7 Things Airlines Don't Want You To Know

Illustrated by Mary Galloway.
This post was originally published May 29, 2015.

There's nothing like jetting off to an exotic tropical locale to enjoy a well-deserved vacation, only to arrive and find that your bags didn't make it. Looks like you'll be stuck living in your airplane sweats for the next two days. Thanks, [insert airline name here].

Of course, traveling is always a little hectic, especially as airlines try to cut costs and cram more passengers onto planes. "Airlines are not evil, but they're capitalists. And, at times, not entirely helpful," Rob Cassidy, president of travel retailer eBags, told Refinery29 in an email. "If you're not prepared, you can easily add $100 or more to the cost of your trip."

We reached out to several travel experts to discuss some of the ridiculous problems within the airline industry — and get tips for what you can do to prepare before your next trip.

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Illustrated by Mary Galloway.
Airline Fares ARE Going Up — They're Just Hiding It

Sure, there might be data out there showing that fares have decreased over the last 20 years — but what's included in that fare looks drastically different. According to travel writer Joe Brancatelli, nowadays, the fare is just the starting point when it comes to airline travel.

"Fares are only 70% of the game," he says. "The fare doesn't always include a seat assignment, change fees, and what you might consider reasonable boarding. It doesn't always include checked baggage or even carry-on bags sometimes." The result? When he compares the price of a flight in 1975 to one today, prices increase some 35% for the cheapest flight possible.

According to CheapAir, the best day to buy your plane ticket is 54 days prior to your flight, but generally, any window between 29 and 105 days is reasonable, with prices fluctuating an average of only $10, says Ed Hewitt, editor at IndependentTraveler.com. To get the best deal, make sure to look at the whole package: fare, baggage check fees — the whole shebang. "You can't just look at the fare anymore," Brancatelli says. "That's like saying I'm going to buy a car, and not look at taxes and car insurance."
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Illustrated by Mary Galloway.
Airlines Lose A LOT Of Bags

In 2013, airlines mishandled 21.8 million bags — and while that number has decreased since 2007, it's still a lot. Even worse, if an airline does lose your bag, it'll often reimburse you just $25 to $50 for what's in there, says Bill Rinehart, CEO of luxury travel service DUFL. While DUFL will reimburse clients for everything in lost bags, Cassidy also suggests investing in products that track your bags. "The most elegant solution I have found is using a Tile,'" Cassidy says. "Tiles can easily be thrown into your bag if you want an extra layer of tracking at your destination, which is helpful if you don't speak the language but know your bag is in the airport."
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Illustrated by Mary Galloway.
Bag Fees Are Also On The Rise

As we mentioned before, airlines are capitalist corporations. So, "they don’t care about adding fees for checking your bag," Rinehart says. "United States airlines made about $3.35 billion on checked bags in 2013."

And, experts predict that in the future, baggage fees will exceed $3.5 billion in the U.S. alone. A few airlines still allow free checked bags — Southwest, for one, which also doesn't have a fee for changing your flight. But, if you're loyal to a particular airline, Brancatelli suggests getting a credit card tied to the frequent flier program. "It's a relatively modest fee, and you tend to get priority boarding, free checked bags, and a shot at a better seat," he says. "Overall, it's cheaper than buying these basic 'amenities' on a one-off basis every time you fly."
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Illustrated by Mary Galloway.
Seats ARE Getting Smaller

Take the Boeing 787, Brancatelli says. "It was originally designed for eight people across," he says. "Then, it went to nine seats across. Meanwhile, seat pitch, or the space between rows, used to be at a standard of on average 34 inches. Now, it's 30, or sometimes, even 29."

Unfortunately, there's not much you can do to ensure you get a better seat, aside from paying for it. But, especially for the summer, Brancatelli recommends looking at first class and business class fares in addition to economy.

"Business travelers travel much less in the summer, so business class seats are empty during July and August," he says. "So, say you find an economy ticket for $1600 to go to Paris for the summer. You might be able to go for $2,000 on business class, and you get the lounge, the amenities, the space. It won't be that much more expensive."

Come fall, however, those prices will go back up.
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Illustrated by Mary Galloway.
Not All Carry-on Restrictions Are Created Equal

The federal government only restricts travelers to one carry-on and one personal item — size-wise, the rest is up to the airline. This means that different airlines will have different restrictions. "Delta and United are more punitive than others," Cassidy says. "And, Delta does not allow you to exclude the handle on your bag; it's counted as part of the solid box."

In general, Delta, American, and United are more restrictive airlines; JetBlue, Alaska, Southwest, and (sometimes) Virgin America are typically more lenient. Your best bet is to opt for an "international carry-on" that is 21-inches tall, and not a "domestic carry-on" at 22-inches tall, Cassidy says.
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Illustrated by Mary Galloway.
Some Flights Are ALWAYS Delayed

Unfortunately, there's no surefire way to avoid a delayed flight. June is particularly testy, according to Brancatelli, because there are still business travelers in the air, as well as the first wave of summer vacationers.

"Flying early in the day continues to be the best way to ensure an on-time flight," Brancatelli says. "Especially if you start on the East Coast, because the Midwest and West Coast [aren't] even flying yet. Delays cascade east to west and from morning to evening."

If you don't have a flexible schedule, you can check the monthly Air Travel Consumer Report, which pulls up the most consistently delayed flights in the United States. Better yet, when buying tickets directly off an airline site, "Somewhere on there, they have to show you the on-time percentage of every flight," Brancatelli says. "You should look for it, because sometimes it's 50% on time, and another flight an hour later is 80% on time."

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Illustrated by Mary Galloway.
On-flight Internet Is Rarely Worth It

Sure, getting Wi-Fi in the air is like magic. That doesn't meant the Wi-Fi is great — or cheap. One unlucky traveler was charged some $1200 for on-flight Wi-Fi, because he only bought 30 MBs and went way over. "Frankly, airline Wi-Fi sucks," Brancatelli says. "It can cost $35 to $40, which is almost the equivalent of your entire Internet bill for the month at home."

Of course, those who do opt into the on-board Wi-Fi are sharing a faulty, low-bandwidth service with all the other passengers — which is why the service is often comically slow. That might change soon, as Internet service provider Gogo attempts to get in-flight Internet speeds up to 70 Mbps. JetBlue, in the meantime, will be offering free high-speed "Fly-fi" later this year.

"They keep their Wi-Fi free for the moment, and it's connected to a satellite, so it's much faster than the norm," Brancatelli says. Still, it probably won't be on a par with what you have at home — better stick to reading.
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