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Entries during 2010-09
Q: Couldn't help but notice that by purchasing AirTran, Southwest now owns an airline that charges bag fees, something Southwest has refused to do. Does this mean Southwest will be changing its policy?
A: In a word, no. Sure, it was strange to see Southwest, which loves to boast "Bags Fly Free," acquire an airline that charges for the privilege. But Southwest execs made it clear right off the bat that most of its policies, including those two free checked bags, will remain. The airline has no plans to adopt AirTran's business-class seating or assigned seat assignments, choosing instead to stick with its' tried-and-true single-class, cattle call approach.
Q. I have 3 children ages 8, 9, and 10 who need to get to Chicago from Las Vegas, traveling alone. They are going to see their grandfather for possibly the last time. I have contacted several agencies and they say they don't handle this type of reservation. I have contacted the airlines directly and found out there is a $99 dollar "escort fee" each way. My problem is that I can't get a decent lower fee on another airline. Can you possibly help me with that?
A. From the looks of things, you contacted United Airlines, which does indeed charge $99 each way (recently reduced from $150!; American, Continental, Delta, and US Air charge $100 each way). If you were only sending one child, you'd be much better off sending him or her from Chicago Midway on Southwest, which only charges $25 per child each way. However, United's $99 fee (each way) covers two or more children traveling on the same flight. You'll still save money paying $75 ($25 times three) each way on Southwest, but only if Southwest's fare is lower than United's. Airfarewatchdog wonders if it really costs United and other airlines with high unaccompanied minor fees $200 round-trip, in actual expenses, to provide this service; or is this just yet another profit center for the airlines?
Q. Now that the Continental/United Airlines merger has been approved, what can I expect as a consumer? What will happen to my frequent flyer miles (Continental’s miles don’t expire in inactive accounts, but United’s do)? If I have membership in Continental’s Presidents Club will I automatically get membership in United’s Red Carpet Club? Will fares go up? How about fees? Am I right in assuming that mergers aren’t good news for us consumers?
A: Let’s start with airfares. There have been dozens of mergers and failures in the airline industry over the last few decades, and yet airfares have actually gone down when adjusted for inflation. So on average, if fares go up as a result of this latest merger, then they won’t go up much. It’s a fact that when fares go up too much, passengers stay home or seek other means of transport, so the airlines will be careful.
What we will see, however, are fewer unadvertised hit-and-run airfare reductions between the airlines’ hubs. We’ve been tracking these price wars for years at Airfarewatchdog.com, and some of them were pretty amazing, such as the time a few years ago when Delta reduced every single domestic fare from Continental’s hubs to $88 roundtrip, and Continental retaliated soon after with $128 roundtrip fares systemwide. That sort of thing won’t happen anymore. Now that Delta has merged with Northwest, those two airlines won't be battling each other; nor with US Air, with America West, nor Continental with United, nor Midwest with Frontier. And should US Air combline with, say, American, or American with AirTran (we're purely speculating here), then competition will be further reduced.
And as more airlines merge, the news isn’t so good concerning fees. When there are many airlines to choose from, they tend to compete somewhat by offering different fee structures. With fewer airlines, there are fewer places to take your business if you’re trying to avoid fees.
But don’t worry about your frequent flyer miles. In fact, the merger may be a plus in that regard, since if you have only 10,000 miles on United and 15,000 on Continental (neither amount worth a free ticket) now you’ll have a combined 25,000 miles, which will get you a free ride. However, usually in mergers, the more restrictive airlines’ policies apply, so we suspect that those miles will continue to expire, per United’s policy. And yes, you’ll now have access to both airlines’ airport clubs.
One positive development might be that if your flight is cancelled or delayed, now you’ll have a much larger route network to reschedule on. Pre-merger, if your flight from New York to Los Angeles, connecting in United’s Chicago, hub was delayed or cancelled, then United wouldn’t have tried getting you there via Continental’s Cleveland hub. But now that the two airlines are one, very big and (hopefully) happy family, you’ll have many more connection and rerouting possibilites through the combined airlines’ expanded hub network.
Q. Your fares are so fantastic and I use them to visit my boyfriend all the time, but what if he wanted to come and visit me? Can we get the same low price for a roundtrip ticket coming from the other direction?
