High standards

Having spent two summers in the US, I’ve learned the importance of selecting the right airline.  Growing up in the UK meant that my idea of what is a reasonable cost for short haul or domestic travel is possibly a little warped, although it did also give me an awareness of how much airlines like to rip passengers off.

Within the last 12 months, I’ve taken domestic flights with six airlines, and the experiences have ranged from “acceptable” to “I wouldn’t put a corpse on one of these flights”.  Here are the highs and lows (sorry), so that you can avoid my mistakes and the airlines may see what they’re doing wrong.

Frontier (New Orleans to Las Vegas via Denver, September 2013)
I had a pleasant experience with Frontier, but since I flew with them, I’ve heard that they’ve adopted one of my least favourite policies – charging for cabin baggage.  In one way, I see their point – people take the mickey with cabin bags, particularly on US domestic flights, but I feel that these days that isn’t so much about the convenience of not having to wait to collect your bag, but more that if you’re taking a round trip, having luggage in the hold increases the cost of your journey by at least $50.  Anyway, the crew at Frontier were nice, there were no issues with our trip, but now that they’ve reviewed their policy, I’d check carefully before flying with them again.

Delta (Las Vegas to Jacksonville via Atlanta, September 2013)
This fits into the “not bad” category: this particular flight was my bargain of the century – it cost $70, including taxes and my luggage fee.  It was a very early morning takeoff (7am on a Saturday – not the sort of Vegas experience you want), and my layover time was due to be around an hour, which isn’t actually very long given that Atlanta airport is famously huge.  Of course, my connecting flight was delayed…because there was no plane.  I made it to my destination in the end, and decided I’d gotten what I’d paid for: absolutely no frills, no food or drink and a delay.

I flew with Delta again in September 2014, from Boston to San Francisco via Detroit.  Thanks to some inclement weather, it was a bumpy first leg into Detroit, but the crew handled it nicely.  Due to the weather, our arrival was delayed, as was our departure, but the weather isn’t something the airline can do anything about, and the situation was well-handled.

JetBlue (Jacksonville to New York, September 2013)
This was an even earlier departure than my Las Vegas flight, and I still owe the person who gave me a lift to the airport big time.  JetBlue have a great reputation – the planes are nice, the staff are good and the service is organised.  I have no complaints and would fly with them again.

Alaska Airlines (Portland to Honolulu, September 2014)
Alaska had a sneaky helping hand here – our destination was paradise.  It felt like a very long flight to Hawaii (it’s further from the mainland than I realised, and we spent the night prior to our flight at the airport to cut our costs), but the staff were pleasant and soft drinks are included.  However, I do think it’s criminal that, on flights of four hours or more, there is no food included in the cost of your ticket.  It’s harder than it looks to get one-way flights to popular destinations, including your baggage fees for less than $180 per person, and you’d think that for having paid that much – which is far more than the vast majority of hotel nights which include breakfast – you’d be entitled to at least a muffin, packet of crisps, piece of fruit or some other snack.  But, perversely for a country which consumes as much food as it does oxygen, this is not the case.  We touched down ravenous, though we did get a lovely commentary about the scenery we were unable to view due to being sat in the middle of the plane, courtesy of a crew member who is a native Hawaiian.

Allegiant Air (Honolulu to Las Vegas, September 2014)
This was my “never again” experience.  We were suspicious when we booked this flight, as it was so much cheaper than those offered on the same date and route by other airlines, but as we were strapped for cash, we did it anyway.  Allegiant are now down with Spirit on our no fly list, as they provided a similarly terrible experience for one of my friends last year.  Allegiant, it turns out, are the USA’s answer to Ryanair.  There are certain standards most US domestic airlines stick to, some are good, some are bad: no food or alcohol is provided, but soft drinks are complimentary; passengers are essentially allowed two items of cabin baggage each – one piece of cabin-sized luggage, and one “personal item” (which basically means small bag such as a handbag or briefcase); hold luggage weight allowance is 50lbs/23kg – the same as economy passengers get on long haul flights.  Allegiant breaks all of these rules: passengers are charged an extra $10 (depending on your route, it could actually be more) for wishing to carry two items into the cabin; soft drinks cost $2 each, with other drinks and food costing more; hold luggage allowance is a mere 40lbs.  Fortunately, one of my friends had a spare suitcase, so between the three of us, we shuffled our belongings around to make four bags weigh 40lbs each, and paid for it to go in the hold.  To add insult to injury when we got on the plane, the cabin was absolutely freezing.  Oh, and the seats don’t recline.  And so began the most painful five hour flight of my life, and one which I will never repeat.

