Go ahead, wear your white pants, flip-flops and big straw hat on the plane: Summer is here!
If you’re flying somewhere in the next few months, you probably paid through the nose for those tickets, and you want to do everything to make sure your travels go smoothly.
As we move into this busy travel season, I asked a few travel professionals for their top tips before you leave for the airport. Here’s what they said you should know.
How can I prevent travel bumps?
This summer should (hopefully) be less chaotic for flyers than last summer as airlines are stronger on staffing and executives have promised they’re more prepared for high demand, but you still don’t want to find yourself stuck because of your own poor planning, even if potential issues like those with air traffic control are out of your hands.
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“Definitely book ahead,” Tashieka Brewer, a travel coach at Pink Girls Run the World, told me.
And not just for flights, she added.
Part of planning ahead is also booking an itinerary that gives you a little extra flexibility if something goes wrong.
“Minimize connections or avoid short connections,” said Christopher Cave, CEO of FlightHub Group. “The other important thing in terms of de-risking the itinerary is selecting destinations with a broader extensive travel network as a backup.”
Cave said that if you can, it’s a good idea to avoid smaller airports or airlines with only one or two flights a day. That way you’ll have more options to rebook if one of your flights gets messed up. In Europe, he said, it’s a good idea to look into rail alternatives as well.
Airports are sure to be crowded this summer, so Brewer said it’s important to get there early and leave yourself plenty of time to connect between flights if you’re not traveling direct.
She said she typically advises her clients to leave at least two hours for connecting flights.
“Anything else is going to be a stretch. I would definitely advise getting to an airport for an international flight no less than three hours for an international flight,” Brewer said. “Especially if you’re traveling during peak times it tends to be a little bit busier at the airport, so definitely allow that extra cushion.”
If you’re going anywhere that’s even remotely popular with tourists this summer (read: most places abroad everywhere), you’ll want to organize your entertainment in advance, too.
“If it’s Versailles in France or the Statue of Liberty in New York, check out some timesaving tools like fast-track tickets,” Brewer said.
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What am I entitled to?
If something does go wrong with your flights, it’s important to know what your airline needs to do to accommodate you.
“We always recommend that customers are aware of what flexibility they have and what options are available to them in case they need to make changes to their itineraries,” Cave said.
The Department of Transportation’s traveler dashboard can help you understand the basics of major U.S. airlines’ delay and cancellation compensation policies.
In general, if your flight is canceled, airlines are required to rebook you on the next available flight or refund your money if you choose not to travel, even if you purchased a nonrefundable ticket.
“You’re entitled to be booked on another flight,” Brewer said, but added that some airlines try to avoid giving passengers their full due when something goes wrong, so it’s good to know what’s owed to you in advance.
Learn more:What you’re owed when your flight is canceled or delayed may be less than you think
Should I get the app?
Knowing what you’re entitled to is only part of the equation. Cave said it’s equally important to find out about any changes or disruptions as soon as possible so you can organize alternatives.
In most cases, Cave said, carriers will be required to get you to where you paid to go, but he suggests travelers sign up for notifications from their airlines about any changes to their itinerary and keep alternative flights in mind if something does go wrong.
“Some people are not on the lookout for those notifications. They let things drag on and they get to a point where it’s potentially more difficult to find them an alternate scheduling path with another airline,” he said.
Brewer added if you’re traveling abroad this summer, you’ll want to make sure your passport isn’t set to expire too soon.
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Should I pay for my seat?
Yes, airfares are expensive this summer, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the cheapest flights are the best ones for you.
“Basic economy is a common fare class that many airlines are marketing today, but these offer, in some cases, less flexibility,” Cave said. I’ve previously reported on how basic economy passengers are more likely to get bumped if a flight is overbooked. Keep in mind, though, involuntary bumping is very rare. Last year, U.S. airlines bumped just 0.32 passengers for every 10,000 they transported on average.
Still, with many airlines charging extra for advanced seat selection, Cave said it’s a good idea to shoot the lock off your wallet and pay that fee.
“That can also give a bit of peace of mind in terms of getting you closer to the exit of the plane if you need to rush out to your next flight or making sure your seat is guaranteed as well,” he said.
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Should I get travel insurance?
Both Brewer and Cave said more travelers than ever are interested in trip insurance, and they agreed it’s a good thing for most people to consider.
I can say personally that it saved me a fair amount of money when I had a flight canceled last summer.
“There’s many different flavors” of insurance, Cave said.
Some trip insurance policies provide more flexibility, including the option to cancel for a full refund for any reason, while others are more restrictive and may offer less protection. More expansive policies could keep you covered even on a complicated flight plan.
“There are some more complex itineraries where you’re combining tickets from multiple carriers,” Cave said. “You have to make sure if something goes wrong with that first flight you’re protected and you can rebook a flight without any hiccups.”
Airlines typically are not required to rebook you if you created your own connection between different airlines on separate tickets that you purchased yourself. That includes certain multi-carrier itineraries that websites like Google Flights, Kayak or Expedia sometimes advertise.
Brewer added it’s important to make sure your trip insurance includes medical coverage in the event of an emergency abroad. She said that if you take more than one or two trips a year, an annual travel insurance policy may make more sense than buying one for each itinerary.
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Summer is always a busy time for travel, and summer storms among other factors can make things complicated even if your trip is well-planned. That doesn’t mean you should stay in and become a hermit, but you’ll want to make sure you’re ready for whatever comes your way. Last summer was tough on travelers, but this summer should be better.
“I’m optimistic that this summer travel season will be much smoother, less disruptive than we experienced last year,” Cave said. “We’re in a better place this year than we were last year, so we do expect a much easier travel season.”
And above all, he added, “don’t forget your sunscreen.”
Zach Wichter is a travel reporter for USA TODAY based in New York. You can reach him at [email protected]