6 Innovative Tricks to Save Time and Money on Airline Travel

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Airlines profits are up, their prices are up, their fees are up. And that can get a traveler down. Here's how to fight back.

High oil prices and a tough economy mean that airlines are under increased pressure to squeeze every dollar out of their customers – and it’s working, according to Reuters. “Airlines are seen mostly profitable for the second quarter,” the news service reported earlier this week.

Fortunately, you can fight back with some clever tricks that are proven to get more from your  vacation dollar…

1. Price airline tickets individually

When traveling as a group or even as a couple, airlines will always quote the highest price available to all travelers – even if a lower fare is available to one or more travelers in your group. So here’s what you do: When searching an airline’s website for fares, specify a single traveler first. Once you find the best fare, search again for your entire group. If the price of the tickets go up, save money by purchasing one seat at a time. This trick also works when searching for multiple frequent flier award seats at the lowest redemption levels.

The downside: You’ll still pay the higher fare for at least one passenger in your group.

2. Beat the airlines at their luggage-fee game

Packing light isn’t the only way to avoid airline luggage fees. Some items can always be checked for free, including child’s car seats. I’ve been able to check large duffel bags by discretely hiding a smaller bag underneath an upside-down child’s seat. Upon check-in, I merely inform the airline’s agent that I’m checking a child safety device, and I open the zipper to reveal the car seat. Another trick is to check excess carry-on luggage at the gate. Almost all airlines now offer to gate-check luggage – usually at no charge.

The downside: Neither trick is fool-proof. You can still get busted by an eagle-eyed agent, but you have little to lose for trying.

3. The hidden city trick

The New York Times recently exposed a little-known secret: Airlines love to gouge passengers on routes to their hubs, yet they’ll offer lower fares on the same flight that connects to another city. Savvy passengers can book the lower fare and simply depart the airport at the hub.

The downside: Actually, there are three downsides. First, you can’t check luggage to an intermediate point, so you can only carry on. Second, you must book these itineraries as one-way tickets, since the airlines will cancel any other flights after you miss one. Third, although this trick is perfectly legal, it still violates the rules of most airlines, with the notable exception of Southwest. You’ll only get caught if you do it repeatedly, and while theoretically the penalty can be severe – not ever flying on that airline again – it’s more likely to be the suspension of your frequent-flier account:  Not adding your account number reduces this chance.

4. Skip seat fees

Many airlines charge you to reserve a seat in advance. Rather than pay an extra $10-15, I check in online exactly 24 hours in advance. By reserving a seat for free at the earliest possible moment, I might not sit in the front, but I beat out most other passengers and avoid receiving a middle seat in the back of the plane.

The downside: If you don’t have access to a computer at the right time the day before your flight, you can miss out on this window (literally) of opportunity.

5. Get an empty middle seat

When traveling as a couple on an aircraft with three-across seating, always book an aisle and a window seat – leaving the middle seat empty seat between you two. Since middle seats are typically the last ones taken, you could have the entire row to yourself. You can improve your chances by selecting seats closer to the rear of the plane. If someone is assigned the middle seat, simply offer them the aisle or window.

The downside: At worst, you may be sitting further back than you would have preferred.

6. Speed through security with any elite card

Travelers who hold elite status in frequent-flier programs are permitted to bypass the line before the TSA checkpoint. At airports like Denver’s, passengers must show a card indicating elite status from any airline – but the card’s information isn’t matched against their tickets. In Denver, I have used a card from British Midlands airlines, a carrier that doesn’t even offer service there!

The downside: There’s little consistency in the rules at different airports. Until you know that your elite card will work in a particular city, you still need to arrive early enough to account for possible rejection.

The airline industry employs plenty of people who work tirelessly to find new ways to charge passengers more for the same journey, so don’t be ashamed to fight back with your own ingenuity. There is no doubt that these tricks are sneaky, but it was the airlines who created this world and we’re entitled to work around it.

Stacy Johnson

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