How Couples Cope With Air Travel When Only One is a Frequent Flyer

Scott McCartney‘s Middle Seat column is on frequent flyers whose other halves aren’t as adept at the airport.

One spouse rushes through PreCheck security screening, leaving the other seething with the baby and diaper bag in the slow screening lane. Or maybe one heads off to the bathroom shortly before boarding, spoiling the other’s carefully planned early-boarding rush.

Travel is full of stresses. But for couples with different flying predilections, the knives can really come out, especially when only one is an experienced traveler with deep-rooted habits.

Goodness knows I have my routines. I go through security rapidly, in a second nature kind of way. Do I want to go to the club, or head straight to the gate? With north of 150 segments last year it’s a decision I made by myself most of the time, without checking with anyone else. Thinking through someone else’s needs — especially in a habit-driven environment — is something that takes work for me.

McCartney relayed that for Pizza in Motion, “traveling with his wife meant convincing her not to check a bag. Michelle Pizzarello used to love to pack with amenities like a hair dryer and check a bag, leaving her hands free in the airport to get coffee.”

Checked bags are evil. Not only do they get lost, but they mean you need to get to the airport earlier and you waste time on arrival at baggage claim. Multiply an extra hour per direction out over the course of 30 years worth of trips and you’re talking about a month of your life waiting on checked luggage.

Apparently Ed Pizza isn’t very good at keeping open a middle seat on Southwest when traveling with his family. He makes eye contact, making it easy for a passenger to sit in his row. When really he needs to ball up a bunch of tissues, put them on the empty seat next to him, and pretend to be sick.

One truism is that the frequent flyer in the family is expected to know how everything works, and expected to make everything go smoothly. Upgrades are appreciated at first, but then they become a baseline. A partner may not know how it all works, just that it does, and it seems to come so naturally. That’s a high bar to meet, and failing to meet it may not be met with understanding since they don’t even really know the moving pieces that have to come together.

The upgrade trick is how Mommy Points got her husband into travel.

On every trip, she tried to make it comfortable for him with upgrades or extra legroom seats, upgraded hotel rooms, and nice rental cars. He got hooked. “His first trip to Europe we did in business class,” she says. “I was trying to find whatever works, and making him spoiled works.”

How do you handle travel on your own, versus with a spouse, friends or family?

  • What if you’ve got PreCheck and they don’t?
  • Are you responsible for upgrades?
  • Can you get them to go carry on-only?
  • Does it frustrate you when it takes so much longer to get through the airport?

Road warriors unite!

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Apparently, Gary Leff isn’t good at reading, since it’s my lovely wife who makes eye contact and can’t keep the middle seat open. 😉

  2. A fun post, Gary. I’m very lucky with my wife – and in ways that reach far beyond traveling, starting with her putting up with me!

    But back to the topic at hand. She absolutely loves flying business and first class with me, but is so indifferent otherwise that she often won’t even pick a seat when flying economy domestically. And over the years, she’s become much more appreciative of the value of the miles and points we pile up via credit cards, to the point that she’ll call me to ask which card to use if she has a big business expense to pay for.

    She’s also become much more attuned to maneuvering through airports and security relatively quickly.

    As for where to go on vacations, we definitely discuss it together and come to a mutual decision. But she’ll often go along with what I suggest and how to get there, since I’ve often done the research on it.

    My wife also leaves the travel arrangements to me. Though that creates more work for me, I’m much better at it and kind of enjoy it.

    However, there is one key travel expert trick that she taught me – always do carry-ons! For whatever reason, I used to be semi-oblivious to that until we met.

    Like I said, I’m a lucky guy.

  3. United’s upgrade policy is pretty good in this regard… if booked in the same reservation, a non/lesser-elite will be upgraded at the same priority as the higher elite member… for free, subject to availability. I know AA does this too, but AA requires that 500-milers are deducted to support the non-elite upgrade.

    AA/UA give companions access to E+/Main Cabin Extra. Delta used to do this too, but is now cutting back on these benefits as it rebrands Comfort+ as a separate cabin.

  4. Has BoardingArea become a Xerox machine? Bloggers copying each other’s posts and regurgitate the same content?

  5. Has BoardingArea become a Xerox machine? Bloggers just copy each other and regurgitate the same content?

  6. At least wrt PreCheck, my fiancé is 100% on getting it extended to her when we travel on the same PNR – her BP spits it out along with mine. Not sure if this is how it’s supposed to work but it’s never been an issue to us

  7. And how much time do travelers who don’t check luggage spend hunting down items at their travel destinations that they didn’t pack, to avoid checking bags?

