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January 16, 2008 9:12 AM   Subscribe

Well, I did it. Due to most unfortunate circumstances, I flew on an airplane for the first time in 8 years. As awful as the reasons were, the entire world has been opened up to me and I am now extremely excited by my renewed ability to travel the skies, and seek advice. Much length follows.

1. I used to use Instant Air to book all of my flights back in the day. It appears that they have been defunct since 2000. I see a billion different fare finder sites as well as a bunch of meta-fare finder sites. I'm sure poinions will vary widely, but I'm looking for recommendations for better ones to use.

2. I now know that JetBlue is (to me) the grand goddess of all airlines (they have video screens on airplanes now? With tv stations??? Amazing!). I'm a big guy and found the seats to be rather comfortable and roomy. The flight attendants were awesome (one, the most awesome woman in the skies, gave me wings!). What airlines might be comparable to JetBlue's awesomeness?

3. I am easily bored. The vid screens on the flight kept me mildly entertained, but I still reached a point of extreme boredom an hour in to the 3 hour flight. My return flight was on AirTran (who I spit upon most profusely...ptew!) and I had nothing to keep me occupied. I've never been able to read or sleep on planes. What are more interactive things that I could bring with me? I was thinking of some kind of portable gaming device, possibly.

4. To keep my fear of flying in check, I will need to fly fairly often (I'm thinking a minimum of 5-6 times/year). I'm not rich, so fairly inexpensive trips would be ideal. Recommendations for short hops (from the Boston area) would be greatly appreciated.

Any other random advice that would help my travels more comfortable and interesting (especially for when I decide to brave much longer flights) would be great as well.

posted by Cat Pie Hurts to Travel & Transportation (27 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Check out Southwest. Although they don't have screens in the back of the seats, and from Boston you would have to fly from Providence or Manchester, they are very cheap and their flight attendants all have a sense of humor.
posted by peetle at 9:19 AM on January 16, 2008

I can help you with a couple of those. My experience is mostly international, however.

For 1) I use Kayak quite a bit for fare comparison. My experience is that the major players (which Kayak automagically searches) are all roughly the same. Hence, the one to go to is the one that has the cheapest service fees (which may be the airline itself). I occasionally search ticket consolidators and resellers, but they tend to have very inconsistent prices. Further, I've had bad luck with the tickets "disappearing" from airline computers. I wouldn't necessarily say there is a correlation.

For 2) Consider non-US/Canadian airlines for a real treat. If you ever have the chance, fly British Airways or Singapore Airlines. Domestically, Southwest has been a good "average" airline for me. Mostly though, all domestics seem the same to me. I have never flown on JetBlue. Unfortunately, Hooter's Air no longer exists.

For 4) Get Southwest's DING! application. Put in Boston as your home airport and take a quick trip anywhere you want. The fares aren't that much cheaper than otherwise (I usually see about 10%), but they give you an excuse to go somewhere you otherwise wouldn't.
posted by saeculorum at 9:25 AM on January 16, 2008

Invest in an video player or a portable gaming system. They are worth the expense on long trips and you'll have more control over what you watch/play. I have an iPod nano and a GBA and they have made my many trans-Pacific flights much more comfortable, especially when the movies suck.
posted by Alison at 9:26 AM on January 16, 2008

The key to anti-boredom on flights is a laptop, a spare battery, and a pair of headphones. I tend to work, because it's less boring than anything else. But flights are boring.

(Alternatively, a couple of stiff drinks and a nap can help, but if you're like me you continually dream that the plane is crashing, which isn't very helpful...)
posted by unSane at 9:27 AM on January 16, 2008


1. I personally prefer Kayak. They are an aggregator, meaning the search all sorts of different airlines for the best prices. (On preview, what saeculorum said.)

2. Seconding Southwest for service. (Hint: Kayak doesn't search Southwest fares.)

3. Does sitting by the window bother you? I can keep occupied for hours staring out the window with some good music in my ears. Browse through SkyMall and write in inappropriate comments next to the ridiculous shit they sell. Have a beer. Read a good book. Play BrainAge on the DS.
posted by nitsuj at 9:31 AM on January 16, 2008

First of all, congratulations! That was a big step and even though I'm sorry it was under bad circumstances, it's great that you flew and want to keep flying.

