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Entries during 2011-01

Exchanging Miles: Is it worth it?

Q. I just got an e-mail alert from Virgin informing me that I can exchange miles from other airlines' programs for more "Elevate points."  This would be great if it were for United since my primary mileage program is with Mileage Plus.  I do take about a dozen non-Star Alliance trips a year and rack up a handful of points on random airline programs that never amount to anything before they expire.  Do you know if Mileage Plus supports some sort of mileage exchange program as well?  What about with other Star Alliance partner airlines?  For instance I have about 12,000 miles on US Airways and I know they are also Star Alliance.  Could I shift those over to my Mileage Plus account?

A. We put this one to our friend and miles expert, Tim Winship, publisher of FrequentFlier.com. Here's what he had to say on the matter:

Through Points.com, you can now exchange points from other participating programs for points in Virgin American's Elevate program. There's no fee for the exchanges, but you'll end up with far fewer miles after the conversion.
 
You can also trade miles and points through Points.com. The exchange rate is market-based, whatever the parties agree to.  But there is a trading fee.
 
With very few exceptions, exchanging miles among programs is either unduly expensive or results in a wildly unfavorable exchange ratio. It generally makes sense in two situations:

1. Converting just a few thousand miles, to bring your account balance up to an award threshold.
2. Converting "orphan miles" from a program you don't actively participate in into miles in an active program.

Exchanging miles among airlines that partner in alliances (i.e., United and US Airways, which co-participate in the Star Alliance) is no different than exchanging among unrelated airlines.

Stranded by Low Cost Carriers

Q. My family and I recently from Aruba to Pittsburgh via New York on Jet Blue.  When we arrived at JFK, we learned that our flight to Pittsburgh had been cancelled, presumably due to weather conditions earlier in the day.
 
After waiting in line for 2 1/2 hours to speak to a customer service representative, we were told that there were no more flights leaving for Pittsburgh that evening and the first flight upon which we could get confirmed seats would be on Friday.  Also, since JetBlue does not have arrangements in place with other carriers, they would not be able to get us seats on another airline.  Furthermore, since the cancellation was a result of an "act of god", Jet Blue would not put us up in a hotel for the night.
 
As a result, we slept (or at least tried to sleep) at the airport Monday night and waited at the gate as "stand-bys" for the Tuesday morning flight to Pittsburgh.  Since the airport was still a mess Tuesday morning, we got lucky and were able to get on the 8:00AM flight.
 
Given the status of the airline industry, I will not be surprised if we experience future cancellations.  Is there anything that we should/could have done differently? And why doesn't Jet Blue doesn't have "arrangements" with other airlines?  Is it because they are a low cost carrier and the other airlines don't want anything to do with them?

A. In order to cut costs, many of the newer "budget" airlines made the decision not to abide by the old Rule 240, in which the older airlines agreed to fly each other's passengers in such situation.  JetBlue and Southwest both don't have agreements with other airlines.

Should you find yourself stranded at the airport again anytime soon, try getting JetBlue customer service on the phone while you're waiting in line to speak to the gate agent. People have been known to snag the last alternate flight out by doing this. It's perfectly legitimate and something that not a lot of folks think to do.

Sales are Scarce for Monopolized Routes

Q. I have a fare watch on several sites for fare sales between Minneapolis and Detroit. Delta never seems to put these two hubs on sale except sometimes going through Chicago and hardly ever nonstop. There are sales for all other cities in the Midwest from Minneapolis except Detroit. Is it because they have a non-stop monopoly on this route any other particular reason for this?

A. Yep, you're absolutely right. Same thing with other monopoly nonstop routes, such as Newark/Boston and Cincinnati/Detroit...especially if you don't stay over a Saturday night or just fly one-way. It's the shape of things to come thanks to airline consolidation. Eventually, however, another airline will see an opportunity (perhaps Southwest?) and jump in, assuming that gates and take off slots become available.

Early Boarding Without Paying for it?

Q. Can you tell us how the group numbers for boarding are assigned?  We purchased tickets several months in advance and do an on-line check-in as soon as allowed, and we still get put in the last boarding group.  Is there any way around this without having to pay for the privilege of boarding early?

A. This will depend upon who you're flying, as boarding procedures will vary by airline. For example, aside from being an A-List member or Business Select, your only chance at dodging Southwest's first come first served approach is to check in online as early as possible or shell out the $10 each-way for EarlyBird Boarding, neither of which will guarantee a seat in the A section.

