Michael Strickland's blog on all things travel: news, deals, destinations, dreams and more.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Airline fees and other useful charts

Awhile back, I posted a chart outlining the various fees that airlines charge for taking your pet aboard your flight. Today, I came across a treasure trove of other useful charts on Bookmark this page as a jumping-off point to these charts when planning your air travel, as AirfareWatchdog appears to be updating these charts on a regular basis.

Frequent flyer fees. How much will that "free" ticket really cost you?

Baggage fees. These new fees change so often it's hard to keep up with them.

Miscellaneous fees. When it comes to finding new ways to steal your money, the airlines are more creative than Congress.

Shipping luggage vs. checking fees. Yes, Virginia, sometimes it really is cheaper to ship your suitcase.

Rule 240 comparison chart. Which airlines follow a post-deregulation version of Rule 240 to get you on another flight (even on a competing airline) at no charge if they screw up?

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Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Who rewards your loyalty?

Who rewards your travel loyalty? And, the corollary to that question, Who deserves your loyalty? Airline mileage loyalty programs are nothing new—American Airlines started the first of such programs back in 1981, and other major airlines quickly followed suit. Next came airline-branded credit cards that earn you airline miles for each dollar spent. Now, many credit cards offer you the chance to earn miles that can ostensibly be used on many different airlines.

But just how useful or valuable are such rewards? The answer: their value and usefulness are going down the toilet. In 2008, the Year of the Fees, major airlines have instituted new fees and increased existing ones for redeeming your airline miles. That airline mileage program pioneer, American Airlines, will begin charging a minimum fee of $50 for mileage upgrades. US Airways charges $25 for you to redeem miles. Nickel-and-diming Continental won't even give you a minimum of 500 mileage miles for flights shorter than 500 miles (now, you'll just get actual miles flown).

All of the above assumes, of course, that you're even able to redeem your miles for an award. I won't waste words talking about what a fantasy that is. So I ask you again: who rewards your loyalty? Are all of your airline miles a real reward if you can't use them?

A few years back, I discovered the Starwood Preferred Guest program. It basically works the same as an airline loyalty program, but you typically use your points for free hotel stays at Starwood properties (Sheraton, Westin, W, Le Meridien, St. Regis). The key difference: no blackout dates. If they have a room available, it's yours. They also offer a branded American Express card, which lets you earn Starpoints just like those airline credit cards earn you miles.

And the SPG program just got even better with the debut of SPG Flights. Now, members can redeem their Starpoints for flights on most airlines the same way they do for hotel stays: that is, no blackout dates—even during holidays or last-minute travel. If there's a seat available, it's yours.

So I'll ask you one more time: who rewards your loyalty? An airline that places so many restrictions on the redemption of loyalty points that it's nearly impossible to use them, and then charges you for the privilege when you can? Or a program that lets you redeem your points whenever and however you want, for a hotel stay at a huge network of excellent properties or a free flight on just about any airline?

And lest you pose a question to me, since this reads like an infomercial: no, I am not affiliated with Starwood in any way. I'm just one satisfied member.

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Wednesday, August 13, 2008

You are now free to move about the tarmac

Maybe you're tired of reading postings here about the pain of air travel, but I haven't yet tired of writing about the issue. I wish there were no need for me to do so, but since there is, I feel compelled. Especially when my loved ones have to endure the pain.

Cassie just spent a week in New Mexico. She connected through Dallas both ways, and each time had to lay over four hours on what should have been a brief connection. I would specifically call out her carrier (American), but I think the problems she experienced are common across most of the legacy airlines—and the blame for the problem on her return fell to the weather (or, more accurately, to LaGuardia Airport's inability to keep flights on time when anything more than a 2-knot breeze blows across the runway).

While the boredom of being stuck in an airport for hours is indeed painful, it's not as bad as being shut in a plane and sitting on the tarmac for the same amount of time. This seems to be happening more often than ever these days, as airlines board planes and push them away from the gate, knowing full well that the plane is going nowhere.

Sure, from a logistical point of view, it makes sense to load the plane and put it in a standby position on the tarmac, so it can take off on short notice. But how fair is that to the passengers, when it's not known when the plane will be cleared to take off, and passengers are not allowed to unbuckle and use the lavatory?

Quite often, such delays are due to safety-related weather issues, particularly here in the summer thunderstorm-prone Northeast. And in all honesty, I have no idea how dangerous it is to take off in a thunderstorm (or a 3-knot gale at LGA). But I do know that the airlines are taking the easy, convenient route when they fill planes like cattle cars and shuttle them out to the tarmac to wait God knows how long. Thank you for keeping our safety in mind, but how about you keep us all crowded into the terminal instead. We'll be just as uncomfortable, but at least we'll be able to pee when we want.