Travelocity and Expedia can help you a lot. Both sites have a fare-alert service where you enter your preferred destinations, and they email you when those fares are on sale. Also both sites have last-minute deals and internet-only deals, both of which can help you find affordable fares.

As far as entertainment, a GameBoy/DS device is probably the easiest solution. My personal favorite is a bit more low-tech -- I like to slip a few NY Times crossword puzzles into my carry-on along with a good pencil. Or if you have a laptop, you can play games on that and even surf the internet when it's permitted.

Southwest is a good airline, and I also like Continental. But if you really liked JetBlue, there's nothing wrong with using them for most of your flights. Airline loyalty is a fast way to earn miles and get free upgrades too.
posted by boomchicka at 9:32 AM on January 16, 2008

What's a short hop to you? Three hours doesn't seem like a terribly long flight to me, and you can get to Florida in that time. If you want something shorter/cheaper, how about Philadelphia or DC? I'm hugely obsessed with stuff like this, but I would fly in to Dulles just to check out the Udvar-Hazy Center. Chicago maybe?
posted by backseatpilot at 9:37 AM on January 16, 2008

For #3,

2nding a Nintendo DS. Even if you only ever use it as Nintendo intended (fun word pairing there!) it can provide many, many hours of entertainment.

And if you get into homebrew, you can use it as an MP3/Movie player, portable Wacom, eBook reader, etc. etc.
posted by SpiffyRob at 9:38 AM on January 16, 2008

I have a Sony PSP I use only when I fly....if you really get into a game you will be annoyed when you actually have to land.
posted by UMDirector at 9:40 AM on January 16, 2008

P.S. I have noticed on JB the best method to avoid boredom is to watch some TV, do something else (game, work, etc) then watch a bit more TV. Rinse and repeat.
posted by UMDirector at 9:41 AM on January 16, 2008

JetBlue has no equal. They're adding cheap direct flights from JFK to St Maarten and Aruba this week, and getting off a plane in sunny 80ยบ island weather is a nice immediate reward for getting on in wintry Boston! Credit cards are evil, but if you're flying often get the JetBlue American Express card which will give you 50 points out of 100 towards your first two free tickets.

Random advice: The JetBlue Web ticketing application lets you pick your seats, including emergency-exit rows, and it shows which seats have the most legroom.

During the flight you can often move to the bulkhead seat, which gets you 1. more legroom, 2. more flight attendant attention, and 3. faster egress on landing - but only if you don't have to fight your way back aft for your carry-on, so on your way onto the plane, put your carry-on in the frontmost overhead compartment.

I load up my iPhone with TV shows and movies in case there's nothing good on the seat-back TV.

JetBlue has a code-sharing agreement with Cape Air, so once you have a JetBlue pass to spend you can add a trip to Provincetown to any return flight for free and take the ferry back - this would be a real test of your fear since it's a little eight-seat plane, but it's a beautiful short flight!
posted by nicwolff at 9:49 AM on January 16, 2008

As a fellow ex-terrified flying person who now loves it, congratulations!

You won't have to fly that much to keep the fear at bay, in fact I fly a couple of times a year now and actively look forward to flying.

Airline recommendations? Internationally avoid the US carriers (rubbish) and treat yourself to Virgin or Singapore Airlines. Lots of on-demand movies and TV (i.e. watch them when you want and pause them when you need to) and games, and therefore, the only airlines on which I don't have to crack open my laptop. Service and legroom are great too and they haven't followed the yucky trend of charging for drinks transatlantically (Continental just lost the chance of me ever going on one of their planes ever again by attempting to charge 5 dollars for a drink. Tacky on a $600 ticket!)
posted by merocet at 9:55 AM on January 16, 2008

Nthning Kayak for airfares, but offering a dissenting opinion on Southwest. I hate Southwest. Yes, you get a cheap ticket, but you do not get an assigned seat. Instead, you get a "boarding class" letter- A, B, or C, and it's first come first serve for seats. So instead of the usual airport (semi-)comraderie (oh man, here we are, waiting in the airport, doens't it suck? yeah you know it, etc), everyone on your flight is suddenly someone who could take your seat. People start lining up over an hour before the plane is scheduled to board, planting luggage/children/elbows out to hold their place in line, and giving you the shifty eyes. It breeds antipathy in your fellow flyers, and that's the last thing we need in airports. I gladly shell out an extra $50 just to have the granny waiting with me give me a smile instead of a stab in the back.

