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How to upgrade your next flight for less than you might think

Posted by George Hobica on Saturday, September 29, 2007

Have you noticed that padding on airline seats is getting thinner? Back in the days of the Lockheed Constellation or the DC-6, seats used to be less punishing (they were more like La-Z-Boys). Some of you may remember airliner seats like those in this DC3:

Or in this Eastern Air Lines Super Constellation (looks more comfy than my living room at home):

Or how about the plush two by two seating on this Northwest DC 6? (There was no first class back then, just one class for everyone. How socialist!).

So, yeah, don't expect to find cushy swivel chairs (or June Lockhart) on your next economy class flight. Today, in order to save fuel and squeeze in more passengers, the padding has been minimized. (And look what further "improvements" might be in store.)

And the rows of seats, as we all know, have been placed closer together. All of which adds to considerable discomfort, unless you happen to have a well-padded back porch.

Okay, enough living in the past--or the future. Here are some strategies from to alleviate the pain now.

Making the best of economy class

Fly JetBlue

This is easy. JetBlue has added extra legroom on its Airbus jets, with at least a 36 inch seat pitch in the first 11 rows of its Airbus 320 fleet and at least 34 inches in rows 12-25 (seat pitch is the distance between any one point on the seat and that same point in the row ahead or behind). Some airlines have 32 or even 31 inches between seats.

American Express
Pay for exit rows

Yes, some people think it's obnoxious to charge for what was once free, but this perk is well worth it. Northwest and Airtran will sell you an exit row seat, with more leg room than in first class, for $15-20. Frequent flyers on Northwest get to reserve these seats when booking, for free if they're "elite" members; mere mortals can book them within 24 hours of flight time.  Northwest also sells other "premium" seating for $5 to $25 per leg within the 48 states (may be higher for Hawaii, Alaska, and international routes).

Premium economy

United Airlines sometimes offers passengers upgrades to "Economy Plus", with up to 5 inches more leg room, when checking in, for relatively little money. If you're a frequent United customer, check out Economy Plus Access, which allows you to reserve economy plus for yourself and a guest for a full year or travel. The basic plan costs $349 per year.

If you're an elite member of United's MileagePlus program, you'll be offered complimentary, space available Economy Plus seating.

Fly Airtran

If you're flying somewhere on their route network, Airtran offers very inexpensive confirmed upgrades to their roomier business class. Pay between $40 and $140 and you can upgrade from any full price coach fare at time of purchase. For about a year now, they've offered a "special promotion," with first come, first served upgrades from any fare, not just full fare coach. Spirit Airlines sells what they call a "Big Front Seat," with two by two seating, at the front of their planes, for far less than other airlines charge. Don't expect any amenities (no free booze) other than a more comfortable seat.

Fly Midwest Airlines

This airline has all first-class seating—every row of the plane—on some routes (they call this "Signature Service"), all at economy class prices. And the food for purchase is great too. This past September, the airline announced that it would add a few rows of "Signature" seats to its entire jet fleet, charging those who wish to upgrade $60 per flight.

Upgrading to business or first for less

Use Miles 

With economy cabins so crowded and uncomfortable, and with coast to coast flights still available for $200 round-trip when there's a sale, I think the best way to use frequent flyer miles these days is to upgrade to first or business class, rather than to buy economy fares. Depending on route, the fare you paid, your frequent flyer status, and airline, mileage upgrades from economy to business or first "cost" as little as 7500 miles each way. It's important to note that airlines vary as to how many miles they require to upgrade a discounted economy fare. American charges 15000 miles to upgrade "most" economy domestic fares; and 7500 from full coach; Delta charges 5000 miles for full coach upgrades and 10,000 for upgrades from "select" discount fares (they're very mysterious about what these fares are, advising passengers to "check with Delta."

Airline specials

From time to time, airlines have very good deals on business and first class. Just look under the specials section of your favorite airline, or at the Airfarewatchdog  blog. In a repeat from years past, Continental has a sale on its very comfortable BusinessFirst cabin to Europe for holiday travel between Thanksgiving and January 11. Fares are less than half what you'd normally pay. Other airlines are likely to follow suit. Also look at the newer all-business class airlines, such as MaxJet, L'Avion, EOS, and Silverjet. They're rewriting the fare rules for international business class, and offer frequent specials, such as two for one fares.