As for how other carriers determine who sits in which zone, we suggest you check out SeatGuru's excellent Guide to Airline Boarding Procedures. Although in general, after being elite status or seated in business, the best thing you can do to try for spot at boarding early is check in online as soon as your carrier allows. And you already do that, soooo....

If you really have your heart set on early boarding, many airlines do offer reasonable last minute upgrades to business when checking in online or at a kiosk. For example, AirTran upgrades can cost as little as $69. See? Not bad.

Booking Multiple Travelers or One-Way Tickets

Q. Whenever I click on one of your fares and find what I want, it won't let me buy more than one ticket. Are these fares only good for people traveling alone?

A. Find the answer to this and other common questions in here in our FAQs.

Unbookable Codeshare?

Q. I recently found a great fare on Continental for my summer vacation, but got an error message saying to try again later whenever I tried to purchase it. I tried several times before finally called Continental. The operator informed me that since the flight I was trying to book was actually a Delta code share flight and that Delta only updates the Continental database once a day that there was no way for Continental to actually see if there are seats available on the flight and they were unable process the transaction. I could book a Continental flight which was about $200 more expensive. And yet on Delta's website, the flight I wanted was listed at about $100 more than the original flight I found on Continental's site. Seems like a mess to me.

Any ideas on how to actually get this flight?

A. Most likely you could have booked it on Travelocity or Orbitz . You may not see the words "codeshare" next to the flight, but if you dig deeper you'll see what's up. Meanwhile, Orbitz pretty clearly shows codeshare flights, listing both airlines side by side.

Everyone Always Asks: When to Buy?

Q. What day(s) and time(s) of day will yield the cheapest tickets? And what days of the week are most advantageous to fly. We are flexible in our travel plans.

A. Airlines can adjust airfares at virtually any moment, and the number of seats at the lowest fares can fluctuate minute by minute, as the cheaper seats get sold, or the airlines make more seats available at the lowest fares.

So there’s no really best time of day or day of week to buy fares. That’s why it’s important to sign up for airfare alerts (to find services offering them, simply google “airfare alerts” and sign up.  Then pounce when the fare goes down, which really could be any time.

That said, if you’re flying on a route served by Atlanta-based Airtran or a competing airline on that route, then Monday nights and Tuesdays are a good time to look for fares, since Airtran typically has a sale every week. And if you’re looking for last minute weekend fares, Delta typically releases these fares late on a Sunday, and other airlines release them Monday or Tuesday.

The cheapest days to fly, as opposed to buy, are Tuesday and Wednesday, and also Saturday. The most expensive days are usually Friday and Sunday.

Europe to US less than US to Europe?

Q. My family and I travel frequently between New York and Zurich, Switzerland and have noticed that fares from Zurich to New York are much lower than those from New York to Zurich. Why is this and is there a way to “game” the system? Can I buy a round-trip fare from Switzerland to the U.S. while I’m physically located in the U.S.?

A. We’ve noticed the discrepancy as well, on many routes between the U.S. and international destinations. Besides the all the taxes and innumerable fees involved in international travel, which vary by country and itinerary, airlines charge what they think the market will bear in each country. Currency exchange rates may also play a role. If you’re starting your journey in Europe and flying round-trip to the U.S., then there’s no reason why you can’t buy a fare in the local currency at the local price. But if you’re physically in the U.S. and don’t have a European-based credit card, then this may not be possible.

Same Seat, Same Flight, Different Fare

Q. I’m researching tickets from Seattle to London for travel at the beginning of April. I've found that the same plane (same time, flight number flown by British Air) leaves under three different airline names with fares from $719 (Iberia which breaks down to $270 plus $449 taxes and fees) to $1247 (American, $1050 plus $197 taxes and fees). What's going on here?  I've looked at Cheaptickets.com, Expedia and Priceline.

A. What you’re seeing here is a code share situation. British Airways has a marketing agreement with American and Iberia, both of which buy seats on British Airways and are free to sell them for whatever they wish. The flight is being flown by British Airways. This is one reason why online travel agencies are so important. Had you researched the flight on AmericanAirlines.com, you would only have seen the higher $1247 fare on American. Sites like Expedia show you all the possibilities. On another travel date, it’s possible that American would have had cheaper seats than British Airways (by the way, for the time being, Expedia is no longer listing American’s fares, nor does Orbitz, which owns Cheaptickets.com). So just buy the cheapest fare. It’s the same flight, same airline, same service no matter how much or little you pay.

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.

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