As a management consultant, I have the privilege of flying more than most travellers. I spent most of last year commuting between London and Johannesburg, sometimes every week. My profile on Lufthansa’s frequent flyer website, which keeps tabs on the distances I fly, told me that I have basically flown the distance from here to the moon, on their airline alone. And when you fly that much, you start to figure out the secrets, like how to speed through security, which lounges are the best and how to make sure you get those elusive free flights. Here are some of my insider secrets.
How to fast track through security
You must wait during check-in, boarding and getting your bags, but the worst lines are always at security. Most people know the basics of taking off your shoes and removing your computer, but here are a few more tips to make security a less painful process:
Find the fastest lane
Unless you are flying business and can take the "fast track" lane, you may find yourself standing in a long line, often with families, vacationers and first-time flyers - typically not the speediest travellers. How can you tell which lane will be the fastest? The quietest one. No questions, no conversations and no kids means the line will move quickly, even if it looks longer.
Condense your bins
Avoid being the person whose belongings are stretched out across the entire length of the security table. If you have to use more than two bins, stack them on top of each other until they are about to go in the x-ray machine. This leaves room behind you for the next traveller and will save you time when you do not have to push each item individually toward the machine.
Leave the boots in your bag
Wearing your bulkiest shoes will save space in your luggage, but unless you can take them on and off easily at security, avoid wearing them for your flight. Alternately, take them off before getting in line and put them back on when you are well past security - the people around you may find it strange, but fumbling with zippers and clasps can cause a significant delay.
How to fly more comfortably
Airline seats have gotten smaller, there are far fewer free perks and with people stuffing everything they can into carry-ons to avoid checked luggage fees, planes can be crowded and uncomfortable. Here is how to make your time in the sky a little more pleasant:
Choose an aisle seat when flying coach, window when flying business. Most travellers agree: one of the worst things about a long flight is climbing over your neighbour to get to the bathroom. So when you travel coach, stick to the aisle - you may not have a great view, but at least you will not find yourself straddling your fellow passengers in the middle of the night. If you travel business or first class, select the window seat. It is usually designed with a little more room than the aisle seat, and there is plenty of space to traipse around without disturbing anyone else.
Get on last but get off first
Passengers love to board planes first. But choosing a seat in the front of the plane, and thus being one of the last to board, will save you time once the plane lands. Waiting for everyone to waddle up to the exit can cause significant delays. You might risk not having room left in the overhead compartment (the flight attendants will valet your carry-on if that happens) but you will still gain some time overall.
Get the right charger to have power on board
A long flight can be a good time to get some work done - so make sure your laptop is fully charged, and bring a second battery if you have one. In coach there are very rarely power plugs. But there are also no guarantees in business or first class. International airlines use any one of the many plugs used abroad, regardless of the airline's country of origin (British Airways flights to South Africa use American plugs, for example). Even worse, many American airlines have the kind of plugs used in cars to light cigarettes, so multi-country converters will not work. Sometimes the crew can provide (or sell you) the plug you need, but the best idea is to find out in advance what kind you need on board.
Unwind in an airport lounge
They may not seem as valuable when you travel domestic, but if you are travelling abroad go straight to the lounges. Some airlines love to indulge their top customers: the Virgin Atlantic clubhouse at Heathrow Airport has a Bumble & Bumble salon where you can get a free haircut before your flight. Most airlines have arrivals lounges too, in case you were not spoiled enough on board.
The ways in which you can access lounges depend on the airline. You may have a business or first class ticket, a high enough status with a frequent flyer program, or you can often buy a one-off pass. American Airlines passengers can buy one-day passes to the airline's Admiral lounges for $50. It can be worth the price if you have a long layover, need to freshen up in a place where you can securely leave you bags, or really want to get away from the crowds. And if your particular airline does not have its own lounge in the airport, there is likely a lounge of a sister airline you can access or one that belongs to your airline's alliance.
Freshen up on the go
If you cannot access a lounge, keep the moist towelette from the plane and use it to freshen up in the bathroom when you land. Colgate's Wisp disposable toothbrushes require no water and are surprisingly discreet to use. For on-the-go hair fixes, men can use soapy water instead of hair gel. Use your hands to run the lather through your hair and the soap will help keep it in place. For women, if you did not manage to bring anti-frizz or glossing products, a small amount of moisturizer can help control your hair and give it shine.
How to earn (and burn) frequent flyer miles
When you travel regularly, frequent flyer programs are the first and most important item to sort out. It may take a while before you have enough points to redeem free flights, but there are ways to get there faster and make the most of your points when you are ready to spend them.
Stick with one alliance
There are three major frequent flyer alliances that bring together the loyalty programs from several different airlines: Star Alliance (United, Continental, US Airways, Lufthansa, Singapore Airlines, and 21 more), One World (American Airlines, British Airways, Iberia, and nine others) and Sky Team (Delta, Air France, KLM, plus 10 more). If it is only the difference of a few dollars, try to book with the airlines in one alliance to gather enough points for free flights.
Use your credit
Several credit cards offer frequent flyer points or other reward programs for the money you spend. For example, American Express has a great card with British Airways in which points earned add up to free tickets (they do not, however, count towards your status). Citibank also has a great deal with American Airlines, in which cardholders receive 30,000 points (just about the equivalent of a free flight from Miami to Peru) when you spend $750 within four months.
Tickets bought on points are typically refundable until just before your flight, but they also run out fast. Airlines set aside a number of tickets that can be bought using their specific loyalty points, as well as a limited number for points earned on sister airlines. It is worth locking these tickets in early and getting a refund later if your plans change.
One-way versus round-trip
If you are booking a trip with several legs, consider that some programs charge more than others for one-way tickets. For example, a one-way ticket costs half the points of a return ticket on British Airways, but Lufthansa charges three-fourths of a full ticket's worth.
Beware of taxes
Although a ticket itself may be "free", you will most likely still have to pay taxes out of pocket, and they make up a large part of a flight's original price. Depending on the flight path and the program's regulations, you may be able to pay taxes with points. For example, Star Alliance allows you to use points when paying the taxes for flights within Europe. And the tax amounts can vary by airline: a flight from Poland to France on Lot Polish Airlines has lower taxes than the same flight on Austrian Airlines, which are both part of Star Alliance. It is worth calling the frequent flyer's booking agent to find the best deal.
Christine Nikol is a management consultant and freelance writer, helping advise Fortune 500 and international companies on business strategy. Her travels have taken her across Europe, Africa, North America and the Caribbean, and she's lived in as far flung places as Kathmandu. She's a Gold member on British Airways, a Lufthansa Senator, has Diamond status with Hyatt hotels and Platinum with Starwood properties.