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Layover Sightseeing

Q. I have the possibility of arranging my trip so that there is an 8 hour layover in Amsterdam. I figure this is an opportunity to see the city. But is this worth it, considering all the problems with transportation, customs, and needing to be back for check in two hours early?

If the layover works, would this be a good idea to check my carry-on as baggage at the origin, so I don't have to lug it around Amsterdam?

A. There's probably just enough time to at least set foot in the city center. There's a high speed train that takes just 15 minutes each way to/from the airport. However, Schiphol is a massive airport and the lines can really slow you down, so plan to be back at the airport 3 hours ahead of flight time just in case. You never know what might happen.

You can leave your luggage in a locker at the airport for a fee, so no need to lug it.

Above image via Shutterstock

Seats Available by Phone, Not Online

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).

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.

Seat Saving No-No

Q. My husband, son, daughter-in-law and I recently flew from Milwaukee to Ft. Lauderdale on Southwest. We paid the extra fee on each of our tickets to board early. We checked in exactly 24 hours in advance and received a boarding number of 32 & 33, our son and his wife got numbers 30 & 31. When we boarded, there was ONE woman in the middle of three seats with the row in front of her empty. When we tried to sit in the row, she said no, she was saving those seats – and put a small carry on suitcase in the middle seat in front of her so no one sat there. When general boarding started, some of the last people on the plane were her travel companions – they strolled in and got seats all together and didn’t have to pay a cent for it. We got seats together a few rows behind this person, so it wasn’t a big deal at the time. But the more I think about it the madder I get.  Is this a way to get around those fees? Should I have told a flight attendant?

A. This is not at all allowed. Yes, you should have contacted a flight attendant immediately. Or politely returned that small suitcase to her and sat down with your family. I’ve heard of this thing happening on cruise lines (people saving deck shares) and around resort pools, but never on a plane. Carnival Cruise Lines has begun cracking down on this practice, by placing stickers with the current time on chairs that been “claimed” by passengers with books, towels, etc. After 40 minutes, if the chaise is unoccupied, staff remove the items and leave a note where to claim them.

Weather Woes

Q. My flight from Chicago to Ft Lauderdale was cancelled by United for what they said was "weather."  It was cancelled 12-hours ahead of the flight. A thunderstorm was expected in Florida but did not actually happen until later in the day. Meanwhile, both Delta and United both operated flights out of Ft Lauderdale in the morning, so obviously weather was not a problem. Now I'll be sitting at O'Hare for the next 12 hours waiting for our new flights to take off later this evening. Clearly the flight was canceled for issues other than weather, right? Do i have any recourse on recouping expenses for the day, and possibly night, should they decide to cancel my flight again due to weather?

A. Even though weather didn’t affect the other airlines, it might have affected your airline’s flight because the aircraft was coming from somewhere that experienced bad weather. It’s not just the weather where you are that causes problems; it could be weather anywhere in the country depending on the original location of your aircraft. Your only recourse is to ask for a full refund of your fare, or you should ask your airline to put you on another airline whose flights are operating (at the same fare you originally paid) if there are seats available. Unfortunately, airlines are not legally required to reimburse you for expenses, although some will do this voluntarily.

Above image via Shutterstock

Booking in Biz Class

Q. I recently read that upgrading an economy ticket to business class is becoming increasingly difficult, and that it is actually easier to use miles to get a "free" award ticket – if you have enough miles. This indeed has been my own  experience for the past four or five years.

In a similar vein, if you want to use the miles you have with a U.S. carrier (Delta, American, United) to travel on one of their foreign partner airlines, it seems easier to spend the miles for a free ticket than an upgrade. In many situations, you are not even eligible for an upgrade for a flight on which you could get the complete “free” award ticket –if you have the required miles.

Both of these situations puzzle me. My sense of logic suggests that either the U.S. airline or the foreign partner would prefer getting some money- i.e., the price of an economy  ticket,  rather than just a bunch of miles for an award ticket. What’s wrong with my sense of logic? Is there something about the economics of the airline industry that they would rather that we spend down our mileage balances than give them a bit more of our money? Or, is there some other explanation for these policies that escapes me?

A. I’m finding that it’s just getting harder to find biz/first award travel in general, unless you book very close to departure, when the airlines seem to open up premium cabin seats that they weren’t able to sell. Airlines have reduced the cost of business/first (both retail and corporate negotiated rates) rather than give them away. Some even allow bidding for these seats, and offer last minute paid upgrades at check in or a few days before. And with these new fully lie flat seats, which take up more room per passenger, there are simply fewer of these seats to go around, whether paid or free.

Sudden Changes to Flight Schedules

Q. Are airlines able to change your flight without your permission? I purchased a ticket to fly out at 6 a.m. and the airline changed it to 4 p.m. If I had wanted to leave at 4 p.m., then I would have bought my ticket for that time.

A. Airlines state in their contracts of carriage that schedules are not guaranteed, but you can ask to cancel your booking and get a refund without penalty, even on a non-refundable fare, if they won't reseat you on the original flight you booked. That's also in their contracts of carriage.

Above image via Shutterstock

Seat Selection: Only Premium Economy Seats Left

Q. I recently checked on the USAir site for a flight I'm scheduled to take next month to Boston. There was a notice that my flights had been changed, and I needed to contact the airline. This was the only notification I received. My flight from Wilmington wouldn't land in Charlotte until after my connection to Boston had departed. I dealt with the rudest USAir rep. Long story short, she rebooked me, but wanted to charge me for a premium economy seat, because they were the only seats left. I argued that since they were the ones changing my flights I shouldn't have to pay. We left it that I would have to wait til I got to the airport for my seat assignment. Who is right here? Will I have to pay?

A. This seems to happen more and more, but there is no need to be coerced into buying a seat in premium economy. You've purchased a ticket and they'll have to give you a seat, be it a premium economy seat for free or, what is likely to happen, a seat in regular economy. Sure, you may end up in a middle seat at the back of the plane, but you'll still make it to your destination.

Boarding Procedures

Q. How are the boarding zones determined? I always seem to end in the very last zone to board.

A. Procedures will vary slightly by airline, but generally, the airlines board passengers who need help and families with young children earlier. First and Business Class next.  After that, frequent flyers with elite status and those who've paid extra for early boarding and premium economy seats. Passengers who are holders of the airline's issued credit cards are also often given earlier boarding privileges. After that, depending on the aircraft and the airline's policy they will board back to front, but this can also vary.

Above image via Shutterstock

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