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Entries during 2011-02

How to extend a soon-to-expire flight credit

Q. I have a credit from an unused Delta flight that expires at the end of May and I don't think I will be able to use it before then. Are there any other options for applying that credit to something else, such as a membership to the airline’s club lounge or buying duty free on board?  

A. There are two types of Delta credits: Delta Dollars and Delta e-credits. The former are given as customer courtesies or for oversold flights; the latter are for refunds or price differentials being credited to an account. Delta Dollars cannot be used to pay things like SkyClub passes or duty-free purchases, but they are eligible to be used to buy a ticket for someone else.

E-Credits rules vary and are typically non-transferable. They cannot be used for SkyClub or duty free purchases either. So basically no, you cannot pay for things other than air travel with them.

But there is a somewhat sneaky way to prevent your credit from expiring, and it’s perfectly legal. Buy a fully refundable ticket with Delta for a future date of travel (perhaps December) on a trip you think you may be taking. Pay for part of it with your credit and pay the rest with a credit card or cash. If you can take the trip at that time, great. If not, simply change that ticket (since it's refundable and changeable without penalty, but better make sure it is when booking!) to a new trip you would like to take on Delta. This should preserve the value of your e-credit if done properly. Remember, this will no longer be an e-credit, but an actual flight reservation that you can either use as is or modify at some future point. Since the fare is fully refundable, if you decide you don’t want to travel at all you can simply ask for a refund in the form of your original payment. This strategy works with all airlines, not just Delta. While it’s true that fully refundable fares are more expensive than non-refundable ones, the thing to keep in mind is that if you don’t use the ticket you get your money back.

Carry-Ons: Ease vs Squeeze

Q. I was wondering if you'd done any comparisons on carry-on luggage. I've been doing a fair amount of flying, and that'll probably only increase. I'm looking for some sort of data so that I can find one of those popular roller bags that would fit into every overhead compartment. It's not so much that I'm looking for a brand (although that would be appreciated) but what dimensions do I need to be on the lookout for.

A. In order to be safe, the only rolling suitcase size that will pretty much fit in any overhead bin is an 18-inch model. Although 21- and 22-inch models are technically allowed, they sometimes have trouble fitting. Some regional jets have very small overhead bins and even an 18-inch model might have trouble fitting if the overhead bins are full. TravelPro makes an 18-incher that retails for about $150, but there are many manufacturers who sell models for less. When buying a new suitcase, be sure to get your bonus frequent flyer miles by shopping through the airlines' shopping malls.  You can sometimes get up to 10 frequent flyer miles for each dollar spent through these sources.

International Partners: Miles for Seats, Just not Upgrades?

Q. It seems that the major U.S. airlines (Delta, American and Continental) will allow you to use their miles to get “free” business class tickets either on their own international flights or the flights of European partners, but will allow upgrades from coach to business class only on their “own” flights - i.e. flights of the U.S. airline on which you have earned the miles.

This must have something to do with negotiated arrangements between the U.S. airline and the overseas partner. It seems to me that the “partner” airlines would be more willing to give up an upgraded seat which generates some revenue, than a so-called “free” seat, and that correspondingly the U.S. airline would have to “pay” the partner less for the upgraded seat than the “free” seat?

So what I am missing about this picture? 

A. Well, each airline still operates as their own business with their own business model so just because they are partners and can offer free seats doesn’t mean they have partnered to offer awards. But, you're in luck. Some airlines are starting to do just that. Delta now offers the opportunity to use miles and/or elite upgrade certificates on partner Air France. US Airways is now offering Star Alliance Upgrade Awards with participating carriers. Since I’m not sure which airline you are trying to upgrade with, here are two of my favorite partner award programs:

Here's a link to US Airways new program FAQs: http://www.usairways.com/en-US/FAQs/star-alliance-upgrade-awards-faqs.html

And a link for SkyTeam's upgrade award program:  http://www.skyteam.com/about/miles/index.html

These are a great way to use miles. While they don’t render the same value as redeeming the points for an actual Business Class ticket (where there is rarely any money being spent except on taxes), these are a good deal if you don’t have enough miles for a completely free ticket.

Where There's Smoke...

Q. I'm always surprised when I fly aboard an older model aircraft and find those little ashtrays on the arm of my seat. Are there any airlines that still actually allow smoking?

A. It wasn't so long ago that Air Canada first introduced non-smoking flights in 1987. And since then, most of the world followed suit, some slower than others. There is an inconsistency among certain carriers in the Middle East and Africa, and you may find the smoking bans touted on their web sites to be loosely enforced, if at all.

A few years ago, there was talk of creating an airline especially for smokers called Smintair (which sounds oddly similar to a breath mint) with service between Dusseldorf and Nagoya. But apparently that's been put on hold.

Post-purchase Fare Drops

Q. When I bought our tickets last month on Continental to Bristol, England I chose the lowest available fare.  Today, I checked the fares again and the roundtrip fare for my dates is around $55 lower than my original booking.  I called Continental to complain but I was told I would lose more because I will have to cancel my tickets and they would re-issue me another ticket for a $250 fee.

