Frequent Flier Programs

Frequent Flier Programs

Q. What's the scoop on air courier associations? I'm 58, retired, and free to go anywhere with very little advance notice. From what I've gathered so far, all of them want you to buy their newsletter and/or pay a registration fee before they'll even let you see what might be available and judge whether or not it would be a good deal. I'm getting the feeling that it's a scam. Am I wrong? Are any of these companies legit?

Also, I live in Denver. Most international fights out of the country originate somewhere other than here. Am I wasting my time thinking that I could compete with somebody living near a major coastal airport with lots of overseas flights?

A. Shipping companies do indeed use couriers to shepherd time-sensitive deliveries through customs, and these couriers do fly for next to nothing at a moment's notice. Technically, you don't have to join a courier association to get in on these deals; you just have to find out where the shipping companies are and get in their good graces. Once they know and trust you, you can get assignments directly from the companies themselves. Couriertravel.org ($39 annual membership) and Aircourier.org ($40 annual membership, 800/461-8856) are the oldest courier organizations in the business, and are perfectly legit. But just because you join them doesn't mean you'll be flooded with "free" travel assignments right away. In some cases you'll still have to pay for your travel, albeit at reduced rates. And you're right, most courier trips leave from New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco and other big cities. You'll have to pay your own way to connect with onward flights.

Q. As you're aware, United's fares have not been available on Travelocity's Flex Search option. I called United for a response, and they say it's Travelocity's website, so it's their problem. I called Travelocity, which has only an overseas general service Customer line (you can't get past them to any other department), and their response is that United hasn't provided any flex search fares. This answer doesn't make sense, since United has fares available if you use any exact date search. Neither company wants to admit thats somethings amiss. Could United be purposely holding back cheaper fares so that only more expensive fares can be bought at Travelocity? Any thoughts on this, or how I can pursue this further?

A. Here's the answer I got from a Travelocity spokesperson: "Without getting into any details at this time, this is a temporary situation that we are working on. Thanks and please let me know if you have any additional questions." So I did ask an additional question, namely, "Is this a technical issue or a commercial one?" So far I haven't gotten an answer, but it's certainly costing flexible flyers a lot of money. Meanwhile, you can find United's fares using Cheapair.com's flexible search function.

Q. I booked a flight yesterday for my wife and I, through ultimatefares.com off of one of the google ads on your site, and it was booked wrong. I tried calling the company but no answer. They also booked my return flight returning 1 day later than I had requested. This sounds like a scam to me, I don't know if you can help with this or not.

A. Sorry to hear about your problems. There are indeed some shady operators out there; I'm not sure if Ultimate is one of them, but you might want to keep an eye on this travel fraud discussion forum. It could be that they just made a mistake. They claim to be members of the BBB and ASTA, the American Society of Travel Agents which, if true, should afford some protection in case of a dispute.

I would immediately call your credit card company and contest the charges.

I have contacted google about previous sites that advertised on Airfarewatchdog that have been mentioned in scam reports, such as supertickets.us, which also goes under several other URLs. Google seems unconcerned, and I have just written to their legal department to try to arouse some interest. These sites also run and make money off of their own google adsense ads, which I find troubling.

Q. I am trying to book a cruise to the French Polynesian Islands that leaves from Papeete on August 2, 2005. I was told Delta Air Lines flies there, although when I did research there were no flights on the first or second of August leaving out of Los Angeles. Are you aware of any other airlines that fly to Papeete? We live in the Miami area, and our flight will originate out of Ft. Lauderdale or Miami. I went on American's site and the fares were astronomical.

A. You might want to check out Air Tahiti Nui which offers non-stop flights from Los Angeles (daily) or New York JFK (outbound on Mondays, Thursdays and Saturdays, inbound on Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays). Every now and then the airline offers specials with a round-trip between Los Angeles and Tahiti for under $500 round-trip. You might want to check fares separately from Miami to LA, and then from LA to Tahiti.

If you haven't already made your cruise reservation, you can also find cruise specials that include airfare from either Los Angeles or New York.

Q. My daughter is studying in Madrid, Spain and she is trying to travel to Lourdes, France in May. The cheapest flight she has found so far is $1,699! Do you have any suggestions?

A. The fastest way to get between Madrid and Lourdes is by air, using one of the many low cost carriers available. The ticket pricing she got was probably flying with Air France, and that can be costly. The cheaper option would require buying two separate tickets from two different airlines – the downside to that is she'll have to spend a night at the Brussels airport or a nearby hotel, which may not be so bad if she is trying to save money. The first leg is between Madrid and Brussels on either Vueling (10 to 60 EUR each way) or Virgin Express (from 73 EUR each way). The next leg would be between Brussels and Lourdes on Jetairfly (39 to 129 EUR each way). There's only one flight a day between Brussels and Lourdes, departing 7:45AM, and based on what I've found online, neither Vueling nor Virgin Express have flights arriving Brussels that early. Depending on how flexible her schedule is, she might want to take a few days to explore Brussels.

