The Unfriendly Skies
Tom Kubik | Dec 30, 2021
I WAS AN AIRLINE pilot for 42 years before retiring about a year ago. Traveling was the job and, of course, the opportunity to fly free on days off was a big deal. That meant more traveling. Now retired with kids and grandkids scattered around the country, my lovely bride and I continue to fly regularly.
Planning your next trip? Here are nine tips to make the inevitably stressful experience a little better:
- Never book a trip with connecting flights unless it’s absolutely necessary. Bad things happen when connections are missed. Go nonstop when you can. It makes a huge difference.
- If you have to connect, don’t book a connecting flight that’s the last flight of the day. Instead, as a backup, make sure there’s at least one later flight. If you can, start a day with connecting flights early to midmorning. Be prepared for delays and cancellations. Connecting might be a cheaper ticket, but it can end up costing you more in the long run.
- When I was working as a pilot, employee parking was free. Now, I have to pay. Airport parking fees can be outrageous depending on the airport. It can also be a hassle with late and overcrowded buses. If our trip is longer than a few days, we’ll use Uber because it’s cheaper and much more convenient. This also will save you 20 minutes or more on each end of the trip.
- TSA PreCheck is essential. It makes some of the nonsense go away. Sign up online and then go do the required interview. It’s absolutely worth the price and onetime inconvenience.
- Drive when you can. We draw a six-hour drive circle around our house. If we’re within six hours, we’re in the car. The airport experience and the hassles associated with flying these days make driving a much less stressful trip. That’s true even with gas prices where they are today.
- If possible, find a smaller airport near your destination, such as Melbourne, Florida, instead of Orlando. Smaller is better—assuming you can get there nonstop. You’ll find every line is less crowded. For many major airports, you’ll be surprised by how many smaller airports are nearby and served by a number of airlines. An added bonus: Tickets are often less expensive.
- Enroll in a rental car company’s “fast break” program. Generally, this will get you into your rental with little or zero time in line. This is really important both coming and going. It’s helpful to end or start a stressful travel day without frustrations in a car rental line, plus these programs are free.
- Never check bags if at all possible. We can pack for a weeklong trip in a carry on. Figure out how to do it. You generally never wear all the clothes you pack anyway. Of course, you can’t check golf clubs or skis. Look into shipping them separately. We do that frequently to avoid the luggage carousal, as well as the chance of losing our luggage.
- Don’t stop at the first restroom you see after deplaning. Everyone from your flight will be in there. Pass that one up and maybe the next one, too.
Tom Kubik recently retired from American Airlines after 42 years as a pilot. Working on both the management and union side of the business, he saw prosperity, bankruptcy and the disappearance of pension plans. Faced with this upheaval, he also had a side business as a homebuilder. Today, Tom and his wife still travel extensively. Three children and seven grandchildren keep them on the go.
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Thank you for your insights Tom. We’ve flown extensively for business and pleasure for many years. Living two hours from a major airport requires several hours of pre-flight lead time getting to the airport, parking, checking in, etc. or spending the night before the flight in a hotel and navigating their shuttles before an early morning flight. While I applaud the six hour and nine hour drive radius you and another reader suggest, I find 15+ hour trips from Minnesota to Atlanta, New York and Philadelphia are also easier to drive. By the time we drive to the airport, park, check bags, wait to board, are en route, then wait at the luggage carousel, wait for a shuttle to the car rental and drive to our destination (which are invariably nowhere near the airports) it’s a wash. Even after gas and tolls we save money by driving while enjoying the added benefits of driving a familiar car full of whatever baggage we wish. We are able to stop en route to visit favorite restaurants, attractions or friends along the way. By driving we avoid the crush and hostility that is all too common in airport lounges and on flights. Your mileage may vary…. Safe travels!
Maybe I have been lucky, but the whole “avoid checked baggage” thing is a bit overblown. I’ve traveled extensively (20yrs with the Foreign Service) and can count only a couple times when bags have not shown up. Even in those cases, the bag was delivered the next day. So yes, they are to be avoided, but balanced by the fact that the stuff in the bags can really enhance the enjoyment of a trip. The latest trend to have to pay extra for bags is more of an issue than lost baggage or waiting on baggage. Makes shipping stuff separately a more viable option. Consider renting items that you might otherwise send as cargo or ship (a bike, ski eq. etc.).
Tom – a book about you pilot career/air travel would be really interesting….
You can also do things like ship a second set of cloths to a hotel you will be at for the second week of the trip.
When we went to Disneyworld 20 years ago, we also shipped food there in advance. We should have also sent a coffee maker.
Regarding “Don’t stop at the first restroom you see after deplaning”:
I recall a story in “Readers Digest” from ~40 years ago where a large number of soldiers from some army base began their leave at the same time, and began hitchhiking into the closest town. Of course, no drivers stopped to pick up a few out of the dozens or hundreds of soldiers. The writer ended up being surprised when he saw three of his friends riding by and waving–they had walked the *opposite way*, and got a ride because a driver wasn’t averse to picking up a group of three.
I don’t know if there’s an economic law or human behavior rule-of-thumb that describes that, but it made me notice the real-world effects and opportunities to take one step backward to enable many steps forward.
Good travel tips Tom. I also retired from a major airline and went through many of the same hardships as you. The airline industry certainly changed since 911.
There is one item that is possibly more important than all of those. Pick an airline and be loyal.
As a top tier flyer on a US carrier, I’ve had aircraft held for me when I would have missed a connection, had other travels bumped, have been doubled booked for flights so if I miss one I’m automatically on the other at no cost, and many more benefits. All while not paying for baggage, upgrades, wifi, and getting complimentary food while in coach.
While these are are perks for the extreme frequent flier, an airline will treat you better if you are a member of their loyalty program and have at least an annual flight.
As a several million-mile flyer, I concur. However, our Covid-era driving radius has extended to more like 9 hours.
We usually do check bags unless it’s a very brief trip and we just have an overnight bag. I have cranky shoulders and my husband has a back that goes out easily, and as you get older, it’s not good for you to haul a bag with a week’s worth of clothes into an overhead bin. Plus it can be stressful to get overhead space on a full flight.
If you’re retired, waiting a few minutes in baggage claim is no big thing. I’ve had exactly two bags go astray in all my years of traveling and got them both back. With the second one, I realized that if I’d paid attention to the tag in the check-in line, I could have avoided my bag going to Honolulu instead of London(!). Now I always pay attention. If you fly Southwest or have the right credit card, you can avoid checked bag fees.
Great advice Tom. Best of luck in retirement.
100% agree. I would add airline lounges as a sanctuary before flights and a reason to be at the airports early. Some of the credit card deals include paying for TSA and “Clear”.
I would say stay away from paying for airline lounges at all costs! They are expensive! Most higher end credit cards come with Priority Pass” which gets you into those same or better lounges for free. I could pay $650 for the United Club or use my Priority Pass and get into other clubs for free.
Also, don’t use your card for the TSA Precheck. For $15 more, you get CBP’s global entry which comes with TSA’s Pre Check. The best part is Global Entry is a credit card perk as well so there is no cost for having both!
Good points. We have GE and the expense was covered by our credit card company. TSA Pre-check has been the best use so far but I’d expect international travel will explode over the next several years so having GE will continue to be a blessing for us. By the way, at the TSA interview, do NOT lie. The TSA agent already knows everything about your background so if you lie about a prior arrest, etc., you’re toast as far as getting approved.
I work with someone who lost a job offer because he lied about a drug charge on his record. The employer claimed they would have ignored it if the job application and background search matched, but not putting it on the application raised a red flag regarding trustworthiness.