"It is better to travel well than to arrive" - Buddha
In the last year or so, I've spoken with a number of soon-to-be-frequent travelers, and passed along a bit of accumulated travel wisdom to each. My wife and I were talking about the merits of travel tactics at lunch again today, and it occurred to me how many tips and tricks you aggregate over the years. I've been a 'frequent traveler' (defined as being in the gold/executive tier of airline loyalty programs) for just shy of half of my life.
For what it's worth, and there are plenty of websites who would probably argue with me on each of the following points, but here are the rules I travel by and am rarely disappointed.
[Disclaimer, if you are traveling as a group tour or with children, these may be of considerably less utility to you, but you'll know which ones apply to your own circumstances]
Long before: Pick an airline that goes to your expected most-frequent destinations, or the one with the largest presence in your local airport. Sign up for their loyalty program (but not their credit card, they are not competitive for interest rates). Stick with this airline. Fly them whenever possible unless they are much more expensive than the competition (and consider shifting your loyalty to the competition).
Why? This is the latter half of the 'fly early, fly often' motto of travel. The more you fly, the more frequent flyer miles you accumulate (useful for free trips and upgrades) but more importantly, the higher status with the airline you accrue. Status = priority boarding, priority for standby lists (this will show up later), and priority for requested & impromptu upgrades to higher classes of service.