First / business class consolidators

Another strategy to is to buy first or business class fares from consolidators. specializes in low cost business and first class fares at savings of 50% or more. Another good source is Planet Amex/Cook Travel.

These discounted fares may have restrictions that full fare business and first don’t have.

UP fares

On many domestic routes, most airlines offer what they call Y UP, H UP and Q UP fares. UP as in upgrade. These are restricted full fare economy fares that can be upgraded at the time of purchase to confirmed business or first class for much less than a full first class fare. The only downside is that they're not changeable or fully refundable without paying a penalty. You can find these fares by searching for business or first class fares "with restrictions" or choose the "all types" option. On Travelocity, for example, you need to click on the less-than-obvious "more search options" link from the home page and then search for business class and choose "All Types" under fare type to include restricted business/first fares. So, for example, you could find a confirmed first class flight on Delta from New York JFK to Los Angeles for $1200 roundtrip plus tax. Clicking on the "adult fare rules" you'll see this fare code: H7UPNBV (see the "UP"?). A fully refundable "Y" fare on this route might cost $400-$800 more.

Attain upper levels of frequent flyer programs

Frequent flyers already know this route to a comfortable seat. Many airlines will award free or low-cost space-available upgrades to their very best customers, so it really does pay to fly often and to give all your business to just one airline.

And it doesn't hurt to dress and act nicely

A friend of mine was flying on Air Canada from San Francisco to Vancouver recently, and the gate agent handed him a first class boarding pass even though he had bought an economy ticket. He asked why he was being upgraded, and she told him, "Well, you're very nicely dressed and the station manager put you in first class." Simple as that. No, it doesn't happen all the time, but it does happen. Especially when flights are oversold or canceled, airlines tend to re-assign their best customers to first class if there are no seats left in economy. These are called "operational upgrades" in airline speak. And if you're an upper level frequent flyer and there's only one seat left in first class but a lot of people with the same frequent flyer status are waiting at the gate for upgrades, it seriously doesn't hurt to stand out as the nicest, friendliest, and best dressed customer. All else being equal, why wouldn't they choose you over the others?

And whatever airline you're flying, it never hurts to ask if the check in agent can offer a paid (or even a free) upgrade to a more comfortable seat. You'll sometimes see Airlines tinker with upgrade options, often just  before departure, and you just never know what you'll find if you ask.

Please feel free to leave your own tips in our comments. And see you up front… or at least, I hope, in the exit row!

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

Categories: Airfare Tips


Cali to Bali

Posted by Tracy Stewart on Thursday, September 27, 2007

For you surfing enthusiasts out there, Cathay Pacific is offering Los Angeles to Bali for $735, which comes to about $816 with taxes. Still several hundred less than what the other guys are offering for this route.

They’ve also thrown in a free baggage allowance for surfboards (in addition to the standard 2 allowed bags, of course) good only for this sale.

Los Angeles to Bali/Denpasar, Indonesia $816

This sale is valid for departures before November 30, and travel must be completed by December 15.

To learn more, visit Tracy Stewart's profile on Google+

Categories: Asia/Australasia Airfares

The Code Share Sleight of Hand

No, this is not the clunky title of a new Dan Brown thriller or the name of some amazing magic trick we've been working on in our spare time, because we don't really have a lot of that. And while we might know a thing or two about secret Masonic hand-shakes, we have, alas, been sworn to eternal secrecy.

Instead we'll simply expand a bit on our previous article about code-sharing, that ever more popular, creative, arguably deceptive and definitely confusing—some might say bizarre—practice of not just selling the very same airplane seat in variously branded guises and sometimes at widely (and wildly) diverging prices, but mixing different modes of transportation in one single fare and marketing them all as air travel. So hop on, fasten your seat-belt and get ready to descend into the twilight zone of travel lore.

Code-share agreements combining air and rail travel are not a new phenomenon, but they are becoming increasingly common wherever fast train service to nearby cities makes connections from major airports with a convenient train station more efficient than flying overloaded puddle jumpers. It certainly brings the whole hub-and-spoke metaphor down to earth again and back to its more literal definition involving wheels and rods rather than wings and interminable transfers.

