Each day more than a million Americans make a domestic flight as routinely as people in other countries hop on a train or bus. Between New York City and Washington DC alone, there are more than 100 shuttle flights in each direction every day. When travellers are able to choose between plane, bus or train, over 90 per cent choose to go by air (which is cheaper per mile than car travel).
The huge volume of air traffic does, however, have its drawbacks. Flights from many airports suffer long delays and weather disturbances (thunderstorms, tornados, hurricanes, blizzards and other frequently occurring phenomena) can play havoc with flight timetables across the country. During peak periods this often means that departures can be delayed for up to an hour and arrivals have to ‘stack’ while waiting for a landing slot. The majority of domestic flights out of major airports are delayed. When travelling between US cities you may spend more time on the ground getting to and from airports than in flying time. You should check in at least an hour before a domestic flight and two hours before an international flight, as airlines often over-book. It’s also becoming increasingly common to encounter delays at security check-in points. If you arrive late (i.e. within ten minutes of departure on a domestic flight or within 30 minutes on an international flight), you may get bumped (put on a later flight), even if you’re holding a boarding pass. When flying to the US, there are notoriously long immigration queues at some airports (e.g. New York’s JFK and Miami), where you may be delayed for up to two hours.
The deregulation of domestic air routes in 1978 opened up the airways to scores of competing airlines (many of which had been restricted to regional routes) and was supposed to stimulate competition and reduce fares. However, as with most things conceived in Washington, things didn’t go exactly according to plan. While fares on the most competitive routes have decreased, fares on less popular routes have soared and many smaller communities have lost their scheduled air services entirely. The shake-up also caused a dozen airlines to go bankrupt (or file for protection from their creditors), including America West, Continental, Pan American Airways and TWA. (Although the idea was to weed out inefficient airlines, this was only supposed to happen to the opposition!) The surviving US air carriers were also dealt a heavy blow when air travel fell off following the September 11th attacks. Increased security precautions at all airports since that time have helped reassure the flying public (though tales of abuses by security personnel have put some Americans off flying altogether!). Increases in costs for the major airlines, particularly fuel costs, have caused even the largest companies to teeter on the brink of bankruptcy lately.
Smoking on flights
Since 1990, smoking has been banned on all flights scheduled for six hours or less within the US and its territories (including direct flights with a stopover, but no change of plane). This includes flights (under six hours) between the continental US and Alaska, Hawaii, Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands. The smoking ban applies to domestic and foreign carriers. Smoking is still permitted on international flights into or out of the US, although many airlines have banned smoking on selected routes (most transatlantic flights are smoke-free) and the US is moving towards a complete ban on flights that originate in or leave the country. Pipes and cigars have long been prohibited on all US airlines, even in smoking sections. Smoking may also be banned in airport terminal buildings or permitted in designated areas only.
The US has some of the busiest airports in the world, of which the main international airports (termed ‘gateway’ airports) include Boston, Chicago, Denver, Los Angeles, Miami, New Orleans, New York (JFK and La Guardia), Newark, Orlando, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Seattle, Washington (Dulles and National). Each gateway airport acts as a hub for US carriers and regional/commuter airlines (which operate services to scores of smaller airports).
Airports are often vast places with many terminals (Los Angeles international has seven and JFK ten), some of which are miles apart. When catching a plane, check which terminal you require in advance. (This information is normally printed on your ticket or itinerary, but it can be difficult to find or decode.) Allow plenty of time when travelling by road to an airport, as some have restricted access which causes delays, especially during rush hours or periods of bad weather. Most airports, however, have adequate short and long-term parking (although it can cost as much as your flight!). Private off-airport car parks are often a much more economical choice, although you may need to locate and book space in advance.
Most US international airports have separate international and domestic terminals. Unlike most foreign airports, domestic terminals in the US are far bigger and more numerous than international terminals. Domestic terminals usually also cater for flights to Canada and Mexico, and many regional airports operate a small number of international flights. Major airports are organised by airline, where each carrier has separate check-in desks, gates, lounges and even exclusive terminals at some airports. Signs at international airports are sometimes in English and Spanish, and most airports have information desks and centres with multilingual staff. If you have any problems, go to the ticket booth of the airline with whom you’re travelling. Flight departures aren’t always announced, but are displayed on information screens and departure boards.