The 10 to 12 hour train ride is also an option, and it'll probably cost her under 60 EUR each way. With the train, she'll again have to buy two separate tickets: Madrid to Hendaye, France (on the border of Spain and France,) through RENFE, the Spanish National Railway Network; and from Hendaye to Lourdes through SCNF, the French National Railway. From Madrid to Hendaye, it'll be about seven hours and cost 35 to 47 EUR, and between Hendaye and Lourdes, it'll be three to four and a half hours, at about 23 EUR. The upside to taking the train is that your daughter won't have to spend a night anywhere. The train schedule (available through the sites above) is such that she won't have to wait for more than an hour at Hendaye. She can opt for a night train from Madrid in a sleeper car, but that'll be at a premium, of course.

Q. My partner and I are planning a month long trip from our home in Denver to Sri Lanka, sometime at the end of February. We're looking for the best air deal. Any suggestions?

A. You might try pricing two separate flights on two different airlines: Denver to London and then London to Colombo, Sri Lanka (on www.Opodo.com perhaps), and perhaps stay over a night in London to break up the trip. Denver to London is running about $500 with taxes right now on USAir. I think it would be cheaper than buying a Denver to Colombo flight directly on Orbitz or whatever. London to Colombo is going to cost you around $850 round-trip if you buy it through the usual channels, but I'll bet you can buy the fare from a London "bucket shop" (or airfare consolidator) for less. Try getting a hold of a London Times travel section online or at a news stand that carries foreign papers, and look there for consolidator ads.

Or try this London consolidator for Asia: www.VISITASIA.co.uk.

Q. In June 2007 my wife and I will celebrate our 45th wedding anniversary and we're planning to taking our family, eight in all, to Hawaii. How far in advance should I make my airline reservation? We can fly from Richmond, VA or Washington, DC. Which airline would you recommend for the best price?

A. It's a bit early to be looking for fares, since airlines only publish fares a maximum of 330 or so days ahead. If you have the patience and time, sometime in August you might start searching for fares once a day. There are sometimes unadvertised fare wars to Hawaii from major hubs, such as United's Washington Dulles hub. But these sales might last only a day or only a few hours (best to check in the morning), and the only way to learn about them is to check the route, preferably using a Travelocity.com flexible date search. You can actually bookmark the specific Washington-Honolulu results page on Travelocity, and even make it your browser's home page if you're bent on finding a deal. The best airline to go with is the one that offers the lowest fare.

Q. Are there any Web sites that will alert you for airline fare reductions for a future date? Let me explain: Travelocity offers a fare watch list that one can put in starting and ending destinations and then be alerted if the price drops below a price you specify. The problem with this are most alerts are for fare reductions that require travel within the near future. I'm looking for a site that will allow me to put in my future travel dates, let's say October 2006, then have it alert me when the fares fall for travel during that time period. Do you know of any sites that will accomplish this?

A. Unfortunately, there isn't a Web site that offers those kinds of alerts (at least non I'm aware of). However, Travelocity's FareWatcher service (access it on the front page of Travelocity.com) does on occasion offer fares that go out as many as 330 days in advance; the problem with them is that they search for fares once a day, at 3 AM, and only on weekdays; some of the best deals appear on weekends; and sometimes they pop up later in the morning. Also, Travelocity doesn't search Southwest or JetBlue, so you may be missing out on some good deals. Orbitz also offers a low fare alert service.

Q. I've noticed however that on most airfare search sites you cannot do a flexible travel date search combined with a "nearby airport" search (so that if I were flexible in both my dates and my aiport of departure or arrival I could possibly save money). Any idea if there are sites that let you do both simultaneously?

A. You're correct that the best flexible date search tool, Travelocity, doesn't allow you to be both flexible in your travel dates and your airports. However, if you perform a flexible search on Travelocity, and then choose your travel dates, if there's a lower fare on those dates from or to an alternate airport then Travelocity is pretty good about flagging the better deal. Also, Cheapair.com will automatically list fares to alternate airports in its flexible date results. So for example, if you search for flights from New York to San Francisco the first result you'll see in Cheapair will probably be flights to less-expensive Oakland.

Q. My daughter is pregnant and is due about the end of August, 2006. My wife and I live in Jacksonville and my daughter lives in San Diego. My wife wants to fly out when the baby is due so that she can help out for a couple of weeks. My question is how best to handle the travel and is there one airline that would be better than another if we need to change travel dates after purchasing a fare. I know non- refundable tickets are usually cheaper but we may need to change our plans based on the baby's arrival.