These arrangements are especially prevalent in Europe between national airlines and national railroads, such as Lufthansa and Deutsche Bahn, and Air France and SNCF, and even found stateside on a smaller scale, where Continental sells seats on Amtrak from Newark to Philadelphia, Wilmington and other East Coast cities.

We recently chanced upon a new twist on this evolving theme that is noteworthy not just for the partners involved—a U.S. airline, United, and a foreign national railway, France's SNCF—but also the distance covered by ground transportation, about 500 miles.

In this particular instance, you're supposed to change planes at Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport, but when you hear the call to board United Airlines flight 9764 bound for Marseilles, do not, we repeat, do not proceed to the gate, but try instead to find your way to the nearest railway platform because you'll actually be parking your rear end on a high-speed double-decker TGV train that will hurtle the whole of your being down the tracks to the Mediterranean coast in little over 3 hours, almost as fast as a Boeing 737.

(You can see a sample itinerary on our Fare of the Day page. Incidentally, a feat like this is feasible in few countries other than France, thanks to its remarkable high-speed rail network which just this spring set a new world speed record for conventional trains at 357 mph.)

So what's next? Will it be long before some smart airline executive decides to team up with U-Haul to sell you on the no doubt much ballyhooed "freedom and luxury of independent travel" along with a "generous baggage allowance" and an iron-clad guarantee "to get you there on your own time" when they can't get their planes off the ground?

And what's to stop Podunk Paradise Airways from simply slapping their sign on a donkey, hitching up the wagon for your luggage and sending you quietly ambling down the gravelly path to nowhere?

Who knows, some day you might even be able to market your Monday morning car pool to as Moe's Expressed Air and turn an extra buck by offering cramped seats, surly service, bad coffee, bumpy rides, endless delays and throwing some worthless bonus frequent-flier miles at hapless fellow commuters. Just don't tell anyone where you got the idea...

Categories: Airfare Tips, Europe/Africa/Middle East Airfares

Qantas sale to Australia with free New Zealand stopover

Posted by George Hobica on Tuesday, September 25, 2007

This strikes us a very good deal indeed. Fly from LA or San Francisco to Sydney, Melbourne, or Brisbane for $944 RT plus taxes of about $120, with a free optional stopover in Auckland. You must book by Sept 30 and travel Nov 1-30. See details here.

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

Categories: Airfare Tips

Skybus expands beyond Columbus

Posted by George Hobica on Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Starting Dec. 17, Skybus will be flying between Portsmouth, NH, about an hour north of Boston, and both St. Augustine (for Jacksonville and Daytona Beach) and Punta Gorda, Florida (near Ft. Myers) for $10 each way. Seats are available at the lowest fare as of this writing.

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

Categories: Domestic US Fares

Top Ten Most Obnoxious Hidden Airline Fees

Posted by George Hobica on Friday, September 21, 2007

Let’s face it. As an industry, airlines have never made money since the Wright Brothers. Because of this mismanagement, they’ve decided to try lining their coffers by coming up with a slew of obnoxious extra charges. We’re not so steamed about paying to see TV, or using the Internet aloft, or even paying for something to eat or drink. After all, planes are not flying restaurants or movie theaters, and why should we all pay for a movie that only some of us watch? And we’re not even peeved by those escalating excess baggage charges, which can sometimes cost more than your fare, although some airlines (especially international ones) clearly overdo it. But passengers overdo it, too, and an airline ticket should not entitle you to move your entire household by air. Let those who over pack pay for the privilege. However, the following fees seem nothing more than new profit centers for the airlines, and whatever additional costs these services could possibly impose on the airlines are clearly lower than what passengers pay.

1. Making a reservation on the phone or in person

Fee: $5-$25

Can it possibly cost them that much for a simple ten minute call? Surely they don’t pay their reservationists that much. United levies $15 for the privilege of speaking to a human. American, JetBlue, and Southwest $10 (for internet only fares in Southwest’s case, but they do make exceptions we were told). Northwest and Virgin America charge just $5.

2. Re-banking frequent flyer miles

Fee: $50-100

If you cash in your miles and decide not to use your ticket, you’ll be hit with a fee to place the miles back into your account. Why? What cost exactly is involved here on the airlines’ part? These tickets are issued electronically, so what’s the big deal?