Time you need at the airport
It’s increasingly important to arrive at the airport early enough to be able to negotiate the security procedures. All checked-in bags are now subject to being x-rayed and searched if necessary. If you lock your checked-in bags, you may find the locks have been broken or cut off to do a search, and many travel experts advise you not to lock your luggage at all. (Also not to pack anything valuable in your checked-in luggage!) Queues for the security checkpoint can be long at peak times. As in most other airports in the world, they x-ray and possibly search all carry-on bags. In most US airports, you are asked to remove your shoes so they can be passed through the x-ray machine, and you must remove any computers from carry-on bags (including small hand held computers, like a Palm). Computers are x-rayed separately and often are swabbed for traces of explosive residue. The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has a section of its website devoted to air travel ( www.tsa.gov, then follow the link for ‘Travelers and Consumers’), where you can find the latest lists of prohibited carry-on items and general tips for what to pack and how in order to avoid problems.
It’s sometimes wise to avoid major airports, such as New York’s JFK, as this usually saves you time and trouble, particularly when you’re travelling on domestic flights. You may have a long walk to the luggage reclaim area, although there are moving walkways (speedwalkers) in most airports. Luggage trolleys must be rented at many airports. Trolleys are usually available free of charge only in the international arrivals area, so if you’re a foreigner arriving in the US, you should be prepared to pay for a luggage trolley, particularly if you have a connecting flight.. Most international airports have full service banks, currency exchanges, automatic teller machines (ATMs), and stamp and travel insurance machines. All international airports have executive and VIP passenger lounges, and publish free passenger information booklets. Major airports have emergency clinics (and sometimes a dental service), restaurants, bars, gift shops, luggage storage, lost property offices, fax machines, photocopiers, computer rentals and other business services. Duty-free has a low priority in the US and duty-free shops are small or even non-existent at the smaller international airports (you must usually pay for duty-free goods at a shop and collect them at the departure gate). US airports don’t have comprehensive shopping malls.
Public transport to and from major airports includes buses, taxis, mini-buses, limousines and sometimes rail or subway services. Often there’s a dispatcher whose job is to find you a taxi and advise you about fares. Many hotels and motels provide courtesy bus services at major airports, although smaller airports may have no bus services at all. A shuttle minibus or mini-van door-to-door ‘taxi’ service is often provided and can be booked to pick you up. Air taxis, both helicopters and light aircraft, are available at all major airports and many smaller regional airports. In some cities, e.g. New York, a helicopter service is available between international airports and a central downtown terminal (usually provided free for first-class passengers). Helicopter and light aircraft sightseeing tours are often available. An Airport Transit Guide containing details of fares, public transport and timetables for travel between 55 US and Canadian airports and local city centres is published by Salk International Travel Premiums ( www.airporttransitguide.com). For current arrival/departure, gate and luggage information you should call the relevant airline.
International air fares to and from the US are among the lowest in the world for long-haul flights. When travelling to the US, particularly from Europe, it’s cheaper to travel from a major city where a wide choice of low-cost fares is usually available. London is the main European gateway to the US and attracts the bulk of transatlantic traffic, although it’s expensive for business flights. If you’re travelling from London, shop around travel agents and airlines for the lowest fares, and check the travel pages of Time Out magazine and British Sunday newspapers such as The Sunday Times and the Observer. There has been a number of US casualties in the airline business in recent years, during which fare ‘wars’ have pushed many US airlines to the edge of extinction. You can insure against an airline going bust and leaving you stranded or buy your ticket with a charge or credit card offering protection against bankruptcy.
With the exception of full-fare open tickets, fares depend on the number of restrictions and limitations you’re willing (or able) to tolerate. These include minimum advance purchase periods; limitations on when you can fly; a minimum and maximum period between outward and return flights; and advance booking of outward and return flights with no changes permitted and no refunds (or high cancellation penalties). Apex (advanced purchase excursion) fares are generally the cheapest, particularly for midweek flights. Apex seats must usually be booked between 7 and 21 days in advance and there are restrictions on the length of your stay, e.g. a minimum of seven and no more than 21 days. The main disadvantage with all discounted tickets is that they’re non-refundable and cannot be used on other flights or airlines. Before buying a ticket, carefully check the restrictions. Many Apex tickets carry 15 to 100 per cent penalties for reservation changes or cancellations. It pays to shop around before buying a ticket, as it’s easy to pay a lot more than is necessary. The cheapest round-trip ticket to/from the US is usually cheaper than any one-way flight. Book well in advance when travelling to popular destinations (such as Florida, New York and California) during peak periods.