  8. My wonderful partner has been patient with me as an avgeek – though it did help that I initially spoiled her with first/business class trips 🙂

    With time she’s come to understand my love of miles/points and now doesn’t mind if we leave early to check out a new lounge or modify an itinerary so I can try out new aircraft. Also easier now that she’s signed up for PreCheck and has lounge access. But yeah, we’ve gone from her being perplexed as to why I have so many credit cards to now forwarding me her email offers to see if it’s worth applying. She’s a keeper.

  9. We’re lucky here in Australia that both major airlines allow Frequent Flyers benefits for a spouse or family on the same booking, which means my partner is afford to priority security/boarding/lounge access etc provided they’re with me.

  10. When my wife travels with me, I slow down. I let go of my tendencies to eek out efficiencies, and remember that my wife doesn’t do this every week so she needs more time.

    It’s kind of a refreshing way of doing things 🙂

  11. Try traveling with a smoker that either has to go out through security at connecting airports or find the few smoking rooms left in random airports (usually in another terminal). It takes 20+ minutes to go from the DFW D AA lounge to the A lounge and back on the sky train so why not wait until 20 minutes before boarding an international flight to make the trip, of course.

  12. My wife is a Southwest flight attendant, so she lives by cutting it close and isn’t used to a lot of the rules and restrictions most travelers suffer under. When we travel together, she’s often telling me, “It’s ok, we don’t need to be there that early. The doors close at…”

  13. If you have PreCheck and they don’t, just make sure you book the tickets on the same PNR together then the whole party is given PreCheck.

  14. A little off-topic but my wife and I are both retired, both have Silver status (lot of good that does us) and we no longer do carry-ons. Most of our big trips are at least three weeks so it’s hard to pack lightly enough to tote it all on the plane (though other pax try to) so we just check all of it. Never have to worry about getting on the plane first to find overhead space and never have to wrestle with it through security or upon exiting the plane. Every so often luggage gets lost but they usually bring it right to us within twelve hours and it means we score a $100 voucher for our trouble. We’ve gotten so used to checking that we do it for all of our trips.

  15. Things are much different when traveling with children, we give ourselves more time. Notably a toddler boy, I want my hands free so I can chase after him if he decides to sprint away. Going with the loves to run theme, I try to limit his on board time so I prefer boarding last. All that narrows it down to checking bags oh and checking a car seat if we are getting a car at the destination (the rental car seats are expensive, dirty, unsafe or uncomfortable), the bonus he loves the baggage carousel and loves to just stand there and describe and count all the different bags coming out from the magic place.

    None of this applies when I am flying solo, when flying solo I am lean mean efficient machine minimizing my travel time across all modes.

  16. My wife now will only fly J or better internationally, and any time we’re in Se Asia she will only fly J for even 4+ hour flights on CX. And she refuses to fly AA F when I spoiled her with CX F once. I’ve created a monster!

  17. My partner has learned to not check backs for short trips but for some reason has to bring stuff with him that we do not need.

    House and office keys were lost on LH flight to Germany when they fell out of his bag (We were being picked up at the airport on our return flight by someone with keys to our house.

    Magazines and books and places of the place we were going to that he will never look at (and never did). If I bring a map of where we are going to I leave it with the hotel on check out to give to someone else.

    Extra shirts, pants, shorts that he NEVER will wear— why? I have washed closes out in SYD hotels after being there a week. Used bathroom sinks to wash UW and socks also ! Need a nice shirt in Zurich so I bought a new one there!

  18. CLUBS!!! If you are not a member get a pass (or pay). They are there for a reason. my partner did not want to go to the PHL club after our flight from Dublin. I did! When we checked in he sat down plugged in his cell phone, plugged in his I-pad and got his beer — four hours later he was chatting away on Facebook and talking on his cell phone ! I took a nap in peace!

    What they say and what they do are not the same

  19. My girlfriend has a DUI from ~5yrs ago, so they would not approve her for Global Entry/TSA precheck. Its the only thing she has on her record, and they didnt care much when she tried to appeal it. I have it, and so does my son. Since we are chivalrous gentlemen, we trudge through the sea of “normals” with her at security and customs. It is super frustrating each and every time.

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