3. Cashing in frequent flyer miles without sufficient advance notice
Fee: $0-100

Who says frequent flyer tickets are free? Some airlines will let you book a frequent flyer seat even up to the day of travel with no fee. These include Airtran, JetBlue, Northwest and Southwest. But others (Continental, Delta, and United) charge $75 if you book without enough notice (defined as 3 days on Continental but an unreasonable 22 days on Delta); and American charges an insane $100 if you book 6 days or fewer before departure.

4. Bringing a pet onboard in the cabin
 Fee: $50-100 (each way)

These fees have skyrocketed lately. Muffy and Buffy won’t be ringing the call button for a glass of milk, and they won’t be carrying bags or imposing on the airline’s bottom line in any way; but their fare might end up costing more than yours. Most airlines now charge $80 each way. On United you’ll pay $85 until May 5, but $100 after that and on JetBlue “just” $50.

5. Checking luggage
Fee: $3-25 (each way)

We’re talking here just about checking even one bag, even if they’re not oversized or overweight (that’s a whole other story). Most major airlnes now charge $25 for a second checked bag, and we wouldn't be surprised if next they start charging for every bag. Spirit Airlines charges $5 for each of the first two bags if paid for online, $10 each otherwise. The third bag costs a whopping $100, more if it’s oversized or overweight.  Allegiant. charges $3 for the first, $5 for the second. Air Canada gives you a discount for not checking baggage, which is a sneaky way of charging you if you do.

It’s not like the airlines are giving us bigger overhead bins, so that’s the big idea here? Don’t be surprised if you see other airlines following suit.

6. Getting a refund when a fare goes down

Fee: $25 to $200 or more.

If you bought a TV from Costco or BestBuy and they lowered the price the following week, chances are you could get a refund no questions asked. Even Apple gave credits when they dropped the price of their iPhone soon after launching it. But most airlines either will refund nothing (British Airways and most other international carriers) or they’ll charge an “administrative fee” of up to $100 on a domestic ticket, and even more on an international one. What justifies this? Does it actually cost them $100 to spend a few minutes to rewrite your electronic ticket? I doubt it. Don't be surprised if eventually airlines go with a "you buy it you fly it" policy: if the fare goes down, tough.

7.  Flying standby on the same day of travel.
Fee: $0-50.

Time was, if there were empty seats on a later or earlier flight on the same day as your original, the airline would confirm you for free. But now, most airlines charge to take an earlier or later flight on the same day as your original flight if you want a confirmed seat (you can still take your chances on many airlines and standby without a confirmation for free, but that's not the same thing).

Southwest is a different animal altogether: there’s no fee to go standby as such, but you’ll have to pay the “walk up” last minute fare, which could be hundreds more than your original discount fare.

8.  Paying for lap children  
Fee: $10 to 10% of the adult fare (international flights).

What on earth is the meaning of this? Your kid isn’t taking up a seat, and certainly isn’t partaking of the free food and booze (if any). Is the little tyke responsible for consuming extra jet fuel? On a fare of say, $1200, you’ll be billed $120 or more for the privilege of holding the child in your lap for 10 hours (on a business class fare of, say, $5000 you’ll pay $500).   By the way, if there's a fuel surcharge on your flight, your kiddie will pay that too: as much as $90 each way.

9. Getting a seat assignment
Fee: $5-$11 each way

Air Canada, AirTran and Allegiant are some of the carriers that now charge for this “perk”.  AirTran charges $5 if you’re on a discounted coach ticket; Allegiant charges $11.  AirTran charges $15 if you want to grab an exit row seat and Northwest recently upped the charge from $15 to $20 (but I still think it's worth it).

10. Using the lavatory
Fee: OK, airlines are not installing pay toilets. Yet. But the way things are going….

Read more:
What to do if you're bumped from a flight (and how to avoid it)

Why don't other fare comparison sites include Southwest
Airlines (and why you should care)

See our list of airfares from your home town.
(We've already done the searching for you!)

