road warrior tips: frequent flying part 1

Oh, the joys of being a road warrior. I’m on a remote client right now, so I tend to get on an airplane just about every week. It’s just Boston to Philly, so I’m generally only in the air long enough for them to sling a few Diet Cokes down the aisle before we’re heading into that most poorly-named phase of flight: the “final descent”. I mean, honestly. Doesn’t that sound a little fatalistic? Why don’t we call it the “final descent followed by a very safe and pleasant landing and then there is cake”?

At any rate, I’ve picked up a few things along the way that I wish I had known at the start. I’ll try to share absolutely every possible tip I know about air travel over a few entries.

Let’s start by talking status. There are two main ways airlines reward you for business: frequent flier miles, and status.

Frequent flier miles are the air travel equivalent of Skeeball tickets at an arcade. You collect them, and collect them, and collect them, and eventually, you are hypothetically able to trade them for something of value. I honestly have never used frequent flier miles for anything other than magazine subscriptions (thanks for Esquire, American Airlines!), but I am sure that you can eventually use them for a flight to some destination, provided you are not trying to fly to a popular place during a popular time, e.g. a “blackout date”, e.g. a “time when normal people typically travel.”

And then, there’s status. Status means, “I get on your particular brand of airplanes very frequently, or at least I fly long and expensive distances on them, and therefore, you should respect me and give me stuff, because these airborne cigar tubes of yours aren’t exactly the Four Seasons.” You get status by flying a certain number of trips on an airline’s plane (“segments”), or by flying a ton of total miles on one airline. For US Airways’ first status rank of Silver, it’s 30 segments or 25,000 total miles. If you’re flying back and forth from Boston to Baltimore every week, you’ll probably get status based on segments, but if you’re doing New York to LA, you’ll hit status on miles.

If you’re flying every week on a commuter flight with lots of other business folks, status is key. It’s going to get you in and out of the plane (and airport) faster, it’s going to get you more bonus miles to use towards vacations and trips, it gets you access to other little freebies and perks, and it even gets you the occasional upgrade to first class.

Let’s start with getting on the plane first, which is, by far, the most important status perk. This might seem like a bad thing–after all, wouldn’t you want to relax in the terminal a bit longer rather than cramming into your seat right away?

The issue here is that frequent fliers have roll-aboard suitcases. At the best of times, a business-heavy flight is going to have lots of people bringing their luggage with them, and now that many airlines charge for checked luggage, frugal fliers have increased the quantity of roll-aboards well beyond capacity. That means there are always going to be more roll-aboards than there are spaces in the overhead compartment. If your bag doesn’t fit, it gets checked. You don’t pay for it, but it slows you down after you get off the plane, and there’s still the off chance that it’ll get lost–about 50% less chance than not checking at the gate (you leave it at the door of the plane, essentially eliminating the chance that it gets lost on a baggage cart during boarding, but leaving the chance of loss at your destination). Could happen, but not likely.

Now, many flights these days do zone-based boarding, meaning that the people who do the most flying with that airline get on the plane first. With my main airline, US Airways, the Chairman’s, Platinum, and Gold members get on during Zone 1 boarding, right after First Class. Since I’m Gold, I’m pretty much guaranteed to find overhead space right above or in front of my row. When I was Silver, I got on during Zone 2, which meant that I had a pretty good chance of finding space above or in front of my row–provided I sat far enough back in the plane.

A quick digression here: there are times when the only space for your roll-aboard is in a space behind your seat, which means that, even though you’re sitting in Row 8, your bag is back in Row 12. This means that you have to go past your seat when you’re boarding and go against traffic to sit down, but even worse, you’re swimming upstream when you’re trying to get off the plane.

In some ways, I almost prefer to check my bag rather than have it behind me. And, when I was Zone 4 or Zone 5, I almost always had to check…sometimes they’ll do you the favor of announcing it before you get on the plane: “If you’re in Zone 5, come to the podium to check your bag.” You get the privilege of carting it down the jetway yourself and handing it off to be hurled into the belly of the beast.

If you have status, you also get to choose reserved seats at the front of the plane. But, you have to be cautious: if you’re only Silver, there are going to be a lot of people still getting on the plane before you, and if you’re too far forward, you’re going to be stowing your bag behind you and making like a salmon when it’s time to get off the plane. On a 26-row Airbus A320 (3×3 seats in coach), the sweet spot for Silver is row 8 or row 9…no farther forward!

Your mileage may vary, and it’s going to take you some time to figure out the best place to sit. For example, the Embraer (2×2 seats in coach) 190 has a tiny overhead compartment where you’re only going to be able to fit your suitcase turned longways, rather than wheels-in. That means overhead space is going to fill up even faster.

Next entry, we’ll talk about the joys of airport security, and how to avoid being stabbed to death by your annoyed fellow travelers before you even get your liquids and gels out of your suitcase.

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