Air travel has changed in recent years, as much for the better (seat-back video screens, self-check-in) as for the worse (long security lines, poor meal quality). But it remains as true as ever that your in-flight experience begins the moment you reserve a seat. The questions you ask before you book and the preparations you make before you board will influence how easy -- and pleasant -- your flight will be.
If you're traveling to participate in a once-in-a-lifetime celebration or other important function, depart a day early lest a delay make you miss out on the event altogether.
Check the Records:
Look for flights with good on-time performance ratings from the U.S. Department of Transportation. Check the department's Bureau of Transportation Statistics Web site before you book, or ask your airline reservationist or travel agent, particularly if you're scheduling a tight connection or if you absolutely have to be there on time.
Fly in the Morning:
Always fly early in the day -- the first departure if you can. This is especially important if you're traveling around a holiday or in another busy period. Flight delays often ripple through the system, so the earlier you leave, the better your chances of avoiding major gridlock down the line. And if something does go wrong, you'll have a whole day's worth of other options to get where you're going.
A destination's largest airport may offer more diversions and a greater choice of flights -- but sometimes less can add up to more. Smaller airports are often easier to move through, although long lines at security checkpoints can be a problem.
Avoid Rush Hours:
Stay away from airport rush hours and other peak-travel periods. On business-travel routes, that's between 8:30 and 10 in the morning and between 4:30 and 6:30 in the afternoon. To Europe, Fridays are busy; coming from Florida, avoid Sundays. Holiday weekends always bustle.
Nonstop Is Better:
Travel nonstop whenever you can. Each time you change planes, you boost the possibility of things going wrong. You become subject to weather and congestion conditions at three airports, not two, and risk mechanical problems or personnel-related delays on two airplanes rather than one. Checked luggage has to make the connections, too. If your connection is to a different carrier, things get even more complicated.
Leave Time for Connections:
Be smart about connections, if you have to make one. Don't cut it too close. Ask about the minimum connecting times between flights, then add 20 minutes. Airline connecting times are best-case scenarios. Don't put yourself in the position of possibly missing your flight because the gate agent didn't show up or someone took forever to get his or her bag out of the overhead. And have a backup plan: know the alternative flights out, just in case.
Stick with one or two frequent-flier programs. In addition to racking up free trips faster, you'll also accumulate more quickly the perks that can make trips easier. On some airlines, these include a special reservations number, early boarding, access to upgrades, and more roomy economy-class seating.
Check the Plan:
Seating position isn't just a question of aisle or window. If you require constant access to your carry-on baggage, make sure you're not in a bulkhead seat. Different makes of planes have different layouts, moreover -- so if you don't want to be stuck next to the lavatory or galley, tell the reservation agent or check the seating plan.
Delays happen. So do bad movies, unappetizing meals, and overworked flight attendants. Bring snack food, water, and sufficient diversions, and you'll be covered even if you get stuck in the airport, on the tarmac, or in the air during turbulence (when flight attendants may not be available to assist you).