Summer is one of the busiest times for air travel, and a stressful experience can sour the start of any holiday. With a bit of forward planning, however, you can breeze through the airport and enjoy your flight without getting caught up in the usual travel mayhem. From free upgrades to preselecting the best seat in economy and ensuring a smooth transfer between flights, all it takes is a little know-how and some good luck.
Choosing a seat
A comfortable seat can make or break a flight. There’s nothing worse than being stuck in a cramped middle seat on a 16-hour flight – thankfully, many airlines allow you to select your seat before checking in, although some do charge for the privilege. To help you make a decision, there are websites and smartphone apps that give you the lowdown on the best seats on the plane. The website and app SeatGuru identifies the best and worst seats on a flight and rates airlines by seat comfort and in-flight entertainment. Users can search by airline, route and flight number. The app also allows users to track flights, so you’ll know whether you’re likely to leave and arrive on time.
For the record, the worst seats are those near bathrooms and galleys because of the noise and foot traffic, while seats in the last row and those backing on to an exit row often don’t recline.
Visit www.seatguru.com for more details.
As a general rule, most airlines overbook flights by 20 per cent to allow them to fill planes even when passengers fail to board. Unfortunately, this means that they often need to bump passengers off the flight if everyone shows up. If you have the luxury of flexibility, this can be a great way of earning some extra cash or a free flight, but it pays to know the airline’s policy in the country where you’re denied boarding and what you’re entitled to. Some airlines offer cash, while others offer vouchers. Some may provide accommodation and meals, depending on the length of the delay, but all will provide a seat on the next available flight.
For example, being bumped off a flight with Emirates from Dubai to Brisbane, Australia, will result in a seat on the next flight, hotel accommodation and meals until that flight, transport between the hotel and airport, and a flight voucher for the same route, valid for 12 months.
Airlines rarely publish their overbooking policies online, so ask to see this if you’re bumped from your flight and you want to know where you stand.
How to get an upgrade
Free upgrades are almost a thing of the past, but there are still ways to boost your chances of scoring a seat in the pointy end of the plane.
One former flight attendant for a UAE-based airline, Maria Clelland, from New Zealand, says that the key to securing an upgrade is being a member of the airline’s frequent-flyer programme. “If a flight is overbooked, upgrades will be given to passengers with the highest number of miles,” Clelland says. “And it’s more likely that overbooking will occur on the busiest sectors, such as London Heathrow, Sydney and Toronto.”
Niall Meaney, a regular flyer with Emirates Airline, from Ireland, agrees. “It definitely helps if you have the airline’s gold or platinum card. I was only once upgraded with entry-level membership, but it became a regular occurrence once I obtained gold membership,” he says.
Meaney’s top tips include arriving at the last minute and not checking in online – if you’re a gold-card holder, you won’t run the risk of being bumped off the flight, even if it is overbooked, he says. “The airline may think you’re a no-show and sell your seat – they usually oversell capacity by up to 20 per cent anyway. If they have bumped you off and you’re a gold-card holder, they will put you back on and bump someone else off if necessary. If economy is full and the other classes aren’t, you have a greater chance of being upgraded.”
Finally, Clelland advises always being polite and courteous to staff at check-in and at the boarding gate, as they wield much of the power when it comes to upgrades. But if you’re travelling with children or as part of a group, forget it.
At the airport
Not all airports are created equal. Smaller ones may be great for transiting quickly, but a bore if you have a longer layover. The reverse is true for larger airports – they’re great for shopping and passing the time, but don’t expect to get from one end to the other in a hurry.
Singapore’s Changi Airport has been voted the world’s best airport for the second year by air-travel-rating agency Skytrax. Its range of leisure and entertainment facilities, such as free foot massages, city tours and blockbuster movie screenings, as well as impressive shopping and dining options, scored it higher than any other. In short, it’s great for layovers.
Deirdre Smyth, a former travel agent from Ireland, rates Miami International, Guatemala City’s La Aurora International and London Heathrow airports as her least favourite. “Miami because of the queues at immigration, Guatemala because of the scary landing between mountain ranges and Heathrow because it is huge, exhausting and stressful,” she says. “Madrid Airport Barajas, and Spanish airports in general, are great for shopping.”
Clelland rates Australian airports, particularly Melbourne, as the strictest for quarantine, the United States as the toughest for customs, Asia for the friendliest officials and African airports as the worst for lost baggage.
If you’re looking for picture-perfect scenery, however, you can’t go past Thailand’s Koh Samui Airport, pictured below, where the open-air departures lounges look more like resort huts than a terminal.
To see how your next airport rates, visit www.worldairportawards.com.
Ensuring that you make your connecting flight can be one of the most stressful experiences when flying, especially if you are short on time. Some airports are worse than others when it comes to transiting. For example, when connecting through Manchester Airport, all passengers must pass through stringent security and the queues are often lengthy. Smyth recommends allowing at least two hours between flights when connecting through this English hub. In general, the larger the airport, the more time you’ll need.
Similarly, when transiting through Singapore, passengers must go through additional security checks at the gate and will not be allowed to take liquids on board – even those purchased in the airport. It’s best to save the duty-free perfume purchases for your arrival.
To help make the transit process more seamless, Clelland advises making it clear to check-in staff that you have a connecting flight and asking for your luggage to be checked through to the final destination and marked with a “quick transfer” tag. “If you have a short connection time, it also helps to ask the check-in staff if there is the possibility of being seated close to the front of the aircraft for quick disembarkation,” she says.
Tough security measures have taken the glamour out of air travel, but remember to keep smiling – you’re on holiday.
Insider"s guide to smooth summer holiday travel