Flying used to be more about an elegant journey – rather than just mere survival – especially for long haul flights. People used to dress up for an airplane flight. Now, it is more about functionality and endurance as airlines cut personal space to add more seats, and reduce the number of flight attendants in coach.
This has led to a different flight experience – one that I want to help you navigate. With some advance planning, your long haul international flight does not have to be a 10+ hour nightmare in a horribly cramped prison-like seat.
Choosing Your Flight
Survival begins before you purchase your plane tickets. When I am searching for airline tickets – for myself, or friends who are trusting me with their travel plans – I start my search on Kayak.com.
Then, I sort by the ‘airline matrix.’ Since Kayak.com is a search engine, and not a booking engine, it will return flights from multiple websites and not just its own inventory.
Sorting flights from point A to point B by the airline matrix, you can gain insight in to:
- Airlines that fly this route
- Number of Stops
Frequent Flyer Tip!
As a frequent flyer, I admit that I will look first for my airline of choice and its travel partners. Staying within one travel alliance will earn you more miles that you can bank and redeem for future travel.
For example: if you are flying to Paris on Air France, consider joining the Delta Skymiles program, since Delta is part of the SkyTeam program with Air France. You will then earn Delta miles for your flight; these Delta Skymiles are easier to redeem domestically than Air France miles.
As you earn more miles and reach certain levels (usually at least 25,000 elite qualifying miles per calendar year), your frequent flyer status gets you perks such as free checked luggage, advance premium seat assignments, and even some upgrades. This definitely makes flying more bearable.
|Name of Alliance||Major Airline Members|
|oneworld||American Airlines, British Airways, Cathay Pacific, Finnair, Iberia, Japan Airlines, LAN, Qantas, Royal Jordanian|
|SkyTeam||Delta Airlines, KLM, Air France, Alitalia, Korean air, Aeroflot, China airlines, China Southern|
|Star Alliance||United Airlines, Air Canada, Air New Zealand, ANA, Luftansa, Singapore Airlines, SWISS Airlines, Turkish Airlines|
Staying within one alliance may even save you money in the long run even if the ticket is more this time. As airlines cut costs, however, some programs are seeing serious frequent-flyer mile depreciation. Stay educated about these industry changes, or consult a travel professional.
Consider the reliability and size of the airline.
Although Aeroflot had airfares for MUCH cheaper than other major airlines when I looked for flights to Europe, I will not likely be flying with them. I prefer to use airlines that I am more familiar with and have a good reliability and safety record.
In addition, if there is a mechanical problem with a plane, small carriers will not have a spare plane to re-route you easily. If this was the one-and-only scheduled flight that day from A to B, there is likely no backup plane to take you to your destination.
Beware of Hidden Fees
Be wary of some (but not all) low-cost carriers, such as Spirit Airlines. You may score a great base airfare, but the airlines then add many additional fees at check-in and onboard the plane. If you’re not careful, you can end up paying more for that flight than on other major airlines.
Ryanair has been notorious for fees, charging for carry-on luggage, food and drinks, seat assignments, and even threatening to charge to use the lavatory. I draw the line there, and intend never to fly Ryanair.
Southwest airlines and British carrier easyjet are notable exceptions to problematic experiences on low-cost airlines. They deliver relatively good reliability and service for the cost.
Search Airline Reviews on Skytrax
If you are not familiar with an airline, search online for reviews. Skytrax is like a Tripadvisor for airlines. Read other traveler reviews. Would you really want to spend 10+ hours with an airline that has only a 50% satisfaction rate? Consider this carefully before you book that lowest airfare.
Prices Are Relative
Consider what you will have to do to get on the flight you are considering. The cheapest flight might be at 6 AM, but you will have to get up at 2-3 AM to drive to the airport to catch that flight. To avoid that painful early morning, you may decide to stay in an airport hotel. Factor the cost of this hotel in your ticketing decision.
Sometimes prices for red-eye (overnight) flights are cheaper. Will you be rested when you arrive at 5 AM the next morning, or will that be a wasted day? (Keep in mind that standard hotel check-in is not until 4 PM). If you really wanted to get to your destination the day you fly, the whole day is lost on the red-eye flight since you arrive the day after.
Always factor in traffic patterns around your local airport.
Trying to get to Honolulu international airport at rush hour? Add at least 1.5-2 hours to your commute time. Is that rush-hour flight really worth the price?
Number and Location of Layovers
Sometimes flights with multiple layovers are cheaper than nonstop flights. (Sometimes they’re not, because each airport adds additional fees). If you are considering a flight with stops / layovers, make sure you study the City of the layover, and the Duration of the layover.
City of the Layover
Some cities (Chicago) are notorious for flight delays. Chicago’s Midway airport was the nation’s worst at 33% of flights delayed. Chicago’s O’Hare airport was fourth worst at 25% of flights delayed. If you are flying out of LaGuardia airport in New York, factor in an additional 45 minutes just to sit on the tarmac waiting for takeoff clearance.
Consider the time of year in the city you are traveling through. We have had no problems flying through JFK in New York in December, but understand that this is a risky proposition in the winter (especially this last winter).
If there is poor weather, you could have difficulty getting in and out of airports such as JFK or Boston. This is worse if you miss your international flight connection due to the weather. In the winter, if you have to have a layover, try to choose a city that doesn’t have a high winter storm risk.
Even then, you cannot account for every scenario. We flew through Miami on our way to Orlando. The whole MIA airport was suddenly shut down for a tornado. Flights were grounded and cancelled. Incoming planes didn’t make it in.
Things can happen if you have a layover. The more layovers, the more chances of things happening — flight cancellations, lost luggage, and more. Consider this risk when you are choosing your flights.
Duration of the Layover
How long do you have in between connecting flights? How large is the airport you are connecting through? What if there is a flight delay — would you miss your connecting flight?
We just rescheduled a flight through London Heathrow because it only allowed 90 minutes in between international flights — and it required a change from Terminal 5 to Terminal 3. If you know Heathrow, it takes at least 45 minutes to bus between terminals. Boarding usually starts about 30-40 minutes before takeoff. It would have been a very tight connection. We decided on another flight.
Some flights are cheaper because the layover is very long. They may be 8-10 hours, or overnight. Factor in the cost of a hotel, or wasted time at the airport, in planning your flight choice.
Type of Planes Being Flown
There may be multiple flight options on the same airline, at the same price. Consider the type of plane you would be spending your time on. Is it a Boeing 747, 777, the Dreamliner 787, or an Airbus A380? Some planes may be more comfortable or have a better seat configuration than others. Research these options before purchasing your ticket.
Choosing Your Seat
To be honest, I love Seatguru.com. When booking a flight, you can look up your airline and type of plane on seatguru.com, then have information to choose the best available seat.
Do you like a window seat, or an aisle seat? Would you like an exit row, or a bulkhead seat? How about a seat in rows of 2 instead of 3? Seatguru.com has most of the answers, color coded for your convenience. The only time it did not was for SATA airlines (Boston to the Azores in 5 hours).
Is it worth paying extra for an upgraded seat? It all depends on your budget and sense of value. For elite frequent flyer members, American Airlines gives free upgrades to ‘Main Cabin Extra’ seats, even on international flights. This can mean some extra legroom and a more enjoyable flight. For airlines such as British Airways, there are no upgrades, since their economy plus is a separate ticketed cabin.
Do you have any tips for choosing your long-haul international flight? What are your Bucket List destinations?
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Financial disclosure: I have no connections with any of the named entities discussed in this article.
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