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Entries by George Hobica

Cheapest Way to Fly to Europe?

Q. What is the least expensive way to get to continental Europe? Which airport is the least expensive to fly into?
A. One thing we've noticed is that it is often much cheaper ($500 less to cite a recent example) to fly into, say, Berlin on a given day than to, say, Frankfurt. So rather than having your heart set on arriving at a specific European airport, it’s wiser to look at every possible European destination from your home airport or nearby airports and fly there, and then take a bus, train, or discount European airline to your desired destination. Similarly, a fare from, say, Dallas to a given European city might be several hundred dollars more than from, say, Houston. So you could hop on a cheap Southwest flight between Dallas and Houston and save money. In general, partly due to lower airport fees and government taxes, Spanish airports such as Madrid are cheaper than London or Paris. Dublin and Shannon are also cheaper, although they don’t qualify as “continental” Europe. Istanbul and some Swiss cities have also been relatively cheaper lately.

Booking for baby with miles

Q. Is there a charge for infants (under 2 years of age) to fly with me if I book a ticket using my miles?  I have United MileagePlus points, and I cannot find the answer anywhere.  Even the airline’s customer service representatives will not give me a straight answer.

A. Not for a domestic ticket as long as the child sits in your lap. However on international flights, airlines typically charge 10% of the "applicable adult fare" and sometimes add fuel surcharges, so it can be quite costly.

Listen or break the law?

Q. Every time I fly, I'm reminded that it's a violation of Federal law to disobey "crew member instructions." One of these instructions, often from the captain herself (or himself) is to listen carefully to the pre-flight safety demo. Yet, every time I fly, the vast majority of passengers are reading a newspaper or yakking away with fellow passengers, completely oblivious to the flight attendants standing right in front of them trying to refresh their memories of what do to in an emergency. Why is this particular "instruction" legally allowed to be ignored?

A. I agree that it's not only dangerous, but actually rude and disrespectful when passengers don't pay attention to the safety demo. It might help if airlines use humor to grab passengers' attention, as happens often on Southwest Airlines' flights. It's amazing how many people really don't know how to act when there's an emergency. One flight attendant told me that during an emergency decompression situation she had to instruct passengers individually that they needed to pull the mask towards them to start the flow of oxygen, something they would have known had they listened to the pre-flight announcement. It wouldn't bother me one bit if the government required people to put down their newspapers and magazines during the safety demo.

Trip Insurance from a Tour Operator?

Q. My daughter is going on a school trip to Europe. The tour organizer has requested $147.00 for insurance, but we can opt out if we wish. Do you think this is necessary?

A. It's hard for me to say if the insurance is a wise choice without looking at the policy, since there are often some glaring loopholes. In general, it's never a good idea to buy trip insurance directly from a tour operator. If that outfit goes out of business, you won't get your money back. Far better to use a third party insurer such as Access America or TravelGuard. And it really depends on the cost of the tour. If it's several thousand dollars and you can't afford to lose that kind of money in the event your daughter becomes ill before traveling or has to cancel for some other reason, then I'd buy the insurance. Also, what if your daughter becomes injured while abroad and needs hospitalization? Does your health insurance policy cover foreign hospitals? And what if she needs to be medically evacuated back to the U.S.? That could cost up to $100,000 in some cases, so make sure that any insurance policy you buy covers medical transportation. Not trying to scare you, but these are things to consider.

Honoring Fat Finger Fares

Q. I love Airfarewatchdog and have booked several great deals in the past year thanks to your tweets. I've even saved several of my friends lots of money by sharing your site with them. Thanks to a recent tweet, I purchased a Boston to San Diego ticket on Continental that was going for $61.30 total round trip. I'm about to depart on this trip and just called the airline to ask about their standby policies. I called Continental and asked if I could take an earlier flight the same day, but learned it will cost almost as much to change ($50). When I talked to the ticket agent, she was blown away by the price I paid for my ticket, and asked how I found it. She hadn't heard of before and said she would have to tell her coworkers about it. This ticket agent was sure it was a mistake but didn't know a mistake could be this low. The breakdown of the fare shows that the airfare portion of the round trip ticket cost just over $18, and the rest of the cost was in fees and taxes. I was worried for a moment that they weren't going to honor my ticket because it was a mistake, but she assured me that they would have to honor it as I bought it directly from the Continental website. If the ticket agents weren't aware that tickets could be sold for this low, how then do these prices slip by? I feel like I alerted the airline to the airfarewatchdog secret, but I know they have enough people watching every fare that they should know when tickets are sold for incredible deals, right? 

My conversation with the ticket agent took a humorous turn when I told her that I traveled to Europe in February for $150 round trip on Delta. I could almost hear her yell over her cubical wall to the ticket agent next to her about this website they had to check out.

A. Yes indeed, we remember those airfare bargains well. Were they “fat finger fares” (i.e., mistakes that some poor airline employee made when programming the computers) or were they intentional? Airlines will never answer that question (we've asked). We think those $150 tax-included fares to Europe on Delta were a mistake (the airline forgot to include the fuel surcharge perhaps), because they didn’t last very long (just a few hours), although they were valid for travel dates through the spring, but Delta honored them. Recently, Spanair and USAir had a joint fare to Spain for summer travel for under $400 round-trip from New Orleans and slightly higher from other cities. Unfortunately, the online travel agencies that sold these fares (Expedia, Orbitz, Priceline, Travelocity, etc.) decided not to honor some of these fares, blaming Spanair and US Airways for the "bait and switch," after they were bought by some consumers. Other purchasers tell us that their flights have been confirmed after buying the very same fares, however. It makes no sense to us. Sometimes airlines and travel agencies honor “mistake” fares, sometimes they don’t, and in this instance it looks like they honored some purchases but not others (some airlines have language in their contracts of carriage that they reserve the right not to honor mistakes). As for your new friend at Continental reservations, although most airline employees fly for free or almost free, many of them follow airfarewatchdog’s free email alerts and twitter feeds, because the tickets they fly on are usually standby and they’d rather pay for a confirmed seat than an "iffy" free one.

