15 Airport Hacks From Professional Travelers
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Do you want to save money on drinks and baggage fees, skip airport lineups, get good prices on flights, keep the kids amused, and stay safe when arriving in airports at unwieldy hours? Then read on, because I've rounded up 10 professional travelers and invited them to share their best airport hacks. (See also: How to Get Through the Airport Faster).
1. Apply for Global Entry
U.S. Citizens can clear customs quickly with Global Entry. (Citizens of Canada, Mexico, New Zealand, the Netherlands, and other countries have similar pre-screening programs that work in tandem with Global Entry). Application involves a rigorous background check and interview, but once you're a member you can clear customs in a jiffy, and also take advantage of special security lines and procedures.
Lisa Ellen Niver of We Said Go Travel is a global citizen who has traveled to over 100 countries on six continents. After traveling with her parents and experiencing the benefits of Global Entry, she lodged her own application. "After you apply and have your interview, you no longer have to stand in long security lines. You are whisked ahead with no need to remove shoes or take computers out of cases. It makes travel seem almost civilized again!"
2. Bring Your Own Liquor
Are you taking a domestic flight (and/or flying a budget airline) and want to have a drink but don't want to pay the airline's prices for liquor? Carry on a mini bottle of your favorite libation and mix it with the free soft drink, says Tamara Elliott, who offers savvy practical travel advice on Globe Guide. "This works well since mix (Coke, juice, etc) is already included on-board — plus, the TSA doesn't have restrictions about what liquids you can bring, just how big they are."
3. Hitchhike Into the First Class Lounge
Turner Wright of Once A Traveler, who has lived in Japan, South Korea, Peru, Thailand, and New Zealand, has an unconventional method for accessing first class lounges:
Some first class lounges allow you to bring in a guest for free, so as long as you're not too smelly and relatively personable, just hang out at the entrance and ask someone if he or she wouldn't mind signing you in (including a sob story about how you've been cooped up for 30 hours and/or missing your family wouldn't hurt).
4. Pay for the First Class Lounge
If schmoozing into the first class lounge doesn't work (or isn't your style), you can often buy a pass. It usually costs $30-$50 and gives you access to all the lounge amenities such as comfortable seating, free food and drinks (including alcohol), Internet, and sometimes even showers and quiet rooms for sleeping. If you have hours to kill before your flight or between flights, this can be money well spent.
5. Wear Your Extra Luggage
Benny Lewis as been on the road for over 11 years and was named National Geographic's Traveler of the Year in 2013. He travels with everything he owns (including books!), and flies budget airlines with over 80 pounds of gear without paying for it. His secret? He wears his luggage with the unfashionable but arguably practical Jaktogo. "It's not a great fashion statement, and uncomfortable to wear while you do it, but that's only necessary while you [check in and] board the plane (since that's the only time your number of bags are truly checked). The rest of the time, you can walk around the terminal and even go through security with it in its extra bag folded up mode." (Benny himself a polyglot who teaches people to become Fluent in 3 Months with a variety of tools including a free crash course.)
6. Fly Red-Eye
Matt Stabile, founder and Editor-in-Chief of TheExpeditioner.com and ExpeditionerSafaris.com says the best way to avoid the hassle of getting through airports is to choose red-eye (overnight) flights, especially if it's a long flight. "If you book a flight that leaves past, say, 10:00pm, you'll avoid rush hour traffic on the way to the airport, lines at check-in are going to be minimal, security will take a fraction of what it takes earlier in the day, and once you settle in for the flight, you can simply go to sleep and wake up at your destination."
7. Get Help Booking Flights
If flying red-eye doesn't appeal, Benny Lewis also recommends using Flight Fox to book flights; he says they can often find a convenient travel time for the same cost as a red-eye flight.
8. Ask for Assistance
Airports usually involve lots of walking and standing in line, which not everybody can manage. If you or somebody you're traveling with has trouble getting around (due to age or injury), don't let pride get in the way; ask for assistance.
Jeanne Dee of SoulTravelers3 discovered this life-saver while suffering serious medical challenges and traveling with her family. "Airlines can help you with wheelchair assistance, making the whole process doable for someone with health challenges, and they escort the whole family through security and customs and such." Jeanne and her multi-award-winning digital nomadic family of three have been on the road non-stop for almost nine years, visiting 47 countries on five continents for $23/day per person.
Although wheelchair assistance shouldn't be taken advantage of, it's a huge time-saver if you have a tight connection and are unable to move quickly. I discovered this myself after suffering a near-fatal accident and traveling to the States for medical attention. I would never have made the connection in my condition without being skirted through the airport's "secret passages" and ushered through special lineups. (Bonus: Your travel companions are escorted through with you!)
9. Eat at the Airport
Tiffany and Chris Soukup of VagabondWay.net have been traveling and working around the world for the last 10 years. They've learned through experience that eating a solid meal at the airport can actually be cost-effective, and arriving well-fed helps battle jet lag and even helps you make better (money-saving) decisions. Tiffany uses some hacks to make it cost-effective and fun. "I can't say the airport is my favorite place to eat, but I look forward to walking around to find where I'll dine. [Also], look ahead to know what restaurants are at the airport and see if you can get coupons."
