We all like to think that we got the best deal, we outsmarted the man, and we are more competent than the next traveler. But are you really? I have been on hundreds of flights, and still occasionally pay full price and end up in the middle seat while I watch my bags climb the moving walkway into the belly of the wrong plane next door. If you are trying to save money while traveling, then things may or may not end up in your favor. But for better or worse, I will share a few things that at least make me feel like I am walking away on top after some long travels.
This is the Wild West
There is no standard policy in the airline industry I have come to find out. In fact, you will so rarely receive the same answer to the same question that any trick you can think of attempting to pay less or get upgraded or receive compensation, is worth a try and alway explainable with the words: "they told me at the counter..." With this in mind, there are suddenly gratis options to improve your formally dismal economy travel itinerary. For example:
Always board the plane very last. This way you have your pick of what seats are empty and don't have to worry about that awkward encounter when you have prematurely changed seats and the real seat occupant arrives. The amateur seat-swappers will board first and wait until the aisles are clear to poach an empty row. Be one step ahead by boarding last and pretending the empty row was yours all along.
If you have an oversize bag (skis, snowboard) then many airports require that you deliver it to a separate oversize luggage bag drop after checking in for your bag tags. This is when you check in with all your ski gear on, sweat it out for a short bit, and then you can stuff this overweight gear into the oversize bag before sending it off. Do the gear-stuffing around the corner because technically you aren't supposed to reopen your bag after receiving the baggage tag.
Don't try to sit in an empty first-class seat... this is more difficult to explain.
What the hell does that mean? Well, imagine you are checking in for a flight with an overweight ski bag, an overweight duffle and an illegal immigrant... Don't immediately launch into your account of how your bags became overweight due to the different conversion rates on scales made in Darfur and you are a poor traveler running late who must catch this flight, and your companion is just helping with your bags, but needs a boarding pass too. The desk agent hears that story all day. Face it, your bags should cost more to fly. And often you will have to pay a little. You knew it when you bought the economy fare.
But, If you play it cool and wait until the desk agent asks you the questions then sometimes it works out in your favor. Desk agents have accepted many odd-shaped and overweight bags of mine for free because of obscure and outdated clauses written somewhere in the depths of a manual that allow free bags with sports equipment, tools needed for work, camera gear, religious ceremonial objects, and more. If asked, always start with the "i'm a professional and need it for work" line and let them decide what to do next.
Pick your People
Because everyone is pre-stressed and pre-angry on travel days, and everyone is spitting the same "poor traveler who can't miss the flight to the funeral" story, the patience of airline desk agents runs thin. Some quicker than others, and sometimes their patience dried up years ago. You need to be able to spot this, to read people and hope for a little luck if you want to sneak by without opening the wallet. It's simple, choose the friendliest looking employee and let others pass you until you get that person. I have had this work out wonderfully at times; and I have also misread people so poorly that I was deported form a country once and utterly stranded in Frankfurt with a freshly voided boarding pass another time. It is not a flawless strategy, but has worked out favorably more often than not.
If your bag is the biggest and most awkward of any in the airport, then set the tone by brining the desk agent a chocolate. Then tell her she has nice eyes. And then mention that you yourself are an international badminton referee who must bring his own net... in a ski bag.
You Don't Get if you Don't Ask
This is where you have to be a little more bold and sometimes step out of your comfort zone. If you fly enough, things will go wrong. Not in the sense that you will eventually crash and burn, the odds are in your favor that your plane never crashes (depending on how often you fly in Indonesia). But small aspects of your trip will frequently go awry. Whenever this mishap can be in any way traceable to the airline with which you have flown, ask for something. There are whole departments within each airline to field your questions and requests, and they are all equally slow, frustrating and inept, but the old saying holds especially true in these cases; It doesn't hurt to ask.
Before you go demanding hotel rooms and ticket vouchers, set yourself up for success by signing up for the frequent flyer/milage program for any airline you are traveling with. This is different than applying for a credit card that is partnered with an airline and boasts miles for dollars spent. This is a free account that gives you miles for flying with that airline or partner airlines. These miles can be redeemed for flights, gifts, lounge access, a lot of things, but they are valuable accounts to have because it is very easy to ask for miles from an airline for compensation when things go wrong. Additionally, you are more likely to receive miles then other forms of compensation.
For any given circumstance in which an airline might compensate a paying customer they have already set a limit to what they can possibly give out. This is not up to the employee at the customer service desk who you talk to or the employee at the customer service center that you email so don't get angry at them because they can't give you a round trip ticket and lounge access after you bags were delayed. Instead ask specifically for something reasonable and then negotiate from there. It is foolish for the airline to announce what they are prepared to offer to every customer affected by the current set of circumstances. They wait until you ask for something and then see if it is possible to provide. Usually, most customers are busy huffing and puffing and demanding the situation be fixed but without any real compensation in mind beyond "put me/it on the next flight no matter what!" Then this upset person leaves even angrier and without anything.
If the problem is large enough you might be entitled to a ticket voucher. These are common when customers are asked to take another flight because the current flight is oversold. If this is the case, always volunteer to be bumped to another flight and shoot high with your requests. If the next flight is tomorrow you will automatically get a hotel and meals, but don't stop there, ask for a flight voucher and always ask for first class on the next flight. These are things that aren't out of pocket expenses for the airline, so they are easier to receive than a wad of cash for your troubles. Then, for other mishaps that often occur, such as lost/delayed baggage, extremely poor service, broken inflight T.V. monitor, more lost/delayed luggage, and what-have-you, you should get in the habit of asking for a specific and reasonable amount of miles via email. Again, miles are not an out-of-pocket expense for airlines and if the problem in any way warrants compensation, then you can bet that a customer service employee has the authority to hand out miles without the OK form a supervisor. If you just ask for miles without stating a specific number, then you will get the minimum amount, so ask for 20,000 and perhaps you will get 10,000. This is not bad payment for a day without your bags. 10,000 miles can get me to Iceland!
Keep it Simple
I have spent too much time searching for the cheapest airfare to various cities near-ish to my destination. Especially in Europe, cheap tickets often exist to a city you think is just a suburb of where you want to end up. We all have this image that regional budget air carriers cost pennies, when in reality a regional flight or "puddle-jumper" is rarely a price you are completely satisfied with. Even more so if you don't have extremely flexible travel dates on these carriers. It is tempting to fly to Sapporo because it is cheaper when you want to fly to Tokyo, fly to Salt Lake City when you want to be in Denver, or Amsterdam when your goal is Berlin. In the end though, I have come to the conclusion that this tactic only costs more than a simple direct flight to your destination.
After the "not-as-cheap-as-you-imagined" extra flight, train, bus, or boat to your final destination, perhaps day or night layover, transportation to and from more airports (budget airlines often fly out of separate airports), and meals, you have almost always exceeded the original savings from the first cheap flight. The more airplanes and airports you put yourself in, the greater the chance of your bags being lost or flight being cancelled. You will usually arrive at your final destination with fewer bags, less energy, less money and more fast food grease pumping through your veins when you hunt for the ultimate low fare combination flight scenario.
On the bright side, you can always quote the lowest ticket price as the final cost of your travel, making it seem like a great deal as you drift off to sleep in the food court of a stopover airport in Bangladesh.
Keep your cool
This is not a traveling trick or a new idea. Staying calm will always get you farther than blowing up and making a scene. That is all.