on the intersection of local, social and mobile. He is a principal analyst at reDesign mobile. Previously, he launched local and mobile products for Microsoft and AOL. He blogs at http://blog.agrawals.org and tweets at @rakeshlobster.

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