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Travel tips for a better flight: The secret airline perks you didn’t know about

Knowing these secret airline tips could make travel a little nicer

Man seated on airplane speaking with flight attendant
Mangkorn Danggura / Shutterstock

With the average price of flights on the rise and many airlines charging more for perks that used to be included in your ticket price (hello, window seat), you might long for the good ole days when fliers were pampered with little extras like, say, dinner on a domestic flight. While those times are likely gone for good, there are still plenty of free or low-cost benefits out there for air travelers that the airlines don’t always tell you about — and most of them are available even if you’re not in the airline’s frequent flyer program.

Read on for some travel tips that will let you in on a few secret airline perks that you can take advantage of next time you travel.

Parents and child seated on airplane together
Travelstock / Shutterstock

Fee-free family seating

If your air travel involves children, chances are you’d like to sit together, which can cost you a pretty penny on airlines that charge for seat selection, considering that aisle and window seating is usually more expensive than middle seats. Alaska, American, and Frontier airlines all guarantee adjacent seats for a child aged 13 or under and an accompanying adult at no additional cost for all fare types, as long as certain conditions, such as being on the same reservation, are met. The U.S. Dept. of Transportation recently submitted a legislative proposal to Congress to require all airlines to provide fee-free family seating.

Burgers on a board
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Meals if your flight is delayed or canceled

If a flight cancellation or delay results in you waiting three hours or more, 10 of the major U.S. carriers will provide you with a meal or meal cash/voucher. Alaska, Allegiant, American, Delta, Frontier, Hawaiian, JetBlue, Southwest, Spirit, and United airlines all provide this perk for longer delays. However, they might not announce it, so make sure to go to the service counter and ask for meal compensation if you qualify. All the airlines listed previously (except for Frontier) also provide complimentary hotel accommodations and transportation to and from the hotel for any passenger affected by an overnight delay or cancellation.

dufl beats baggage claim
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Benefits for bag delays

Checking a bag is expensive nowadays, and after you’ve paid a (sometimes exorbitant) fee to check your bag, the last thing you want to do is have to stand around for a long time at baggage claim. If you’re waiting at the luggage carousel for more than 20 minutes after your flight arrives, both Delta and Alaska will offer you 2,500 miles to their respective loyalty programs as compensation. Alaska also gives you the alternative of a $25 flight credit. Make sure to check the specific airline’s policies for details and how to go about requesting your points or credit.

ice cream sundae with chocolate sauce
David Calavera / Unsplash

A sundae bar in the sky

You might not want to literally scream for ice cream on a plane, but if you’re a member of United Airlines Polaris class, you won’t have to. After a pandemic hiatus, the airline recently brought back its popular sundae cart for business-class passengers on certain international flights. The service comes to you on a roll-through cart from which you’ll be served vanilla ice cream and allowed to select from several toppings. And let’s face it, airline food is usually just OK, at best, and it’s usually just a tiny bag of pretzels, but who’s going to say no to ice cream at 30,000 feet?

Man walking through airport with luggage.
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Lounge access when you’re flying the main cabin

If you’ve ever looked with longing at fellow travelers going into those cushy airline lounges reserved for high-level customers while you sit on an uncomfortable chair at your gate, there are ways you can gain access to the coveted lounge domains even if you’re not an elite member of the airline’s loyalty program or flying first class. Alaska, American, and United all sell day passes to their lounges at a cost of between $29 and $75. (Certain restrictions apply, so check with the airline in advance.)

Or you can try LoungeBuddy, an airport lounge booking service that lets you purchase access to more than 280 airport lounges they partner with around the world, regardless of what class you’re flying or if you have elite status or a lounge membership with the airline. Just download the app to see what lounges are available and how much a day pass will cost. Once you book, you’ll get a barcode to scan for all-day lounge access.

A flight attendant checking on the inside of a cabin on an airplane.
Omar Prestwich / Unplash

Fun freebies — even in economy class

While being in economy or the main cabin can make you feel like a second-class citizen compared to the business- and first-class folks, many airlines will still give you little extras for free — the catch is they often aren’t automatically offered, and you might have to ask. Blankets, pillows, eye masks, coloring books for kids, extra snacks, and the full can of soda instead of what’s poured into your glass are all little perks you’ll likely be provided with if you request them and they’re available.

And, if you’re on a longer international flight, you can also ask for an amenity kit that can offer travel needs such as toothbrushes, eye masks, and earplugs. No matter what you’re looking for, just remember your chances are better of getting it if you smile and ask nicely.

Best travel rewards credit cards
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Get the airline’s credit card

We’ve all heard the pitch during the flight for the airline’s special branded credit card. Generally, these offers come with an enticing “welcome bonus” of miles to be used toward a free ticket, with some offering as many as 70,000 miles. Most cards will double or even triple your rewards points when you use the card to buy a ticket on that airline (American Airlines’ Executive World Elite Mastercard even offers 4 times the miles for airline purchases). While all that sounds like a pretty good incentive, some of these cards come with more special perks that you can use that don’t cost you anything in dollars or miles.

Many airline credit cards offer the cardholders priority boarding and free checked bags, and the miles gained on the cards will help them reach elite status in the airlines’ frequent flyer programs quickly, unlocking new levels of perks (JetBlue’s Mosaic even offers free alcoholic beverages for Mosiac members on most flights).

Man sitting in airplane looking out window with a laptop in his lap.
nicepix / Shutterstock

Complimentary upgraded seating

Just like with hotels, you might be able to get better “accommodations” — or, in this case, seating — simply by asking if any free upgrades are available. Experts say your luck will be better on flights that are later in the day or on holidays when business travelers aren’t as plentiful. Even if you don’t get put in business class, you may be able to get better seating — for example, in an exit row where there’s more legroom — just by asking if anything’s available when you check in or at the counter at your gate. This perk probably won’t work if you’re flying economy class, however, where “no upgrades” is usually spelled out on the ticketing agreement.

While there’s an old saying, “You get what you pay for,” when it comes to airlines, that’s not always true — as long as you’re in on a few secrets. And anything that makes flying more like the pampered experience it was in yesteryear will likely be a welcome part of your itinerary.

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Cathy Nelson
Cathy is a freelance features writer and editor whose work has appeared in Well+Good, Verywell Health, Mindbodygreen…
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