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British Airways A380 Flight Simulator

Posted by George Hobica on Tuesday, March 25, 2014

I don’t play video games, and probably I never will now that I’ve landed an Airbus A380 at airports all over the world in a flight simulator. Because really, what video game could ever compare with manning the joystick in a multi-million dollar sim?

I knew that my first flight “sim” experience would be exciting, which is why I flew all the way to London’s Heathrow Airport and the British Airways training center, but it wasn’t prepared for how thrilling it would be. BA will be launching its A380 service between Los Angeles and London and London and Hong Kong later this year, and I was one of the lucky few to grab a slot for a couple of hours in their new A380 sims.

For those of you who have never taken the controls of a sim, these sophisticated machines are enclosed cockpits resting on moveable mechanical legs that, as the name implies, simulate flight and are used for flight crew training purposes. The controls, video displays, seats and other features are identical to a real cockpit, and the windows are actually video screens that can be programmed to show airport terminals, taxiways, runways, topographical features, and weather conditions. The sim pods tilt, lurch and even rumble to recreate real-life take off and flight conditions, and speakers broadcast sounds (jet and wind noise, landing gear and flap movement, even the sound and movement of the tires bumping along the taxiway.).


Under the guidance of an experienced BA captain, I took my sheepskin-upholstered seat and got a tour of the controls. At my left hand was a joystick; at my right the four levers that controlled the mighty jet’s engines; at my feet, pedals used to slow down or brake the plane on the ground. Other controls worked the flaps and landing gear and switched the auto pilot off and on. I was surprised to see that this plane has no “steering wheel.” The joystick controls all directional movement on the ground.

After watching a typical take off and landing performed by my instructor, it was my turn. Where would I like to go? Tokyo? Manhattan? Hong Kong? I released the brakes, and we were “towed” out to the taxi way. It was now my job to slowly position the aircraft for take off. After giving the engines a bit of thrust I placed my left hand on the joystick, which is used to steer the plane while on the ground, and was surprised at how sensitive it was. Only minute movements are necessary, and had this been an actual take off someone on the ground would have assumed I was inebriated as I swerved back and forth.  The simulator’s speakers broadcast engine noises and the simulator pod rumbled a bit as we passed over “imperfections” in the taxiway. Once at the head of the runway, I applied the brakes and then placed my right hand on the four throttle levers, pushing them forward in unison. And away we flew.  As we ascended, the simulator tilted and banked. (In fact, the motion was so real that after a few such take offs one member of our party became a bit airsick.)



Outside the “windows” we could see a computer-generated view of greater London. The computer was programmed for a bright sunny day, but with a quick adjustment the “weather” could be switched to turbulent, cloudy, or rainy. And yes, simulated windshield wipers switched on when the rain started “pelting” our craft.

In minutes, we were descending into Hong Kong, my first port of call. I didn’t crash the plane, thankfully, but it was exactly a smooth landing. I was more successful upon subsequent landings at New York’s JFK and LAX.

One thing I learned was that there’s no such thing as a completely automated take off or landing, even when using the autopilot. Planes do not actually take off and land by themselves, much less position themselves for take off, or bring themselves to the gate.

Does this all sound like fun? That doesn’t begin to describe it. I was giddy, as in joyfully elated. The two hours passed in a flash and all too soon we were back on the ground, literally and figuratively, in London. I’d do it again and again, given the chance.

The British Airways Flight Training website describes the airline’s flight simulator experiences as “the thrill of a lifetime” and that’s no exaggeration. Currently, simulator flights are available in Boeing 737-400, Boeing 757-200, and Boeing 767-300 aircraft (training on the Airbus A380 and other models in the fleet may become available in the future). A one-hour “flight” costs £399 (about $465) or £1197 (about $1800) for a three-hour flight. Gift certificates are available as well. I can’t think of a better present for anyone who ever dreamed of being a pilot. Or for the video game geek on your holiday shopping list. Or for anyone, for that matter.

To learn more, visit George Hobica's profile on Google+

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We're all ears! How can we improve Airfarewatchdog?

Posted by George Hobica on Tuesday, March 18, 2014

We’re always under construction. We recently relaunched our mobile site (did you notice? it’s faster and easier to use!) and, yes, finally we’re working on an iPhone app. But what else can we do to serve you better?
We'd love your feedback in the comments below. Can we better Tweeters @airfarewatchdog? What new features would you like to see? What do you like most/least about us? Don't be shy! We're listening.

 

To learn more, visit George Hobica's profile on Google+

Airline fee chart

Posted by George Hobica on Friday, March 14, 2014

Here we list, airline by airline, fees for ticket changes (non refundable fares); booking fares in person or by phone, kids flying solo, bringing a pet into the cabin, and booking fares other than online. As you can see, Southwest has the lowest and fewest fees, followed by other low cost carriers such as Airtran and Spirit. Note that most of these fees, unless otherwise noted, are for domestic flights; fees for international services may be higher. 

