Flying to and from the USA is not a new experience here at Road Worrier HQ, but I recently spent close to a month roaming around the country for work. That reminded me of the areas where flying around the US works well — and where it bites.
Airport picture from Shutterstock
Plane picture from Shutterstock
1. You can use your devices during take-off and landing
Since last November, US airlines have allowed electronic devices to be used during take-off and landing. You can’t make phone calls or send texts, but simply being able to read my Kindle during take-off is a massive benefit. (It also means I don’t amuse myself reading the SkyMall catalogue quite so often.)
2. In-flight Wi-Fi
In Australia, local airlines appear to have given up on offering in-flight Wi-Fi, but it’s a service that’s thriving in the US. It’s relatively expensive, but when you’ve arrived in the US after a 14+-hour flight, being able to get through email and other tasks is definitely helpful.
3. There are plenty of alternative routes
With 15 times the population of Australia, there are many more competitive airlines, and often more than one way to get yourself from A to B. If you’re not in a rush, choosing a less direct route can save you significant money. If your flight has been “overbooked”, you can also score bonus vouchers for flights and accommodation for agreeing to a different flight.
4. Most airports now have free Wi-Fi
No-one in their right mind wants to pay for global roaming, and knowing you’ll have Wi-Fi at the airport makes that a more realistic prospect. It’s not absolutely perfect — the alleged Wi-Fi at Houston Hobby was a joke when I tried it recently — but most major destinations are good. Even New York is finally coming to the party.
5. Higher baggage allowances
The typical minimum checked baggage allowance on a US flight is 22 kilograms (50 pounds), which might be higher than what your local airline offers. The good thing is that this will normally transfer to connecting international flights, potentially saving you on fees. (This is less likely to be the case if you have status with your airline, however.)
Picture by Kenneth Lu
1. Checked baggage services are terrible
There’s a reason why everyone is boarding flights stateside with far too much luggage: if it goes under the plane, there’s no telling when it might emerge. On a recent leg from Dallas to Houston, I spent longer waiting for my baggage to emerge than I actually did in the air. And when my bag went missing on a different leg, the airline explanation was literally “Yeah, we decided to send it on a different flight.” Handy.
2. Airport lounges are ordinary by comparison
Don’t get me wrong: I’m still going to head to the lounge as soon as I get to the airport. But I know it won’t be a patch on the domestic experience — lounges for Qantas and Virgin in Australia run rings around those in the US. You’ll rarely get more than a couple of free drinks, and you often have to pay for the food.
3. Airport food is overpriced and the choices suck
OK, this is true everywhere around the world, but the limited range of options on offer in a typical US terminal is depressing beyond belief. If you don’t have access to a lounge, buying nuts at a newsagency is often a better choice.
4. Overbooking and overcrowding
While volunteering for a different flight is the upside of overbooking, if you know you need to make a connection, then suddenly hearing that volunteers are being sought can make you very nervous. It also guarantees that the flight will be wedged to the rafters and there will be endless arguments over where the luggage will fit.
5. In-flight food is rubbish
In Australia, full-service airlines offer you at least a snack; the bargain airlines give you a range of choices to purchase. In the US, outside of first class everyone pays — and as often as not you’ll have one choice of a terrible sandwich which sells out after the first five rows.
And don’t even think about drinking the coffee. You’d be better off impersonating Todd Carney.
Flying is rarely a perfect experience anywhere in the world, and we should be grateful that lousy flights have led to classic Seinfeld episodes. If you have additions to either of these lists, let’s hear them in the comments.
Lifehacker Australia editor Angus Kidman really likes the Bloody Mary mix that’s served in the LAX T4 lounge. His Road Worrier column, looking at technology and organising tips for travellers, appears each week on Lifehacker.