A. I would buy your fare from an airline with a low or non-existent change fee, which, considering your routing, means that Southwest is probably your best bet. If you have to cancel your reservation and rebook, Southwest will not charge a change penalty as such. However, if the fare has gone up between the time you purchased and the time you rebook, then you will have to pay the fare difference (if it's gone down, on the other hand, you get a credit for future use, with no "service fee" deducted). Southwest is unique in this regard. Other airlines with low change fees, by the way, include JetBlue, Airtran, and Spirit.

Q. My husband and I are planning a trip to see Prague, Warsaw, Krakow and Budapest this June. Is it best to fly into and out of a large city, like Vienna and then take the train to these other cities or fly into Prague and out of another city closest to Budapest?

A. You'll probably get a better fare deal if you fly from your home airport to Vienna and back from Vienna to home, rather than hopping around on planes or flying into one city and out from another (a so-called open jaw fare). However, I'd also suggest investigating flying into London, where there's more competition, and then adding on a flight from there to an Eastern European destination. You can see airline route maps for the European discount airlines at www.airfarewatchdog.com/pages/3799645/airline-routes-official-airline-route-maps/. In you fly into Vienna, you're more or less traveling in a circle to visit the places you've listed and all of these cities are easy to reach by rail. You can find out about Eurailpasses by going to www.raileurope.com or calling (877) 257-2887.

Q. I am an inexperienced traveler. The last time I left the U.S. was seven years ago and that was to Canada. Several acquaintances are planning a climb of Mt. Kilimanjaro in October, followed by a safari. It sounds like the trip of a lifetime, and I would love to go along. However, I need a lot of help – from airfares to passports to cash and credit cards. Being used to U.S. airfares, I was taken aback by the cost of a ticket from Minnesota. I would have to arrive in Arusha by the evening of October and be dropped off in Arusha on the afternoon of October 21. My passport, with my lone Canadian stamp, expires in February, 2007. While I do have 60,000 frequent flier miles on Delta, it seems that this will only get me to Des Moines in January. Can you give me any advice on getting a good fare, as well any other suggestions that might be helpful?

A. The first thing you'll need to do renew your passport (or get a new one if it's more than 15 years old when it expires). You'll need a minimum of six months left on your passport, or you might be refused entry into Tanzania. Passport information to Tanzania is available through the U.S. Department of State at http://travel.state.gov/travel/cis_pa_tw/cis/cis_1038.html.

It's common for airfares to Africa to be expensive, especially to Arusha, as airline choices are limited. Your frequent flyer miles won't get you all the way to Africa, but they might get you to London or Amsterdam where you can then buy a flight onward to Arusha. An award ticket to Europe starts from 50,000 miles on Delta.

Also, you might want to check with your acquaintances how they booked their airfare, since they might have purchased an air and land package which would simplify things a lot.

Q. We are looking to go to Las Vegas from October 5 to 10 from the New York City area. What do you think is the best time to lock in our airfare, and what's the best way to secure the cheapest fares?

A. It's a very competitive route so you shouldn't have trouble finding fares as low as $79 one-way. I've even see it for less. The airlines have secret sales all the time so I suggest checking routes every day. I like Travelocity's flexible date function the best since it looks for fares 330 days ahead versus 30 days ahead for Orbitz. Cheapair.com is also good although they charge a rather high $9.95 per booking. Other sites have limited or no flexible date searches.

Q. I have a question travel to Europe this summer. If you recall, there was a discount airline called Eurofly that started flying from JFK to Naples, Bologna and Sicily last summer (I think they were previously a charter outfit). Do you know if there may be additional start-up low cost carriers flying from major US airports to Europe in time for this summer?

A. There are no new low cost carriers that I know of (except for business class carriers from New York to London: MAXjet (888/435-9629) between New York JFK or Washington, DC Dulles and London Stansted and Eos (888/357-3677) between New York JFK and London Stansted). Eurofly is still in operation and has some good nonstop fares to Italy. However, Virgin Atlantic just had the sale of the decade to London from most of its gateways. The fares were good for travel any day, any month, between February 2006 and early January 2007 and ranged from $400 to $470 round-trip, including all taxes, government fees, and fuel surcharges. This deal, available only on Travelocity.com, popped up on a recent Saturday afternoon and lasted for about two days before it was withdrawn. You never know, a sale like this might pop up again.

Q. I am so confused now about when to book flights. What has happened to the tried and true rule that booking early and on mid-week days is cheaper? My last few trips, I've found this rule to be completely untrue. I've booked flights early only to see prices slashed in half a few weeks before the trip. I've waited until a few weeks before a trip only to end up angry because the prices did not get slashed but instead got higher! It seems that info about when to book flights is outdated or obsolete. I travel worldwide, so have no specific destination in mind for this question. I would just love some solid, applicable info about when to book flights in general. Help!