 

Airline

Ticket change fee (non-refund fares, domestic routes; higher for international travel) plus/minus any applicable fare difference

Same day change fee

Reservation by phone fee

Unaccompanied minor fee (each way)

Bag Fees (each way, domestic routes; may be lower or higher for some international routes)

In-cabin pet fee (each way)

Frequent flyer fees

Seat Selection Fee At Time Of Reservation

Name Change Fee

Priority Boarding Fee

Other Fees

Airtran

Non-refundable ticket change fee: $150

 

Same day change fee: $50

Reservation by phone fee: $15

Unaccompanied minor fee: $50

Carry on bag: Free

First checked bag: $25

Second checked bag: $35

Additional bags fee: $75 each

Overweight bags: $75

Oversize bags: $75

(waived for business class, active duly military, and elite frequent flyers)

In-cabin pet fee: $75

"Last minute" ticketing: $0

In phone/in person ticketing: $15

Date/itinerary change: One free allowed, additional $150

Redeposit Miles: $150

Same day change fee: $25

Seat Selection Fee:  $10-$30

Priority Boarding Fee:  $10

Name Change Fee: Not offered

Other Fees: additional $75 each way for bikes, surf boards and other sporting equipment over 50 pounds

Alaska

Non-refundable ticket change fee: $125 Fee for changes made less than 60 days prior to ticketed flight departure. $0 for changes made 60 days in advance.

 

Same day change fee: $25

Reservation by phone fee: $15

Unaccompanied minor fee: $25 – $50

 Carry on bag: Free

First checked bag fee: $20 ($25 effective Oct. 30, 2013)

Second checked bag fee: $20 ($25 effective Oct. 30, 2013)

Additional bags fee: $50 ($75 effective Oct. 30, 2013)

Overweight bags: $50 for 51-100lbs

Oversize bags: $50-$75

Gate check: $25

(1st/2nd bag fees waived for elite frequent flyers, flying within Alaska, active military)

In-cabin pet fee: $100

"Last minute" ticketing: $0

In phone/in person ticketing: $15 (for Alaska flights); $25 (for partner flights)

Date/itinerary change: $75 if made online; $100 if made via phone agent

Redeposit Miles: $75 if made online; $100 if made via phone agent

Same day change fee: $25 (only if same award seat is available within six hours of flight)

Seat Selection Fee: None.

Priority Boarding Fee: not offered.

Name Change Fee: not offered.

Other Fees: Paid upgrades 24 or fewer hours before flight: $25-$200 per flight; Left on board item return fee, $20.

Allegiant

Non-refundable ticket change fee: $50 per segment ($75 per segment effective Oct 30, 2013; waived if you buy "TripFlex")

 

Reservation by phone fee: $15

Unaccompanied minor fee: service not offered

Carry on bag: $10 to $75 depending on when and where purchased and route flown

Checked bag fee: $15 to $75 depending on when and where purchased and route flown

Overweight bags: $50 for 41-70 pounds; $75 for 71-100 pounds

Oversize bags: $75 if overall dimensions over 80 linear inches.

In-cabin pet fee: $100

 

Does not have a frequent flyer program

Seat Selection Fee: Up to $75

Priority Boarding Fee: $5

Name Change Fee: $50

Other Fees: Waive cancellation/change fees: $11.50 (TripFlex)

American

Non-refundable ticket change fee: $200

 

Same day change fee: $75

 

Reservation by phone fee: $20

Unaccompanied minor fee: $150

Carry on bag: Free

First checked bag fee: $25  (free to most international destinations)

Second checked bag fee: $35

Additional bags fee: $150 each

Overweight bags: $100 for 51-70 lbs; $200 for 71-100 lbs

Oversize bags: $200

In-cabin pet fee: $125-$175

 

"Last minute" ticketing: 20 days or less incurs $75 charge

In phone/in person ticketing: $25 by phone/$35 in person

Date/itinerary change: $150 (MileSAAver Award tickets for which the only confirmed change is to the date and/or time will not incur the change fee)

Redeposit Miles: $150 (all additional award tickets returning to same account at same time are $25 each)

Same day change fee: $75 (free if award seats are available in the same category)

Seat Selection Fee:  Free, unless you choose "Preferred Seats: $4-$99 per flight; "Main Cabin Extra" seats $8-$159 per flight.

Priority Boarding Fee: Group 1 boarding $9

Name Change Fee: Not offered.

 

Delta

Non-refundable ticket change fee: $200 (up to $450 on some international fares)

 

Same day change fee: $50

 

Reservation by phone or ticket office fee: $25-$35

Unaccompanied minor fee: $100

Carry on bag: Free

First checked bag fee: $25 ($0 to international destinations except Canada and Caribbean)

Second checked bag fee: $35 ($40-$100 for some international destinations)

Additional bags fee: $125 for third bag; $200 each for bags 4-10

Overweight bags: $90 for 51-70lbs; $175 for 71-100lbs

Oversize bags: $175-$300

(These fees may be higher or lower for some international destinations and are waived for some elite level frequent flyers, active military, American Express SkyMiles Cardmembers, etc).

In-cabin pet fee: $125

"Last minute" ticketing: $0

In phone/in person ticketing: $25

Date/itinerary change: $150 (warning! no changes/cancelations are permitted within 72 hours of departure; all miles forfeited)

Redeposit Miles: $150 (no changes/cancelations are permitted within 72 hours of departure)

Same day change fee: $50

Seat Selection Fee: $9-$59 for "preferred seats" per segment.

Priority Boarding Fee: $10 per flight.

Name Change Fee: Not offered.

Other Fees: $9-$180 per segment for "Economy Comfort" seating.

Frontier

 Non-refundable ticket change fee: $50-$100

Reservation by phone fee: None

Unaccompanied minor fee: $100 on "Basic" fares, $50 otherwise; free for frequent flyer minors with "status"

Carry on bag: Free on all fare types except "Basic" fares if fare purchased at FlyFrontier.com or by phone from Frontier directly; $25 for "Basic" fares; up to $100 if paid for at departure gate.