My father, a seasoned traveler himself, probably echoed the sentiments of a great many travelers when he told me the other day that he has "completely lost interest in traveling, except by car."

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Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Sitting on the tarmac, but still "on time"

Turns out at least one of my airline conspiracy theories was right on the money: airlines are indeed padding their schedules to account for chronic delays, so they can report those delayed flights as "on time." Watch the eye-opening video on, in which a flight sat on the tarmac for an hour before taking off, yet still managed to arrive a few minutes early.

I guess this is nothing new, however. This practice may seem fraudulent, but I suppose it's no different than advertising that a flight includes a meal and serving an inedible pasty material looks nothing like food. Or selling seats on an overbooked flight, only to routinely bump passengers who didn't expect to spend the night at the airport. When it comes to airlines, truth in advertising seems to be optional.

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Wednesday, May 21, 2008

The Year of the Fees continues

As I type this, I'm still having a hard time believing it, but American Airlines will become the first airline to charge for ALL checked baggage. Travelers have only just started getting used to the new fees for a second checked bag (that new rule went into effect earlier this month for many airlines). Now American will charge $15 for the first checked bag. Will the other airlines follow suit, as they did with the second-bag fee? How much do you want to bet?

I've already started calling this the Year of the Fees, but clearly it's much more than that. We're witnessing a sea change in the airline industry, and history will mark 2008 as a radical turning point in how airlines do business—and how travelers fly. It ain't gonna be pretty.

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Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Choice Seats: The latest airline robbery

Every time I get the urge to write a posting about the airlines, I try to resist, because I've been blogging about them far too much, and there are many things about travel that interest me far more than the airlines. But it seems like they provide me with fodder on a near-daily basis.

Case in point: Just as I sat down to write today's posting, I checked my email, and read a press release from US Air. I just about fell out of my seat. As if charging you for a crappy sandwich or checking a bag wasn't insult enough, now they want to make you pay for the privilege of getting a window or aisle seat.

In their own words: "Starting May 7, we'll introduce our new Choice Seats—select aisle and window seats in the first several rows of Coach. You'll have the option to purchase a Choice Seat assignment during Web Check-in. That means aisle and window seats are likely to still be available even for last minute travelers."

I keep wondering where they'll draw the line, and every time I think they've drawn it, they erase it and redraw it a little closer to your pocketbook. Granted, their pay-for-the-privilege "Choice Seats" are in the first several rows of Coach, but even an idiot can predict that this will inevitably lead to a standard extra charge for any window or aisle seat, anywhere on the plane.

So that's where we're heading. Zone 1 boarding? Extra charge. Carrying on a bag? Extra charge. Checking in online? Extra charge. I'm going to throw a party on the day one of these legacy carriers goes bankrupt.

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Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Minimizing the pain of air travel published a useful article today that included advice on ways to minimize the pain of air travel. I recommend reading it, but here's a quick summary:

Flight stats. We all know to check our flight's status before going to the airport, but checking its historical on-time performance before booking a flight can help you avoid a flight that is chronically late. and are two sites where you can find such data.

Fly in the morning. I've learned this one firsthand over the past two years that I've lived and flown on the East Coast. The earlier in the day you fly, the less you're likely to be affected by delays elsewhere in the system—and the better your chances of getting on another flight if your own flight gets canceled. This is especially important during the summer months, when thunderstorms play a bigger role in flight delays. Which is more painful: getting up early for that 6:00 a.m. flight, or sitting in the airport for several hours (or worse) because of delays?

Carry-on. This one's a no-brainer. I think everyone knows by now that carrying on your bags will eliminate the possibility of losing your bags—and is an especially appropriate tip, now that many U.S. airlines charge $25 per flight for checking a second bag.

Know your rights. Or, more specifically, know what you're not entitled to. If the airline cancels your flight because of their own mistake, they have to put you up in a hotel. If it's out of their control (for example, weather delays), you'll be sleeping in the airport. Read your Contract of Carriage.

