Travel Q&A

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Fare Period and Availability

Q. One of your fare listings says "travel valid through May 18" and I tried to book a ticket home over Easter weekend. My itinerary falls within the dates covered in your listing, so why didn't I get that fare?! It was hundreds more!

A. We'd like to take this opportunity to address the difference between the dates of travel period and date availability. Not all dates are going to be available within the dates of travel period, especially on any holidays, peak travel days, or weekends (not to mention any blackout dates that the airline institutes.) We also would like to point out that the airlines will set aside a limited number of tickets at a sale price for each date and some dates will sell out at the lower prices before other dates do. Flexible travel dates will increase your chances of booking a sale fare, as will traveling mid-week as opposed to weekends (although people do book weekend sale fares all the time).

Above image via Shutterstock

Late & Left Behind

Q. After already running late to the airport, I was further held up by a ridiculously long security line. By the time I made it through, my gate was closed and the plane was pulling away. I had to catch a much later flight, and lost a full day of my trip. Isn't there something to be done about these lengthy waits?

A. Aside from applying for TSA PreCheck, there's always just good old-fashioned showing up early. You may try checking the wait times in advance. Also, if flying from an airport you've never used before, leave yourself extra time in case of unexpected obstacles. Getting your boarding pass online or using an automated check-in kiosk will save you time as well. If all else fails, it certainly doesn't hurt to let security know that you're late for your flight. You may be allowed to skip to the front of the line.

The Airlines Gave Away Our Seats

Q. We were scheduled to fly from Chicago to Orlando via Atlanta for my brother-in-law’s wedding. Our flight from Chicago to Atlanta was delayed due to weather so we ended up arriving at the gate for our connecting flight to Orlando (the last flight of the day) with just five minutes to spare, only to learn that Delta had given our seats away to standby passengers. As a result, we couldn’t get to Orlando in time for the wedding, which was scheduled for the following morning. Under what circumstances are airlines allowed to give away your seat to standby passengers? Why do they do this?

A. You really put yourself on the last flight of the day flying through Atlanta? Whenever you’re flying for a “can’t-miss” event (wedding, funeral, cruise departure, important business meeting), it’s a bad idea to take a connecting flight and a worse one to schedule your arrival at the last minute on the last flight of the day. To answer your question, Delta probably gave away your seat because they figured you wouldn’t make the connection and a standby passenger is the proverbial bird in hand. This has happened to me as well, and it’s very annoying, but apparently it works for the airlines’ bottom lines otherwise they wouldn’t keep annoying passengers like this.

People Always Ask...

Q. Can you tell me again the best day/night to look to purchase airfare? Thanks so much! I know I can always rely on Watchdog to help me when it comes to navigating the airlines!

A. We don't really subscribe to the theory that there's a single day or night that you should be looking for airfare. True, a lot of airlines release sale fares on Tuesdays, and other carriers match on Wednesday, BUT a really great fare can come along anytime. We ourselves look seven days/nights a week and have found amazing sales. If there was a regular time when airfare was always at its lowest, we wouldn't have to work so hard 7 days a week and there would be far fewer fare analysts working here at AFWD.

More Trip for Less Money

Q. I have a question about something that I feel is quite dishonest of Delta and any other airlines who may do this same thing. Delta is asking almost $600 for a non-stop flight from Portland, Maine to Atlanta.

But if I book the same flight but going from Portland to Nashville connecting via Atlanta (and just getting out right there), then the flight only costs $276. Why is the non-stop to Atlanta so high for only half of the trip? And what's to stop people from paying less and just not taking the connecting flight to Nashville?

For some reason, this pricing seems really dishonest and even illegal!

A. This is called Hidden City Ticketing, and though it may be annoying to the consumer, it's pretty standard. You're paying for the convenience of a nonstop trip. Connecting fares typically cost less because they are more time consuming for the passenger and less convenient.

Technically, there's nothing to really stop you from booking the connecting fare and using what you need, but there's plenty to dissuade you from doing so. First of all, this would only work one-way. The airline is hip to this scheme and would promptly cancel the return leg of your ticket. And you'd only be able to travel with carry-on baggage, otherwise your luggage would travel all the way through to Nashville.

