5 things infrequent fliers need to know (like pay-to-pick seats)

PHOTO: A traveler with luggage waiting for his flight Getty Images
A traveler with luggage waiting for his flight

Some people fly frequently for work, but more of us are what you could call leisure travelers who might fly one summer, drive the next.

Traveling by plane only sporadically can leave gaps in our knowledge because the air-travel industry changes its rules and practices often.

A few years ago, for instance, getting free meals when flying coach was the norm. Then that perk disappeared. Now it’s making a comeback.

Here are some other things infrequent travelers may need to know.

1. Get to the airport early.

Rushing to the gate with seconds to spare is a thing of the past. Today airlines have added incentive to take off and arrive on time because the government publishes these statistics for the world to see; as a result, airlines like Delta suggest domestic passengers arrive at the airport two hours early, check in 30 minutes before departure, and be at the gate at least 15 minutes before takeoff. Why? Because sometimes planes leave early and if you’re not there, they’re not going to wait for you.

Suggestion: Don’t be late. You could get stuck with a $200 ticket-change fee.

2. Checking bags usually costs

Free checked bags: Southwest is the only U.S. airline that will still check bags for free.

Free carry-on bags: Most of the big airlines offer this, with the exception of travelers flying on basic economy fares on American and United. Smaller airlines including Allegiant, Frontier and Spirit generally charge fees for all luggage.

Suggestion: Use a carry-on even if you have to pay for it because the bag that travels by your side is a bag that won’t go missing.

3. Forget about refunds

Except in very rare cases, once you buy your ticket, there’s no changing your mind because the cheapest tickets are almost always nonrefundable. Be very sure of your travel dates before you book.

Suggestion: If you must change your mind about a trip, do so within 24 hours of ticket purchase; by law, changes within this grace period are free.

4. Pay-to-pick seats

This is increasingly common, and you’ll see it on nearly every airline: You buy a ticket, go to pick your seat and find that the only free seats are middle seats way in the back. If you want a seat next to an aisle, window or not directly across from a restroom, you may have to pay a fee for it. On some discount airlines, you get no choice at all; if you don’t pay the fee, you will be randomly assigned a seat and should not expect much.

Suggestion: These pick-your-seat fees can change as the departure date gets closer so keep checking back to see if you can get a better deal.

5. Freebies, what freebies?

Meals in economy are making a comeback, but don’t get too excited because they are offered on only a few routes of a few airlines. As for blankets and pillows, those airlines that still offer these amenities will make you pay for it. The availability of entertainment options is all over the map, but some airlines are phasing out seat-back screens because so many travelers bring their own electronic devices. Be sure you have your device.

Suggestion: Save money, bring a lunch from home, take a warm jacket, and carry headphones or ear buds for your device. And keep your charger handy.