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Entries during 2012-01

Baby on Board: Traveling with Infants

Q. I plan to fly with my 16-month-old twins. Do they need a reservation? How do I make sure they can fly with me when I reserve a ticket for my husband and myself?

A. If traveling domestically, your infants, because they're under two years old, do not need to buy a separate fare and you don't need to inform your airline beforehand that they'll be traveling with you. They can be considered lap children, which means they must sit in your laps for the entire flight. While this is "legal," you should consider that modern jetliners take off and land at high speeds (80-100 miles per hour or more), and they can decelerate just as quickly. You wouldn't put a baby in your lap while driving your own car, even if traveling just 15 or 20 miles per hour (in fact, it's illegal); you'd put them in a car seat. So I really don't recommend seating your children in a speeding jet airplane in any other way. If the plane stops suddenly, your child will become a projectile, and infants have indeed been injured in such circumstances, and also during extreme turbulence. Also, it's incredibly uncomfortable having a baby in your lap on a long flight. Keep in mind that if you're traveling internationally, you'll generally be required to pay ten percent of the applicable adult fare for your lap children (even if you're flying on a frequent flyer ticket), so you'll need to inform your airline that they'll be flying with you when you buy your own fare.

Reservation Issues at Virgin America

Q. I believe Virgin America is on a slippery slope right now. Since switching their reservations system, service has been, awful. It's been some time now since the switch and yet the problems are apparently not resolving. My personal experience: It took me three tries to book a one-way reward flight, including intervention by customer service when the website hung up at "pending". The first call I made I had to abandon 20 minutes into waiting, the second attempt was met with an automated "we're sorry but we can't accept your call because we're so busy; please try later," and the third reached a person after roughly 30 minutes. What's going on here?

A. Virgin America acknowledges that their reservation system has had some messy problems and they're working on it. Hopefully it'll be fixed by the time you read this. But if not, or even if it is fixed, unless you're booking award travel, you might consider calling a travel agent next time--Expedia, Orbitz, Travelocity or a local agency. Hold time, most likely, will be far less. Agents can ticket flights, change flights, rebook you if there's a cancelation or delay, and assign seats. Although many people now prefer booking directly with the airlines, real live travel agents have survived, in the age of the Internet, for a reason.

Fares better over the border?

Q. I'm thinking of flying from Toronto to Italy. I live in Michigan, about a six-hour drive from Toronto, but the fare from Michigan is $1,450 round-trip whereas it's $887 departing from Toronto.  I've been across the Canadian border many times and never had a problem. Is their something that I should be concerned about that I'm not considering?

A. Wow, that's pretty unusual, because normally fares to Europe from Canada are more expensive than from the U.S. However, there are a couple of discount Canadian airlines, such as Air Transat that do sometimes offer amazing bargains, especially at the last minute. It really depends on when you're flying. Checking fares from Toronto to Rome for February travel (I used a departure of Feb. 5 returning Feb. 15), there's not much price difference compared to flying from Detroit, Flint and other Michigan airports (even from Iron Mountain, MI, which isn't known for low fares). However, checking fares for June travel, you're absolutely right—there's a huge difference. The fare from Toronto to Rome on Air Canada in US dollars is $883 round-trip including taxes compared to $1,443 on the same dates from Detroit. So I'd look again at fares leaving from Michigan if you're flying in winter, but definitely it's worth driving to Toronto if flying in June. If you do fly from Toronto, be sure to leave time for the occasional unexpected border crossing delay.

Busted Baggage: Who's to Blame?

Q. In November, I flew Kingfisher Airlines from Varanasi to Delhi. When I picked up my suitcase, both handles were ripped off at one end, and a wheel housing was shattered.  They first offered me $6 to repair it. Their final offer was $10. Dr. Vijay Mallya, chairman of Kingfisher, says if the airline has “fallen short of meeting your expectations”, to contact him directly, and he gives his email address. So, I emailed him about this matter. I got a response from someone in “Guest Commitment” that said they considered this normal wear and tear, but as a gesture they had compensated me for it. He also said that despite my “present sentiments” he hoped I would view this as an “aberration”, and give them another chance. What can you do when this kind of thing happens in a foreign country, with a foreign airline?