10. Family Travel Hack: Entertain the Kids Without Gadgets
Rachel and Greg Denning of DiscoverShareInspire.com have been traveling since 2007 with their five (now six) children. They know better than any parents how hard it is to keep kids entertained during long hours of waiting in airports, and they say using less technology (tablets, smartphones, etc) creates better travelers.
The mind-numbing, easy entertainment of many [tablet/smartphone] games can lead to boredom, because children get accustomed to being passively entertained, instead of actively entertaining themselves. Reading books, talking, singing, playing games (cards, iSpy, etc.) can hold their attention and lead to bonding and personal interaction, which makes travel more enjoyable for parents and children alike.
She adds, however, that if your kids are already addicted to technology, going cold turkey in an airport isn't wise; best to start "weaning" them several weeks before traveling. (See also: The Digital Detox – How and Why to Do It).
11. Jump the Line (and Other Perks) With Frequent Flyer Status
"The Guy" dubs his website Flights and Frustration for good reason; he has been traveling internationally with his work nearly every month for over 14 years. He has found a way to use business class and priority lineups even if he's flying economy. It's all about achieving elite status with frequent flyer miles. (See also: Everything You Need to Know About Frequent Flyer Miles).
"A prime example is my KLM Flying Blue card. With higher status I can use my economy ticket and still go to the business class check-in queue." For those with miles but no status, try asking for a points-upgrade. "Inquire at check-in (or even before you go to the airport) to see if you can redeem points to upgrade your ticket to business class. Then it is queue jumping and luxury travel all the way."
Having status with one airline can give you access to perks on all airlines in the alliance. "I collect frequent flyer points on my Singapore Kris Flyer card for Star Alliance flights. I held a Gold Status with this Kris Flyer card whilst checking in for a domestic flight in the US with United. Due to my frequent flyer status with Star Alliance, they waived the baggage fee."
12. Go Through Priority Lines Anyway
Turner Wright (of Once A Traveler) doesn't even bother flashing a frequent flyer mile status card to jump the line. "Depending on the rush, I find it pretty ridiculous to cue up in one security line when there's an empty one for first class or priority passengers. Usually I just walk up and ask if I can go through, assuming they don't just wave me in. The same goes for lines at immigration and customs."
13. Flash Your Travel Rewards Credit Card
Even if you don't have super-elite frequent flyer mile status, you can flash a travel rewards credit card to gain lounge access. Stephanie Zito has been to over 115 countries living and working on the road for the last 20+ years. In addition to her humanitarian work and Wandering For Good, she's also the managing editor of the Travel Hacking Cartel and a travel-hacker extraordinaire.
If you live and work on the road and take advantage of lounges for showers, meals, Wi-Fi, and free drinks, it's worth carrying a card that gets you Priority Pass which allows you to access more than 600 lounges around the world. If you just need a pass or two, many co-branded airline credit cards offer one or two lounge passes a year as a sign-up bonus.
14. Catch a Rest in the Chapel (and a Shower Nearby)
If you've got a long layover or delayed flight and need some peace and quiet, look for the airport chapel. It can be a great place to catch a catnap, meditate, or simply enjoy a cell-phone free environment. Stephanie Zito also says it might lead you to a shower in certain parts of the world: "If you're traveling through the middle east, there is almost always a public shower room somewhere in the airport — you just have to find it. The trick is to locate the prayer area. The showers will always be nearby."
15. Sleep in the Airport
Wade Shepard has been traveling since 1999 as founding editor of Vagabond Journey, and he has a formula for sleeping in airports. "I usually sleep in the airport when I have an early morning flight leaving between 3 a.m. and 9 a.m. or when I land between 11 p.m. and 5 a.m. It's free, relatively secure, and cuts out the hassle of taking [costly] late night transportation and checking in/out of a hotel at an hour when humans are better off tucked away in bed." He even argues that it's safer to sleep in the airport than to navigate a foreign city late at night, where you might be more of a target.
He consults SleepingInAirports.net to find the best places to sleep, and likes to be out of the way but still around other people (who are preferably sleeping) so there is security in numbers. As for his luggage, he secures it: "I either lock my bag to the chair I'm sleeping in or I tie it my wrist — so if someone was to try to snatch it I'd wake up."
Wade even does this with his wife and child in tow. "Having three people to fend for makes the money saved even greater! I also found it works better just to let my daughter stay up late, go crazy in the airport, then crash on the plane rather than waking her up in the middle of the night and moving her out [of a hotel]."
For more from frequent travelers, check out these 25 other fantastic travel tips and secrets: 25 Secrets From the World's Most Frugal Frequent Travelers.
Do you have any reliable airport hacks? Please share in comments!
Editorial Note: Any opinions, analyses, reviews or recommendations expressed in this article are those of the author’s alone, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any bank, card issuer, airline or hotel chain.