American Airlines (Las Vegas to New York, September 2014)
AA also falls into the “passable” category.  The staff were very cheerful, given the early takeoff, and it’s not the airline’s fault that JFK airport is about 150 years old, meaning passengers must therefore walk six miles to reclaim their bags.  American Airlines are the only carrier to send me a follow up email asking for my thoughts on my trip.  “Great,” I thought, “here’s my chance to tell them that they and every other airline are arseholes for not feeding us!”  But no.  It turns out AA actually don’t want passengers’ thoughts – they just want them to answer poorly-worded questions which have unfairly devised likert scales (no options for “don’t care” or “not applicable”), without even so much as an “any other comments?” box at the end of the survey.  You fell at the last, AA, thanks to your own ego.

Now that I’m no longer new at this, here are my top tips for surviving US domestic air travel without losing your mind and going bankrupt:

Before you book

  • Check the baggage policy – not only do some baggage allowances vary, but costs can vary if you don’t book your baggage when first offered. Sometimes this is when you book the flight, sometimes it’s when you check in online the day before your trip.  Also make sure you check the cabin baggage policy
  • Figure out how long the flight is and what catering is supplied – airlines state on their websites which routes include free soft drinks or other food and beverage items. Be prepared to spend a lot of money, go hungry, or bring your own
  • Check the flight price through comparison websites (Kayak is my favourite, though I normally double-check via Momondo) and direct with the operator – sometimes there are minor differences, but these can build up. Don’t assume that the cheapest price on the comparison site when you look at the initial search results will hold – often the most bargainous one doesn’t include the standard taxes and fees, in order to entice you in

Before you travel

  • Make a note of your departure time and make sure you check in online as early as possible. Check in normally opens 24 hours prior to take off, and this is when you get to choose your seat (unless you fly with Allegiant or Spirit).  As with all flights, your seat allocation will pop up, but you can usually change this for free.  Some seats incur an extra charge, but most don’t, so read carefully, pick your favourite seat (I always have to decide whether I want to be at the front of the cabin or on the aisle – getting both of those would be a dream come true for me) and get organised
  • Ensure you have paid your baggage fees, or are at least prepared to pay for them. I find it more convenient to pay online before travelling, not to mention most of the time it’s cheaper
  • Allow enough time to arrive at the airport early and stock up on snacks and drinks – airports really have you over a barrel, as you can’t take liquids through security, so you have to rely on the generosity of your airline or your willingness to pay through the nose for drinks once you’re airside
  • Prepare your in-flight entertainment: most US domestic airlines are getting even slicker with regard to movies – some will offer movies for a fee, others offer nothing. Charge your iPad up, download some films and grab a new book

On the day

  • If you and the airline have a scale-related disagreement, be prepared to open your luggage and stuff more into your carry on or throw it away. Know what will be easiest (and most appropriate to move around), so that you can just whip it out and get on with your journey
  • If you’ve forgotten your trusty book or your iPhone battery has been drained as you furiously Tweet throughout check in that airlines are bastards, grab a magazine before you get on board
  • Stow your hand luggage under the seat in front of you – there’s nothing I find more infuriating after a five hour flight which has made me grumpy because I’m crumpled up in a tiny seat and getting hungrier, than having to wait behind every other idiot who’s retrieving their luggage from the overhead bins at a snail’s pace. Grab your bag, unbuckle your belt and run up that aisle as soon as you can

Good luck, dear reader: although these airlines are criminals, the destination is normally worth the pain of the journey.

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One thought on “High standards

  1. Pingback: Flying visit | Kicking On

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