Airfarewatchdog

Travel Q&A

You can submit your own question to us at askgeorge@airfarewatchdog.com. We will try to answer as many as possible.

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When What You See Is Not What You Get

Q. When booking international flights online, I increasingly find that the airline selling the fare isn’t the airline actually flying the route. For example, I’ll search for a flight on Orbitz.com and see that the lowest fare is sold by Lufthansa but the flight is flown by United. Sometimes we don’t even learn this until we get our confirmation, or the flight is sold by Delta but we’ll be flying on Alitalia. How can we avoid this situation and why do airlines do this in the first place?

A. This is called code sharing, and it’s a way for airlines to share capacity, appear to have larger route networks than they actually do, and increase profits. It can be quite annoying if you have a strong preference for one airline over another. Often, when looking online at Orbitz or other fare comparison websites, you’ll see that two different airlines fly the exact same route at the exact same times but at very different prices. That’s your first clue that this is a code share flight. If you’re unsure what you’re buying, it’s best to call the online travel agency in such cases to ask exactly which airline’s “metal” you’ll be flying on.  To its credit, code sharing can often be a way to save significantly if one airline is selling the flight for considerably less than its code share partner.

Above image via Shutterstock

Emotional Support Animals on Flights

Q. I've become quite the flyer this last year. My father passed suddenly in November, leaving Mom in alone in Oregon, while back in California my spouse was just diagnosed with cancer. Thank god for my little doggie! She truly is an emotional rescue for us all... but traveling with her can be a pain. I was going through security recently and noticed the lady in front of me was boarding with her small dog, and it sat on her lap! No kennel, no cargo hold!

Someone suggested that this would be allowed if my doctor is treating me for anxiety, which shouldn't be a problem. In addition to everything mentioned above, my oldest daughter was killed three years ago, so I am probably treatable.

I fly to Los Angeles soon, although my dog is currently on "active duty" with my hubby, I will have to be popping in on mom from time to time and time again, and probably one more time after that!!

I've done a little research and it seems easy to become certified as a service animal. Is it? Any words of wisdom on this?

A. Sad to hear about all your travails. But yes, certified service animals are allowed on planes. I even saw one on a cruise I took on Seabourn Cruise Lines last December. No cages. Here is Southwest Airlines’ language about emotional support animals. Other airlines are similar.

Southwest Airlines welcomes trained assistance animals accompanying a Customer with a disability on all of our flights. Except when too large to be safely accommodated, a trained assistance animal will be transported in the aircraft cabin. In accordance with federal safety regulations, the animal must be positioned so as not to obstruct Customers' expeditious evacuation in the unlikely event of an emergency.

Trained assistance animals will be allowed to travel on flights to/from all domestic and international destinations with the exception of Jamaica. No animals will be allowed to travel to/from Jamaica on Southwest Airlines under any circumstances due to country-specific regulations.

Emotional Support Animals

Animals used for a Customer's emotional support are accepted in the cabin. Emotional support animals will be allowed to travel on flights to/from all domestic and international destinations with the exception of Jamaica. No animals will be allowed to travel to/from Jamaica on Southwest Airlines under any circumstances due to country-specific regulations. In order for a Customer to travel with an emotional support animal, the Customer must provide to a Southwest Airlines Employee current documentation (not more than one year old) on letterhead from a mental health professional or medical doctor who is treating the Customer's mental health-related disability stating:

The Passenger has a mental or emotional disability recognized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders - Fourth Edition (DSM IV)
The Passenger needs the emotional support of psychiatric service animal as an accommodation for air travel and/or for activity at the passenger's destination
The individual providing the assessment is a licensed mental health professional, and the Passenger is under his or her professional care AND
The date and type of mental health professional's or medical doctor's license and the state or other jurisdiction in which it was issued

Assistance and emotional support animals must be trained to behave in a public setting. Customers traveling with an assistance animal or an emotional support animal cannot sit in an emergency exit seat.

Above image via Shutterstock

Club Crashing

Q. I recently had a couple of hours before my flight when I arrived at the airport early, but I desperately wanted to watch a big basketball game that was in progress. So I waited in front of the airline’s airport lounge until I saw a friendly looking guy about to enter and asked if I could be his “guest” for a couple of hours, since members are allowed to bring guests in for free and there are always TV’s in the club rooms. Is there any rule or “law” against gaining entry to an airline lounge using this method? Other than getting kicked out, what’s the risk?

