Aviation expert Gordon Smith reveals his insider tips on how to take the pressure off overseas travel this summer
Flight cancellations and staff shortages have led to chaos at UK airports during the mid-term break, leaving many people worried about flying this summer.
Here, aviation expert Gordon Smith reveals the various ways you can take the pressure off overseas flights in the coming months, avoiding baggage queues by checking in your bags the night before, choosing the best time of day to fly – in the morning, rather than at night.
A short jump with a luxury shot
On a short-haul flight, it’s frustrating to jump into a business class fare only to find that the layout is identical to economy, and the only difference in comfort is that the middle seat is left empty.
But what if there was a way to fly in the luxury that is usually reserved for expensive tickets to distant destinations?
The good news is that if you know where to look, you can book planes that usually fly long haul and therefore come with premium cabins and even flat beds.
Made it: Discover Madrid’s Cibeles Fountain after a luxury flight – Iberia’s widebody A330 flies to and from the Spanish capital
Finnair flies its flagship A350 to London from Helsinki (usually its mid-morning service), while Iberia’s A330 jumbo jet is a regular visitor from Madrid. Even Aer Lingus brings its biggest jets to Heathrow on busy days.
Find the aircraft or “equipment” listed when searching for flights. The Boeing 777 and 787 as well as the Airbus A330 and A350 are among those to look out for.
How to claim what is owed to you
If your flight is cancelled, airlines must offer assistance, such as refreshment vouchers, and if your new flight departs the next day, they must provide overnight accommodation.
With travel disruption likely to worsen over the coming months, it has never been more important to know your rights and your airline’s responsibilities.
The good news is that the same legal protections apply to anyone traveling from the UK, including on low-cost carriers. The laws also benefit people entering the UK, but only on UK and European airlines.
The rights vary depending on the type of disruption and the notice period. Airlines must offer assistance, such as refreshment vouchers, and if your new flight departs the next day, they must provide overnight accommodation. Don’t forget to check your travel insurance as well, as your policy may offer additional benefits.
It’s important to give your operator the opportunity to make these arrangements, but if you don’t get help, you also have the right to arrange things yourself and claim the cost later. Remember to keep receipts and only spend what is strictly necessary.
For a jargon-free explanation of your rights, including compensation, visit the Civil Aviation Authority website (caa.co.uk/passengers).
Fewer delays at the start of the day
“Some airports, like Frankfurt (pictured), have a strict nighttime curfew, which means your airline could cancel your flight if they think the plane won’t reach its destination on time,” Gordon reveals.
A plane on the ground does not make money. To maximize gains, they fly from first thing in the morning until late at night, with a few landings after midnight.
While late night departures can be convenient, they are also risky. Low-budget companies usually only allow 30 minutes between landing and take-off throughout the day, so it doesn’t take much for schedules to get out of whack. Problems can be compounded, with subsequent services more likely to experience delays.
Some airports, like Frankfurt, have a strict nighttime curfew, which means your airline could cancel your flight if they think the plane won’t reach its destination on time. Flight crews are also bound by strict working hours, so a flight can be canceled if it means taking them on overtime.
Beat the baggage queues
Risk of theft: Avoid the lines by checking your bags the day before, Gordon recommends. Above are the queues at Manchester Airport
To avoid having to join the massive queues that plague airports from the early hours, if you are staying near the airport for, say, an early morning flight, bring your bags to the terminal and check them in the day before.
Using this fantastic service means passengers traveling before noon can head straight for departures the following day. It is offered free on many, but not all, Jet2 and Tui flights departing from the UK, as well as on BA departures from Heathrow Terminal 5 and Gatwick. For details, check your airline’s website.
All planes are not equal
For long-haul flights, the best experience is on the Airbus A350, an aircraft that flies with many big names, including BA, pictured
Flight experience can vary greatly within the same airline. For example, John Major was still in Downing Street when British Airways’ oldest jets started flying, while others may have left the factory just weeks ago.
Although carriers renovate their cabins over time, there can still be big differences in what is offered on board. When searching online, click on ‘show flight details’ to find out which plane is scheduled and generally choose the newer ones. For long-haul, the best experience is on the Airbus A350, an aircraft that flies with many big names, including BA and Virgin Atlantic.
In business class on some airlines, it could be the difference between an extravagant private suite with a sliding door and a rear-facing recliner. Why pay the same for an inferior product?
Last Minute Upgrade Bag
It might be worth waiting until the check-in deadline to reserve premium seats, as some operators give the least desirable seats to those who check in first, Gordon reveals.
Unless you’re a frequent flyer or traveling on a premium ticket, your airline will likely require payment for the privilege of choosing a seat in advance. This can go up to £75 per person, even in economy class. If you haven’t paid and are likely to end up in the restroom or a middle seat, it may be worth waiting closer to the check-in deadline.
Indeed, some operators allocate the least desirable seats to those who check in first, in the hope that subsequent passengers will pay for more attractive options. On busy flights, the airline may have no choice but to assign you one of those higher seats – like emergency exit rows that have more legroom – if they already have occupied less attractive seats.
From experience, this trick can work well when traveling alone with no-frills carriers, but is definitely not recommended for families or large groups.
Who takes you there?
Check who is actually operating your long-haul flight – if you love distinctive Virgin Atlantic hospitality, you might be disappointed when, despite having a Virgin ticket, you find yourself on board a relatively boring Delta Air jet Lines
Carriers are cooperating more than ever to maximize efficiency and increase profits.
This is great news for passengers as it offers more choice, but it could also mean a long-haul flight with a partner airline. For example, if you like the distinctive hospitality of Virgin Atlantic, you might be disappointed when, despite having a Virgin ticket, you find yourself aboard a relatively boring Delta Air Lines jet.
Elsewhere, BA works with American Airlines for transatlantic flights. While it’s a perfectly acceptable way to cross the pond, I find the Texas-based airline does a better job of meeting the needs of its local audience.
To avoid surprises, always check who is actually operating your flight. This may be in fine print but must be clearly visible at the time of booking. If in doubt, check with your airline or travel agency.