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Entries during 2011-03

Canceled and Rebooked with Overnight Stop

Q. I used frequent flyer miles to book 2 tickets on US Airways from Philadelphia to Belize, with a stopover in Charlotte.  When I checked my flights online approximately 2 weeks ago, there was no record of our flight into and out of Belize.  I called customer service, only to find out that the flight to Belize was canceled several months ago!  I was never notified.  Anyway, 1 1/2 hours later the US Airways rep I talked to rebooked us on Continental. According to the new itinerary, we fly out of Belize and into Houston, and she cannot get us home to Philly until the next day. So, we will be spending one night in Houston.  I offered to pay for 2 tickets from Houston to Philly on Saturday, but she said not to do that - to fly the next day to avoid paying.  I didn't push it because I really don't mind having to spend 1 night in Houston. However, what is the airlines obligation (if any) to pay for our hotel room?  I was too tired after being on the phone for that length of time to get into it with her!

A. According to the US Airways fine print:

When a US Airways flight on which the customer is being transported is canceled creating an overnight stay, customers will be provided one night's lodging. Exceptions to this are listed below. In addition, in cases where a customer has misconnected due to reasons other than those listed below, overnight accommodations will be provided.

Exceptions: Hotel accommodations will not be furnished:
To a customer whose trip is interrupted at a city which is his/her origin point, stopover point, or his/her permanent domicile.
When the destination designated on the customer's ticket, and the flight on which the customer is being transported, is diverted to another city or airport in the same metropolitan area due to weather.

The only way to be sure just how this policy applies to you is, of course, to call again and check with US Airways, but it sounds like since the overnight stay is at a stopover point - and since you've agreed to this itinerary - you're responsible for lodging.

Refunds for Price Drops

Q. I recently booked a flight on Southwest Airlines and almost immediately discovered, through an emailed alert from Airfarewatchdog.com, that the fare had gone down. Can I take advantage of the cheaper fare and get a refund?

A. You may be in luck. Southwest Airlines is one of the three U.S.-based airlines that will give you a full refund in the form of a travel voucher, good for up to a year, when a fare drops between the time you buy and the time you fly. (The other airlines are JetBlue and Alaska; other airlines will give you a refund but deduct up to $150 on a domestic fare or up to $250 on an international one, from any refund they issue, which often wipes out any value). The only caveat is that the lower fare must be available on the exact same flight times and dates as your original itinerary. You can call Southwest to get a refund. A website called Yapta.com will actually track fare drops for you, although the site doesn’t work with all airlines; most notably, Southwest Airlines is excluded.

Weighing in on Luggage Scales

Q: What model of portable luggage scale do you recommend to double-check the airline’s or airport’s luggage scales? Also, why would the airlines “trust” these scales over their own? Is there any legal recourse if the airline’s scale disagrees with one’s own portable scale and the airline tries to overcharge you?

A: We like portable digital luggage scales made by Balanzza. They’re available from local luggage stores, Amazon.com or Balanzza.com and they’re very accurate and lightweight. A recent expose by WBZ-TV Boston discovered that airport scales at one terminal at Boston’s Logan Airport were severely inaccurate in the airlines’ favor, so these airport scales should not be blindly trusted. We highly doubt that the airline would question you if you demonstrate that your luggage is lighter than what their own scales show.

Refund for Travel to Tokyo

Q. I have a friend who is scheduled to travel from Seattle to Tokyo next Friday.  He purchased the ticket from Airfare.com, who have a very specific  no refund policy.  My friend obviously doesnt want to lose the $980 he spent on the ticket, but with the damage caused by the earthquake, the ongoing aftershocks, and tsunami - not to mention the threat of radiation, AND a volcanic erruption in the south - it doesnt seem like now would be the best time to go. Does he have any options other than losing his money or paying the $350 chage fee plus the difference in fare to travel to another destination?

A. If his fare is a consolidator fare, which Airfare.com sells a lot of, he may be out of luck, unless he bought travel insurance. A change fee of $350 seems awfully steep. Most airlines charge $250. He might try calling the airline directly rather than going through Airfare.com. He could also wait to see if the situation worsens and his flight is canceled (which, the way things are looking, could very well happen) in which case he will be entitled to a full refund.

St Patty's change-fees out to get your gold

Q. I purchased 3 roundtrip flights from Phoenix to Boston for St Patrick's Day. My husband was scheduled to have off work, but now he cannot make the departure flight. He can fly out the following day and would like to use his portion of the return ticket to fly back home with us. I have spoken to 4 different airline reps and it seems that you cannot use the return portion of the ticket without paying $180 upcharge. Can you advise on a solution?

