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.
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.
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+
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.
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.
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.
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+
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+
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 Airlinesnow 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).
Is it getting less worthwhile, or at least harder, to attain “status” in airline frequent flyer programs?
These things make me wonder:
1. The days of buying a $200 round-trip mileage-run cross-country trip to get 5,000 miles aren’t what they used to be. Delta and United, starting in 2014, have added minimum spend requirements in order to get status. Delta requires a $2,500 spend to get the lowest “silver medallion” status in addition to 25,000 miles flown up to $12,500 and 125,000 miles to get the highest “diamond” status. United requires spending between $2,500 and $10,000 plus miles. Miles alone no longer cut it. American will probably follow suit eventually if they haven’t by the time you read this.
3. Some new planes have fewer first and business class seats than the models they’re replacing. So there’s less availability.
4. More flyers have status than ever before, thanks to status matches. And US Air even lets you buy your way in with their “Buy up to Preferred” program (presumably your USAir status will transfer over to American when the merger is complete).
5. Some of the perks of “status,” like early boarding and free checked bags, anyone can get with an airline credit card like the United Explorer Card.
I’ve never had status of any kind with an airline, even though I fly thousands of miles each year. That’s partly because I’m not “loyal”—as the founder of Airfarewatchdog, I’d never spend $200 or $300 more to fly on a particular airline just to get the miles or points. That’s just daft. Last year I flew on every domestic airline except Allegiant, whichever was cheaper. Many of those flights I bought or upgraded with miles rather than cash. I have excellent credit, and every time there’s a 40,000- or 100,000 mile-bonus offer when you get a new credit card, I sign up, then a cancel the card after a year (usually, I’m eligible for the same offer a couple of years later). And, of course, as a travel writer I often travel on “comp” tickets that don’t earn miles or status.
I’m also pretty good at finding really cheap paid first class tickets, which are popping up more and more lately, and which are part of the reason why I wonder why attaining status is what it used to be.
Consider: in December I was able to buy first class on Delta from L.A. to Ft. Lauderdale for $349 one-way. On the return, I flew American in first nonstop from Miami to L.A. for $495 one-way.
Fewer first and business seats to begin with
American’s spiffy new A319 planes are great. They’re replacing those old MD-80’s (AA has 190 of them at last count). The 80’s have (or had) 16 first class seats. The A319s? Just eight. Since most people flying in first or business are either frequent flyer upgrades, airline employees, or otherwise freeloaders, I’m sure American figured “Hey, why not reduce the number of premium seats and actually sell them. And if we can’t sell them for the ‘list price’ then we’ll take whatever the market will bear.’” Makes perfect business sense.
And those super new cabins on the transcon flights on AA, Delta and United with the lie flat business and first seats? They sure are comfy, but guess what: they take up much more room than the old seats, which merely reclined. So there are fewer of them fleet-wide. I’ll bet you’ll be paying for those more often than getting “status” upgrades.
Cheap last minute upgrade offers
It used to be that I’d get last minute upgrade offers on the trans-con flights that were tempting but just barely. Such as a $700 upgrade from my cheap economy class seat on the United JFK-LAX service to business class, one-way. But recently I was offered a $250 upgrade from economy to business on American on a $189 one-way JFK-LAX fare. Did I buy it? You bet. Did that mean that someone hoping for a free upgrade didn’t get it? Yep.
Cheaper purchased first class and business class
As long as you’re willing to buy a non-refundable fare, you can sometimes get confirmed business and first for just twice the price of a cramped economy class seat. Recently I needed to fly from New York to Boston last minute, and fares on the shuttles from LaGuardia were something like $400 one-way. Then I saw a non-refundable first class fare from JFK on AA for $140 one-way. Naturally, I bought it. Airlines are realizing that not everyone is going to pay ten times the economy class fare for a standard first class seat (we’re not all movie stars, trust fund babies, or hedge fund moguls).
In short, airlines are managing their first and business class cabins more intelligently. Gone are the days when they’re willing to give away the very product that costs them the most to provide. They’d much rather limit inventory, and at least get something for those seats. And often that “something” is much more in line with what the product is actually worth.
In addition to making frequent flyer miles harder to spend, airlines are expiring miles, if there's no activity in your account, faster than ever.
But one easy and painless way to make sure there's activity in your account is to do some online shopping using the airlines' "shopping malls." Even if you merely buy a 99-cent iTune you'll keep your miles safe for at least another year. And in addition, if you're buying a big ticket item, such as a computer, you can add some serious miles to your account.
For example if United offers an extra mile for every dollar spent with the Apple Store, one of their shopping partners and you buy a $2500 iMac computer, you get 2500 miles. That's a huge bonus. And there are often bonus offers on top of the bonus miles. United might offer an additional 2,000 miles if you spend over a certain amount.
Generally, these online shopping partners offer at least one mile per dollar spent, but sometimes they award 10 miles or more. And if you use your airline affiliated credit card, you get an extra mile, but the credit card miles pale in comparison to the shopping miles you can earn.
Scores of well known retailers participate in these airline malls, including Crate and Barrel, Best Buy, The Container Store, Dell Computer, Drugstore.com, Sears, Target, and Walmart, to name but a few.
Keep in mind that although the airline shopping sites listed below work with many of the same retailers, American might be offering 4 miles with a particular retailer while Delta could be offering just half that, so you've got to shop around while you're shopping around.
If you have to take connecting flights, connect through warmer weather, less snow-storm affected hubs like Atlanta, Dallas, Miami, Phoenix, Charlotte, Houston vs. Chicago, Minneapolis, Denver, Newark.
Consider travel insurance. If there are any seasons that make sense to buy it, it’s during snow storm and hurricane season.
If your flight is canceled and you’re on the outbound portion of your trip, you can request a full refund of the fare paid, even on a non-refundable ticket. There’s no requirement to take a “futile” trip (i.e., you missed the wedding). Google the airline’s contract of carriage for the rules.
Ask to be put on another airline’s flight if it will get you there quicker. Some airlines such as Alaska have provisions for this in their contracts of carriage. Even those that do not often put delayed passengers on their competition’s flights.
If taking a cruise, always plan to get to the port a day ahead of sailing. In winter, I recommend TWO days ahead.
If your flight is canceled, try to get as close to where you’re head as possible if you can’t get all the way there. If your JFK to LA flight is canceled, see if the airline will fly you to Las Vegas, for example. From there you can hop on Southwest or rent a car to LA.