First checked bag: $20 – $25

Second checked bag: $30

(Above fees are waived on certain fare classes and for frequent flyer members with status)

Additional bags fee: $75 each

Overweight bags: $75

Oversize bags: $75

In-cabin pet fee: $75 – $125

"Last minute" ticketing: $0

In phone/in person ticketing: $0

Date/itinerary change: $75 (if changes are made within 7 days before departure, otherwise free)

Redeposit Miles: $75

Same day change fee: $25-50 depending on ticket type

Seat Selection Fee: $5 to $100 per segment; free on higher fare classes.

 

Priority Boarding Fee: included in above.

Name Change Fee: Free on some fares, $50-$100 on lower fare classes.

 

JetBlue

 Non-refundable ticket change fee: $75-$150 depending of cost of ticket. Changes made 60 days of more prior to departure cost $75 no matter the fare. (If reservation not cancelled or changed prior to departure, entire fare is forfeited).

 

Same day change fee: $50. Standing by for one flight prior is free.

 

Reservation by phone fee: $20

Unaccompanied minor fee: $100

 Carry on bag: Free

First checked bag: Free

Second checked bag: $40

Additional bags fee: $75 each

Overweight bags: $50 for 51-70lbs; $100 for 71-99lbs

Oversize bags: $75

Pet flight fee: $100

 "Last minute" ticketing: $0

In phone/in person ticketing: $20

Date/itinerary change: $50-$100

Redeposit Miles: $50-$100

Same day change fee: $50

Seat Selection Fee: "Even More Space" seats with extra legroom: $10-$90 per flight.

Priority Boarding Fee: Included in above.

Name Change Fee: Not offered.

 

Hawaiian

Non-refundable ticket change fee: $30-$200

Reservation by phone fee: $15-$35

Unaccompanied minor fee: $35-$100

 

Carry on bag: Free  (but officially a 25-pound weight limit)

First checked bag: $17-$25 (free to some international destinations)

Second checked bag: $17-$35 (free to some international destinations)

Additional bags fee: $25 inter-island, $100 otherwise. (May be higher to some international destinations).

Overweight bags: $25-$200

Oversize bags: $25-$100 (higher for some international destinations)

In-cabin pet fee: $35-$225

 

"Last minute" ticketing: $0

In phone/in person ticketing: $15-$35

Date/itinerary change: $30-$50

Redeposit Miles: $30-$150

 

 

Seat Selection Fee: "Preferred Seats" $35-$75 per flight.

Priority Boarding Fee: not offered.

Name Change Fee: Free for Coach Plus fares

 

Spirit

Non-refundable ticket change fee: $115-$125

 

Same day change fee: $25 to stand by for earlier flight.

 

Reservation by phone fee: $10

Unaccompanied minor fee: $100

 

 

Carry on bag: $25-$50 ($100 if you pay at the gate, applies to all bag fees)

First checked bag: $20-$45

Second checked bag: $30-$55

Additional bags fee: $75-$100 each

Overweight bags: $25 for 41-50lbs; $50 for 51-70lbs; $100 for 71-99lbs.

Oversize bags: $100-$150

In-cabin pet fee: $100

"Last minute" ticketing: up to $100

In phone/in person ticketing: $25

Date/itinerary change: $110 (not permitted within 24 hours of departure; Refunds are allowed for reservations made 7 days or more prior to your departure, provided that you make the refund request within 24 hours of your initial reservation.)

Redeposit Miles: $ 110 (not permitted within 24 hours of departure)

Same day change fee: $25 (only for an earlier flight) 

Seat Selection Fee: $1 to $50

Name Change Fee: Not offered.

Other Fees: $75 for bikes; $10 for airport agents to print boarding pass.

Southwest

 Non-refundable ticket change fee: Free

 

Same day change fee: None but any fare difference will apply

 

Reservation by phone fee: Free

Unaccompanied minor fee: $50

Carry on bag: Free

First checked bag: Free

Second checked bag: Free

Additional bags fee: $50 each for 3-9 bags; $110 each for more

Overweight bags: $75

Oversize bags: $75

In-cabin pet fee: $75

"Last minute" ticketing: $0

In phone/in person ticketing: $0

Date/itinerary change: $0 (but any fare difference will apply)

Redeposit Miles: $ 0

Same day change fee: Depends on type of award and possible point difference 

Seat Selection Fee: None

Priority Boarding Fee: Early Bird check-in $12.50; "Upgraded boarding" $40

Name Change Fee: Not offered.

 

United

Non-refundable ticket change fee: $200

 

Same day change fee: $75

 

Reservation by phone

fee: $25

Unaccompanied minor fee: $150

Carry on bag: Free

First checked bag fee: $25

Second checked bag fee: $35

Additional bags fee: $100 each (up to $200 on some international routes)

Overweight bags: $100 51-70lbs; $200 71-100lbs (up to $400 on some international routes)

Oversize bags: $100 (up to $200 on some international routes)

In-cabin pet fee: $125-$250

"Last minute" ticketing: $75 if booked within 21 days of departure (Free to $50 for frequent flyer members with status)

In phone/in person ticketing: $25

Date/itinerary change: $75 if made 21 or more days prior to travel; $100 if made less than 21 days (lower or no fees for frequent flyer members with status)

Redeposit Miles: $200 (free to $125 for frequent flyer members with status)

Same day change fee: $75

Seat Selection Fee: None, unless you choose an extra-legroom seat.