A. There really is no best time. Airlines lower fares on different routes everyday without advertising them. A fare could be $400 today and $98 tomorrow, and then $500 the next day. Usually, Tuesday, Wednesday and Saturday are the cheapest days to travel, but not to buy airfares. You have to look at fares on the routes you want to fly every single day for a few weeks (using a Travelocity or Cheapair flexible date search unless you're flying on JetBlue or Southwest, which don't list their fares on such sites) and then adjust your schedule to whenever the fare is lowest. It may help to sign up for Travelocity's FareWatcher service, and newsletters from FareAlert.net, and Airfarewatchdog.com.

Q. My fiancée and I are trying to fly to St. Vincent in the Grenadines just before Christmas, but we're finding that the flights are costing nearly $900 round-trip. Furthermore, many of the flight options entail long layovers. Can you help me find a better way to get there?

A. St. Vincent is expensive to get to if you try to book fares directly to the island. But try this: try booking the fare from your home airport to either Barbados or San Juan, and then a separate fare from there to St. Vincent. To cite one example: US Air right now has New York to Barbados for $393 plus tax RT (in fact, that's pretty high: I've seen it much lower). And guess what: there's a $127 RT fare from Barbados to St. Vincent on LIAT, a regional commuter airline. LIAT has five flights a day from 7:45 AM to 7:10 PM on that 40 minute hop). Both flights will be nonstops.

You might also try routing through San Juan. New York to San Juan is just $198 and from there to St. Vincent is around $270 on LIAT. As you can see, the savings can be huge, especially if there are two of you. This same strategy works for other Caribbean destinations. It's often cheaper to buy a fare from City A to City B, and then from B to C rather than from A to C. Who knows why?

I don't want to be glib: if there's a flight irregularity on your initial incoming flight and you miss the puddle jumper to St. Vincent, you can't go bawling to the airlines. So leave enough connection time and be flexible, perhaps scheduling an overnight in San Juan or Barbados.

Q. I am planning a trip to San Juan from Dallas with a friend from Memphis. The lowest fare from Dallas I could find was $354 round-trip on American. But my friend's fare, also on American, from Memphis to San Juan with a connection in Dallas (where I could join him on the plane) is just $188, almost $200 less. It seems odd that my friend will be flying a longer distance and paying so much less than I will.

My question is, Why can't I buy a Memphis/Dallas/San Juan/Dallas/Memphis fare and just use the Dallas/San Juan/Dallas portion of the ticket?

A. Because American will cancel your entire itinerary when you don't show up for the Memphis-Dallas outbound flight.

Q. Are there any websites you'd recommend that specialize in the cheapest business or first class fares? I really want to do something special for a certain someone and I want to get the best deal on a business or first class ticket from the USA to Western Europe.

A. I assume you're aware of MAXjet Airways (888/435-9629) or Eos Airlines (888/357-3677) if you're going to London? Both are "relatively" low cost airlines offering only business class seats and service. Think of them as jetBlue but with business class to London. MAXjet flies from either New York JFK or Washington, DC Dulles to London Stansted, and Eos flies from New York JFK to London Stansted.

MAXjet has round-trip fares starting from as low as $1,400 per person (sorry, you missed their $750 round-trip summer fares, which were cheaper than the other airlines' economy fares). Eos is a bit pricier: their lowest round-trip starts at around $2,800. However, with Eos's Club 48 flying club, you'll receive points which can be changed into cash for use on various things like airline tickets, spa treatments, hotels and more. With Club 48, one round-trip equals 15,000 points (7,500 points for each flight), and one point equals one cent, therefore, one round-trip equals $150 worth of rewards. And if you sign up and travel before June 30, 2006, you'll receive 45,000 points for your first round-trip. Plus, if you're an American Express card holder, Eos is currently running a promotion for its Club 48 members, where if you purchase one round-trip ticket from New York to London on your American Express Card before April 28, 2006 and travel before December 31, 2006, your companion flies free.

Delta has some good business class fares on promo right now but they must be purchased 50 days in advance. More information at delta.com under the Planning and Reservations tab and then click on "deals and offers".

Continental has even better deals, with a 60-day advance purchase.

If you don't have that much time to plan ahead, you might look into www.1stair.net, a consolidator of business and first class airfares.

Q. As you're aware, United's fares have not been available on Travelocity's Flex Search option. I called United for a response, and they say it's Travelocity's website, so it's their problem. I called Travelocity, which has only an overseas general service Customer line (you can't get past them to any other department), and their response is that United hasn't provided any flex search fares. This answer doesn't make sense, since United has fares available if you use any exact date search. Neither company wants to admit thats somethings amiss. Could United be purposely holding back cheaper fares so that only more expensive fares can be bought at Travelocity? Any thoughts on this, or how I can pursue this further?

