Every Travel Hack You Need to Fly Like a Damn Professional

Up in the Air George Clooney
Paramount Pictures
Paramount Pictures

Because I spend too much time going to weird places and eating, I'm constantly flying. And because I'm a judgmental, selfish person, I'm constantly trying to figure out ways to improve my quality of life while flying. And because I want to make your flying life better too, if only because I read a fortune cookie that says a high tide raises all boats, here are all of my tips, secrets, hacks, and non-buzz-related words to help you fly like a pre-sun-melting-mishap Icarus.

booking your flight

Remember to factor in all the additional fees

The first lesson in Flight Shopping 101, whether you’re flying a cheapo airline or not, is to consider all the added fees. Unless you’re planning to wear a week’s worth of clothes onboard and love middle seats, research what seat-selection and bag fees apply before salivating over a $49 fare to Phoenix. Remember, budget airlines charge for everrrrrrrrrything, and sometimes carry-on bags cost more than checked ones.

Search wisely

The Orbitzs, Kayaks, and Expedias of the world all work, ya know, fine. But if scoring the cheapest possible airfare is your topmost priority, make sure you’re also using apps like Hopper and sneaky-fare-finding sites like Skiplagged. Here are our eight favorite flight booking sites that’ll save you tons of money. And don’t forget about Southwest -- they don’t show up in third party search engines. They don’t charge for bags and often have nonstop routes other airlines don’t.

Beware the siren call of the unrealistic mini-layover

Look, nobody LOVES sitting in airports, just like nobody LOVES kale. You may be tempted by a quick 30-minute layover to minimize your time sitting around DFW. And I’m sure it will all work out for you -- if your flight is on time, if your connecting flight isn’t 2 miles and a bus ride away, if you don’t need to do something totally wild like use a bathroom. Airlines often overestimate their punctuality; if they screw up the first leg, they may hold your connecting plane, but then again they may not. Minimize the risk here and leave 60-90 minutes minimum between flights.

airline seats
Atstock Production/Shutterstock.com

Choose your seat wisely 

When selecting your seat, don't choose the empty row. Choose the row with one other person in it, as you'll scare people away from the dreaded middle seat. And for short flights, just sit closer to the front, even if you don't have as much space. You can get off the plane 10-15 minutes faster. And another pro tip: sit around the exit rows. You can't recline your seat but who actually cares on a non-red-eye? It won't affect anything, but somehow no one ever wants to sit in those because they feel like they're getting screwed not being able to put their seat back 4 to 6 inches. BE BETTER THAN THAT. 

Look up the size of your legroom

You might think the difference between 29 and 32 inches from seat to seat isn’t much. But as a person of size I will tell you, the relative leg room on a plane can run the gamut from certifiably “not-awful” to practices I’m pretty sure were outlawed by the Geneva convention. Take a look at SeatGuru to find out the “pitch” of your flight -- the front-to-back floor space a seat occupies -- which will help you decide if shelling out for Main Cabin Extra is worth it.

Research the aircraft if you plan on getting any work done

Once again, if you’re stuck in a seat with a 29-inch pitch, you’ll look like a T. rex typing on your laptop. Your itinerary should list what type of plane you’ll be flying on, and most airlines offer details on what’s included in terms of power outlets and Wi-Fi service. No power outlets on an overseas flight means you’re only as productive as your laptop battery. And even planes that have Wi-Fi don’t always have it for the entire flight. Emirates, for example, has full connectivity no matter where you’re flying. American, on the other hand, only has Wi-Fi when flying over the contiguous United States, and even then it can get spotty when flying over water.

Pick an airline and stick with it 

There are easy ways to find out the best frequent-flyer programs, but once you choose one, stick with that airline as much as possible. Consider even getting a credit card with rewards points. Status equals faster security lines, free checked bags, free food and movies on board, winning smiles from flight attendants, and possibly even those cool wings from the pilot. However, you should basically have a backup rewards plan with an airline that flies to the places your main airline doesn't. Southwest's Rapid Rewards is a solid alternate move, because the perks come in quickly, and it flies to those random secondary cities most other airlines don't.

before you board

Remember these three things about luggage

1. If you are going on a trip that is 48 hours or less, you should be able to fit everything you need in a smartly designed backpack or small duffel that could, if need be, fit under your seat (plus a hanging bag that most airlines will take and stow for you if you ask). 

2. If you have to check bags, most good rewards programs allow you at least one free. So make sure you're taking advantage of that. 

3. If you're in a paying situation, you can often just take your bag through security and then check it at the gate for free (flight attendants admit they'll do it). If your bag is too big to fit through security, and you're going away for less than a week, ask yourself: Who do you think you are, anyway?

baggage claim
Vietnam Stock Images/Shutterstock.com

Pack some essentials in your carry-on

If you’re checking, pack at least one change of clothes in your carry-on – especially when flying on small, regional planes. If your trip involves one or more connections on a mini-plane, the odds of your bag arriving with you are about as good as the Cleveland Browns winning four games. Though big airlines don’t lose your luggage much, with tight connections or just plain incompetence, it can happen. So always keep your toothbrush, deodorant, and one change of clothes in a carry-on in case they do.

Pick a parking shuttle 

Unless you live close enough for public transportation, pick a parking shuttle that has extra perks for repeat customers. I use one in San Francisco (SkyPark) that has not-that-bad donuts, several newspapers, and will even wash and fix your car while you're gone. Coming back to a clean, not-broken car is, in many ways, better than even going on a trip. 