A. This policy is pretty typical of most airlines, whereby a simple change to your itinerary can end up costing you more in fees than you paid for the original ticket. We wish we could offer you a better solution but next time, try booking with Southwest. Their change/refund policy is by far the least restrictive of any airline, making it easier when there's the possibility that you'll have to change your plans after you purchase your tickets.

Flight + Hotel Deals, minus the Hotel

Q. I found a hotel plus flight package to Mexico with better flight times and a lower cost than buying the flight alone from the airline. I'm staying with a friend at his condo, and wonder if it would be a problem if I bought the package and didn't use the hotel? I could always keep the hotel as a backup, but I just don't think I'll need it.

A. We frequently find that air plus hotel packages are cheaper than buying the air alone. You'll find this to be true with last minute deals available at from sites like Priceline.com or Lastminute.com. If you're worried, you could always check into the hotel and just not sleep there, but I see no reason why you should be compelled to do so.

Pardon me, got a light?

Q. I have a friend that has traveled 4 times by plane in the last year and has had a lighter (that she forgot about) in her cigarette case and was never stopped or searched by security. We on the other hand had two jars of $6.99 mustard that they confiscated. Were they afraid we were going to blow up the plane with our mustard? I would think a lighter would be of greater concern. What's with that?????

A. As odd as it may sound, it's true. According to the TSA, "lighters no longer pose a significant threat," despite the fact that people can -you know- use them to set fire to things. In any case, the TSA decided to lift the ban on lighters back in 2007. And the reason makes actual sense:

Lifting the lighter ban is consistent with TSA's risk-based approach to aviation security. First and foremost, lighters no longer pose a significant threat. Freeing security officers up from fishing for 22,000 lighters every day (the current number surrendered daily across the country) enables them to focus more on finding explosives, using behavior recognition, conducting random screening procedures and other measures that increase complexity in the system, deterring terrorists. The U.S. is the only country in the world to ban lighters – all other nations, including Israel and the U.K., do not.

Torch lighters, however, are still a major no-no. So at least there's that. But yes, we're with you on the mustard thing. We'd feel much more at ease if we were to catch our seatmate spreading Grey Poupon on the soles of his shoes rather than holding a lit Zippo to them. Thanks a lot, Richard Reid.

But anything to keep us all safe, right? You can read more on the TSA restrictions regarding lighters, electronics, and breast milk here.

Unavoidable Connections

Q. I know you always say, “Avoid connecting flights.” However, I live in Syracuse, N.Y. and wherever I go I must make at least one connecting flight – especially to Europe. But it’s harder and harder to figure how much time to allow between flights. The listings when I search online often give choices between under two hours or eight hours in the connecting airport. Help us out with some advice when connections are unavoidable.

A. The reason I advise to avoid connecting flights is simply that if you miss your connection, even if the airline is at fault, you may end up waiting for days to find seats on your onward flight. I would opt for the maximum possible time between connecting flights, a minimum of four hours, more if possible. Sometimes it’s best to speak to an airline or travel agent to ensure you have the longest possible connection window. Sure, no one likes hanging around an airport, but it’s better than waiting for several days to get to your final destination in the event of a misconnect.

Good morning, indeed!

Q. My last flight was delayed an hour because "the crew overslept." It is hard for me to believe that the whole crew who is based in this city would have this problem. Is this something that an airline says when they want to depart later than scheduled? It was a 7 AM flight and the small airport had no coffee or food available.

A. The same thing happened to us recently on a flight out of LaGuardia. One member of the crew had overslept. And our flight was delayed until a replacement was flown in from Charlotte. It just takes one member of the crew to disrupt the entire schedule, and the plane can't leave short handed. We were surprised by how forthcoming the airline was about oversleeping! That said, late arriving crew does not fall under the same category of events as "beyond our control," like weather delays. If it had resulted in a very long delay, or a missed connection, the airline would probably have had to take some responsibility, depending on their policy.

Web Fare, not Phone Fare

Q. You showed a Raleigh to Tucson fare as updated and available yesterday afternoon around 1pm. I called Southwest to get the flight (I could not find it on their website) and they said no such fare ever existed. What gives?

A. Well, calling Southwest was your first mistake. The vast majority (as in 99.9%) of the Southwest fares we list on our site are WEB ONLY. That's why we include the link to Southwest's Web site, rather than listing their 800 I FLY SWA phone number, in the fare details page of each Southwest fare we list. In fact, you'll find the majority of fares you see listed online will be more expensive if you attempt to ring up an agent, be they web-only sales, or additional processing fees to book by agent.

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