Did you know passenger airline services are less than 100 years old?  It took less than a century to enable people to go anywhere in the world, often in less than one day. Flying is often the fastest way to get to your destination, often with comfortable seats, a cool drink, and in-flight entertainment.  Thanks to federal aviation regulations, United States airline companies are pretty good at it.

Purchasing airline tickets to get there and back on a budget can become complicated. There are numerous rules, exceptions, liabilities and considerations most consumers do not give much thought to. The International Trade Association reports about three out of ten people travel WITHOUT travel insurance.  That’s scary when you consider emergency medical evacuation can cost $50,000 or more.

Try using these tips to get an edge on your next airplane trip. If you know your rights and understand how flights are priced, you may find yourself in a better position when things don’t go as planned.

Getting the best deal

Getting a good fare on your flight will go a long way to lowering the total cost of your trip. A Consumer Guide to Air Travel from the United States Department of Transportation (US DOT) is a good read. Their booklet explains your rights and responsibilities as an air traveler and shows you how to avoid problems. It can help you become a resourceful consumer, with considerations like:

  • Are you more concerned with price or with the schedule?
  • Are you willing to fly at a less convenient time if it means saving $25?
  • Will the airline penalize you for changing your reservation?
  • Will you have to pay extra for checked bags or seat assignments?
  • What will the airline do for you if it cancels the flight?

You can purchase tickets online from aggregated ticketing websites like Expedia or Orbitz.  You can also buy them directly from an airline, although airlines may charge more depending on how you book your flight. Travel agents are making a huge comeback because of their ability to tailor a trip to your style and preferences.  Here are some BIG ideas to make your travel awesome:

  • Plan way, way ahead: Bargains sell out quickly on flights. For the best deals, book way in advance of your trip. If you happen to be traveling during the holidays, try to book a year in advance if possible, and watch out for those blackout dates! Blackout dates are the most popular travel times when prices can go ‘sky high.’
    Planning ahead will also help you be a little more flexible with your trip time. A lot of the cheapest flights may be limited to certain days of the week – usually Saturday, or in the middle of the week. If you book early and schedule your trip around when you can get the best deal, you could save a lot of money. You should also book earlier in the day if you can. Early flights are not as likely to suffer delays.
  • Shop around: If you have a choice of a few airlines, check them all. They could be offering very different rates for similar flights. If you want to save time and money, you can use a quality price-comparison site to find the best deal at any given time.
  • Keep quality in mind: Not all flights are created equal. Do you know if you have a layover midway between two flights? If so, do you know if your bags will be transferred between planes or if you will have to do it? Do you know what your flight’s on-time performance is? Check it out at the Bureau of Transportation Statistics.   
  • Direct Flight Rule: No time for stopovers or hubs? The Direct Flight Rule entitles you to ask for the most direct route for your destination.
  • Keep an eye on the prize: Fares can drop between the time you purchase your ticket and when you depart. Call your airline or ticketing agent a couple of times before departure to ask about current fares. Some airlines will refund the difference or give you the equivalent in transportation credits if the price of your ticket goes down after purchase.
  • Caution: It’s great to get a good deal on airfare, but be wary of catches. Most discount fares are non-refundable. If you have to cancel your trip or change your flight, you probably won’t get your money back. There may also be penalties for changing flights or dates. Check out trip insurance if you think this is likely.
  • Get insurance: You’re going to need travel medical insurance for your trip, and you might want to get cancellation insurance as well.  Beware, if there’s a “named event” probability at your destination – like a hurricane, for example – and you book anyway, you may not be entitled for compensation when it occurs. Always do your research and know the risks before you book. Book your insurance independently.  You may not be getting the best coverage for your needs if you buy bulk from a ticketing company.

Delays, cancellations and more

Some elements of plane travel are out of your control. No one can control bad weather.  However, knowing your consumer rights around air traffic delays or mechanical trouble can reduce stress and give your more options.  

  • Assess your situation: What if your flight is behind schedule? Do you know how late it is, or what is causing the problem? If you’re in for a lengthy delay, try arranging another flight. If you booked through a travel agent or purchased travel insurance, these agents can be a lifesaver. If the delay is something the airline owns and controls you may be entitled to compensation.  
  • Canceled: If your flight is canceled, most airlines will rebook you for the next available flight at no additional charge, or provide you with a travel voucher.
  • Overbooked: Most airlines overbook their flights to compensate for potential no-shows. If the flight runs out of seats, the airline is required to ask passengers who are not in a hurry to get bumped to a later flight, usually with the promise of a voucher good for future flights.  If you’ve been bumped against your will, you’re entitled to compensation – with a few exceptions. If you’re in no hurry, you can allow yourself to be bumped voluntarily for a later flight and accept compensation for your time. But before you allow yourself to be bumped, ask if they can confirm your seat on the next flight. You should also ask if they can provide amenities like free meals, hotel rooms, transfers and phone cards for your stay. If you’re offered free tickets or vouchers for volunteering to get bumped, make sure you know if they come with any restrictions. You can also ask for monetary compensation instead of a voucher which may be worth more.
  • Flat tire: Let’s say your flight isn’t delayed – you are. If you can’t get to the airport on time to catch your flight, don’t give up. You can usually – but not always – catch the next flight without having to pay a fee. This phenomenon is called the “flat tire rule,” because it refers to uncontrollable mishaps that might come between you and your flight. The flat tire rule is informal and is built on trust and customer relationships.  Call your airline as soon as you know you cannot make it and ask them for consideration.
  • Missing a wedding: Are you flying out for an important meeting or a friend’s wedding? If you can prove economic harm, some airlines will compensate you for your trouble. This doesn’t apply to weather delays, or other mishaps out of the airline’s control.
  • Stuck on the tarmac: Don’t worry – you’re not going to be stranded or hungry for too long on the tarmac. If your plane has been sitting on the tarmac for longer than three hours, airlines are required to allow passengers to deplane. There can be fines of thousands of dollars for airlines who are not in compliance.
  • Rule 240: Are there no realistic replacements for your canceled or delayed flight offered by your airline? If you don’t find your replacement transportation arrangement acceptable, you can asked to be scheduled on the next flight at a competing airline at no additional cost to you.