Sorry for this being kind of rant-y, but since you haven't flown in awhile, I thought you could use the opinion.
posted by kidsleepy at 9:57 AM on January 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

I use farecast.com to find flights. Prices go up and down on a daily (or hourly) basis and it will predict if they think if it is a better time to book now or to wait.
posted by yeti at 10:01 AM on January 16, 2008

Wow, I was going to suggest AirTran since they have XM Sattelite Radio at every seat. But I see you were not pleased.

I do want to recommend SeatGuru. For most airlines and airplane types, see reviews for every seat on a plane. Which seats are roomier, which are too close to the bathroom, which are cold because they are too close to the door, etc.

kidsleepy: Southwest recently changed their policy slightly so now when you check in online your place in line is determined. So instead of knowing you are in group A, you know you are the 35th person in group A. You therefore don't have to wait in line until they are ready to board the plane. Does it work in practice? Maybe recent Southwest flyers could fill us in, since I'm going off Southwest's explanation.

Nintendo DS is the greatest portable gaming device ever created. If you can find one.
posted by ALongDecember at 10:10 AM on January 16, 2008

Kidsleepy: Southwest has modified their boarding process to avoid the "cattle call" you speak of. (Details) And you can now pay extra to reserve a seat.
posted by nitsuj at 10:12 AM on January 16, 2008

seconding kidsleepy that Southwest is horrible. I think of it as Greyhound in the sky (and I know I'm not alone in that opinion). It works great for some, but I am not one of those people.

If Midwest airlines flies from your location, some of their flights (called Signature Service) have first-class sized seats throughout coach. And they give you chocolate chip cookies! The downside is they don't fly very many places and they have fewer flights per day than most.

Farecompare.com is another good site to check. I usually check it, Farecast, Kayak, and the airline's site (I fly NW almost exclusively).
posted by cabingirl at 10:15 AM on January 16, 2008

Nthing getting a DS to keep you occupied. Besides there being way too many different games to keep you occupied (it supports both DS and GameBoy Advance games), they have a surprisingly good battery life that should last through most North American flights.

Also, what recently kept me sane was my mp3/video player (like an newer video iPods, but mine's a Creative Vision). I have 2 seasons of Veronica Mars on it i'm working through, and I was able to watch 2 episodes per way recently when flying to/from Vegas and Vancouver. Tuned out the whole flight - it was great!
posted by cgg at 10:25 AM on January 16, 2008

Nthing PSP - you can also play movies on it.
posted by Koko at 10:26 AM on January 16, 2008

I like farecast.com because it can tell you (like so) where the cheapest flights are going in the short term. So if you want to take a last-minute trip, you can check for the super-cheap flights and where they may be going.

The cheapest locales for you to visit are probably going to be the short hops to bigger metropolitan areas. DC, NYC, Chicago, Philly. You could probably try to visit places a little further away, like Charleston and the Raleigh-Durham area.

I find the best thing for me on flights is to have lots of things to do. The DS is great, or any other portable video-game system with games that appeal to you. A portable video player would also work great--just one movie and you're there! Read the in-flight magazines, even, and do the puzzles if someone else hasn't first.
posted by that girl at 10:38 AM on January 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

I am easily bored. The vid screens on the flight kept me mildly entertained

Is this not the best excuse for buying an iPhone or iPod touch?! On a recent flight out to SF I watched a film I'd downloaded from my TiVo to my iPhone and the guy sitting next to me was watching his choice on his iPod Touch. The rest of the plane was watching one of those plane B movies. Next thing I knew, we were landing.
posted by Taken Outtacontext at 10:53 AM on January 16, 2008

Response by poster: Ooh..such great info. I think it's going to take awhile to parse it all!

For the Southwest advocates: Is there truth behind what I've heard about their policy to charge double for fat folks? I'm a fat folk (thought I thought I fit comfortably on Jetblue and Airtran).

I experienced Southwest in 1999 on a flight from Ft. Lauderdale to Tampa. If I recall, it was a madhouse, but it was a fun flight because my sister and I wound up having to sit in seats that faced the back of the plane. The whole thing felt like a crazy bus ride.