Name Change Fee: Not available

Other Fees: "Premier access" fee (priority check-in, TSA lines, and boarding) $9 and up per flight.

US Airways

Non-refundable ticket change fee: $200 (up to $450 on some international fares)

 

Same day change fee: $75-$150 depending on destination to move to an earlier flight within 6 hours of your original time.

 

Reservation by phone fee: $25

Unaccompanied minor fee: $100

 Carry on bag: Free (but a 40-pound weight limit)

First checked bag: $25 (free for some international flights)

Second checked bag: $35 ($100 for trans-Atlantic, free for trans-Pacific and Brazil)

Additional bags fee: $125 for the third; $200 for fourth-ninth bags

Overweight bags: $90 for 51-70 lbs; $175 for 71-100lbs.

Oversize bags: $175

In-cabin pet fee: $125

"Last minute" ticketing: $75 if ticketed 21 days or less

In phone/in person ticketing: $30 for domestic travel/$40 for international travel+

$25-50 award processing fee

 

Date/itinerary change: $150

Redeposit Miles: $150

Same day change fee: $75

Seat Selection Fee: None unless you choose a "Choice Seat" (see below)

Priority Boarding Fee: from $10 per flight

Name Change Fee: Not offered.

Other Fees: "Choice Seats" $5-$99 each way depending on flight; "GoFirst" Upgrades $50-$250 per flight (within 24 hours of departure).

Virgin America

Non-refundable ticket change fee: $100

 

Same day change fee: $25-$50

 

Reservation by phone fee: $20

Unaccompanied minor fee: $75-$125

Carry on bag: Free

First checked bag: $25

Second checked bag: $25

Additional bags fee: $25 each

Overweight bags: $50 for 51-70lbs; $100 for 71-100lbs

Oversize bags: $50

In-cabin pet fee: $100

"Last minute" ticketing: $0

In phone/in person ticketing: $20

Date/itinerary change: $100

Redeposit Miles: $100

Same day change fee: $25-$50

Seat Selection Fee: None.

Priority Boarding Fee: $30

Name Change Fee: Not offered

Other Fees: Last minute (6-24 hours before flight) upgrades $39 to $399 each way.

To learn more, visit George Hobica's profile on Google+

Categories: Airfare Tips

Confessions of an Airline Revenue Manager

Posted by George Hobica on Friday, February 21, 2014

Every airline employs a cadre of fare revenue managers. These are the folks who adjust airfares throughout the day, depending on route, season, demand, supply and other factors. They're a notoriously tight-lipped bunch, but, on condition of anonymity, we got one to explain how the fare game works.

Is there a best time of the day or best day of the week to buy airline tickets?

No. We constantly read stories from pundits who proclaim that Tuesday nights are the best or Saturday at midnight is the lowest time for airfares, but that is not entirely true. Each airline loads fares at different times of the day every day. To say that there is one time of the day or one day of the week that is better than another is false.

Plus, fares are so dynamic since they are based on market conditions and the actual number of passengers who are currently booked on a specific flight that they can change rapidly at any time. Many airlines tend to announce sales on a Monday leading other airlines to match certain fares the following day, but this is not a hard and fast rule. It truly varies from airline to airline.

How do airlines post “mistake” airfares and what are the consequences?

Quite simply, it’s human error. A revenue manager might attempt to do a global reduction on all North America fares for example and lower all fares by more than he intended. We have warnings and systems in place to catch these “fat finger fares” but they don’t always work and it takes a while to correct them. The consequences vary depending on the damage done. Usually you get one mistake and a warning. However, I heard through the grapevine that the guy responsible for that Dec. 26 Delta fare glitch got fired immediately. It probably cost the airline over a million dollars in lost revenue.

What is your role as a revenue manager?

Each airline has a complex computer system based on algorithms that can maximize the profit on each flight based on the types of fares offered on that specific flight. On one flight, there could be as many as two dozen different fares based on different factors such as advance purchase or how many days you stay at the destination. The computer knows that, by releasing (for example) 5 seats at a very low price, 10 seats at a slightly higher price and 20 seats at a slightly higher price, it can maximize revenue as the flight fills up.

On a full flight, we no longer want to offer that el-cheapo fare because it is based on supply and demand. The computer adjusts fares all the way up until the departure time, but as a revenue manager, I can go in and adjust things based on information that the computer may not know. For example, are there specific events taking place at a destination? Are there certain conditions at the departure airport that will allow more than the desired amount of seats to go empty such as weather?

How often do fares change?

Most of the time you will see the same fares for a few days unless they sell out. The biggest changes happen at 21 days, 14 days, 10 days, 7 days and 4 days, typically when advance purchase restrictions knock fares up a notch. The majority of fare changes aren’t really changes on our part: they happen because people are purchasing up inventory at the lowest published fare or the advance purchase restrictions are kicking in.

Why is it that sometimes I can wait until the last minute and find a cheap fare, but other times the fare goes up?

Well, most of the time the fare will go up because the flight will be filling up or the advance purchase restrictions will be kicking in. But on routes with significant competition -- New York to Los Angeles for example -- airlines may have sales or "dump seats" at the last minute to fill the plane if it's not particularly full. It also depends on the day of the week. Tuesday, Wednesday and Saturday are often the cheapest days to fly because we carry fewer business passengers those days.