The cheapest international flights can usually be purchased from ‘bucket shops’ and ‘consolidators’ (in the US and abroad), which are companies selling surplus seats at large discounts. They deal mainly in international and transatlantic flights, and rarely offer domestic flights (on which discounts are insignificant). Fares change frequently (a deal that’s available one day may not be the next), so if you’re looking for the lowest fares check the travel and business sections of major newspapers (e.g. the Sunday editions of the New York Times, Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune), where promotional flights are widely advertised, or contact a travel agent who specialises in low cost fares. Although it’s easier to ask a travel agent than call individual airlines or consult their websites, some travel agents won’t always tell you about the cheapest fares because it reduces their commission.
If you’re flying to the US and plan to make a number of domestic flights, it’s usually much cheaper to buy your tickets abroad, where you qualify for an air pass under the Visit US Airpass (VUSA) scheme. Under the VUSA scheme, you can buy coupons for domestic flights. Most airlines no longer offer standby air passes, as they proved too popular! With air passes you may need to pre-arrange your schedule, although exact dates and flights can usually be left open. You must buy your VUSA before you arrive in the US and at least a week before you wish to use it; the validity period starts from the date of the first flight. To qualify for VUSA discounts, tickets must be purchased in conjunction with a transatlantic or intercontinental ticket and you must provide proof of foreign residence. For details, check with a travel agent, or go to the airline website (e.g. Delta, American, American West, etc.).
Flying is the quickest and most convenient way of travelling in the US, which has the lowest domestic air fares in the world (some even lower than Greyhound buses). Fares have been reduced by up to 70 per cent in the last few years, as airlines have fought desperately to maintain their market share (or merely to survive) in the face of increasing competition from low-fare, no-frills ‘peanut’ airlines. These offer no luxuries (e.g. snacks rather than meals or no food service at all) and the cabin may be more cramped than with a major carrier, but the fares are unbeatable. Like international fares, domestic fares vary according to ticket restrictions and are heavily influenced by the time of day, the day of the week, how far in advance you book, and the season.
The largest domestic carriers are Delta, American, United, USAir, Southwest, Northwest, Continental, and America West. Airports which are most used by low-fare airlines include Atlantic City, Tampa, Islip Long Island, and Reno; those used infrequently or not at all include Charlotte, Cincinnati, Richmond, and Pittsburgh.
There are generally three fare seasons; high or peak (summer and holiday periods), ‘shoulder’ (e.g. October or November with the exception of the Thanksgiving travel peak) and low or off-peak, which is all other times (particularly during school terms). The summer peak season runs from Memorial Day (the last Monday in May) to Labor Day (the first Monday in September). Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year are peak periods for domestic flights, but not usually for international flights. Shoulder periods often include the days immediately preceding a federal holiday. When planning a flight during a holiday period, book well in advance.
American Airlines recently introduced a ‘simplified’ ticket structure with just four classes: first-class, full-coach (also called economy or tourist class) and two discount fares, and many other airlines followed suit. One-class economy seating is popular on short domestic flights and many airlines are replacing first class with a better business class. The most expensive fares are open return tickets, for which there are no advance booking requirements and flights can be booked or cancelled at any time. Open tickets are usually valid for a year, during which a full refund can be obtained at any time. Excursion and discount fares usually apply to round-trip flights only and tickets must normally be purchased in advance, e.g. 7 or 14 days.
Other common conditions are minimum and maximum stay requirements, such as 6 to 14 days or one to six days, including a Saturday night. Discount fares are generally non-refundable, although you can usually change your flight for an additional fee. It’s much cheaper to buy a discounted ticket and pay to change the return flight (if necessary) than to buy a full-fare ticket. On long domestic flights (usually over an hour), services are much the same as on international flights, with meals, drinks and films (although you must usually pay for alcoholic drinks and films on domestic flights). Short flights (less than an hour) are often coach class only, while long flights usually have first/business and coach class compartments.
Infants under two travel free on most domestic flights, provided they don’t occupy a seat, although some airlines charge 10 per cent of the full adult fare. The fare for children aged 2 to 11 is generally 75 per cent of the adult fare. This is also charged for a second infant (under two) when two infants are travelling with one adult. There are usually no child rates for Apex tickets. Note, however, that a discounted adult fare is often cheaper than a full child fare. Many airlines also offer discounts for youths, students and senior citizens (over 60 or 65).
