Smart steps for the best travel experience.By Carol Kaufman
• Fly early in the day. At airports scheduled to capacity, any delay in the morning means there will be at least that much of a delay for every flight thereafter.
• Depart a day in advance for crucial trips, such as a business meeting or a wedding.
• Check the delay statistic for your flight -- how often that flight is more than 15 minutes late on a scale of 1 to 9 (the lower the number, the more often it's late) -- before you book your tickets. Airlines are required by law to give you the stat if you ask for it; many post it on their websites. If the number is 5 or below and time is of the essence, consider another flight.
• Sign up for the registered traveler program to take some of the pain out of the preflight experience. Travelers who pass a voluntary background check can use special lanes to whisk through security at nearly 20 U.S. airports, including in Denver, Oakland, Orlando, and San Francisco.
• Make a call. If you get to the gate and the airline says you've lost your seat, contact the Coalition for an Airline Passengers' Bill of Rights at 877-359-3776. Kate Hanni, the group's founder, says stranded passengers have told her that seats were suddenly found for them when they called CAPBOR from the airport and let airline personnel know they'd done so. If your flight is canceled, the group's volunteer staff will help you book hotels, research your flight status, offer alternative routes, help with car rental, and relay weather information.
• Understand your options. When you're stuck on the ground for hours after boarding, there's a reason. "If the airlines lock the doors, they don't have to provide refunds, credits, lodging, and food expenses," says Paul Hudson, executive director of the Aviation Consumer Action Project. You can circulate a petition demanding to be let off the plane and take it to the cockpit. An airline can't hold people against their will unless there's a safety reason, and the captain has the authority to let people off. If the situation worsens, call the police or a local TV or radio station from your cell phone. CAPBOR hotline volunteers can also put you in touch with the media.
• Don't let it drop. If you have a truly terrible experience, write a reasonable letter afterward to the airline CEO, explaining what happened and asking for compensation. Refer to the contract of carriage listed on the airline's website; it explains the compensation policies. It's up to the airline whether to remedy a passenger's bad experience. If you used plastic to buy your ticket, your credit card company can challenge the airline for violating its contract with a customer.
• Join the fight to enact an Airline Passengers' Bill of Rights, federal legislation that would mandate, among other things, that passengers be allowed to deplane when they're held on the tarmac for more than three hours as well as require airlines to provide delayed passengers with food, water, sanitary facilities, and medical attention. The major U.S. carriers are dead set against the bill, arguing that cockpit crews should make these calls. Decide who's right after you learn more at flyersrights.com.
It's inevitable that you'll get stuck in an airport somewhere, sometime, so why not relax while you're waiting?
Get pampered At Detroit Metro Airport, you can get a facial, a massage, and a shower in McNamara terminal.
Listen to Chopin Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport has a pianist to serenade irritable would-be passengers.
Tee off At Dallas/Ft. Worth International Airport, you can play 36 holes of golf on airport property -- if you've got the time.
Up your culture quotient Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport has spent millions on its world-class art collection.
Sample the Chardonnay At Baltimore/Washington International, a wine bar serves flights of wine during delays.