A. I’m pretty sure it’s against the spirit if not the letter of airline rules to invite a guest that you don’t know. United’s Club membership rules state, for example, that you must “accompany” your guests while they visit. And I imagine if an employee saw you lurking outside the club room door they’d get suspicious. You’re not going to get arrested. But your “host” might lose his membership if either of you is caught.

Image via Shutterstock

Best Time for Death Valley

Q. We are planning a trip to Death Valley National Park. When is the optimal time of year to visit and what’s the nearest airport?

A. If you’d like to avoid the extreme heat that this area of the country is famous for, experts (i.e., park rangers I spoke to) suggest visiting between mid October and mid March. You’ll also avoid the rainy season that way, and in mid March you might also be treated to a profusion of wild flowers. Although it’s located in California, I’d suggest flying into Las Vegas for the cheapest airfares. It’s about 130 miles from the park’s entrance.

Death Valley image via Shutterstock

The Truth About Oxygen Masks

Q. Is it true that once oxygen masks drop down, they only provide about 15 minutes of oxygen?

A. It all depends on the altitude the plane is flying at. You’ll use more oxygen at a higher altitude like 40,000 feet vs 30,000. Typically, as soon as the masks come down, the pilot descends to as low an altitude as possible and finds the nearest airport to land.

They never keep at the higher altitude they were flying at. At 12,000 or 15,000 feet you can breath fairly normally— it’s like being at the top of a mountain. So the pilot does a rapid descent to a breathable altitude which should only take 10-20 minutes depending on the altitude they were flying when the depressurization happened. In any case, as they descend the oxygen lasts longer and longer until it’s no longer needed.

Above image via Shutterstock

Onboard Pet Allergies

Q. My sister-in-law has two long-haired cats. She always travels with them, bringing along a friend who can take the second cat. They of course are put under their seats. I am highly allergic to cats, and if I were to be seated near these cats, I would develop serious breathing problems. A long flight could become a devastating health problem. I also wonder about the re-circulated air? What is my recourse?

A. I honestly don't think you'd have a problem asking to switch seats with a passenger who isn't allergic (or maybe one who even loves cats!). You'd just ask the flight attendant to reseat you, or offer to buy the accommodating passenger a cocktail or two. I wouldn't worry too much about re-circulated air, but if you develop a problem you can ask the flight attendants to ask the captain to increase the amount of fresh air into the cabin (the cockpit can adjust the ratio of fresh to re-circulated air, which is any case is filtered).

Cat image via Shutterstock

Seats blocked out online, available by phone?

Q. Do airlines block out a large section of seats to make it appear there are fewer seats remaining? When Alaska Airlines cancelled the final leg of our trip, we reviewed the airline website for flights returning a day before and after our original return date. None of the alternate flights offered adjoining seats. Yet, when we called Alaska, 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. Yes, 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

Travel Insurance Claims

Q. What is the best way to activate the travel insurance I purchased? Due to an unexpected illness, a person in my party cannot take the trip. We are two weeks out from the travel date.

A. First, congratulations for purchasing travel insurance. The most common reason for making claims on such insurance is indeed sudden illness, either experienced by the person buying the insurance or by someone in the traveling party. In order to file a claim, under the fine print of most policies the person who is ill must seek medical attention before the date of travel. You cannot simply tell the insurer that you or your traveling companion is ill and leave it at that. Create a paper trail showing a diagnosis and that medical treatment was sought.

Above image via Shutterstock

ID for Minors Flying Domestic?

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.

Above image via Shutterstock

Allergies vs. Service Animals

Q. I flew recently and there were two "service animal" pets in the cabin and they were not in their cages. I seriously doubt they were service animals. Anyone can now buy a service animal "vest" online, and in fact I have a friend who has done this (actually, an ex-friend) even though she has no "disability" other than being a nervious wreck who should probably just take Xanax instead. I am severely allergic to pet dander and had a horrible asthma attack. Delta tried to buy me off with a form letter and a $50 credit. What are my rights?

A. Unfortunately, there's no federal or other certification process to prove that people have disabilities that would prevent people from scamming the service animal policies of the airlines (or indeed, of any common carrier--the same thing applies to trains, subways, and buses). And yes, people do scam the system. You basically have no rights at all, other than to ask the airline to put you on a pet-free flight, but that's often unworkable or inconvenient. You should certainly ask the airline to note in your record that you're allergic to pet dander and hope that they will alert you to any pets that have been confirmed on your flight.

Above image via Shutterstock

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