I log around 400,000 real air miles a year (those earned in the air, not by credit card purchases) as travel editor for CBS News, and if there’s anything I’ve learned, it’s that most airport, airline, hotel, and other rules and policies are only misguided suggestions. Here are my special tips on saving time, money, and stress, without breaking any rules or ever cutting in line — in fact, without ever standing in a line!
Avoid baggage blues
If you’re like me, you believe that there are two kinds of airline bags: carried on, and lost. And while the airlines are doing a better job with baggage these days, I still don’t check bags on domestic flights. I FedEx them or UPS them (or there are 15 other courier services that will do this job). And for $40 to $50 — not much more than what the airlines want to charge you for losing your bags or making you wait endlessly at baggage claim — yours get picked up from your home or office and will be waiting for you in your hotel room by 10:30 the next morning. (Smart travelers send luggage two to three days ahead and get a big discount on shipping. Same thing for the way back home — because who cares if your dirty laundry arrives three days after you do?)
Pick the farm-team airports
Unless I’m flying long-haul international nonstop, I try to forget O’Hare, J.F.K., San Francisco, and Boston. Instead, in good weather or bad, I head from, to, or through Milwaukee, Islip, Oakland, and Providence. Those are the alternative airports that function so much better than their huge counterparts. San Francisco is often weather challenged, with low fog — not so Oakland. Milwaukee is actually Chicago’s third (and secret) airport. Just look in the parking lot: A third of the cars have Illinois plates, which tells you everything you need to know. Providence allows you to avoid the congestion and delays of Logan, and last but never least is the often forgotten gem of MacArthur airport in Islip, N.Y. These airports have better parking and fewer delays, and maybe it’s just me, but people yell a lot less there. I save time, I often save money, and I almost always save stress.
Don’t trust the Internet
If you’re like most folks, you book online. That can be a huge and costly no-no. Why? Because you mistakenly believe that all the available inventory is displayed online. Not even close. What’s offered online is just what the airline, hotel, or rental-car company wants to display online, not the total availability or range of prices. It’s okay to search online, but first have a conversation with a human being. Want to fly from Los Angeles to Hawaii but every flight is booked or overpriced? Here’s what the Internet won’t tell you but a travel agent or airline reservations agent will: You can fly LAX-Las Vegas-Honolulu, or LAX-Phoenix-Honolulu, or even LAX-Bellingham, Wash.-Honolulu.
And here’s a related caution: If you do want to search for fares online, that’s fine, but remember that you may create an electronic record of your interest in the process. And if you don’t buy that fare the first time around and then go back online a few hours later, the fare may have magically gone up. How did that happen? Blame cookies, those data-tracking devices embedded in your browser. The airlines claim they don’t do this, but if you want to minimize the possibility of those surprise price increases, when you want to revisit a fare, clear your cookies or use someone else’s computer.
Stick with the cheap seats
Have you been tempted to pay extra for a “preferred seat,” the ones that come with a little extra legroom or early-boarding privileges? I won’t call it a scam, but I will call it an aggressive upsell with very little consumer benefit. Airlines generate billions of dollars each year in ancillary fees, and one of the most profitable programs is getting people — some might call it steering people — to pay for better seating. But once again, the seat map you’re shown online is not a true reflection of total available seats. There are more available at no extra charge than what’s showing — you just need to have that human conversation. At the same time, don’t get confused about “premium seats” vs. “preferred seats.” A preferred seat can easily be a middle seat that happens to be closer to first class. And all that means is that while you may be able to smell the chocolate chip cookies in the front cabin, you still can’t have one.
Befriend the hotel’s “MOD”
Most hotels will insist that you can’t get a better room rate than you can on their websites — but experience dictates otherwise. Never call the 800 toll-free number for a hotel reservation, because that will take you to a clearinghouse that’s been given a certain number of rooms at each hotel at a non-negotiable rate. The only thing free is the call. Instead call the hotel directly, but do not ask for reservations — they’ll only reroute you back to the 800 number. Instead call the hotel and ask to speak to the MOD (manager on duty) or the director of sales. They are the only two people at the hotel who know the true status of their rooms and have the ability to negotiate. If a wedding just canceled and they’re suddenly confronted with 70 empty rooms, that will never show up at the clearinghouse or on the website. Have the conversation and get the room you want at a great rate.