A. Almost all the domestic sale fares that we list are good for travel starting in either city listed. Here's the quickest and easiest way to check: if you see a fare on your city's farepage or in your newsletter alert (such as a fare to JFK listed on the LAX page), then go to the other city's farepage on our website to check if the opposite is true as well (if you see a fare to LAX listed on the JFK page, you're golden!).
Q. Do you think it is advisable to use all your Continental OnePass miles before the end of the year merger with United? I can't imagine them allowing you to keep and combine all your miles from both programs. The question is addressed in a Q&A on United's website, but the answer is evasive and only states that they will combine the best aspects of both programs. It also says that you can continue to use miles from both sources. It is worded in the present tense, and does not actually state that you WILL be able to continue to use the miles from both programs after the merger. Am I being paranoid or are they being deliberately unclear.
A. United will most certainly combine the miles you have in OnePass into your United MileagePlus account. In fact, if history is any indication, they may even provide an incentive, such as 500 miles, for you to help them by merging the two accounts yourself online. No worries! I also believe that if you have elite status in OnePass, that will carry over into the United program as well.
Q. I wanted to make consumers aware that United's Low Fare Guarantee (LFG) is primarily a marketing ploy and not much of a guarantee. I was purchasing a ticket from Washington to Bangkok. The top result on Bing's travel search engine was from airfare.com. It was $100 cheaper per person than United's fares. However, I made the terrible decision to trust United's Low Fare Guarantee. I went through the trouble of taking screenshots, submitting a form, and reading the fine print that requires me to send a follow-up email in addition to the form submission.
The end result was that my claim was denied and I was out $200 on two fares. Worse, I did not heed the advice of my wife (who wanted to buy the cheaper ticket on airfare.com) and now I must endure her ridicule and teasing (which I expect to last for years). As it turns out, United's fine print excludes "consolidators" and "travel agencies". As far as I can tell, that excludes pretty much all online competition. Isn't every online travel site a consolidator? United's response implied that I should contact any website with a lower fare, call them, find a person to confirm their status as a travel agent and their ticket terms, and then submit my claim.
In short, buy the cheapest ticket you can find and don't expect United to price match. Their guarantee is nothing more than a ruse to discourage comparison shopping. My question: Any thoughts on how get my wife to stop teasing me for being gullible enough to trust United? Alternatively, any thoughts on how to get my money back?
A. As you discovered, lowest price guarantees come with a lot of fine print. And you’re right that by excluding travel agencies and consolidators, the United’s guarantee isn’t worth much. The only good news is that consolidator fares often come with fine print of their own, and airfare.com was probably selling you a consolidator fare. The restrictions on some consolidator fares include but are not limited to using the ticket only on the exact flight that you reserved, absolutely no reuse or refund under any circumstances, and no validity on another airline should your original flight be canceled or delayed. So, for example, should you miss your flight due to a traffic accident your ticket might be completely worthless, whereas a fare bought from United might be changeable for a fee or they would probably put you on their next flight out or on a partner airline. So tell your wife that. For $100 in savings, consolidator fares might not be worth the possible aggravation.
Q. On a recent rainy day I was searching for flights to Christchurch, New Zealand. When I checked roundtrips departing from O'Hare, the cheapest fares ranged from $1689 to over $2300. When I searched roundtrips from Los Angeles to Christchurch, I got prices from the mid $900s to $1042. The difference in departing from O'Hare versus from LAX ranged from a minimum of over $700 with Travelocity to almost $1300 with Orbitz. I could fly from O'Hare to LAX and from LAX to Christchurch for far less than flying all the way on one ticket from O'Hare. This strikes me as odd. Could you explain?
Q. I was bumped from my flight last week, which caused me to arrive at my destination two days later and $500 lighter (meals and hotel), and all I was given was a measly $400 voucher. This can't be normal, can it?
A. Normal, yes. Acceptable, no. Airlines sometimes bump passengers who booked a lower discounted fare to accommodate walk-ups who willingly pay the big bucks for those last-minute fares. Also, you were entitled to cash, not a voucher good for future travel. Anyone who is bumped should insist on cash; needless to say, the airlines prefer handing out vouchers since it impacts their bottom line less.