You'll find more on Hidden City Ticketing here.

Advance Seat Selection: to Buy or Not to Buy?

Q. While booking two different flights on American many weeks in advance, I noticed that when I got to the phase of selecting seats that virtually all seats shown to me were the so-called “preferred” seats.

Is American purposely hiding or holding back normal economy seats in an attempt to force customers to buy higher priced but not necessarily better seats? I don't mind paying for cabin extra, but really, am I being baited and up-sold for a normal seat in row 12?

A. Yes, they are trying to persuade consumers to pay for the extra legroom seats. I advise people to buy the fare without choosing a seat and then recheck frequently, either by phone or online, to see if basic economy seats become available. If none become available, they’ll get one of the extra legroom seats for free or they’ll be assigned a seat in basic economy eventually. As frequent fliers with status get upgraded to extra legroom seats more basic economy seats will open up, usually starting at 72 hours before flight time. Bottom line: as long as you can buy the regular economy airfare you will get a seat, unless you’re bumped from the flight in which case you’ll get cash compensation for denied boarding.

Best Days to Fly, Best 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. One option, if it suits your travel dates, is 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.

Unadvertised Fare Sales

Q. I wanted to book a flight to Amsterdam in March and finally found one, departing from Chicago, costing $419. A spectacular fare!  Then on a whim I searched flights from Madison to Amsterdam and found various options from $370 to just above $400. This was a surprise, as I've never once found a reasonable international fare from Madison.

Some of these fares listed by Priceline jumped when I tried selecting seats. I did finally end up with a ticket on United for $390. These fares have since disappeared and these flights cost now double or even triple that amount.

Is one company starting an unadvertised sale, and then the others are try to match it? And then, after about half a day, all this collapses? Do you have any insight as to how this works? Was it a glitch?

A. These were not mistake fares. These fares were partly due to lower traffic from Europe to the US. Lower fuel prices allow for lower fares. And fuel efficient planes are burning less fuel. This was simply a tit for tat classic fare war fueled in part by lower fuel prices and lagging demand combined with more capacity.

The airlines have dedicated staff checking what other airlines are charging, as well as which routes need more passengers. And not just from the US to wherever but also from wherever to the US; if Europeans aren’t buying, they either lower the price from Europe and back, or to Europe and back.

Often for reasons I don’t understand, it’s cheaper to fly from a secondary airport like Madison. It might be because people don’t like to make connections so connecting flights are sold for less than the more desirable nonstop flights from the larger airport As for the price increasing while you were selecting seats, that sometimes happens when the fare has changed but the booking engine hasn’t caught up yet. Once in a while it’s because there were just a couple of seats available and they sold out between search and booking.

Excess Valuation & Receipts

Q. If you purchase the excess valuation insurance for your trip, do you still have to produce receipts? It seems unreasonable to have to keep receipts for every item that you pack.

A. Most likely you'd be asked to produce receipts and when you check in you'll need to describe the contents of your bag. It's always a good idea to have receipts for things you purchase for insurance purposes in case you need to make a claim with your home or renters insurance, your credit card company, your airline or whatever. For those who don't know what excess valuation is and why you might need it, we'll gladly explain.

Canceled & Stranded

Q. My flight was canceled and I was told that the airline could not get me on another flight to my destination until tomorrow, because all the flights were full. How do I get home?

A. Flights are more full these days due to the capacity cuts over the past few years. It can be a major hassle to rebook a flight after it has been canceled, especially at peak travel times when most flights are at or near full capacity. Acting fast is essential and being proactive to change routing in advance of a major storm can help you get to your destination as planned.

One suggestion is to call the airline while waiting in line at the airport to try and get ahead of the line for rebooking. Also, if you are flying out of a hub or there are flights going out to other destinations from where you are, look into other routings. We have a handy list of links to airlines' route maps here. Sometimes you may be able to piece together an odd routing that the airlines' system won't come up with by simply inputing A to B. Have a look at the departure board at the airport and see what flights are actually leaving and see if you can work out a connection. It may mean an extra stop, but it may get you home the quickest.

Also, look into nearby alternate airports and taking ground transportation. A little creativity during flight cancellations can sometimes help you get you where you want to be sooner.

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