Why do airlines advertise sales and then I can never find the tickets available at the stated price?

When an airline puts seats on sale, not every item in the store is for sale, just a percentage. Plus, not every flight on a given route may offer seats for sale. A popular 6 p.m. flight may not have anything on sale since people are willing to pay full price for it whereas the early bird 5 a.m. flight may have more seats on sale. When airfares go down, jump on it. The limited capacity of seats will dwindle as time passes.

Why are there so few award seats out there? Each time I try to use my miles, I can't.

This is really a false assumption. There are a lot of award seats out there. We often give away 10-15 percent of our seats as award seats. We are operating a business, and our shareholders wouldn't like it if we passed on top-line revenue. If you are flexible with dates or flight times, there are lots of award seats out there. If a flight is not filling up as we may expect, we can open up award availability as the departure date approaches, so you’ll sometimes do better searching a day before travel or at the very last second.

Above image via Shutterstock

To learn more, visit George Hobica's profile on Google+

What to do when your flight is canceled

Posted by George Hobica on Friday, February 14, 2014

The standard advice is to "call your airline" and check online. Or sign up for text alerts from your airline.

But that doesn't always work.

Yes, you can get a full refund, even on a non-refundable fare, and even if your flight is just severely delayed.

But what if you really need to get there? Or get home?

It's more effective to Tweet your airline, if they're good responders like @AmericanAir and @DeltaAssist. Calling your airline you might be on hold for an hour or more. You can also have your airline call you back. Here's how to do it with United for example.

You can take my recent tale of woe as an example. I was booked on a connecting flight from LaGuardia to LAX leaving this past Thursday morning (Feb. 13). As of Wednesday night, it wasn't canceled. I requested American to text me if the flight was canceled. I didn't receive a text. And even though I was magically anointed an American Airlines "Platinum" frequent flyer thanks to a recent promotion, I wasn't automatically rebooked on another flight of American's choosing. I was pretty much thrown under the plane.

On Wednesday night, it really looked like I'd be canceled, judging by the weather conditions. It also looked like, according to Flightaware.com, that the inbound plane that would be serving my outbound flight had been canceled but that isn't a sure sign that my flight the next morning would be canceled.  I noticed that there were seats on a flight later in the day from JFK to LAX nonstop.  I considered booking a frequent flyer seat (or buying one) on that flight. However, if my flight wasn't canceled I'd be stuck with two seats/fares. Had I been an "Executive Platinum" American frequent flyer member (a very high rank) I could have booked the nonstop and rebanked my miles on the JFK LAX without the usual $150 penalty but I'm just a "platinum"... so I didn't risk it.  

As it turns out, I should have because my flight was canceled and that JFK-LAX flight ended up flying. 20/20 hindsight.

So now I'm stuck flying out on Sunday morning Feb. 16 JFK-LAX nonstop (which is better than a connecting flight from LGA-LAX but still).  I rebooked using @AmericanAir on Twitter.  They were very helpful (they could have made me take a less expensive and less desirable connecting flight since that is what I originally bought). As of Thursday morning, there were no seats of any kind between NYC/Newark and the LA area. Everything was booked or canceled.

But during the day on Thursday, seats did open up, a seat here, two seats there, and those flights ended up actually flying later in the day.  By the time I found them and waited for an agent to book, they were gone.

My mistake was not grabbing one of those seats myself on a 24-hour hold, which American allows you to do without payment. Then I could have called American and asked them to re-ticket me, switching my Feb. 16 flight to one available earlier. Unlike other airlines, American doesn't require payment when holding a reservation for 24 hours. That's a big difference.

Or I think I would have had better luck grabbing one of those "whack a mole" seats had I been at the airport, perhaps even if I had taken my original boarding pass to get through security and hung out in the American Airline Admirals Club (where the agents are more helpful and the lines shorter). If I had been really desperate to get home yesterday, it might have been worth a try.

The advice is always "don't go to the airport" but I think if you're desperate, do it.

As I write now at 12:30 a.m. on Friday morning there isn't a single American Airlines seat available NYC-LAX on Feb. 14, and just 5 seats all day in first class the following day, Feb. 15. But it's likely that flights will open up as the day progresses, so there's still hope.

Above Image via Shutterstock

To learn more, visit George Hobica's profile on Google+

Ten reasons why first or business class is (and isn't really) "worth it"

Posted by George Hobica on Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Recently on Twitter, one of my 365,000 followers responded to this article about getting a better seat when you fly. True enough, he was tweeting from a first class seat on @AmericanAir for which he paid the economy class fare of $124 plus a $90 upgrade. But another Tweep chirped in; "I mean, is it really that luxurious to have a foot of extra space for $90 extra?"

We went back and forth a bit, but I think he wasn't quite convinced that yes, it is worth it. His final word? "I guess subjective value is a thing after all."

So I got to thinking: what besides "a foot of extra space" does first class (and I'm talking just domestic U.S. travel) get you? Let's get this out right away: for me, it has nothing to do with "status"—although for some, that's the main draw.

1. Yes, more leg room. But that's not really it. You can get more legroom in "economy plus" or "main cabin extra" or whatever your airline calls those extra legroom economy class seats. Or you can fly JetBlue, where the economy seats have a few extra inches. And even with the extra legroom, unless you're seating at the bulkhead you still have to climb over your seatmate if you're in the window seat (unless you're on a plane like American's 777-300ER where all business and first class seats have aisle access).