Bags, bags, bags

Your trip is going to get off to a rocky start if your baggage does not make it to your destination safely. It does not happen often because airlines are pretty amazing at getting your luggage and you to your destination. Here are a few tips so you know your rights and your resources when it comes to lost luggage:

  • Plan for mishaps: Your luggage can get lost, stolen or damaged even on the best airline. Stack the deck in your favor by packing smart. Keep small valuables like cash and credit cards, critical items like medicine and your passport, irreplaceables like your jewelry and personal computer, and fragile items like eye-glasses and contact lenses in your carry-on bag, so they are always with you.  It’s smart to include a quick change of clothes in case your bag is lost.  Tossing in a few snacks and toiletry items can come in handy in a pinch.
  • Keep your paperwork: Your luggage will be tagged to arrive at your destination, and you will be given the stub. Hold onto these.  They are useful to track lost luggage.  
  • If there’s damage: If your luggage gets smashed or torn, most airlines will agree to repair it or compensate you. The same goes for the things you stow inside. Although if some of the items in your suitcase are damaged but there’s no external damage on your suitcase, the airline might refuse to pay.
  • If your bags get lost: If your luggage has been officially “lost,” you’ll have to file a claim to the airline’s central office. Make sure you get this claim in on time. If you don’t, your compensation may be denied. If you’re carrying valuable items in your suitcase, you might want to keep documentation of their value. If you don’t have records about the value of the objects, the airline may try to negotiate a depreciated compensation for them. If the airline offers you free tickets or vouchers as compensation, check on restrictions before accepting. Special note: many credit card companies also insure products you buy with the credit card – like suitcases!
  • Liability: There are maximum values to liability when it comes to delayed, lost or checked baggage. For international flights, this limit is established by the Montreal Convention, and the liability ceiling adjusts for inflation every five years. At the time of writing this, that limit is $3,500.

    In the carriage of baggage, the liability of the carrier in the case of destruction, loss, damage or delay is limited to 1,000 Special Drawing Rights for each passenger unless the passenger has made, at the time when the checked baggage was handed over to the carrier, a special declaration of interest in delivery at destination and has paid a supplementary sum if the case so requires. In that case the carrier will be liable to pay a sum not exceeding the declared sum, unless it proves that the sum is greater than the passenger’s actual interest in delivery at destination.”
  • Car trouble: If you’re planning on renting a car at your destination, you have to declare any additional people who may drive the car besides yourself. There are added fees for each additional person. If your spouse or family member is the one driving with you, you may be able to get the fee waived. Make sure you inquire whether this benefit is available to you. Check with you care insurance carrier to determine if you can waive insurance in a foreign destination.  Most of the time, the answer is no.

Stick up for yourself

If you feel the airline has not followed through on your flight rights, you can make an appeal to the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) for fairness.

You can call the US DOT Aviation Consumer Protection Division (ACPD) at any time of the day at 24 202-366-2220 (TTY 202-366-0511). You can also contact them via snail mail:

Aviation Consumer Protection Division, C-75

U.S. Department of Transportation

1200 New Jersey Ave. S.E.

Washington, D.C. 20590

Finally, you can also contact the ACPD and file a complaint or inquiry online. Be sure to include your address and daytime telephone number so they can get in touch with you.

If your complaint is less about a nuisance and more about a safety concern, contact the Federal Aviation Administration:

Federal Aviation Administration

Aviation Safety Hotline, AAI-3

800 Independence Avenue, SW

Washington, DC 20591

Or call 1-866-TELL-FAA (1-866-835-5322).

A few health tips for the air

Now that you’ve booked a great trip and know how to be responsible and savvy with your airline, keep these important health tips in mind before your fly:

  1. Recent surgeries: You should avoid flying if you’ve recently had surgery on your eye, mouth or abdomen. The pressure changes caused by ascent and descent can cause you some major discomfort. That also goes for a sinus infection. If you’re majorly stuffed up, you might feel it in a real way during your flight.
  2. Dehydration: Stay hydrated when you fly. It helps with energy and jet lag. Buy a bottle of water before you board.  Try to avoid overdoing it with caffeinated products like coffee or soda or alcoholic drinks. Becoming dehydrated on a flight can increase your chances of contracting a respiratory infection, which is the last thing you want on your trip.
  3. Jet lag: Switching time zones causes jet lag, which causes fatigue, tired or sleepiness and other physical conditions like haziness or headaches on arrival. Try to adjust your daylight to your destination a few days before you depart.  Try staying awake until the local area’s bedtime. Take melatonin to help you sleep.

For many more ways to ensure that you have an awesome trip, request a free travel safety checklist at Depart Smart.org.