Search Tools for Air Travelers

If you’re planning to fly somewhere, these sites can enhance and supplement your experiences with online travel search engines.

I travel a lot—more than a hundred thousand miles in airplanes in any given year. To preserve both sanity and energy, I rely on a number of sites to make sure I can travel in relative comfort and avoid delays and unnecessary hassles. These sites aren’t travel search or agency sites that help you find and make bookings; rather, they’re ancillary tools that can help you make better decisions, save time and so on.

Before you fly

I’m always amazed at people who fly without joining an airline’s frequent flyer program. The primary benefit is free flights, of course, but there are a bunch of other perks that these programs offer than make them essential, in my mind.

Once you achieve “status” on these programs, by flying a certain number of miles or segments, you become eligible for things like bonus miles, better seats and free upgrades. The more you travel, the more you’re showered with rewards. And they add up quickly—I was able to fly both my father and son to London in business class seats simply by using accumulated miles for seats.

The best site covering airline mileage programs is WebFlyer. Here you’ll find details of all the major airline frequent flyer programs, including comparison tools, current promotions and other useful information. There are also tools including a blackout calendar and a mileage calculator.

If you fly a lot, you’ll find the tips and strategies WebFlyer publishes for maximizing your mileage programs to be very helpful. You can leverage purchases on credit cards, “double dip” with hotel stays and take advantage of many other promotions to significantly bump up your total mileage returns.

Even though I fly a lot, I always turn to SeatGuru before finalizing a reservation. SeatGuru features seating maps for all of the major airlines of the world, labeling seats as “good seat,” “be aware,” and “poor seat.”

Mouse over any seat, and a pop-up window will explain why a seat is labeled as it is. I use this feature even when flying business class, when you assume that seats are generally more comfortable than coach seats. On some aircraft, however, not all business seats are equal. For example, “Seat 23 is a standard business seat, but the proximity of the gallery can be bothersome. It tends to get very cold in this area during flight.”

SeatGuru maps also show the location of closets, lavatories, galleys and exits on planes. These aren’t generic maps; to use them effectively, you need to select a specific airline and aircraft. Not sure which airline is best for your needs? Scroll down the menu and use the comparison charts to compare the types of seats offered by various airlines throughout the world.

Flight management tools

FlightStats offers lots of useful information, tools, forums and other features related to commercial air travel. You can check the current status of flights two and from major airports in the world by route, flight number or airline. You can also get specific details about specific airports, including weather, delays, security wait times and more.

FlightStats also offers a number of free downloads, including status and delay gadgets that you can use directly from your desktop, as well as an airport delays RSS feed.

Want to track the status of flights? FlightAware tracks thousands of flights, using real-time FAA data. The home page features a stunning satellite image of North America, showing the position of all flights currently in the air.

You can also track the progress of a specific flight by entering airline name and flight number (or the tail number of the aircraft if you’re a real aviation geek).

The statistics area offers a fascinating look at aerospace activity in the U.S. over a number of time periods.

For aviation geeks

OK, these aren’t really search tools, but are cool sites that I find interesting. The first is a Salon column called Ask The Pilot. Written by furloughed pilot Patrick Smith, it’s a wide-ranging travel column, written from the perspective of a commercial airline pilot.

Flight Daily is one of the premier industry trade journals for the aviation industry. In addition to news, the site also features some great video news of the industry.

Speaking of video, claims to have the largest collection of aviation video on the web. You can search for videos using a number of criteria such as aircraft type, airline, point-of-view and so on. And be sure to check out this incredible video of an F-18 visibly breaking the sound barrier.

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