Summer travel? Think beyond airfare

By Gregory Karp

Chicago Tribune (MCT)

Published: Tuesday, May 28 2013 11:52 a.m. MDT

Seat choice. Check SeatGuru.com and SeatExpert.com to choose the optimal seats on a particular plane. They might point out good seats that offer a little extra room — although that's less common now because airlines charge more for those seats — and bad seats, such as those near lavatories or rows without windows. They will allow you to compare seat widths and pitches (legroom) among airlines, which can vary a lot.

Checked bags. You'll have to pay for checked bags, each way, on many domestic flights but not on Southwest or JetBlue. That can mean a significant difference in bottom-line price if several people in your party will check bags. Meanwhile, you'll pay to carry on a bag — one that needs to fit in the overhead bin — on others, such as Spirit Airlines. "Looking at the total cost and not just the fare is important," Snyder said.

Several websites offer airline bag-fee comparisons. One is FareCompare.com, at tinyurl.com/farecompare-bags.

Change fees. If your plans are iffy, you might consider an airline that charges a lower fee to change your flight. The best is Southwest, which charges nothing, while the big network carriers recently raised their change fees to $200.

Internet. Onboard wireless Internet is becoming more prevalent among U.S. carriers. If email, Facebook and Twitter are essential parts of your life, it could be a factor in which flight you choose.

"That's huge for people who need to be connected," Snyder said. "Eventually, everyone will have it, but for now it's a differentiator." Wi-Fi usually carries an additional charge, often less than $10 for an average domestic flight. Wi-Fi is still relatively rare on international flights. Often a booking website will note whether your plane is likely to have Internet access.

Gadget amenities. Power ports and USB ports in seats can be helpful to recharge a computer, tablet or smartphone, which often double as personal onboard entertainment systems. Once your device power is drained, it's decidedly less entertaining.

In-flight entertainment. Keeping yourself and children occupied — sometimes distracted from an uncomfortable seat — can be key. In-seat video can help, with movies and even live television on some flights. A site like SeatGuru.com will tell you what in-flight entertainment amenities a plane is likely to have.

Frequent-flier programs. Airline loyalty programs can be complex but lucrative, if you build enough miles or points with a single airline to get a free flight or seat upgrade. Consolidating trips onto a single airline can lead to value in later bookings.

Book early flights. Flight delays typically increase through the day. It's often no more costly to choose earlier flights, which can reduce stress — bettering your chances for on-time takeoff and to land in time for connecting flights.

Connections. Nonstop flights are ideal, but if you book a flight with a connection, do yourself a favor and allow sufficient time, generally an hour or more, to make the connection. That's especially true in the summer, which is more prone to thunderstorms in many areas, Smith said. Leaving extra connection time often won't cost any more and can reduce stress. Be aware that flights with tight connections might appear at the top of booking search results.

If it's winter, opt for connections in warm-weather climates rather than cold, where snowstorms can be a factor. For example, choose a connection in Dallas or Phoenix instead of Chicago.

Airports. Research your connecting airport to determine how easy it will be to make your connection, especially looking for whether you will need to navigate to a different terminal. Terminal maps are available at airport websites.

"If you're connecting through LAX (Los Angeles International Airport) and you have to change airlines, that can really (stink)," Snyder said. "There are definitely differences in airports." Atlanta is an example of a good U.S. airport for smooth connections, Smith said.

Model of plane. As a general rule, newer planes are somewhat more comfortable and better equipped. Some have bigger, deeper overhead bins than older models. For example, among workhorse Boeing 737s, newer models are called 737-800 and 737-900. Among U.S. carriers, American has new Boeing 777-300ERs and United has several Boeing 787 Dreamliners, both of which get rave reviews from passengers.

Safety. Domestic air travel is extremely safe and generally isn't a differentiating factor, though that's not true for all foreign carriers, experts say.

If you want the most experienced flight crew, they generally are found on the bigger planes, not the regional jets, which despite having a big-airline paint job are actually operated by contractors.

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