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Preserving Miles

Q. I have 30,000 frequent flyer miles with United that will expire in November. In order not to lose these miles do I just have to book a flight before the expiration date?  If I'm unable to plan a trip what would be the best alternative way to use these miles?

A. There's an easy way to preserve your hard-earned frequent flyer miles, without having to book a trip. All it takes is a little shopping. You'll find many companies that are affiliated with the airlines' online shopping programs. No need to buy anything expensive. Even a piddly little three-ring binder from, or a single song from iTunes or a pair of jeans from, and your miles are active for another year to 18 months. Easy! Check out our handy article on preserving miles with online shopping.

Above image via Shutterstock

Domestic Travel with Minors

Q. What kind of ID is required at airports for young children ages 6 and 9? I understand they need a passport for international trips, but what about IDs for domestic flights?

A. Children and minors under the age of 18 are not required to show ID for domestic travel.

Once they hit late adolescence, it's probably a good idea to bring along something, be it a birth certificate, state-issued learner's permit, or even a passport, in the event they should be grilled by a TSA agent or airline employee, but if they are under 18, no ID is required.

If your children are traveling as unaccompanied minors, the airline will require a photo ID from the adults dropping them off and picking them up.

The airline may also require proof of age for children traveling as lap children or, in some cases, a doctor's letter for newborns.

Cancellations Just Because

Q. I booked a cruise for four, scheduled to leave in August. Now one of us cannot make the trip. I did buy trip insurance, but I was told that since this isn't due to medical reasons, a refund isn't an option. Can they do that?

A. Possibly. Travel insurance policies differ greatly in their terms of what is and isn't covered. So it all depends on the specific type of policy you purchased and its terms of coverage. Some protect you against trip cancellation/interruption due to illness, and some even allow a refund should you find you suddenly get called into work. We always recommend reading through your travel insurance policy before purchasing, so you can make an informed decision about exactly what it is you're buying.

Changes to Cabin Class

Q. I recently booked a first class flight from Norfolk to San Diego on Delta using only SkyMiles. The flight Norfolk to Atlanta was first class but when boarding for the next leg in ATL, I was told that I had been reassigned to an economy seat. I checked before leaving home and the entire flight had been confirmed by Delta. Is this legal?

A. When it comes to airline travel, all is fair in seat assignments. Flights, seats, and schedules are not guaranteed. All you can do is request a refund (or partial refund) of the SkyMiles you used to "buy" the seat. Actually, Delta should have automatically refunded the miles or a portion of them without being asked.

Cheapest Days to Fly vs. Cheapest Days to Buy

Q. What day of the week and days during a month would be the least expensive to fly within United States. Is there any way to get last minute cheap fares without having to sleep at an airport or fly stand by?

A. Tuesday and Wednesday are generally the cheapest days to fly, but not necessarily the cheapest days to buy (amazing unadvertised sales can pop up at any minute of the week, which is why I advise consumers to sign up for airfare alerts). There’s no such thing as cheap stand-by airfares any longer. The best way to get last minute deals is to use the “name your own price” bidding for travel feature on or to take advantage of the airlines’ last-minute weekend specials, which have no advance purchase requirement but require that you leave on the coming Saturday and return on the following Monday or Tuesday.

Chip & PIN vs. the Swipe

Q. I'm planning for an upcoming trip to Europe. I was hoping to use my ATM card to get money while there, but I've heard from friends that places in Europe are switching over to "another system" and that it will be more expensive for me to change money. Doesn't sound as simple as I remember it being. What do you know about this?

A. I think what you are referring to is the chip and PIN card system commonly used in European bank cards. It's true that US banks have been dragging their feet when it comes to chip and PIN technology, but don't worry. You'll still be able to use your bank card for cash withdrawals at ATMs as well as most debit purchases at hotels, restaurants, and tourist hot spots. Most places in large cities will be familiar with swiping a US card and give you little to no hassle, but it wouldn't hurt to pop by a local ATM for pocket cash should you stray to less traveled areas. You should also check with both your bank and credit card company to see what EMV/chip and PIN options they currently offer. 

Planning a scenic rail trip around the U.K.

Q. This isn’t an “air” question unless you include the fact that we’ll be flying to London, but I hope you can help. We’d like to take several of the more famous U.K. “branch line” trains when we visit London the end of August. We’ve checked out websites but we’re still confused, so maybe you can map it out for us. We want to take the Settle to Carlisle train, the Glasgow to Maillaig run, the Inverness to Kyle line, and we want to get to Scotland on the Caledonian Sleeper overnight express, returning to London at the end of the trip. In what order should we organize this trip so that we get all the trains most efficiently?