Ask for “out of order” inventory
And what do you do if the MOD tells you the hotel is completely sold out? You get to ask one silly and then one serious question. First the silly question (and, yes, I’ve tried this one): “If I told you the President of the United States was heading to your hotel right now, would you have a room for him?” Answer: “Well, of course.” Your response: “Well, I just checked with the White House and he’s not coming, so I’ll take his room!” After the laughing subsides, tell him you’d be willing to take an “out of order” room. Every hotel has a few of them: rooms where a headboard is broken or a light fixture isn’t functioning or there’s a stain in the carpet. They’re awaiting repair but still functional. You’ll get the room — and a discount. Remember that a hotel room is a perishable commodity; an unsold room is revenue the hotel will never recoup once the sun rises. Don’t stop at the rate: Ask the hotel to throw in free parking or free Internet, or to let the kids eat free, or to waive the nebulous “resort fee.” If you don’t ask, you won’t get.
Get the tail number
Instead of calling the airline or signing up for electronic alerts to see if a flight is on time — a question the airlines interpret to mean, Is your flight scheduled to leave on time? — ask this question: “Can you give me the aircraft number [the tail number] of the plane assigned to my flight?” And then ask the airline where that aircraft is. If you’re at O’Hare and trying to go to Los Angeles and the aircraft assigned to your flight is in Nassau, then you know you’re not leaving on time — if at all — for LAX. Help the reservation agent do the math and rebook you on another flight immediately.
Count your TSA agents
You’re about to go through the security check, and you choose the shortest line, right? Not so fast. I look to see how many TSA agents are watching that computer screen by the conveyor belt. If there’s just one agent there, I don’t care how long the line is, I pick that line. Why? If there are two agents watching that screen, it means they are training one of them, and that means every bag gets stopped and scanned, and the line doesn’t move.
Know your “Cat 3”
At the gate, especially if there are weather delays, you need to know about the magic of something called Cat 3, a sophisticated, computer-controlled “hands-off” landing program on newer-model planes that allows pilots to program the entire approach and land automatically. Not every aircraft is equipped with it, and not every pilot is trained on it. And it’s an interactive system between the airport and the airplane, so both the airport and the aircraft need to be equipped. But if there’s iffy weather where you are — or, more important, where you’re going — Cat 3 is your friend. In the event of severe weather or visibility problems, only planes equipped with Cat 3 and pilots trained on it will be the ones leaving. So ask if your plane and its crew are certified for Cat 3 — or find ones who are.
Pull a 240
Then there’s my favorite hidden rule: rule 240, which goes back to the days of the Civil Aeronautics Board. In the event of any flight irregularity of any kind (except those caused by weather), the airline will endorse your ticket over to the next available flight — not just its next available flight — and off you go. The rule has been amended in recent years (and is now known as rule 120.20), but the basic provisions still apply. And it applies only to the major legacy carriers; Southwest, Jet Blue, Spirit, and Allegiant are not under the rule. But United, Delta, American, and Alaska are. So if you’re at the gate and your flight is delayed or canceled, ask the gate agent if he or she can “240” you. Obviously, if you’re stuck on the last flight of the day, rule 240 won’t help, but that’s when one of my personal rules kicks in: Never book that flight to begin with.
“The Travel Seuth” bonus tips
You’ve shipped your luggage and scored a discount hotel rate. Now what? Here are some extra tips from Peter Greenberg.
Go in through the out door
Once you get to the airport — and if you were smart enough to courier your bags — why would you ever go to the departures area? That’s a zoo, especially on early morning flights. Have your taxi take you to the blissfully empty arrivals area and just head upstairs. Similarly, when your plane lands, have your ride pick you up at departures. There’s no one there, and most of the traffic cops are downstairs yelling. You’ll get out of the airport so much faster.
Don’t trust the departures board
Departures boards have one useful purpose: to tell you the gate from where your flight is supposed to depart. But that’s only half the information you need. Now, look at the arrivals board and see what is scheduled to arrive at that gate. If nothing is scheduled to arrive at that gate until next Tuesday, why would you walk all the way out to the gate just to be disappointed? At that point, get back on the phone — the main 800 number or, if you’re a frequent flyer you can access a different 800 number — and find out where your aircraft might be. (If you’ve followed my advice, you already have the tail number.)
Do a smell check
So you may not have as much control over seat choice. But seatmate choice? That’s another matter. What if the person sitting next to you … actually … stinks? There is something you can do about it. It’s contained in the fine print on your “contract of carriage” when you bought your ticket. The airline reserves the right to boot someone off the plane for offensive bodily odor — no kidding. So alert the flight attendant. Just be sure to do it before you take off.
Peter Greenberg is the Emmy Award-winning travel editor for CBS News and host of public television’s The Travel Detective.
A shorter version of this story originally appeared in the March 17, 2014 issue of Fortune.