I did not know that it's not necessarily true that fares can go down as you search closer to the date of your departure.  What do you say?

A.  It's impossible to generalize that fares go up or down closer to one's departure date. The sad fact is that if a fare goes down after you buy it, most airlines deduct a $150 ticket reissue fee on domestic fares from any amount they might refund, in the form of a voucher for future travel, and $250 and up on international fares. Some international airlines do not refund anything in the case of a fare drop. The only airlines that do not deduct a fee from a price drop refund are Southwest, Alaska, and JetBlue

Why bother being punctual? They never are.

Q. I don't know why I bother leaving work early to make the flight back to my hometown. It is consistently delayed. Now I've started to check the status of the flight before I leave work, and rush less. My question is, when I see that it's been delayed by two hours, is there any real reason I should stick to the original check-in time? According to the airline, I should, but if they themselves are late, I just don't see the point.

A. As tempting as it is, we think you're better off playing it safe. Whatever the cause of the delay (mechanical...late incoming flight...) there's always the slim chance it could suddenly and miraculously be corrected. Your airline could switch things up and use an alternate plane, or that incoming flight could very well make it on time. In the end, status is just an estimation, and you'll probably have a much smoother trip if you show up on time rather than risk missing the flight and scrambling to get on the next.

Too Early for Summer Fares to Europe?

Q. I'm trying to find a good price for my family of four to travel from Omaha to Paris in May or June. Am I too early? When is the best time to start looking?

A. We would expect fares to become firm around March or April...but of course there could be deals or sales anytime! We recommend checking Vayama.com, or Cheapoair.com for prices, as often times they have special deals you can only book through their site. And if you haven't already, make sure you've signed up for our fare alerts! We'll gladly keep an eye on fares to Paris, and send an alert your way when something good comes along.

Seat Selection for Code Share Flights

Q. Is it possible to make seat selections on a code shared flight well in advance (I'm making reservations 3-4 months before the travel date)?  I really hate to get stuck in a lousy seat on a long flight or, believe it or not, separated from my wife.

A. Booking a codeshare flight is sometimes a great idea as it can lead to a lower price. Or it can be an inevitable choice when airlines cooperate and only provide one option in a complicated booking. But, seating choices are not lost; there are a few things to know.

First, whoever sold you the ticket (or whichever airline issued the ticket; indicated by the first three numbers of an airline ticket number), should be able to provide you with a record locator for the segment of the codeshare flight. It is often a different record locator issued by the airline that is actually operating the flight. Sometimes the issuing airline will say it is the same locator, but always ask again as it usually is different. With that information, simply call the toll-free number of the airline operating the flight and give them that information to choose a seat.

If for some reason, the issuing airline cannot locate a new record locator for the operating airline, then call the operating airline with the date, time, and flight information to assign a seat. With that said, many European and Asian airlines do not pre-assign seats for domestic or regional flights (especially in Economy Class although they do for long-haul flights). Business or First Class seating can usually be secured in advance (British Airways is a notable standout that charges for this service if the request is made more than 24 hours before departure).

It is always worth seeking out the record locators from each individual airline (do not assume they use the same one that your issuing airline gave you) and calling the operating carrier with your flight information to get seats. If traveling British Airways, either cough up the fee or provide your elite frequent flyer number with BA or with the oneworld alliance, which will allow you to pre-book seats free. And we're glad you and your wife are getting along so famously, even on those long and cramped flights.

Rebooked but in a different class

Q. I purchased a first class ticket from Denver to Anchorage on US Airways via Phoenix. After nearly 3 hours on the plane in Anchorage the flight was canceled due to mechanical problems. US Airways called me within 5 minutes to rebook. They rebooked me on Continental and United flights the next day. I asked if I was rebooked in First Class and she said no, because of Rule 240 I am only given a coach ticket. I ended up being upgraded by Continental because of my 1K status with United. My question is, what type of compensation, if any should I expect. Is this a normal practice?

A. First, I'm really surprised that you get rebooked at all, because many airlines have done away with or weakened the rule 240 in their contract of carriage. But it's great that you were reaccommodated. However, you are definitely entitled to any fare difference between first class and economy and that should come from US Air, assuming that you paid for your first class ticket rather than having been upgraded or used miles.

Years ago, it was indeed a normal practice to Rule 240 passengers in the event of a flight irregularity, In fact it was a government regulation. But now only a few airlines have a clearly stated Rule 240 in their contracts. You might find this article helpful.

Double the Fare, Half the Trip

Q. Why do the airlines charge twice as much to fly one-way on international fares than they charge for a round-trip on the same route? What happens if we buy a round-trip ticket and simply toss the return ticket or cancel the return flight "due to sudden changes in our travel plans"?  Will the airline sock us with the difference between round-trip and one-way?

A. To answer the first question: because they can? It’s probably because business travelers tend to use one-way fares more often than leisure travelers, and the airlines figure that business people can afford to pay more. It’s unlikely that anything will happen if you don’t use your return flight, but don’t buy it through a travel agency, since the airline might indeed go after the agency for the fare difference. However, they won’t hunt down an individual traveler who bought the fare on the airline’s web site.

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