As air travel becomes ever more painful, my best advice to you is to seek out alternatives whenever possible. While the price of gasoline might not make driving all that attractive either, check out trains and buses where feasible. Having ridden both on a number of occasions in the past year, I can highly recommend them as a relaxing leisurely transportation alternative.
[video clip from my Amtrak window last December, passing San Clemente]

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Wednesday, March 26, 2008

My airline conspiracy theories

I've made no secret of my growing disgust with the airline industry. Fares skyrocket while service plummets. Miles are impossible to redeem, as I've commented on before. Michael Craig called air travel "the new bus," but the more I fly, the more I miss riding that D.C. to New York Chinatown bus.

Here are a few of my airline conspiracy theories, secret ways in which I suspect the airlines might be giving it to us without our knowledge:

Misleading departure times. They craftily publish departure times that reflect when the aircraft pushes back from the gate, not when it actually takes off, so that when you wait in a queue on the tarmac for more than half an hour, the flight is still considered "on time." And when they say they'll "make up" delays in the air, you know that means they padded the arrival time to account for such delays.

Arcane mileage programs. It's a great concept to accrue miles for traveling with an airline, and then redeem those miles for free travel. Just don't try to turn the concept into reality. The airlines have created a deeply arcane system designed to make you give up long before you ever find that free mileage award flight. Unless you want to fly a red-eye. Fourteen months from now. Between Charlotte and Paducah.

Bait and switch. More than once, I've checked fares on an airline website, found a good fare, gone to other sites to compare fares, then come back to the first site, only to find out that fare is gone. Sure, you snooze, you lose. But often, that fare reappears later. It's almost as if their website is logging my IP address and what routes I'm looking up, then jacking up the fare the longer I spend searching.

Fuel surcharge. Okay, the price of crude is at an all-time high, fuel costs are rising, airplanes burn a lot of fuel. I get it. But don't raise your fares to recoup these costs, and then also tack on a "fuel surcharge."

If you're as fed up as I am, read about Charis Atlas Heelan's experiences trying to get a decent fare on the common route New York to Paris. The article won't make you feel better, but you'll know you're not alone—and the article contains links to some useful air fare websites that I didn't know about.

Happy Flying!

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Wednesday, March 19, 2008

How to get upgraded to business class

I'm not a frequent business class traveler (in fact, I've only done so once, flying from L.A. to Paris). But I came across an interesting tip for getting business class upgrades during the busy holiday flying season, courtesy of Matthew Bennett's site

Because business travel is down during the holidays, business class fares also come down. In fact, according to Bennett, if you time it right, you can sometimes find business class fares near coach prices. The best time to shop for these fares is between September and November.

It used to be easy to get free upgrades by using mileage, but now the airlines have arcane hierarchies to determine who they upgrade. American Airlines, for example, doesn't allow you to use their miles for business class upgrades. The secret is creativity: Bennett says that American will allow you to upgrade even the lowest American fares by using Cathay Pacific miles.

Not a Cathy Pacific flyer? Me neither. But you can easily transfer Starwood Starpoints into Cathy Pacific's program, and you're good to go!

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Thursday, February 14, 2008

U.S. Airways changes frequent flyer program

Today, US Airways announced changes to Dividend Miles, their frequent flyer program. Considered without context, the changes themselves are minor: they are eliminating the 500-mile minimum award (you'll receive credit for actual miles flown if your flight is shorter than 500 miles), and you'll now pay a $50 fee to book award travel less than two weeks in advance. But when you think about these changes in the larger context of frequent flyer award travel, they become more rocks on the ever-growing pile you have to climb over to get a free award ticket.

It's not easy to get a free award ticket where and when you want from any of the airlines' mileage programs, but in my experience, US Airways' program seems to be one of the most difficult. Several times last year, I tried to use my miles on several planned trips, without success. I then looked up places I've wanted to visit, to see if I could plan a trip based on availability of a free ticket. Even looking up to a year into the future, I only found a single award flight per day (always a red eye), unless I wanted to use double the number of miles (50,000) for a domestic round-trip ticket. It wasn't until I decided to visit a friend in Mississippi that I found a free 25,000-mile round-trip fare to Jackson (which—no offense to my friend—is hardly a highly-sought-after travel destination).

Mileage programs have historically been one of the greatest tools for airlines to engender customer loyalty. But the more difficult they make it for travelers to redeem their miles for tickets to places they actually want to go, the less value these programs will offer—and therefore, the less loyalty customers will show to any given airline.

I can't speak for anyone else, but I'm already there: I now purchase air fares based almost solely on price and schedule, without regard to which airline I have miles with. It's no longer worth it to pay even a little bit more, just to be able to accumulate miles I'll never be able to use.

What's your experience? Do you have a mileage award horror story? Or praise for a particular airline's program that you want to share?


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