Commercial airlines open up the world for business and exploration. Routes that used to take weeks or months now take a few hours in a plane.
Flying can be fun and exciting, of course, but in recent years, the friendly skies have become a little (or a lot) less friendly. High fuel prices and operating costs have lowered the number of routes and reduced services provided by airlines. A business that started off as complicated (it is pretty incredible that those planes can fly, right?) has only gotten more complex.
These days, airline travel can be a boring hassle. Or worse. Keep reading to learn what your airline doesn't want you to know.
A Ticket Is Just a Piece of Paper
Just because you have a ticket and a reservation, don't think you'll head out on your intended flight. Overbooking is a common practice among airlines. It's an attempt to cut losses (or make profits) from passengers who don't show up. So your ticket is no guarantee that you'll get a seat.
If your flight is overbooked, the U.S. Department of Transportation requires the airline to ask for volunteers to be "bumped" from the flight. It'll get you on another flight, and the airline will offer some form of compensation -- perhaps expenses for meals while you wait, cash or a ticket voucher for another trip. If you're bumped involuntarily, the airline has specific DOT rules it must follow, including giving you cash compensation if its overbooking means you'll arrive more than an hour late at your destination.
Pilots Are Pooped
FAA domestic flight rules don't include a limit for the number of hours that a pilot can be on duty -- the organization simply has a limit of 8 hours of flight time for every 24 hours. If a pilot is scheduled for two or more flights in a day, delays on the ground for weather or other considerations can lengthen his or her time on duty, even though it may not affect actual time in the air. Add in the time for preflight checks, fueling and baggage loading, and your pilot may actually be on duty for 14 hours or more. To make matters worse, the mandatory 8 hours of rest time isn't all sleeping -- it includes driving, eating and getting ready for the next flight.
Frequent Flyer Miles Really Aren't Worth Much
Lots of airline companies out there are offering frequent flyer programs. That's great -- you can collect points from a bunch of different programs and come up with a boatload.
Here's the catch. There are so many frequent flyer points floating around that they're losing value. It takes a ton of points to earn tickets or upgrade to a better seat. In some cases, the points expire more quickly, too. A secondary problem with frequent flyer and reward points is that airlines tempt you to spend more money than you normally would, because you want to build up those points. Although frequent flyer programs can come in handy, they're not always a fantastic deal.
You'll Pay More for Your Flight Than the Ticket Price
That cheap fare you just booked will look different when you go to pay for it. In addition to taxes, your final price includes government-imposed fees for security, immigration, customs and agriculture inspections. It may also include fees for services and baggage. If you have to change your flight, you'll get hit with more fees.
Because airlines aren't required to include these fees in the ticket price, you don't learn about them until it's time to pay. There's a bonus for the airline, too. By separating fees from ticket prices, airlines avoid paying taxes on billions of dollars in revenue.
Their Planes Are Old
It's stretching the truth to say that some commercial airplanes are older than their pilots -- unless you look at age in miles and years. Just recently, a hole opened in the fuselage of a Boeing 737-300 during flight. The plane made a successful emergency landing, but subsequent FAA inspections revealed the plane had made over 40,000 flights -- more than seven flights per day during its 15 years in service.
Since a full inspection of an airplane's fuselage requires an electromagnetic device and takes a month to complete, inspections are usually limited to a few sections of the outer skin.
Your Plane Is a Revolving Door of Germs
Airlines stress that the cabin air is continually scrubbed of germs as it circulates through the airplane, and that's true. However, the air is also pressurized, which strips it of moisture. This drier-than-desert air dries out your mucous membranes and lowers your resistance to germs around you. If you're sitting within two rows of someone with a cold, the dry, recirculated air makes you more likely to become infected.
Even if you aren't seated near a sick person during your flight, you may still be at risk for infection. Airlines make money by keeping the planes full and flying. There's only a cursory cleaning -- if any cleaning takes place at all -- between flights. Cold and flu viruses can live for hours on surfaces, such as your seat, counters and faucets in the bathroom.
It's Easy to Shop Around for Cheaper Fares
All fares are not equal, and it pays (or saves) to shop around. You can often get better deals through discount travel sites.
Be sure to check out the Web sites of budget airlines directly. Some of them don't advertise their prices on fare comparison Web sites. Word gets around anyway, and their competitors will try to beat the budget flyers' prices.
And don't forget about all those add-on fees. Check for baggage and other additional costs before buying your ticket.
You Can Get a Discount on First Class
How many bargain shoppers do you know who check the price of first-class tickets? Probably not many. First-class seats are expensive -- and there's your advantage. Because of the price, first-class seats are often empty. Airlines don't like to fly with empty seats. Sometimes, they'll sell first-class tickets for the same price as a full-fare coach ticket. It's called a "Y-up fare." They're not always available, and if you have to change your travel plans, it could cost a bundle to change a Y-up ticket. But if you're sure about your plans and are willing to pay a little more for a lot more comfort, ask about Y-up availability when you book your flight.
It's Cheaper to Fly Some Times than Others
If you can be flexible about when you fly, you might score some good savings on your ticket. There are certain days, weeks, months and times of day that offer cheaper fares.
Wednesday, Tuesday and Saturday are the cheapest days to fly. Friday and Sunday are the most expensive. Tuesday afternoons through Thursday are good days to find sales on destinations. If you want the absolute cheapest fare, book your ticket for the red-eye flights or the earliest morning flight scheduled. Flights scheduled during lunch and dinner hours also tend to cost less.
The first half of January is a good time to buy tickets. Airlines run destination sales then, and available travel dates usually extend into spring. Fares are highest for peak travel seasons like summer, Thanksgiving and Christmas.
A Flight Delay Might Not Stop You
You're waiting at the airport and you've just heard that your plane is stuck in another city. Maybe the weather is keeping it grounded. Maybe it needs a part. Flight delays are common and unavoidable -- for your carrier. You, on the other hand, might still be able to get where you're going on time.
If you can't reach your destination on time because of a flight delay with the airline you bought the ticket from, that airline is required to put you on a competitors' flight if that flight will get you there sooner than the original airline's next scheduled flight. Of course, the competitor's plane must have an available seat for this rule to apply.
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