It is the little things that often can add up when you are flying for vacation or business. From a bottle of water to change fees, here are a few tips on how to save money when flying.

Planning to save money when flying

Hit the keyboard, not the phone: Do it yourself is the key here. Forget talking to a representative at an airline (unless you are really desperate!) to make your reservation. That little amenity can cost you about $15 to $50 or so, usually per ticket. So No. 1 in how to save money is not picking up the phone but letting your fingers hit the keyboard. In swimming against the tide, Delta Airlines in April 2016 actually eliminated these fees, and some airlines do not charge if you are booking award travel.

HITT Tip: In the airline industry, fees change constantly. These tips were accurate at the time of writing, but heck it could change tomorrow! So do check with your airline prior to booking or calling or changing or….

Be really sure of your dates: Unless you make a change within 24 hours (most airlines offer this cushion to make a change, but do check with yours!), an oopsie in travel dates can be a big owie. Changes in domestic flights, per ticket, can cost between $60 and $200. International ticket changes cost a whole lot more ($400 and up in many cases). One glowing exception is Alaska that allows you to change tickets for FREE (ah, what a beautiful word) if you do it at least 60 days prior to your flight departure date – otherwise it will run $125.

Selecting where you want to sit down: This too is another place where airlines have decided they can rack up revenue. Even upper class passengers with some airlines may have to pay a small fee to select seats in advance. Factor in these costs ($25 to $200 per seat, per traveler, per leg) when you are shopping and comparing to help you save money when flying. Sometimes being a frequent flyer with an airline helps you avoid this. Well, sometimes not. Sometimes if you are willing to wait and choose your location the day before your flight or at the airport, it will be free. Maybe OK on short flights, but when you are going to be in a steel tube for four or eight or maybe 12 hours? Eh, nope.

Sitting in the cockpit of a United flight.

No matter what your status, and how much the fees are that you are willing to pay to reserve a seat in advance, you’re never going to get upgraded to this.

Go carry-on: Granted, this is not always possible, but it will save you about $25 to $35 or more per bag. I will admit that I have enough “hair product” that trying to go carry-on for anything but a shorter trip is tricky. But if you are going on a longer trip and are staying in one place, consider just buying your lotions and hair products upon arrival as I have done.

HITT Tip: Another way to save money when flying is to consider how travel insurance can practically make every ticket a refundable ticket. Yes, really. Read our story on that here.

Food, drink and entertainment

Eating, yes, please: If you are not flying in premium class, and unless you are on a flight that is X hours or longer (or maybe any length) or international, get ready to whip out your credit card (most airlines do not accept cash) for food. Now, prices may not be any worse than airport prices ($6 to $15 or so), but that’s still pretty pricey for basic food. And the choice? Depends on the airline. Sometimes amazing. Sometimes just snack boxes full of calories and fat and little nutrition. Sometimes pure blech. Did I just say that?

Save money when flying with your own snack box.

Is the food you purchase on the airplane worth it? Depends on how hungry you are. You can certainly save money by bringing your own food, and it will likely taste MUCH better and be much healthier than what’s in this photo.

You will certainly pay more than if you brought your goodies from home. If you pack your own snack box, you’ll be sure to get something you like.(be sure you are selecting food that will not spoil and travels well. Oh, and not too smelly so your seatmates aren’t offended.) Try a wrap for easy eating, a salad for healthful eating, or your own snack box with the likes of dried fruit, hard-boiled eggs, crackers or rolls, even your fave cookies. Yes, yum.

Drinking. No, no, I meant water: Try a refillable bottle. Fill ‘er up after you get through security, then ask the flight attendants on their first pass to fill it again – good bottled water is what you will get…and free too. And avoiding all those throwaway plastic bottles is also good for the environment! We like Vapur bottles because they roll up nicely for great packability.

Drinking, something other than water: Since you cannot get liquids past security and onto the plane, if you want something other than water, you will need to buy it in the airport once past security (remember you cannot consume your own alcohol on board a flight) or on board. So save money on flying by sticking with water or fruit juice or other free beverages until you are at your destination.

Saving money when flying means drinking free beverages.

Dr Whoo and Tony know that saving money means not drinking alcohol. They prefer lemonade.

Wi-Fi and entertainment: If you want Wi-Fi on the plane, expect to pay for it, between $15 and $20. So maybe it is time to read on a tablet or Kindle, or have newspapers, magazines or books (yes, that old-fashioned paper stuff) or have your own movies on your electronic device. Granted, many planes continue to offer movies and other television programming for free, but expect to have to access it on your own device — tablet or smartphone — which means if there is no auxiliary power at your seat, your device might just run out of juice before the flight is done.

Saving money on flying comfort

 Most flights, unless you are flying an upper class, do not supply pillows or blankets anymore – unless you want to pay for them – consider $10 to $20 for both. And considering how flimsy they mostly are, why bother? Opt instead for a vest or sweater that can serve both purposes of warmth and pillow. There are in fact outerwear items that stow into their own pockets to create a pillow. Or create your own soft stuff sack to stuff with your own sweater once on board.

If you are the kind of person who wants a neck or lumbar pillow, there are inflatable ones that can pack easily. Consider looking in outdoor stores for items geared for backpacking and camping, but also ones that will transition well to general travel. Sea to Summit is one brand to consider, as well as travel brand Eagle Creek or outdoor brand Cocoon.

HITT Tip: If there is one airline you fly quite a bit, consider an affinity credit card tied to that brand. These cards may grant you free things that will help to save money when flying, like free advance seat selection, free checked baggage, special amenities such as pillows, and even free wi-fi.

Read more of our travel tips.

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Therese Iknoian

Traveler at HI Travel Tales
Little did her parents know that a short trip to Europe in high school would launch a lifetime love of travel, languages and cultures. Trained as a news journalist, Therese Iknoian spent a decade as a daily newspaper journalist before launching a freelance writing career specializing in outdoor, fitness and training. All the while trotting the globe, her focus finally turned to travel. Fluent in German, Therese runs a translation business (www.ThereseTranslates.com) working primarily with companies in the outdoor/sports/retail industry. Also a French speaker, she loves to learn a bit of the language wherever she goes -- gdje je kupaonica? Мне нужна помощь! -- often embarrassing herself in the quest for cross-cultural communication and the search for great travel discoveries.
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