2. Then there's the meal. OK, airline food is airline food, but lately it's been getting a lot better. There are imaginative fresh salads, ice cream sundaes and fresh baked cookies on American, for example. Delta is working with New York-based restaurateur Danny Myers to improve its offerings in business/first. But the meal isn't it either. You could bring your own food on board from your favorite deli or gourmet shop and eat better.

3. Free booze. Some people love this, but that's not it either. You shouldn't drink when you fly anyway, because it's dehydrating.

4. More privacy. This is important, at least to me. There are fewer people in first class. Seating is two by two. Seats are wider so there's no fighting for the armrest. There's no chance of ending in the middle seat. And of course, if you're lucky enough to have a seat by yourself, such as on American's new A312T in first class you're in airline heaven. Bottom line: It's just less crowded.

5. Padded seats. Now we're really getting somewhere. And this is the main reason why I pay for first class, either heavily discounted non-refundable first or business fares, with mile upgrades, or last minute upgrade offers when checking in online. As I explained to @Clint7981, when you reach a certain age (Clint looks like he's 20 by the way), your poor tired bones, muscles and posterior aren't as padded or limber as they once were. First/business seats, unlike those rock-hard new, fuel-saving "slimline" seats in economy, still have lots of padding. They remind me of the seats in those Lockheed Constellations and DC-7's I used to fly as a kid. (Yes, I'm that old.)

6. Easier access to the lavs. When you gotta go,you gotta go. Sometimes the line at the back of the plane to use the lavs can be five deep. Not so in first/business.

7. Nicer flight attendants. I'm not saying that economy class flight attendants aren't nice; many are. But they're a lot nicer in first or business. It just makes traveling more pleasant when someone addresses you by name and smiles a lot.

8. Priority boarding and TSA lines. You can get some of these perks with airline-branded credit cards and by paying a bit extra on an economy fare, true. And some people argue that it's not worth getting on board early.

9. No fighting for overhead bin space. There's generally plenty for everyone. And if somehow there isn't, the nice flight attendants will put your stuff in the forward closet. No "gate checking."

10. Power ports. On some older planes, only first or business class seats have them at all seats. A must if you're planning to work (or play) inflight and you need juice.

Some will remain unconvinced. As my mother used to say, "We all get there at the same time." But mom, bless her soul, never flew in first.

To learn more, visit George Hobica's profile on Google+

How to get a better seat the next time you fly

Posted by George Hobica on Friday, January 31, 2014

Everyone gripes about economy-class air travel, and sometimes with good reason. But here are ten strategies to fly in a bit more comfort.

1. Don't fall for the "only premium economy seats are available" ploy.

So you booked a fare on American, Delta, United or some other airline that has economy as well as "premium" economy seating, and when you go to choose a seat, the website is telling you that only the more expensive premium economy seats are available? This doesn't mean that you won't eventually get a seat assignment or a seat (if you get involuntarily bumped, that's another story, but it rarely happens). Don't cough up the extra money for a premium seat. If in fact all the "cheap" seats are taken, you'll get a premium economy seat when you check in. You can also try calling the airline directly to see if they'll give you a seat assignment.

2. Watch for (and ask for) cheap last-minute upgrades to business and first class.

The best seats on the plane, clearly, are in business and/or first class, but they sometimes cost many times what an economy seat goes for. For example, I frequently fly the L.A.-NYC route, where you can still (amazingly) find seats for $129 each way in coach. But business class costs $2,200 or more. However, I've been offered last-minute upgrades (when checking in online at home, at the airport kiosk, or even at the gate) for as little as $250 on top of the $129 fare, a huge savings. If you're not offered a discounted upgrade, it doesn't hurt to ask when you check in.

3. Don't assume that business and first-class fares cost 10 times the economy-class price.

They don't always. There are often non-refundable business- and first-class fares going for relatively little more than economy and often for the same price as refundable coach fares. Recently I flew from New York JFK to Boston in first class on American for $140 each way, when economy class (or cattle class) on the Delta Shuttle was charging $400 from LaGuardia. I flew L.A. to Fort Lauderdale on a connection through Atlanta on Delta for $349 one-way in first class, not a huge premium over the economy-class fare, which is sometimes $200 each way on that route. Both these deals were non-refundable, but still.

4. Consult seatguru.com to pick a better seat.

You can see seat maps for almost all airlines and aircraft types here. All seats are not created equal, and Seat Guru will tell you which plane types, airlines and seats might have more legroom or be otherwise more desirable.

5. Get maximum legroom in economy class by flying JetBlue (if it goes where you're going).

Other airlines (TWA, American) have experimented unsuccessfully with giving every seat in economy class extra legroom, but only JetBlue seems to have made a go of it. JetBlue's A320/A321 aircraft seat rows are spaced at least 33-34 inches apart in coach compared to 31-32 inches on some airlines, and JetBlue's "even more space" seats range from 37 to 41 inches apart, according to Seat Guru.

6. Use your frequent-flier miles to upgrade rather than on an inexpensive economy-class fare.

Everyone complains about economy class, but it's pretty easy to buy your way out with miles. I never use miles for economy-class travel. Instead, I upgrade the cheapest economy-class fare to business or first using 15,000 miles each way on American and United. What is better value: Spending 25,000 points on a $250 coach fare, or 15,000 miles upgrading a $139 coach fare to a $2,500 business-class fare? By the way, I earn those miles by applying for airline-affiliated credit cards with those 40,000 (or more) bonus mile offers, and by never buying anything online without checking the bonus mile offers on the airlines' shopping malls.