As a result of deregulation, promotional fares can be offered at almost any time and there’s usually at least one airline offering a promotional flight to most major destinations. Promotional fares or special offers on major routes can make a journey of 1,000 miles cheaper than a hop of a 100 miles or so. The most heavily discounted routes are along the eastern and western coasts. You can usually save around 30 per cent by travelling by ‘night coach’ (or ‘red-eye’ flights) or in the evening or early morning, any time on Saturdays, and on Sundays before the evening rush period. Some airlines offer discounts if you travel on a flight making a number of stops.
Other deals include two-for-one (twofer) promotions where two people travel for the price of one. Many smaller airlines are able to offer inexpensive domestic flights by using little-used airports. Some smaller regional airlines offer all seats at the same low fare, which may be lower than the lowest fare offered by larger national airlines. Sometimes it’s cheaper to buy a round-trip than a one-way ticket and leave the return trip unused. Charter flights are often the cheapest, but they don’t provide the same security as a discounted seat on a scheduled flight. Other inexpensive flights are available through travel clubs, although members may be given little advance notice of flights or tour packages. As with international fares, domestic rates change frequently, and a deal that’s available one day may not be the next.
With the exception of walk-on shuttle flights, often referred to as ‘flying buses’, you should reserve a seat on a domestic flight. When you book your flight, you’re usually allocated a seat number and can check in at the gate if you have hand luggage only. If you need to travel on a particular flight, book as early as possible. There’s no penalty for missing a domestic flight after you’ve booked a seat and on average around 15 per cent of passengers fail to turn up (‘no-shows’). If you don’t have a booking, arrive early and ask to be put on the waiting list.
Overbooking on flights
Most airlines routinely over-book flights (when not half-empty) as an insurance against ‘no-shows’. This sometimes results in passengers with bookings being ‘bumped’ (denied a seat) and forced to travel on a later flight, for which they may be entitled to ‘denied boarding compensation’ (DBC). Airlines always ask for volunteers before denying a passenger a seat. If you’re bumped involuntarily, the amount of DBC depends on how late (after your original scheduled arrival time) you arrive on a substitute flight. If the delay is less than an hour, no compensation is paid. In some cases you’re offered an upgrade on the next flight, or even a free return ticket to any destination on the airline’s domestic network (generally the more over-booked a flight, the higher the compensation). Most airlines offer you the choice of a free flight voucher or its dollar value. Compensation applies to flights originating in the US only and excludes charter flights and cancellations due to an aircraft malfunction or bad weather.
To avoid being bumped, try to check in at least an hour before the scheduled departure time for a domestic flight and always check in by the time specified. If you check in late and are bumped, you won’t be entitled to claim DBC. One way to increase your chance of having a seat is to visit an airline office (or some travel agents) and obtain a boarding pass and seat number in advance. When the weather is bad in the local area or the area where your flight terminates, you should confirm your flight before arriving at the airport (recommended any time, even for domestic flights). Some airlines require you to ‘re-confirm’ your flight 48 to 72 hours in advance. Although the ‘OK’ under status on your ticket means that a booking has been made, a confirmation may still be necessary.
Most US airlines operate a ‘frequent flyer’ or ‘mileage club’ scheme for regular passengers, who receive free tickets, bonus miles, free upgrades and discounts after travelling a number of miles. Benefits may also include car hire and hotel discounts. Membership of these schemes is free, although you must join at the check-in counter before flying and must have an American address. Bonus miles can also be earned by using car hire companies, hotel chains and credit cards affiliated to frequent flyer schemes. Contact airlines for information or take out a subscription to InsideFlyer magazine (1930 Frequent Flyer Point, Colorado Springs, CO 80915, www.webflyer.com). Most US airlines also operate airline clubs for travellers who, by law, must pay for membership. Membership privileges include the use of private airport lounges, computers and fax facilities, ATMs, showers, cheque-cashing facilities, and other services.
Flights can also be booked via the internet, through sites such as Expedia, Onetravel, Orbitz and Travelocity, or direct with over 30 airlines. Some of the discount airlines only accept bookings from their website. The latest innovation is ticket-less travel (employed by most new budget airlines) which may also mean you receive no boarding pass or seat number (you sit wherever there’s a spare seat). Tickets are booked with a credit card and you receive a reference number, which is quoted (you must show identification) on arrival at the airport. It’s estimated that doing away with tickets will save airlines billions of dollars a year.
This article is an extract from Living and Working in America. Click here to get a copy now.