I spent some time searching for sites dedicated to airline -comfort- rather than cost, but found very little (on a whim, I priced out a flight on Virgin Atlantic to London in "Upper Class". I don't think I'll be spending $11k on a flight any time soon!)

ALongDecember - Pre-2000, I flew Airtran exclusively due to all of the free flight vouchers I had racked up (as well as the ability to upgrade to first class for cheap). Now, I'll never fly them again. On my flight home last week, my experiences with every member of their staff that I encountered from ticketing to the plane were horrid.
posted by Cat Pie Hurts at 12:11 PM on January 16, 2008

A little more on boarding for Southwest, since I just flew them for the holidays. I was kind of annoyed at the numbers when I discovered them, but once I boarded the first time, I realized what a difference they make. No more shifty eyes, since everyone has an assigned spot. Plus, it leads to talking, since you need to find your place in line.

The way it works is they give you a letter (A, B, C) and a number (1-60, I believe). At every gate they've got podiums in a line. One side is numbered 1-5, 6-10, etc. and the other side is 31-35, 36-40, etc. The A group lines up first. Once A30 is on the plane, B1-30 lines up while A31-60 are boarding. And so on. Pretty easy -- one of the boarding agents made told us they had gotten a bunch of kindergarteners to do it, so we should be able to handle it.

Of course, there was one woman who didn't get it. She was B50, and tried to board at the front of the A group (and wasn't in line to begin with!). The agent told her to go to the back of the line, and that she'd be boarding with the B group. Then she tried to get on before the second half of the A group, and got sent back again.

Anyway, the point is, Southwest is not that bad. In fact, for last minute trips, it's probably better than other airlines, because you can still get a decent seat. Also, if you're traveling alone, you can usually find a single aisle seat well into the B group. Just be sure to check in the day before your flight (up to 24 hours before takeoff), and you're set!

Of course, I had to listen to the same rendition of the safety guidelines in the form of "Twas the Night Before Christmas" FOUR times, and a couple of "Here Comes Southwest" (instead of Santa Claus), but I'd rather them be doing that than being mean and surly. :)
posted by natabat at 12:26 PM on January 16, 2008

Congrats! I fly about once a week, usually about 100,000 miles a year. Here's my recommendations:

* Kayak to find flights.
* A Nintendo DS for games.
* An iPod Nano or Touch for music and/or movies, unless you want to go all the way to an iPhone.
* And while it's true that JetBlue has no equals, it does have a superior: Virgin America. I wrote a little bit about why they're great.

Finally, you should seriously consider investing in a pair of noise-cancelling or in-ear soundproof headlines. It'll dramatically reduce the background noise and stress of travel, and will help you ignore a lot of the things that stress you about flying.
posted by anildash at 7:52 PM on January 16, 2008

Oh! I forgot one other part. You might want to consider flying United regularly, as well, as they're still the only airline that regularly broadcasts the pilot and flight tower chatter on Channel 9 on their in-flight audio. That way, if the details of flying make you get stressed, you can listen in and know that the pilots are (for example) getting clearance for a different altitude to get away from the turbulence that is stressing you out.
posted by anildash at 7:54 PM on January 16, 2008

I agree with Anil. I love listening to the pilot talk to traffic controllers on the flight. When you hear them tell the pilot to take a new heading and the plane starts to turn it's neat.
posted by Taken Outtacontext at 1:35 PM on January 18, 2008

If you feel up to it, you could always get a window seat and look out the window. I am also a nervous flyer and surprisingly found that it actually *helped* me. Gave me visual reference as in when we were going through bumps I can see a cloud layer and once we were above the weather the flights smoothed out. Not recommended for everyone but might work for you An added bonus is that looking out the window at landscapes is freakin' cool! I love visiting mom in del boca vista and when I land home at JFK I can see the Jersey Shore, Sandy Hook and then we go right over Jones beach. Just got back from Central America and got a birds-eye view of a huge volcano in El Salvador. Awesome.

As for airlines, jetBlue is really the best in the US although I hear Virgin America is good too. Avoid US Airways like the plague. The merger with AmericaWest has resulted in utter disarray.

I have found I get the best fares by going to the actual airlines Web sites. A bit more work though.
posted by xetere at 5:42 PM on January 22, 2008

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