A. Here's the answer I got from a Travelocity spokesperson: "Without getting into any details at this time, this is a temporary situation that we are working on. Thanks and please let me know if you have any additional questions." So I did ask an additional question, namely, "Is this a technical issue or a commercial one?" So far I haven't gotten an answer, but it's certainly costing flexible flyers a lot of money. Meanwhile, you can find United's fares using Cheapair.com's flexible search function.

Q. In late July of 2005 I made reservations for eight people to go on a Carnival cruise departing January 29th. Four of us will be flying together on American Airlines from Springfield, IL to Orlando, FL to meet the ship. When I made the reservations in July our return flight was scheduled to depart Orlando around 4:45PM on the day the cruise ends so the timing was ideal. However, without consulting us, American Airlines changed our return departure to 11:40AM and just notified us of this via email on Christmas day.

The cruise line says it is impossible for us to get off the ship and travel from Port Canaveral to the Orlando airport in time to catch our flight. American Airlines says they have removed the 4:45PM flight from their schedule forever and that the last flight of the day to get us home is the 11:40AM flight. So unless we go with another airline we have to spend the night in Orlando and fly home a day later, which means we have to stay in a hotel for the night.

I asked American Airlines to cover the hotel room since it is 100 percent their fault that we have to stay and incur the expense of a hotel room. They absolutely refuse to do this, citing their policies as the reason. I explained that it was not our policy to have to stay an extra night in Florida because the airline canceled our flight. I spoke with a customer service representative and a supervisor and all they would do is move us to the same flight the next day.

At this late date I am sure we are going to have to pay penalties and a premium price for airfare if we elect to go with another airline, so I feel like we are stuck with American Airlines for this trip. Do we have any recourse? If so, can you advise us what to do?

A. As you probably figured out already, you'd have to pay United $120 more to fly you back on the day the cruise ends. If you somehow made it to Chicago fares would be a lot less ($190 round-trip) but I realize that's a drive. What would I do were I in the same situation? I'd ask American to assign my ticket over to United at no extra cost. Although American might not be obligated to pay for your hotel, I think they definitely should try to get you on a later United flight at their own cost, much as they would be obligated if there were any other flight "irregularity" that was in their control (and certainly, a schedule change that the airline initiates falls under that category).

Write them a letter, registered, and copy their legal department. Tell them you plan to sue them in small claims court for your costs if they don't satisfy you. I'm serious. Send a copy to the president of the airline and another to customer service.

You might also try calling the local station manager in Springfield and ask him or her to intervene. Sometimes solutions can be found on the local level in situations like this. In fact,

John Theodor, the General Manager of American Connection, the AA regional carrier in Springfield, commented:

"I wish they would have contacted the AA ticket counter directly. The dissatisfaction they received by speaking with sales over the phone could have been easily rectified in person locally. Please urge your readers to explore this option if contacting the airline by phone or email does not help. I was just as surprised as the letter writer that American would not honor their request in accommodating them on United. Schedule change policies vary somewhat by carrier, however; in a case such as this, accommodation on another carrier to avoid a change of date interruption is normally granted."

Q. I just had a bad experience with Alaska Airlines and wonder if you have any advice: I missed a return flight from Ontario, CA to Portland, OR last Saturday night (it was my fault, because I had changed a return flight from Phoenix owing to a last minute family situation and had the wrong departure time. Certainly not an excuse, but if they can't accommodate an occasional human foible why should I accommodate them when they inconvenience me?).

I had to be back because I was substituting for two church services beginning 7:30 AM the next day. Alaska would let me fly out Sunday for no additional charge but flights could not get me to my commitment in time. United had a flight connecting through San Francisco and would accept my electronic ticket. All I needed was Alaska to "push the button" to transfer my fare.

However, Alaska would not accommodate me. The agent said she would get into trouble if she did it "because Alaska would lose the revenue." As a result I had to pay for the United ticket (my one-way on Alaska would have been about $115, the United fare was over $200).

Needless to say I am not happy with Alaska over this. Do I have any recourse or what do you recommend?

A. Well, since Alaska wasn't involved at all in the missed flight, there's not much of a "case" to build. Let's say it were their fault, or it were the weather's fault – even in that situation some airlines are loathe to sign over tickets to a competitor. You have to beg and scream. You might try writing them; they might send you a good will voucher. Who knows? I just don't think they were obligated to forgo revenue (they'd have to pay United to fly you) simply because you missed your flight. It's a bit like if you bought a new TV from Best Buy and dropped it on the way home, and then asked Circuit City to replace it.

Here's their contract of carriage on refunds and reroutings for your future reference.

Q. I bought a ticket on United via Travelocity and a few weeks before the flight I was informed that United had stopped flying the route entirely. So I was forced to buy a much higher fare on Alaska Airlines. This seems unfair. Shouldn't United just endorse my ticket over to Alaska at the same fare I originally paid? Should I complain to Travelocity or United? I've contacted both parties but just gotten form letters back.

