Air travel in the United States

Understand

The quickest and often the most convenient way of long-distance intercity travel in the United States is by plane. Coast-to-coast travel takes about six hours from east to west, and 5 hours from west to east (varying due to winds), compared to the days necessary for land transportation. Most large cities in the U.S. are served by one or two airports; many smaller towns also have some passenger air service, although you may need to detour through a major hub airport to get there. Depending on where you are starting, it may be cheaper to drive to a nearby large city and fly or, conversely, to fly to a large city near your destination and rent a car. In some rare cases (particularly on the East Coast, but also in and around major hubs, such as Chicago, or in the state of California), rail travel in the United States may indeed be a cheaper option, either for the last leg of your journey or for the whole trip. In some cases coach class may be similarly priced to relatively long flights. But it involves sitting in coach for hours, sometimes one or two days. Shopping around carefully is certainly a good idea, as neither distance nor travel time nor the "remoteness" of a destination is a 100% trustworthy predictor of the price you will pay getting there through different modes of transport, including bus travel

Major carriers compete for business on major routes, and travelers willing to book two or more weeks in advance can get bargains. However most smaller destinations are served by only one or two regional carriers, and prices there can be expensive.

Service types

There are several types of airlines flying in the United States today:

These carriers used to be full service, although are increasingly taking after carriers like Ryanair and becoming "no-frills". On a domestic flight in economy class, expect to pay extra for anything beyond a seat, one or two carry-on bags, and soft drinks. Some flights to/from Hawaii or Alaska still offer a few perks, but check for your particular airline and flight. At times their fares may even undercut the "Lowcost Carriers" fares too!
  • Mainline carriers also offer first class for a larger seat, free food and drinks and overall better service. Round trip fares can run over a thousand dollars, even for short flights, making the added cost not worth it for the vast majority of travelers. (Most travelers in first class get their seat as a free frequent flier upgrade or similar perk.) You may also be offered an upgrade at a much lower cost during check in or at the airport if there are open seats available. Depending on the cost for a last minute upgrade, the savings in checked bag fees alone may make this a worthwhile option (and you'll also get priority boarding, the bigger seat, more legroom, free beverages and food.)
  • Certain transcontinental services offered by American ("Flagship Service"), Delta ("BusinessElite Transcontinental"), JetBlue ("Mint"), and United ("BusinessFirst p.s."), where an international style Business Class (with lie-flat seating and upgraded dining) is available, American's Flagship service also offers the equivalent of International First Class in a very private 1-1 configuration. Upgraded transcontinental service is usually only available between New YorkJFK and Los Angeles/ San Francisco, although Delta also offers it on some flights to Seattle. Flights between the East Coast and Hawaii along with all flights from the mainland to US Pacific Territories (Guam, CNMI, etc...) typically feature international business class.

Fees

Quoted prices, both from airlines themselves and from consolidators, generally include all taxes and other mandatory fees, and there is no fuel surcharge. However, extra services tend to incur extra fees. The main ones are listed here, along with strategies for avoiding them. Even baggage fees can be avoided with careful planning:

Most mainline carriers feature "cashless cabins" meaning any on-board purchases must be paid with either Visa or MasterCard (Delta also accepts American Express). Regional subsidiaries generally do still accept cash on board, although flight attendants may not be able to break large bills – hence the traditional request "exact change is appreciated." If you paid in advance for first class, checked baggage, meals, and alcoholic beverages are all included with the price of your ticket, as well as priority access to check-in agents and boarding.

Ironically, America's discount airlines, such as JetBlue, Southwest, and Virgin America sometimes have more amenities than the legacy carriers, and for many people may be a much better experience. JetBlue offers more than 45 channels of satellite television, non-alcoholic beverages and real snacks for free on every flight; Virgin America also has satellite TV, in addition to on demand dining (even in economy). On JetBlue your first checked bag is free ($35 for a second bag), and Southwest is the only U.S. carrier to still offer two checked bags per passenger free of charge. Virgin America charges for checked bags, but their fees are considerably lower than the legacies.

Security

Security at U.S. airports is onerous, especially during busy holiday periods. Allow plenty of time and pack as lightly as possible. Adults must show approved picture ID. Ensure that any liquids are held in containers no bigger than 3.4 ounces (100 mL). The containers must all be placed within a single zippered plastic bag that is 1 quart (946 mL) or less in size. Only one such bag, with however much liquid, is allowed per passenger. If arriving from international destinations ALL passengers must go through security screening to continue on the onward flight, after clearing immigration and customs inspections. That means all liquids and prohibited items (per TSA rules) that were purchased in a Duty Free shop or allowed through as carry on from a foreign airport must re-packed into checked luggage after coming out of the customs area and before re-checking luggage. In most airports there is a check-in desk outside or conveyor belt outside of customs for transiting passengers to re-check their luggage. Items cannot be re-packed or re-arranged before customs inspections in the luggage reclaim area.

By private plane

The cost of chartering the smallest private jet begins at around $4000 per flight hour, with the cost substantially higher for larger, longer-range aircraft, and cheaper for smaller propeller planes. While private flying is by no means inexpensive, a family of four or more can often fly together at a cost similar to or even favorable to buying first-class (or even coach class) commercial airline tickets, especially to smaller airports where scheduled commercial flights are at their most expensive or unavailable, and private flying is at its cheapest. Though you may find it cheaper than flying a family of four first-class internationally, it is rarely the case, except when traveling from Western Europe.

Air Charter refers to hiring a private plane for a one-time journey. Jet Cards are pre-paid cards entitling the owner to a specific number of flight hours on a specified aircraft. As all expenses are pre-paid on the card, you need not concern yourself with deadhead time, return flights, landing fees, etc.

In some large cities, general aviation and private planes are served from a secondary airport where the main airport is crowded with frequent scheduled airline flights. These facilities occasionally bill themselves as executive airports to market themselves to large corporations who acquire their own small aircraft for business travel or resource exploration. General aviation facilities also serve flight schools, parachute clubs, aerial photographers, mapmakers or agricultural "crop dusters" and the lucky few individuals who can afford ownership and operation of one small plane as a very expensive hobby.

Many small-town airports on America's borders welcome individually-owned small aircraft; points like Ogdensburg, Watertown and Massena with just a few scheduled domestic Essential Air Service flights daily fill the rest of their time with general aviation. Give them an hour or two advance notice so that they can fetch border officials to meet the tiny private plane from exotic and foreign Brockville, and you've provided just the excuse they needed to add "International Airport" to their names.

See also

This article is issued from Wikivoyage - version of the Saturday, March 19, 2016. The text is available under the Creative Commons Attribution/Share Alike but additional terms may apply for the media files.