When Does it Make Sense To Buy Frequent Flyer Miles?

Q: Is it ever worthwhile to buy frequent flyer miles directly from the airlines?

A: It really depends on what you’ll "spend" the miles on and whether the airline is offering a bonus mileage deal when you buy the miles. From time to time, airlines will offer to give you an extra mile or half a mile for each mile you buy. Recently, US Airways, which normally sells a mile for $0.0275 cents in its Dividend Miles frequent flyer program, had a double mile bonus offer, and Delta was offering a 50 percent bonus in conjunction with American Express. If you spend these bonus miles for an expensive international fare or a business class or first class fare, then buying miles might actually be a bargain. For example, if you can fly to  But if there is no bonus offer, and you’re planning to spend the miles on a relatively inexpensive economy class fare (such as a $200 fare), then it’s not worth buying miles. So watch your frequent flyer program’s web site for a bonus deal and buy the miles when you’re planning to spend them on a high-value fare.  

Why is My Infant's Ticket So Expensive?

Q: I recently purchased tickets for travel to San Jose, Costa Rica, from San Francisco. Our daughter is just 8 weeks old and will be flying in her mothers’ lap, not in a seat. How is it that her ticket was almost $500? I asked the lady at the counter if she made a mistake, she said she has no control over fares posted on her computer. She said normally the airfare for a lap child is approximately 10 percent of the applicable adult fare. How did it get to be almost $500?

A: It depends somewhat on when you bought the fare for your lap child. If you show up at the airport last minute without notifying the airline that you have a lap child, they might be charging 10 percent of a very expensive last minute "walk up" fare rather than the cheaper fare you might have bought far in advance. Also, some airlines add the fuel surcharge and taxes onto any lap child fare. The general rule is that airlines charge this 10 percent lap child fare only on international flights. Even if you’re traveling on a frequent flyer ticket, the airline will charge you 10 percent of what the adult ticket would have cost had you paid for it. Currently, no U.S.-based airline charges for lap children on domestic flights.

United Offered Me an Upgrade, But I Don't Know Why!

Q: I have flown United a lot and have never been offered a last-minute upgrade opportunity at check in to first class while vacationing.  However, when my company sent me to Vancouver for a business trip, I got asked at every leg of the flight upon check-in.  I happily forked over the $70 to enjoy the privileges, at least on one leg of my journey (and it worth was worth every penny, I might add).  The Maple Leaf Lounges in Canada have self serve beer on tap (Molson-how very Canadian)!

My question: did United somehow know I was on business?  Are they trying to woo me and turn me into a loyal United flyer?  I personally didn’t buy the ticket, rather it was my company’s travel vendor (Carlson-Wagonlit).  Did they happen to buy an upgradeable fare code?  Maybe it’s a fare that only travel agents can buy?  If so, how do I buy the right fare code? Y, B, M, E, U, H Q? It’s all gibberish to me.

A: Airlines are increasingly offering last minute airport upgrades to first class, often for very little money. As long as there are first class seats going begging a few minutes before flight time, why not fill them for whatever the market will bear? It’s possible that the fare your company paid for your business trip was in a higher fare class (such as Y, B, or M which business travelers typically use) and was therefore more eligible for upgrade than fares you paid for your leisure trips. In fact, the more you fly United, the more often you’ll be upgraded to first class automatically, often for free, as long as there are empty seats. Whenever I am offered a cheap upgrade at check in, I jump for it. As you noted, it’s well worth it.

Southwest, You Either Have Open Seating or You Don't!

Q: On a recent Southwest Airlines flight, a flight attendant told we passengers that if enough of us did not agree to move (which meant taking a middle seat in this full-to-capacity flight) so that a family with three kids could sit together, "we are not going anywhere. We will push back only when enough people switch with them, and if we have to we'll just sit here and wait for as long as it takes." As you know, Southwest has open seating, and there are three things you can do to ensure you have a decent place in the line. You can pay 10 dollars a seat extra for Early Bird Check-in, which guarantees you an “A” boarding pass, or you can sit at your computer exactly 24 hours before your departure time and check in. You can also purchase a Business Select fare, which is more money, but boards before everyone else. So, to threaten a plane full of passengers with delaying the flight's departure because this family did none of those things--well, you can imagine how that went over. They finally did get enough people to switch, but that's beside the point. We left the gate late. Southwest, you either have open seating or you don't! I have never seen either of these things happen on a Southwest flight before, and I fly quite a lot. My question: were we required by law to follow the flight attendant’s command, and what would have happened if no one changed seats?

A: Never if my 20 plus years of following the airline industry have I heard of such a thing. Shame on this flight attendant, however well intentioned she or he was. Technically, you are required to follow crew member instructions, but if a flight attendant told you to stand on your head, would you? This flight attendant should be written up for bullying passengers and causing a late departure, and he or she most likely would have been had no one changed seats, causing a severe delay. I suggest that you write to Southwest and complain. I understand that you are a fan of the airline, and there are many reasons for being one, however many travelers refuse to fly Southwest precisely because of its open seating policy, which is designed to keep fares low but which many deride as a “cattle car” approach to customer service.

What to expect from the Continental/United merger?

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, 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.

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