With crowded planes, fewer flights and more delays and cancellations, friendly skies are hard to find. The info below consists of flying tips from numerous sources, including representatives of the airlines, the International Air Transport Assn., the Air Transport Assn. and travel experts Joe Brancatelli ( www.joesentme.com) and Tom Parsons ( www.bestfares.com). The chief rule: Fly nonstop to avoid delays and reduce the risk of landing without your luggage. Because several airlines failed in 2008, Brancatelli emphasizes the importance of buying airfare with a credit card. "The Fair Credit Billing Act requires your credit-card issuer to refund you if your product is not delivered," Brancatelli says.
Avoiding delays and missed connections
Fly nonstop; if that's not possible, take a direct flight (a stop, but no change of planes).
Connecting flights require a change of planes, increasing your risk for lost luggage and delays. If you have to connect, choose a major hub such as Dallas or Atlanta, because it will have many flights per day; a smaller hub may have just one.
Book multicity or international travel with the same carrier or alliance (such as Star or One World), so the airline takes responsibility if you miss your connection.
www.ifly.com (airport guidance)
Check in online up to 24 hours before departure (even if checking bags).
Hassle-free international travel
Make sure your passport is current and has at least six months till it expires.
Check passport requirements. Some countries insist that your passport has blank pages, while others don't require a fresh page for its stamp.
Determine whether you'll need a visa or vaccinations.
Finding low fares
Subscribe to airlines' e-mail alerts about special weekend fares.
Download American's DealFinder at www.aa.com/aa/i18nForward.do?p=/urls/dealfinder.jsp and Southwest's Ding! at www.southwest.com/hotfares/signup.html?ref=cns_ding_hp and check Smarter Travel's tips at www.smartertravel.com/
Fare search engines:
For international travel: www.vayama.com
www.yapta.com (tracks fares and award ticket availability)
Reserve a seat. If a flight is full and no one volunteers, passengers without assigned seats typically are bumped first.
www.flightstats.com (statistics on the 50 busiest world airports)
www.avoiddelays.com (lists worst airports and airlines for delays)
airconsumer.ost.dot.gov/pubs.htm (Air Travel Consumer Report)
www.seatguru.com (best seats on planes for 65 airlines, plus baggage fees, etc.)
Best method for buying
Credit card. Do not use a debit card because you are not protected by the Fair Credit Billing Act as you are with a credit card.
Who pays, and when
If a delay or cancellation is caused by mechanical problems, the carrier may pay for a meal or hotel room.
For weather-related delays, most likely it's your dime.
Auto Club tips for coping with delays and cancellations: http://news.aaa-calif.com/pr/aaa/cancelled-flight.aspx
Check the airline's website for baggage fees. For instance, Southwest allows two bags to fly free. JetBlue, Alaska and Virgin America allow one. Most international carriers check one bag for free.
Pack lightly. Most carriers (even Southwest) assess excess weight surcharges for bags heavier than 50 pounds.
If you can afford it, consider using a luggage delivery service, shipping your bags by FedEx or UPS or taking advantage of United Airlines' door-to-door service.
www.airfarewatchdog.com/airfarewatchblog/tabid/54/articletype/arti cleview/articleId/868/checked-bag-fees-airline-by-airline.aspx (up-to-date chart regarding fees)
Finding the best day and time to fly
Off-peak: Saturday, Tuesday and Wednesday
Best time: early morning before delays caused by weather or equipment problems
Flying later in the day means you could be at the gate waiting for your plane to arrive and then be readied for departure.
Program trip-related numbers into your cellphone. If there's a problem, you can call the airline, hotel or travel agent on your cell while waiting at the ticket counter.
Sign up for flight notification about delays and gate changes. Even if you don't want to earn miles, join the airline's frequent-flier program so it can reach you if necessary.
Have your identification ready.
Remove your laptop computer and put it in a separate container.
Remove your shoes (slip-ons are best).
Landing with your luggage
Get to the airport early enough so that your checked bag clears security and is delivered to the aircraft.
Add something to your bag to distinguish it from the others on the baggage carousel.
Make a list of your suitcase contents in case you must make a claim.
Put address labels (business cards will do) inside, outside and on top of your luggage.
Take a cellphone photo of your bag for identification if it gets lost.
Events you can't miss
Have a backup plan for other means of travel if you're worried about flight delays.
Fly nonstop, buy your ticket with a credit card and pack plenty of patience.