A. This is happening a lot these days as airlines abandon unprofitable routes. I suggest you write or call again. I will contact Travelocity on your behalf to see if we can grease the wheels. And I'd ask United for a voucher, good for future travel, to cover the fare difference between your original ticket and the new, higher ticket on Alaska. In my opinion, it's the least they can do.

Follow up: This passenger eventually received a $250 credit from United and a $50 voucher from Travelocity. I was surprised at how well he made out, but I think he deserves it.

Q. Do you know any tricks to getting upgraded on flights? I was upgraded from business to first class on Virgin Atlantic two summers ago from Miami to London. My friend said that I was "suitable for upgrade" because I was traveling alone, and when Virgin has overbooked economy, single travelers get priority to being upgraded. I'll be traveling again this summer and wondered if there is anything I can do to get the upgrade again?

A. That's interesting, since Virgin has a business class product but doesn't have first class (I'm sort of messing with you: their business class cabin, which they call Upper Class, is better than some airlines' first class, so no wonder you're confused). You're absolutely right that traveling alone is key, because they might just have one seat in business for upgrading. There's no surefire way to get those "oversell" upgrades, but it certainly doesn't hurt to ask nicely when checking in ("Hi, just in case economy is oversold today I'd like to volunteer to be upgraded; I'm traveling alone and I flew Virgin's Upper Class last summer and it's the best experience I've ever had in airplane!") and it doesn't hurt if you don't look like a slob. Sometimes check-in people take pity on you if you're really tall, too, or pregnant, but there's not much you can do if you're not (elevator heels, perhaps?). And a woman I know who works for a large European airline tells me that all else (frequent flyer program status, etc.) being equal she upgrades "the cute ones" in such circumstances. So it pays to look your best.

Q. Last week I was on Northwest Flight 1 from Los Angeles to Tokyo, connecting to Northwest 27 to Bangkok. When flight 1 landed at Narita and before the doors were opened, an announcement was made for me to see ground staff at the foot of the stairs. The agent was waiting for me - sign and all - and told me that NW 27 was overbooked and I was being put on another airline to Bangkok - everything prearranged - ticket, seat assignment, etc. This was done without even asking if I would relinquish my confirmed seat for which I already had a boarding pass. I always thought that if the airline overbooked they had to ask for passengers who would be willing to relinquish their seat and offer some compensation. I don't know if this qualifies as being 'bumped' but it certainly felt that way to me. I asked for compensation not once but several times and the only thing they offered was 2000 frequent flyer miles. I told them that to add 2000 miles to the one million already in my account was an insult. I had one of the best seats in economy class on NW 27, row 10 which is just behind business class with extra leg room and a quick exit when arriving in Bangkok for a quicker pass through the long immigration lines in Bangkok. True, the service on ANA was many times better than on Northwest and the food service much better. And the ANA flight departed Tokyo two hours before the Northwest flight. So how I should handle a complaint about this? Am I entitled to compensation?

A. Interesting story. I'm sure Northwest thought they were doing you a huge favor by putting you on a flight that arrived two hours earlier than your original flight. Honestly, if I had the choice I'd probably go for it without complaint, and of course ANA is a better airline. So I would have been thrilled. Domestically, the airlines would be required to ask for volunteers and compensate you for taking away your seat. But that's only if they cause a delay by bumping you and it only applies in the US. Europe has its own (more stringent rules) and I don't believe there are any pan-Asian agreements at all. In this case, quite to the contrary, they got you there sooner than originally scheduled. So I'm afraid you wouldn't get very far complaining. Just take the 2,000 miles and cheer up.

Q. Earlier this month, my family traveled to Hartford, CT to participate in the US Junior Olympics for fencing. We flew a United code share on US Airways from Richmond, VA to Hartford, CT via Philadelphia. When we arrived in Hartford, we found that our two equipment bags had not arrived on our flight (each one about the size of a travel golf bag).

The equipment bags did not arrive until the next afternoon, but were needed that morning in order to compete in our first event. Needless to say, my daughter had to withdraw from her event.

What steps should we have taken with US Airways during this trip to expedite the delivery of the equipment and how can we prevent these things from occurring in the future?

A. Unfortunately, there's not much you could have done to have US Airways get the equipment bags to you any faster, as it's generally their policy to put the bag on the first flight to your destination. According to a recent article in USA Today, airlines lose or misplace 10,000 or more bags a month, and the problem is getting worse, not better.

In the future, I'd suggest sending the equipment through a service like Sports Express (800/357-4174), a company that specializes in luggage and sports equipment delivery. They'll pick up your equipment from your home and deliver to your destination. I did a quick quote and the delivery of two standard golf cases (since they didn't have the option of a fencing bag). Charges would begin at $116 one-way for the three-day economy service. That may sound steep, but I imagine if you had enough bags to check and you were over the weight or maximum bag limit, then the airline would charge you excess baggage fees anyway, which are not cheap these days. Just have the equipment delivered ahead of time in care of your hotel or wherever else you're staying

Q. As a college student, I frequently fly during the summer on vacations and to visit relatives. Whenever possible, I like to volunteer to give up my seat when a flight has been overbooked. I have done this three times on United flights and have found that I have been compensated enough to make it worth the trouble. So, I would actually like to increase the odds of buying tickets on flights that might end up overbooked. Any advice?