A. I’ve actually done some of these trains and they are indeed spectacular. Start by taking the Caledonian Sleeper from London Euston Station to Inverness (a recent offer online for a couple occupying a double berth was priced at 38 pounds). From Inverness take the train to the Kyle of Lochalsh. From there, take a ferry to Skye, just because it’s so pretty and the heather will be in bloom. Overnight. From Skye, take a bus or ferry to Mallaig for the famous Highland Line via Ft. William and onward to Glasgow. Overnight. Then onto the Glasgow to Carlisle train (about an hour and 20 minutes on a fast service) and then hop on the scenic Carlisle to Settle train, and onward back to London from there.

You'll find more on U.K. rail trips here.

Late Connection, Seats Given Away

Q. I recently read that if a passenger on Southwest has a nonrefundable ticket, and a portion of the flight is not used and not canceled or changed by the passenger prior to schedule departure, unused funds will be lost and the remaining reservation will be canceled. Would that apply to passengers who are on a late arriving flight and miss their connection, having had no opportunity to contact the airline to let them know that they can't use a portion of the ticket because the plane did not arrive in time?

The reason I ask is because my husband and I recently had a flight on Southwest from Charlotte, NC to Oakland, CA, with a plane change in Chicago and stop over in Las Vegas. The plane left Charlotte two hours late due to weather. We arrived in Chicago, found out the gate number for our flight which was in a different terminal and ran like the dickens as the plane was scheduled for departure in minutes. We had our boarding passes in hand but when we arrived at the gate our seats had been given to two standby passengers. Luckily, Southwest honored our boarding passes and made the two standby passengers deplane.

A. First of all, most airlines would not do this. They'd let the standby passengers stay in their seats, unless those passengers were on a "buddy pass," airline employees who didn't have an urgent need to travel, or other passengers traveling on non-essential airline business. So kudos to Southwest! Anyhoo, the answer to your question is no, you would not be penalized in this scenario. You're not at fault for the flight running behind schedule, and even if you didn't make the connection, Southwest would put you on their next available flight.

Online Seat Availability

Q. Do airlines block out a large section of seats to make it appear there are fewer seats remaining? When our airline cancelled the final leg of our trip, we reviewed the airline website for flights returning a day before as well as after our original return date. None of the alternate flights offered adjoining seats. Yet, when we called the airline, they immediately assigned us two seats together in a section that appeared to be completely filled on their website. How likely is it that we will be reassigned seats?

A. Yep, some airlines do block out seats, even if the plane is half-empty, and sometimes a call to the airline will sort things out. They do this in part to accommodate last minute business customers who are flying on higher-priced “walk up” fares, to cater to their preferred frequent travelers, and also, in some instances, to entice consumers to purchase “premium” seat assignments for a fee. Even if you end up not sitting together, it’s always possible to ask fellow passengers to trade seats. A good strategy is to offer to buy the accommodating passenger a couple of cocktails on board, or bring along some Starbucks gift cards ($10 should do the trick) as a thank-you.

Above image via Shutterstock

Differences in Flight Results

Q. On a recent Friday afternoon, my friend and I booked our trips together using the same computer. She was going round-trip, I was going one-way, joining her on the return leg.

She booked her ticket through the US Airways site. Minutes later, I tried booking my one-way ticket on her return flight...BUT the flight was no longer available. I was finally able to find the exact US Airways flight still available on Orbitz and booked through them instead.

I also called up US Airways and was told that they update their system on Friday and although they try to do it in the middle of the night, sometimes it doesn’t work out. My question is:  Do you know what day of the week the major airlines update their information? In searching for the right time and price for this trip, we found that a lot of times the airline sites did not list flights that were available on other sites.  

A. There could be two things happening here. One, it’s possible that there was just a single seat available at the lowest fare on that flight, and your friend grabbed it.

The other possibility is that a lower fare lingered on Orbitz because of different updating schedules. New fares can be entered into computer systems at any time. It used to be that fares were updated for domestic flights three times a day during the week and once a day on weekends, but that’s no longer the case. Airlines can now push through airfare updates dynamically if they need to (for example, if there’s a fare error, they can correct it more quickly than 7 or 10 years ago).

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