Don't fly much? 5 airline tips you need to know

There are folks who fly all the time while others get on a plane maybe once a summer. But some of us go years between flights.

If it’s been a while since you last took to the skies, there are some hurdles you may not be familiar with. Here's what to do so you’re not hit with a nasty surprise later.

1. Where to add more time to your schedule

In your itinerary: If you are not flying nonstop, be sure there’s at least one hour between your flight connections-- and make that several hours if you’re flying overseas. Two reason: Navigating your way through airport terminals can take time (especially for anyone with mobility issues) and if your first flight is delayed even a little, you might not make the second.

At the airport: Security lines are long, so build in enough time to get through it so you aren’t late to the gate. That means being at the gate at least 45 minutes before departure. Tip: Join the PreCheck program which offers quicker, dedicated fast-lanes for members. Boarding takes time so more and more airlines start this process earlier and earlier, and sometimes planes leave a little early. Get to the airport at least one hour before departure time, and be there two to three hours ahead of time for international flights.


2. Bag fees have become really, really complicated

--All bags free: Southwest offers a free carry-on and two free checked-bags.

--No bags free: Allegiant, Frontier and Spirit charge for carry-ons and checked-bags.

--Some bags free: Many airlines offer free carry-ons but charge for checked-bags.

--Where it gets complicated: Some airlines, including Spirit make you pay different prices depending on when you pay your bag fee; this charge is usually cheapest during the booking process so pay then. Other airlines offer a bigger free baggage allowance if you pay extra for a premium economy seat but this is a pricy option.

One potential issue? If you buy American or United’s new basic economy fare, you cannot bring a carry-on so you’ll pay for checked-baggage. Your airline will have details of all these options on the on app and website.

3. Don’t look for onboard freebies, but one is making a comeback

--Blankets: The flight attendant may laugh out loud if you ask for a pillow and blanket, since that amenity has gone the way of the T-Rex but some airlines offer a pillow/blanket combo for a fee (and it’s yours to keep). It's probably best to bring a comfortable jacket if you usually get chilly.

--Food: Free meals are making a slight comeback, at least on American and Delta, but only on some of their longer domestic routes. If you’re not sure you’ll get fed (and most of us won’t), bring a lunch from home as you’ll save money and have something you know you’ll like.

4. You’ll fend for yourself during delays and cancellations

Federal law does not require airlines to give you anything in the way of food or hotel vouchers when flights are delayed or cancelled, but a few of the bigger airlines may still offer something if you ask (but ask nicely; those gate agents get tired of people yelling at them). Learn more about passenger rights in the Department of Transportation’s Consumer Guide to Air Travel.


5. Cancel or change a flight at your own risk

Most leisure fares are non-refundable so if you need to change your flight or cancel altogether, you’ll be stuck with an expensive change fee of up to $200 (which rises to $400 on some international flights).

Be absolutely certain of your travel dates and health before you fly, but if you can’t be absolutely certain there are a couple of options: Pay for a refundable ticket (though this can be very expensive) or fly Southwest which doesn’t have a change fee.

Of course, stuff happens, even to folks who are always getting on planes. Just relax, go with the flow, and be as prepared as possible.