A. I suppose one strategy is to buy refundable tickets only and book them on routes that are always jam packed. If you don't get bumped you can ask for a ticket refund and then book another ticket. Try to choose flights that you know are already heavily booked. Usually, you can identify these flights because the airline won't give you a firm seat assignment. Fly on peak travel days and times (Thursday, Friday, Sunday, Monday).

Q. I checked in for a flight to Ft. Lauderdale to catch a 10-day Caribbean cruise, and I wanted to make sure I had enough clothes and shoes for all the activities and formal nights. So I had four bags to check plus my carryon. My airfare was a reasonable $98 round-trip, but the airline ended up charging me several times that because I had too many bags, plus one of them was too big, and one was too heavy. How could I have avoided these charges?

A. Hey, the airlines have to make money somehow to compensate for those ridiculously low fares. Take a look at United Airlines' excess baggage fees: they'll carry for free two bags measuring no more than 62 linear inches all around (say, a bag measuring no more than 20 inches wide by 30 inches long by 12 inches deep) and weighing no more than 50 pounds. For each additional bag, you'll pay $80 each, assuming they're not oversized or overweight. If a bag exceeds 62 linear inches, that's an extra $80 on top of the extra bag fee. And if the bag weighs over 50 pounds, that's another $25. Oh, and that's each way, not round-trip.

Next time: before you leave, check your airline's oversized and excess baggage policy on line. Weigh your bags on the bathroom scale. If one is overweight, see if you can shift some of the contents into a bag that's not over the limit. Also, if you're traveling domestically it might cost you less to ship some of your luggage by UPS or Fedex Ground, or through the good old US Post Office. Or use a baggage expediting service (and this especially applies to the reader who wrote concerning his paragliding equipment) such as Sports Express (www.sportsexpress.com), which will ship a large duffle bag measuring up to 88 linear inches and weighing up to 80 pounds for $91 (based on three day service from Boston to New York), a bag that United would charge you $185 for were this the third of three such bags. Oh, and learn how to pack light. Check out www.travelite.org.

Q. I checked in for my flight and the gate agents announced there would be a two hour delay because the incoming crew was delayed coming in on another flight. So I went off to roam the bookstores and get a meal. When I returned an hour later, the flight had left without me. The next two flights were full, so I missed an important meeting. The airline was totally unsympathetic. Shouldn't the airline be held responsible?

A. A little two way communication goes a long way," says Todd Burke of JetBlue Airways. "Airlines should warn people not to wander too far, and passengers should check in with gate agents for frequent updates," he advises. "You can always give your mobile phone number to a fellow passenger or an agent and ask them to call you if an earlier departure time is announced." To prevent this from happening again, the obvious solution is not to wander off at all, or if there are two or more of you traveling someone should remain at the gate to stand guard.

Q. Do all airlines charge the same to change the travel dates of a non-refundable ticket?

A. No. Southwest charges nothing. Delta and some other older carriers charge $50 for domestic tickets and up to $200 for international ones. United charges $100 for domestic tickets, and $150-$200 on international ones. However, Delta's Song airline charges just $25, perhaps to compete with JetBlue, which charges $20 to change any fare online. So if there's a chance you'll be changing your reservation, it might make sense to go with an airline with lower change fees.

Q. Twice in as many months you have advised your readers to "carry on" their bags when flying. I just want to let you know that inconsiderate people like you who feel you are too important, or too busy, to wait for your luggage are the main reason air travel is so miserable today. Countless times when I travel I am bumped, delayed, and inconvenienced by you morons. I have a better idea: place your week's worth of clothes under your feet for the duration of the flight and free up the overheads.

I have many friends in the airline industry, from pilots to flight attendants to mechanics. They have a name for people like you who refuse to check your baggage, but sadly it is not printable.

A. While it's true that I'm an advocate of packing light to avoid checked luggage, I believe that the reasons travel is so miserable today has nothing to do with carryon luggage. It's due to the fact that the airlines lose, damage, and misdirect an ever increasing number of bags each year. It's due to shrinking seats and legroom and the airlines attempt to squeeze as much profit as they can out of each flight, which sometimes leads to over booking and bumping. I've never heard of someone getting bumped because "morons" brought too much luggage on board. I have heard, however, of traveler's vacations being ruined because the airline lost their luggage, especially cruise passengers who end up wearing the same t-shirts and shorts throughout a seven day voyage. The next time you fly and see a large number of morons in the gate area with luggage, I suggest you go up to each and every one of them and talk them into checking their bags. I'm sure you can win them over with your charm.