7. Fly on a Tuesday or Wednesday.

Fewer people travel on those days, so there's a bit more chance the middle seat will be open.

8. Fly on a newer plane.

Even if a plane with that "new plane smell" won't give you more legroom, at least it will have better in-flight entertainment, better power port options and other benefits. It's worth changing your plans to fly on a plane like American's just-launched A321 rather than its old 767 aircraft .

9. If you fly on United frequently, consider the Economy Plus annual subscription.

For $499 per year, you get unlimited domestic upgrades to United's extra-legroom seating as long as a seat is available when you book. For $200 more, you get global access to Economy Plus.

10. Sometimes you just have to pay for an advance seat assignment on some airlines.

It's certainly not ideal, but if you're flying on an airline like British Airways, which only lets economy-class passengers request specific seat assignments 24 or fewer hours before departure, it really does pay to pay up for a seat assignment. You'll find that most of your fellow passengers have done this and you'll get stuck with the worst seats on the plane if you don't follow suit. On a recent trip from Hong Kong to London on a British Airways A380 in economy, my traveling companion and I paid for the two-by-two "twin" seats at the emergency exit with no one in front of us. The extra privacy and access made the 13-hour trip just barely bearable.

Above image via Shutterstock

To learn more, visit George Hobica's profile on Google+

The Fine Print: Virgin America's New Visa Signature Card

Posted by George Hobica on Wednesday, January 8, 2014

The Virgin America media folks sent me an email today touting the new Virgin America credit cards. One thing caught my eye: get the "premium" version and there are no change or cancellation fees on non-refundable tickets. Of course, when you read the fine print, it doesn't sound quite as revolutionary. The basic card is well-priced at $49 per year annual fee and gives you 10,000 bonus miles with just a $1000 spend in the first 90 days; but the premium card costs $149 per year and gives you 15,000 bonus miles for the same spend, plus up to 15,000 "status" points. But when you read the premium card's somewhat confusing fine print (see below), it gets less exciting.

This clarification to an earlier edit of this post, provided by Virgin's PR, makes things clearer I hope.

For changes to non-refundable tickets:

When a guest makes a change to a non-refundable fare, the guest is required to pay the change fee (currently $100) plus any difference in fare.

For our new premium cardholders, the change fee will be waived - the cardholder will only need to pay any difference in fare.

For cancellations of non-refundable tickets:

When a guest cancels, the cancel fee is deducted [from] the total balance and then the remaining balance (if any) is credited to a travel bank credit which is valid for 12 months from the date of cancellation.

For our new premium cardholders, the cancel fee will be waived, therefore the full value of the ticket will be credited as a travel bank credit which is valid for 12 months from the date of cancellation.

Essentially, the premium card waives ever charging (change) or applying (cancel) the change cancel fee for any reservations originally paid with the card and that include the cardholder in the reservation, but otherwise the original fare rules apply in so much that a) any difference in fare still applies for changes or b) the original fare paid is credited to travel bank for cancellations.

Confused? I am still, sort of. It would have been great if holders of this card could cancel their non-refundable fares and just get a credit back to their credit cards, and that would make it truly revolutionary.

And frequent flyer tickets are still subject to rebooking or re-deposit fees. And speaking of how to really avoid change/cancel fees, read this.

The Fine Print

Flight Change/Cancel Fee Waiver. (Premium Cardholders only)

Premium Cardholders are eligible to receive waived change or cancel fees (as published at virginamerica.com) when purchasing non-refundable fares on Virgin America-operated flights. To receive the waived change or cancel fee benefit, you must include your Elevate account number in your reservation and use your Premium Card to purchase your ticket(s) directly from Virgin America. Your Credit Card Account must be in open and not in default at the time of making a change or cancellation to an existing reservation. The waived change or cancel fee benefit is only available on paid Virgin America marketed and operated flights; codeshare flights with a Virgin America flight number but operated by another airline are not eligible. The waived change or cancel fee benefit is not valid for Reward Travel, where the published Elevate redeposit fee will apply for cancellations.

When changing a reservation, you will be responsible for paying for any difference in fare in accordance with the original purchased fare rules. Premium cardholders must remain a named passenger on the reservation and include their Elevate account number in order to receive the waived change or cancel fee benefit. When changing or cancelling a reservation, any remaining funds will be credited to your Travel Bank account for future travel on Virgin America. The travel credit is valid within 12 months from the date of change or cancellation. To make a change or cancellation to an existing reservation, you must call the Virgin America Contact Center at 1.877.FLY.VIRGIN (877.359.8474) from the United States and Canada, 001.877.359.8474 from Mexico, or +1.650.762.7005 from other countries prior to your scheduled flight departure time. If you call from the United States, you may access a complimentary telecommunications relay service by dialing 711.

To learn more, visit George Hobica's profile on Google+

New Steps in American Airlines & US Airways Merger

Posted by George Hobica on Tuesday, January 7, 2014

The first steps in the gradual integration of American Airlines and US Airways have been announced. These are just baby steps. Eventually, the two airlines’ frequent flyer programs will be combined, and your miles will be merged. (If past mergers are any indication, you may even be given a little mileage bonus to provide both membership numbers, so look out for that). And you’ll also see membership rules “aligned” in coming months, since the two programs are quite different (US Airways, for example, charges $25 to $50 to redeem miles (unless you’re a elite member), a policy we hope that will not survive the merger.