A. There really isn't much you can do, whether it's a foreign country or not. Here's a little secret: on most types of jet aircraft, airline baggage handlers, in order to load bags quickly, really do throw your bags into and down the length of the cargo hold. They don't carry them or coddle them or pay attention to the "fragile" stickers. So wheels and handles do get damaged; in fact, they're the most likely parts of your suitcase to break. As such, airlines, even though they shouldn't, call this normal wear and tear. (By the way, a 4-wheeled "spinner" suitcase is less likely to get damaged because it's easier for the bag handlers to roll it down the cargo hold rather than to throw it.) Whatever. One defense is to buy a quality suitcase. Or one with an iron clad guarantee. Briggs and Riley, uniquely as far as I know, will repair your suitcase for free, wheels, handles, and all, for the life of the bag, whether or not an overzealous airline employee was at fault. The other solution is not to check bags in the first place and whenever possible send your belongings in a sturdy cardboard box ahead of your arrival, via FedEx Ground, UPS or the post office.

You get what you pay for (sometimes)

Q. I was researching a fare on the American Airlines website, and found it was about $400 more than booking the same flights and dates on SmartFares.com or Momondo.com (two "discount" airfare sites). Do I risk not being able to earn miles on American Airlines if I buy from those sites? One of these websites only identifies the airline as a "Major Carrier", but it's the same flights as the American Airlines ones so I assume it's on American.

A. As grandpa used to say, you get what you pay for, and yes indeed, some airfare websites specialize in "consolidator" or "wholesale" airfare bargains that appear much cheaper than buying "retail." Here's the problem: sometimes these lower fares don't qualify for frequent flyer miles, advance seat selection and other perks. Worse, many of these fares are "you buy it you fly it"—in other words, no changes whatsoever, even if you're willing to pay a change fee. The ticket is only good for that flight and if you somehow miss it you might as well rip up the ticket. In addition, whereas sometimes if an airline cancels or delays your flight they'll attempt to put you on another airline, typically these cheaper tickets are good only on the original carrier. I'd contact any discount airfare site you're contemplating buying from and see what the hidden restrictions are.

Pays to be Persistent

Q. My family and I flew on a trip from Miami to Baltimore in January, 2009 on AirTran. Our flight was delayed at least four hours. We were given several $25 vouchers in compensation. The vouchers had an expiration date six months prior to this flight. I questioned the man giving out the vouchers, he took them from me, scratched out the expiration date and said there was no expiration date. So now I am flying AirTran again, and tried to use the vouchers, which of course, couldn't be found in the system. I emailed customer service and was told the voucher had expired in June of 2008. When I explained what happened and that they had expired six months prior to the delayed flight that I was given them for, AirTran said that they are only good for six months, so it didn't matter, they would be expired anyway. I just don't think this is a fair situation as the voucher was already expired, and then they told us they didn't have an expiration date. What can I do? Who can I report this to?

A. Only AirTran can make this right. Contact them again, ask for a supervisor or manager and give them specifics regarding your flight, the date, and , if you remember, the name of the agent who gave you the expired vouchers.

Follow up: the day after this reader contacted AirTran as I suggested, she got a full credit for the expired vouchers. Too many people take "no" for an answer when dealing with airlines. It really pays to be persistent. And although we applaud consumer advocates who use the bully pulpit of the media to go to bat for people like her, they (and we) can't solve every problem ourselves. So we encourage consumers to escalate issues to higher authority (airline CEOs, managers, the DOT) when they've clearly been wronged.

Open Ended Tickets

Q. I want to fly out to San Diego in early September to visit with my daughter and new grandbabies, but I'm not sure how long I'll be staying. Is there still such a thing as an open ended return date or is there a more cost effective way to do this?

A. You could always buy a fully refundable return ticket, but -as you've probably discovered- those don't come cheap. Normally, airlines charge around $150 to change a domestic fare. However, if you fly to San Diego on Southwest Airlines, you can easily change your return date without paying any annoying change fees. The only downside? If the fare has gone up, you’ll pay the fare difference (on the other hand, if the fare has gone down, you would get a voucher for the fare difference). If there are low one-way fares to San Diego, you could, of course, just buy a one-way ticket going out and then buy a second one-way fare on the return flight when you're ready to come home. On many routes, airlines such as Southwest and Airtran sell one-way fares for just half price of the lowest available round-trip fare.

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