Curbside check your bags

It sucks walking into an airport and seeing a line so long you’d swear they’re handing out free burritos at the front. Most airports have an army of slightly-surly gentlemen outside who, for a small gratuity, will check you and your bag into your final destination, with a fraction of the people in front of you. They’re called skycaps, and though some airports have abandoned them, if you’re somewhere this is an option, it can save you some serious time.

Wait to upgrade 

If you wait until the day of your flight, you can often pay less for an upgrade, as they are incentivized to fill those seats. Prices often fluctuate depending on whether the flight is considered short, medium, or long, but I often find that medium-length flights (around three hours) are the best deal to upgrade. Don't bother with two hours or less: You can suck it up for those. 

Elena Ellesseeva/Shutterstock.com

Invest in a quick security-line solution

If you fly even somewhat frequently, a membership in Clear or TSA PreCheck ends up paying for itself in terms of not making you want to stab your eyes with brass letter openers every time you go through security. If Clear exists in your home city, definitely get that, as that means you can use it for 50% of all of your flights. 

All lines are not created equal 

If you can't skip the line, be smart about which security terminal you use. I've found in particularly crowded airports that it's sometimes faster -- once you get your ticket -- to actually go to a less crowded terminal and walk or take a shuttle over to your gate once you're through the security line.

Know the best restaurants/bars/convenience stores

Pre-scout your terminal for the best food/drink so you're not wasting your time eating a weird egg salad sandwich wrapped in plastic from one of those little bins next to the Luden's cough drops. Need a helpful reference guide? Check this and this.

on the plane

Have your snack-and-drink game locked down

One of the most crucial unwritten rules of flying (except now we wrote them down so you could learn proper airplane etiquette and act like a dignified human when you're packed in a metal tube with strangers) is never bring hot, smelly food on a plane. DON'T DO IT. 

Do bring: 
--A big thing of water
--Trail mix 
--A bar that isn't just pretending to be a candy bar, unless you feel like eating a candy bar, in which case -- just buy a damn candy bar 
--Your own PB&J if you're under 13 but weirdly reading this story  
--Mint gum 
--Cough drops 

(Also, here's how to make a nutritious lunch entirely out of items sold at an airport newsstand.)

Don't bring: 
--TUNA OF ANY KIND. This is in caps lock for a reason. I will find you and give you incredibly hostile looks. 
--Any "salad" sandwich. Tuna is one of these "salads." 
--Fish soup 
--Anything that you'd describe as "pungent" or "messy"
--Motherfucking snakes 

Know the internet will suck on morning weekday flights 

Because everyone is flying for work, and everyone is going to need to use their computer, and the internet is essentially like a public pool -- the more people in it, the slower you're swimming. If you can, pick afternoon flights, or try and use the first hour or two of a red-eye to do work. Or follow these other travel Wi-Fi tips. Weekend flights have amazingly fast internet because no one wants to do anything but watch Property Brothers and vape.

Flight Attendants
Flickr/Al Pavangkanan

Befriend the flight attendants 

When we asked flight attendants what they hate most about their jobs, their biggest complaint was rude, irrationally angry passengers. Realize that flight attendants are not airline management, and are usually in no way to blame for delays (they only get paid when the plane is in the air), and maybe, ya know, try being nice to them instead. Don't be too eager and annoying, because that'll just make them hate you and erroneously blame you for farts in your area, but if you're cool when you're waiting for the bathroom and you ask them interesting questions and show you’re funny and have good taste in Kelme sneakers, you can get all sorts of hookups. Also, they can tell you how to have sex on the plane.

Never use the bathroom during beverage service

It only takes one time walking out of the bathroom, seeing the beverage cart 20 rows in front of you blocking the way to your seat, and being forced to make small talk with someone whose face is 8 inches from your crotch, to learn to never do this again. Either jump up as soon as the 10,000-foot bell goes off, or wait until after the beverage service is done.

If you have to poop, remember this 

It's actually better to go when there's a small line, rather than no line, to avoid detection as the pooper. Treat it like a bar bathroom in terms of expediency and courtesy flushes. And this is the most crucial: act like you, too, are grossed out by whomever pooped BEFORE you when you come out of the bathroom. Maintain eye contact with the next person. Losing eye contact will prove that you are ashamed and thus were the pooper.

Also take this pearl of wisdom from Neil Patrick Harris' flying and packing tips to help cover your tracks:  "You laugh, but this is effective -- use hand soap. Put it on your hands and all over your arms, and do, like, tai chi moves with your arms. Then wash your hands, and then the bathroom doesn't smell like your stuff. Every time I do it I'm impressed with myself."

Get up and stretch every 90 minutes or so 

I read somewhere that your legs atrophy and you get blood clots and possibly die if you don't. I REALLY READ THAT SOMEWHERE. 

And when you're getting off the plane... 

... leave when it's your turn. Don't try and bull-rush past your row swinging your roller bag like a Quidditch broom. Help older people and little people getting their bags out of the overheads. Don't be a dick. Thank the pilot. Fist-bump the flight attendant. Stare down the tuna salad person. And be on your way. 

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Matt Meltzer is a contributing writer to Thrillist who’s still waiting on the FAA to “look into” shrinking seat sizes. Follow him on Instagram @meltrez1