So here’s what to expect as of today:

AAdvantage and Dividend Miles members can earn and redeem miles when traveling across either airline’s network. All travel on eligible tickets on both airlines will count toward qualification for elite status in the customer’s program of choice.

Elite members of each airline can enjoy select reciprocal benefits of both the AAdvantage and Dividend Miles programs, including First and Business Class check-in, priority security and priority boarding, complimentary access to Preferred Seats, priority baggage delivery, and checked bags at no charge, consistent with the current baggage policies for each carrier.

Members of the American Admirals Club or US Airways Club will have reciprocal club benefits, providing them access to the 35 Admirals Clubs and 19 US Airways Clubs. In addition, American AAdvantage Citi Executive cardholders will have access to US Airways Clubs.

Airport and Web check-in time frames will be aligned for both US Airways and American.

Boarding announcements will align to accommodate elites of both carriers.

Airport ticket counters and gates at New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport are now co-located.

From what we hear, American’s IT department will be leading the software integration, and as the airline that invented Sabre and many other IT innovations, we expect they won’t have the same computer glitches that United experienced in swallowing up Continental, or that US Airways had in merging with America West.

To learn more, visit George Hobica's profile on Google+

Strategies to get a refund on a non-refundable airfare

Posted by George Hobica on Thursday, January 2, 2014

Non-refundable airfares are much cheaper than refundable ones, but if you cancel or change your flight, you'll pay a hefty fee. But there are some loopholes and workarounds.

If you are booking an airfare in the United States, U.S. Department of Transportation regulations require that, as long as you've booked a non-refundable ticket 7 days ahead of your flight, you're entitled to hold your reservation and the fare and change or cancel your reservation within 24 hours of booking, without paying a cancellation fee (typically $200 on the remaining large "network" carriers for a domestic fare, but much more (up to $450 for some international fares), a bit less on other airlines, as this chart shows.

You can either cancel the reservation entirely, or change it, within the 24-hour window. If you change it however, a fare difference may apply, but there is no change penalty. This applies not just to U.S.-based airlines, but any airline selling airfares in the U.S.

You still have to pay for the airfare, and then get a refund without penalty, except that American Airlines is a bit different in that it allows you to hold your seat and the fare for 24 hours without paying for it. On American, you should NOT pay for the fare, but merely choose the 24-hour hold option without payment. If you pay for the fare rather than holding it, you will be hit with a change/cancel fee on American! Also, American sells fare "add-ons" starting at $68 round-trip that allow you to change your flight for free at any time, and the add-on includes a checked bag round-trip and priority boarding. Something to consider.

Southwest Airlines lets you change or cancel a fare within the 24 hour window without penalty, but it also allows you to change or cancel a reservation anytime before flight time and get a credit for the full amount of your fare, applicable to future travel within a year of the original reservation. You will have to pay any applicable fare increase, however.

Alaska Airlines now allows free changes/cancels if made at least 60 days prior to travel.

Allegiant Airlines is a bit more specific, stating in its rules that you may cancel as long as your scheduled flight is at least 168 hours (24 x 7) away at time of booking.

In order to take advantage of the 24-hour cancel or change rule, it's best to book directly with airlines, either online or by phone, rather than through third-party websites.

And it goes without saying that you can cancel a fully refundable ticket anytime and get a refund, although if you change rather than cancel there may be a fare difference if the fare has changed.

Frequent Flyer Award Tickets, Too?

Does this apply to frequent flyer tickets? I've been able to cancel frequent flyer reservations within 24 hours of booking, and get all fees refunded and miles re-instated without penalty, most recently on British Airways, however the DOT rules are unclear on this, and US Airways clearly states that the 24-hour cancel rule does not apply to frequent flyer tickets.

Other Ways to Get a Refund

One more thing: many people don't realize that in airline contracts of carriage, there's a rule (often called Rule 260) about "involuntary refunds." Basically it states that if the airline refuses to carry you for any reason, or if your flight is delayed more than a specifed amount of time (121 minutes or greater on AA for example) or the flight is canceled, you can apply for a full refund, even on a non-refundable ticket. Here, for example, is Hawaiian Airlines' Rule 260. United calls their rule on this something else, which you can see by wading through their contract of carriage.

So let's say you buy a fare you no longer can use and the DOT 24-hour rule doesn't apply. You can avoid the change/cancel fee is if your flight is canceled or severely delayed. It may or may not be worth your time to show up for your flight and pray it's canceled or significantly delayed (you do have to check in for the flight).

The Schedule Change Loophole

And you can also get a refund if there's a significant schedule change before your departure (let's say they change you from a 9 a.m. departure to a 6 a.m., or your new flight requires a much longer layover or an overnight stay, or even from a nonstop to a connecting flight). Here, for example, are the rules on this from American Airlines (this info is provided for travel agents, but applies no matter how the fare is booked). The airline may not notify you of a qualifying schedule change, so if you've purchased a non-refundable fare that you would like to refund, be sure to check the flight schedule to see if it has changed in any way and if it has, call the airline and request a refund, explaining that the schedule no longer works for you (obviously, a change of just a few minutes won't qualify).

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