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

Categories: Airfare Tips

Four New Skybus Stops

Posted by Tracy Stewart on Thursday, September 20, 2007

Just in time for the holidays, Skybus will begin serving four new destinations. Starting December 5, passengers can fly from Columbus OH to Chattanooga, Gulfport/Biloxi, Milwaukee, and Punta Gorda/Fort Myers. And as is the Skybus way, seats are available for $10 each-way.

Columbus to Gulfport $20

Columbus to Punta Gorda $20

Columbus to Chattanooga $20

Columbus to Milwaukee $20

In other SkyBus news: Beginning December 17, they'll boost service between Columbus and St Augustine up to two, count 'em, two round-trip flights daily.

Columbus to St Augustine $20

To learn more, visit Tracy Stewart's profile on Google+

Categories: Airline Industry News

Four New Skybus Stops

Posted by Tracy Stewart on Thursday, September 20, 2007

Just in time for the holidays, Skybus will begin serving four new destinations. Starting December 5, passengers can fly from Columbus OH to Chattanooga, Gulfport/Biloxi, Milwaukee, and Punta Gorda/Fort Myers. And as is the Skybus way, seats are available for $10 each-way.

Columbus to Gulfport $20

Columbus to Punta Gorda $20

Columbus to Chattanooga $20

Columbus to Milwaukee $20

In other SkyBus news: Beginning December 17, they'll boost service between Columbus and St Augustine up to two, count 'em, two round-trip flights daily.

Columbus to St Augustine $20

To learn more, visit Tracy Stewart's profile on Google+

Categories: Airline Industry News

Southwest Boarding Changes

Posted by Tracy Stewart on Thursday, September 20, 2007

Boy, Southwest is really shaking things up lately. Seems like only yesterday they were playing fashion police and humiliating female passengers. Then came talk of scrapping their ever popular approach to open-seating, along with priority boarding for families with children. And while that last one seems to have stuck (at least for now), Southwest has since backtracked on the seating issue and presented a compromise of sorts.

Starting this November, passengers will be assigned to boarding groups A through C, as well as a number based on the order of check-in. Once in a row and ready to board, groups (in sub-sets of five) can then make their orderly dash to their seats. If that sounds like a lot of 'insert-slot-a-into-b'  hokey-pokey stuff to you too, the folks at Southwest have typed up a handy tutorial, which they're calling Boarding School, to prepare you for the change.

Not keen on change? Hey, look on the bright side. With a number to hold your place in line, you’ll be free to make one last trip for snacks and magazines.

To learn more, visit Tracy Stewart's profile on Google+

Categories: Airline Industry News

A Sure Cure for the Winter Blues

Here's a prescription for fending off the inevitable seasonal funk, even if it still seems a long way off: plan a trip for the deepest of winter to somewhere warm and sunny!

Now, it only sounds so cliché because it's true and it works, and we've found some truly great deals that will put in you a right Mediterranean mood, which is a whole other shade of blue.

So go kick back on the Cote d'Azur, mosey down the promenade in Nice and see just how nice Cannes can be away from the maddening festival crowds.

For a slightly grittier, more filling take on the ravishing French Riviera, swing by the port of Marseilles, where bouillabaisse was born, and slurp till you burp before setting out to explore the rest of Provence or traipsing on down to St. Tropez.

If you prefer noodles to fish in your bowl, cross over to the Italian side for some pasta pesto in Pisa before leaning in on Tuscany and shooting off to Pistola or flooring it to Florence, or just crawling slowly, slowly up the coast to Cinque Terre.

You can also make yourself at home in Rome and do as those Romans do, whatever it is they do at home, and Venice is still very nice—and empty—in wintertime, in a gray-blue, misty-eyed, melancholy sort of way.

Or just give Italy the boot and make the jump to Malta or Cyprus instead. There are also many bargains still to be had in Spain, Portugal and Greece, and don't even get us started on Turkey, Egypt, Tunisia or Morocco!

Instead of waiting around for the mood to strike you, you may want to strike now while this iron is hot, because some of these fares might only be good for a couple of days.

While most of them should be available from almost anywhere, we only list them on our New York page where you might want to use your browser to search by country name if you're not familiar with places like Menorca, Bilbao, Lanzarote, Fez, Izmir or Sharm El Sheik.

Categories: Europe/Africa/Middle East Airfares
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