How to Navigate Shaky Airlines

Flying is miserable, but a few tactics can help you get from A to Z unscathed.

By + More

If you've got plans to fly anytime soon, pack extra cash, bring a long book, and wear elbow pads.

Just about every air-travel trend is getting worse, driven largely by soaring jet-fuel prices. To save money, strapped carriers are adding every surcharge they can get away with, raising fares, eliminating perks, and cutting back flights.

That means air travel is going to get more stressful than ever. Most flights will be full, with crammed overhead bins and no chance for a better seat. Delays have hit record levels recently and will probably get worse. And there will be less margin for error, so a problem with one flight could quickly cascade to others.

Frequent fliers who spend a lot on air tickets, of course, get the best seats and other preferential treatment—and often know the best tricks for traveling smoothly. The rest of the flying public has less recourse. But there are a few things you can do to reduce the odds of a middle seat, a lost bag, a surprise surcharge, or a nightmare trip:

Book directly with the airline. Use websites like Orbitz, Travelocity, and Expedia to research flights, but once you've found the one you want, book through the airline's website or a live agent. That's often where you'll find the best fare and have the best chance of getting an aisle or window seat. And if something goes wrong, the airline is more likely to help if you originally made the reservation through it.

Use every automated service available. Airlines have replaced many of their live agents with online services and machines at the airport—one trend that actually benefits travelers. Fliers with no bags to check can avoid lines by printing their boarding pass either at the airline's website up to 24 hours in advance or at an airport kiosk. This is also a chance to check whether a better seat is available. The sooner you check in, the better—all your fellow travelers are doing the same thing, and if any choice seats are still left, they'll go to whoever claims them first.

Pack light—really light. Most airlines allow one checked bag at no extra charge but now tack on $25 for a second checked bag. That's meant to bring in a bit of extra revenue—but also to encourage passengers to pack less, to help cut down on the weight in the plane and reduce fuel use. Some fliers try to skirt the surcharge by packing two bags' worth of stuff into one huge suitcase. Bad idea—many airlines also charge $100 for an overweight bag.

Then there are fliers who stuff a week's worth of gear into an oversize carry-on. That can backfire, too. On full flights, the overhead bins are often full before half the passengers have even boarded, and that bulging duffel won't fit under a seat, either. That means it will end up getting checked, costing you—and those around you—lots of added inconvenience.

Better to underpack and pick up spare socks or underwear at your destination if you really need them. If you're transporting gifts or anything that can be shipped by mail or UPS, do that ahead of time. It'll cost less than that $100 surcharge.

Fly off-off-peak. A red-eye or crack-of-dawn departure might cost you some sleep—but buy you some comfort. The only flights these days with any chance of a light load are those at the start or end of the day, when airlines are often moving planes into position for a long shift of full-capacity hauling.

Consider paying for a more comfortable seat. Some airlines now charge an extra $15 or $20 for exit-row seats or other spots in coach that tend to have a bit more legroom or are closer to the front of the plane. Get over the outrage, and pay up. "It's not such a terrible amount to pay to be comfortable," says David Stempler, president of the Air Travelers Association. Paying the extra fee might also entitle you to board before the rest of the horde, ensuring an overhead spot for your bag and less jostling.

Look into the government's Registered Traveler program. Fliers who enroll in this new program agree to supply personal info and submit to a background check, in exchange for an ID that allows them to pass through expedited security lines at the airport. Road warriors who have VIP status with their airline often get access to express security lines, anyway, and wouldn't need it. And so far, just a few airports and carriers participate, so it makes sense only for certain travelers. But this program is likely to grow quickly, and for people who travel once or twice per month, the cost—about $100 upfront, plus a $28 annual fee—might seem quite reasonable if it takes one long line out of the usual airport experience.

Be a low-maintenance traveler. Flights go more smoothly for people who do what they're supposed to. Check the Transportation Security Administration's website before your trip for the latest baggage rules. Use a regulation-size carry-on. Pack snacks. Most important, with so many things that can go wrong, arrive early, and have a backup plan. "Time is your friend," says Stempler. "Getting there late only puts you at a disadvantage." And no traveler wants to start a flight like that.