After spending over a decade working as a flight attendant at three different major airlines, I’ve picked up more than a few travel tips that the general public doesn’t know. I flew one to four (sometimes five!) flights a day during the fifteen days I was scheduled to work each month, giving me the chance to understand how airlines handle delays, cancellations, rebookings, oversold flights, lost luggage, upgrades and any other positive or negative experience a passenger may encounter. I was also fortunate enough to meet and chat with many travelers, learning different ways frequent flyers, business travelers, and even vacationers maximize airline points, perks, and promotions to save money, get an upgrade or even travel for free. Now, having clipped my wings a few years ago, I’ve made the transition from the jumpseat to the window seat and use these three money-saving tips when I travel.
Fly First, Not Last
Sure first class is comfortable, but that’s not what I’m talking about. When flight attendants travel on stand-by, they generally try to get on the first flight of the day, and you should too. It may be early, but these flights are usually cheaper because fewer people voluntarily pay to wake up and travel to an airport before 7 a.m. These flights also have a high “no-show” factor, which accounts for passengers who overslept or decided the night before they weren’t taking their flight but didn’t cancel the reservation, so they just don’t show up. This creates a higher likelihood for empty seats that could be given to those waiting on stand-by or simply to give the passengers on-board a bit more space.
If you’re looking to arrive on time (and who isn’t?), in most cases, the aircraft operating the flight is an “originator,” meaning it’s the first flight of the day for that specific airplane, or it remained overnight at the airport (insiders would call this a “RON”), therefore your plane is already in position for your flight. Airlines try extremely hard not to delay an aircraft’s first flight of the day because it’ll cause a ripple effect for all of the flights that specific airplane will operate for the rest of the day.
Lastly, should weather affect an on-time departure or cause a cancellation, passengers on the first flight have the benefit of subsequent flights to be rebooked on. Airlines aren’t required to pay for hotels or meals when an issue is weather-related. That could be weather where you are, where you’re going, en-route, or where your aircraft is coming from; a lot can be “caused” by weather and that could mean some unexpected expenses for those booked on flights later in the day.
Don’t Be Afraid of Oversold Flights
For those travelers that aren’t on a set schedule or can adapt to a later arrival, a money-saving opportunity may be found by booking flights that have a high likelihood of being oversold such as flights departing on Friday and Sunday between the hours of 1 p.m. and 6 p.m. These departures, before and after the weekend, are in high demand so most airlines oversell them knowing they can make some extra money by booking seats that don’t exist. They take the gamble that some people won’t show up or will misconnect, opening up seats to be filled by passengers who’ve already paid to be on board, keeping the flight profitable. However, when everyone does show up and check in, the airline has to pay.
If a passenger is involuntarily denied boarding due to an oversold flight, federal regulations require the airline to pay high fees and compensation, so they do everything they can to avoid that and they start by asking for volunteers to take a later flight. This puts the traveler able to take a later flight in the driver’s seat of a negotiation that could score big returns. I found myself in this exact situation flying from Phoenix to San Diego. I approached the gate counter and identified myself as a volunteer. The gate agent told me that they could offer a $250 future flight credit if I could take a flight departing four hours later and they could bump me to first class. I wavered, stating that the offer sounded good, except that I would be missing dinner with friends which was one of the reasons for the trip. The agent then sweetened the deal by adding in a lounge pass to eat dinner and a refund of what I paid for the flight I would no longer be taking. Deal! I scored a $250 for a future flight credit, a free first class upgrade, and lounge access for free with a $90 refund.
Miles Aren’t Just For Round Trip Tickets
One of the biggest perks of joining an airlines’ loyalty program, aside from earning elite status, is the ability to accrue miles that you can cash in for free flights. Over the past few years, the industry has drastically changed how those miles are earned, dropping the one mile earned for one mile flown formula and transitioning to miles earned per dollar spent. However, when it comes to redeeming those miles, everyone is on an even playing field.
The most common thought is to exchange miles for a free round-trip ticket, but many don’t realize you can use your miles for a 50 percent discount on a round-trip reservation.
For example, if you wanted to fly from New York to Los Angeles and back, use your miles for the one-way segment from New York to Los Angeles, and pay for your return ticket. Although you’ve redeemed miles to get to your destination, you’re earning miles on the return flight you’ve paid for, therefore putting miles back into your account while only paying for one flight out of pocket, scoring 50 percent off.
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