Q. I read about somewhere about a company that will pick up my baggage from my home, and process my airline check-in at the same time. Do you know about them?

A. I believe you're referring to BaggageDirect (800/959-4424). Currently BaggageDirect only works with ATA, Aloha Airlines, Hawaiian Airlines, Continental Airlines and Singapore Airlines, and only on certain routes, mostly involving Los Angeles and various cities in Hawaii.

For example, with Continental, BaggageDirect offers pick-up, check-in and delivery service if you are flying between Los Angeles, Maui or Oahu. If you're flying from any of these three cities to any other destination, they only offer pick-up and check-in. ATA, Aloha and Hawaiian also have full service from those three cities. Singapore Airlines currently offers these services for departures from Los Angeles to either Singapore or Taipei.

The service is $30 for the first passenger and $15 for each additional passenger for each service. Standard baggage allowance applies. This service is especially handy if there's big group of you traveling from the covered cities; discounts are offered to groups of seven or more passengers. All passengers have to be present with proper ID when BaggageDirect arrives for the pick-up and check-in.

Q. We are having a destination wedding and she wants to take the wedding dress on the plane. It's kind of big and I don't think it will fit in the overhead bin. She doesn't want to ship it or check it as baggage for fear of the dress getting lost. I can see the headline: "Runaway Wedding Dress...Groom and Bride Made it but Dress is in New Mexico."

A. It would be nasty if it were lost--or merely delayed--as checked baggage. I would probably try to carry it onboard. Barring that, I would FedEx it to your destination. Use the cheapest rate possible. I think FedEx loses fewer things than the airlines and they have better tracking.

I received this advice from a flight attendant in repsonse to this post:

I just wanted to respond to the answer you gave regarding the Bride's dress. I'm a flight attendant for a major carrier and fly to the Hawaiian Islands about 7-10 times a month. Needless to say, it's definitely a wedding destination.

Unfortunately, the number of brides-to-be on EVERY flight to Hawaii is countless. Many of them coming on board expecting (or at least hoping) for special treatment. Many hope for closet space to hang their garments or an empty overhead bin to lie the dress flat in.

With four to eight dresses on any given flight, I can tell you most of them have to resort to shoving it to an overhead bin with all the other carry-ons. Since closets are reserved for wheelchairs, crutches, and other items such extra supplies for the flight, toilet paper, hand towels, etc, even business men have now shyed away from the once-typical garment bags they all wanted hung in closets.

So, I agree with you; FedEx is the way to go. Get the address of the hote you'll be staying at, and call ahead to let them know you'll be Fed-Exing something there so they can hold it for you should it arrive before you do.

Q. My husband and I took a 3-day cruise leaving from Miami. When we arrived at the airport, my luggage was missing, but my husband's arrived safely. Needless to say, I had to buy clothes (at great expense) on the ship. The airline found my luggage the next day but it was too late to be of use to me, and they refuse to reimburse me for my replacement clothes purchases. What recourse do I have? And could I have done anything to prevent this situation?

A. First, of course, you should have carried on your luggage. That means packing light. If that was impossible for whatever reason, your second line of defense would have been to crisscross the contents of your luggage with your husband's: in other words, put some of your stuff in his suitcase and some of his in yours. It would be very unlikely that both suitcases would be lost.

Second, you could have arrived a day early for your cruise. It's always a good idea in case the flight is cancelled on luggage goes astray.

Finally, it's not surprising that the airline refused to help you. Airline customer service is becoming an oxymoron these days. But there's nothing stopping you from pursuing this in small claims court. The airline might simply refuse to contest the claim and settle.

Q. I have a lot of miles in Northwest WorldPerks Frequent Flyer Program - close to a million. I have always thought of these miles like a savings account to use sometime in the future. But now I wonder if it was unwise to have accumulated so many miles and should start using them immediately. And, what is your opinion of the survival of Northwest. I have always been a loyal Northwest flyer but wonder if I should switch my allegiance to another airline?

A. I would try to spend the miles. The airlines will only make them harder and harder to use and I wouldn't be surprised if they don't up the number of miles needed to obtain a free ticket as well. I made the mistake of waiting to use miles I had accumulated in the British Airways program only to find out that they nearly doubled the miles needed to fly in certain classes, like business and first. It was a big mistake. I don't think Northwest is going out of business anytime soon. The worst that could happen is they'll merge with another airline and your miles, if you can find seats available to spend them on, will be protected.

Q. I am transferring Holiday Inn points from their Web site (www.priorityclub.com) to any of their affiliated airlines for air miles. What is the best way to find a flight before I do? Transfer the bonus points first; or search the airline's Web site first and find the best available flights, and then transfer my bonus points?

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