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Entries during 2011-04

Big Baby on Board

Q. I am trying to find tips on booking travel with my son who is 17 months old. We'd like to travel cross country in May. I feel I should buy a seat for him since he is very active and big for his age and there's no guarantee that I’d be able to have an empty seat next to me for more space.  What would you suggest we do to be able to travel comfortably and, ideally, at a reasonable fare?  

A. Unfortunately, with planes packed to capacity, it’s unlikely that there will be an empty seat next to you, and if you buy a seat you’ll have to pay the usual adult fare. Another thing to consider is your son's safety. Jets land at high speeds, usually in the 130 to 140 mph range, and they take off at even higher speeds. There’s always the possibility of a sudden stop, and just as you wouldn’t put an infant in your lap while traveling in a car even at much lower speeds (in fact, it’s illegal in most jurisdictions), you shouldn’t do so when traveling in a commercial airliner. In fact, we're surprised that it's still legal to do so. So we suggest putting infants in an approved child seat when flying. In addition to being safer, it will be more comfortable for both mother and child.

DIY Itineraries & Inter-lining Agreements

Q. I want to fly roundtrip Seattle to San Jose, Costa Rica in business/first. I can't get flights that work using my award miles (I have a very tight itinerary), and the business class fares for the full trip are more than I'd like to spend.
 
However, I've discovered that I can use Alaska Airlines miles for roundtrip from Seattle to Dallas in first class, and purchase a roundtrip business class ticket on American Airlines from Dallas to San Jose, Costa Rica, for a reasonable price.
 
Is there any reason not to do this? Will I be able to check my bags through or would I be forced to re-check bags between flights? I have a lot of baggage including a scuba rebreather. American and Alaska are codeshare partners, if that helps.

A. To check and see if your bags can go all the way through, just call the airlines to see if they have inter-lining agreements in both directions.  If you book your flights separately, the disadvantage could be that if the first flight of the day is delayed to the point that you miss the connecting flight, it could be quite a nightmare.  If you do this, make sure that it's possible to have your itinerary booked as one trip (even with different forms of "payment") so that they'll take responsibility for getting you to your final destination should you miss a leg of your journey due to an unforeseen delay. 

Your arrival times they are a-changin'

Q. When I booked my ticket in winter, my return flight had me changing planes in Denver and arriving home in Phoenix at 6:30 pm. Since then, the airline has changed my itinerary twice, and I don't get home until 10:30 pm. I really don't want to return that late. And if I want to change my flight time, I have to pay a stupid fee. How can they make such drastic changes and not have to compensate me in some form? Do I have any recourse?

A. Unfortunately, there are no real penalties for airlines when they change your itinerary. You can ask for a refund and try to rebook your trip (but at this point, that may end up being more expensive.)  You can also find out if your original flight is still scheduled and insist (ever so politely, of course!) that they put you back on it.

No Guarantee, Unless You Upgrade?

Q. I very recently flew from Tulsa to Albuquerque on United. When I paid for my ticket online, I recieved a confirmation. I was able to choose a seat on the second leg (IAD-ABQ), but not the first (TUL-IAD). Later, when I checked in for my flight online, I tried again to get a seat for the first leg. Still a no-go, but I kept getting a prompt to "pay $39 for Economy Plus." Well, no thanks, it's a little over an hour flight and I can deal with a regular seat for that long. Unfortunately, this was the only option I was given.

I checked in 3 1/2 hours early, just in case, and was told I still could not get a seat assignment because if a flight is "80% full, they hold the remaining seats to be able to accomodate families, wheelchair passengers, etc."

I was too afraid to leave my gate area after check-in (although I was there so, so early) for any length of time because they were supposed to call people up "at some point" for seat assignments. I did get a seat eventually, so why am I complaining? It was very stressful as I didn't want to be stuck and I understand many airlines are in the habit of bumping passengers, even when they buy in advance and have a confirmation! I counted, and because I knew the size of the aircraft and then listened to the number of names called at the gate - a lot! - I was able to deduce that it was well over 20%. How many people gave up and paid the $39 when prompted because they wanted to be assured a seat? Hmm... smells like a trick to get more cash from passengers if you ask me.

Incidentally, the IAD-ABQ flight was completely full as well, but I was able to get a seat assignment any time I wanted. That flight was operated by United, andalthough everything on the TUL-IAD flight indicated United, I found out it was actually operated by SkyWest. Do they need to make a little more revenue on that portion to pay them off or something, or is this somehow normal?

A. it's pretty common for airlines not to offer seat assignments on heavily booked flights and, you're right, sometimes that means you could end up being bumped. But bribing people to upgrade to a roomier seat is new to us. Obviously, the airline was holding back seats in the hope of making some extra cash. It's like on Broadway where theaters sell "premium seats" for twice the regular ticket price far in advance but end up selling them at the last minute for the regular price if no one bites. Just another scam. 

100,000 Bonus Miles with British Airways Chase Card vs. Taxes & Availability

Q. I see that British Airways and Chase Visa Card are again offering 100,000 bonus miles for signing up for the credit card. In the past, however, I've found that it's hard to "spend" miles on British Airways for the dates I want to travel. Also, when I am able to get seats, the taxes are quite high, so the ticket isn't really free. The annual fee is $95, so is it worth signing up or should I pass on this offer?

A. I recently attempted to spend miles on a summer trip to Europe on British Airways using my miles, and was pleasantly surprised to find that the dates I wanted were readily available. Although I've never done this, you can also spend miles earned on BA with American Airlines, Cathay Pacific, and many other airlines in the OneWorld alliance. If you charge a certain amount on this BA/Chase card, you can also get a free companion frequent flyer ticket on British Airways (you spend miles for one ticket, and just pay the taxes on the other). I agree that the taxes are rather onerous, but some other OneWorld airlines have lower taxes, and the taxes do vary depending on the route (they seem especially high for travel to and from the United Kingdom). So yes, I'd grab the card while this deal is still on offer (currently, there is no advertised end date). You can do some serious traveling with 100,000 miles!

So over overbooking?

Q. Are airlines allowed to oversell seats? I recently bought a ticket on-line with American, and when I got to the gate, was told there was no seat for me. The counter people said this is very common, that the airline often oversells seats. When this happens, they just pay other passengers to give up their seats. Is this practice allowed?

A. Yep, it is allowed although "only" about 65,000 passengers were involuntarily bumped last year out of millions.  They're supposed to compensate you with a cash payment depending on how inconvenienced you were getting to your destination.  Only JetBlue doesn't overbook flights.  There are new DOT regulations coming that will increase the compensation required to involuntarily bumped passengers, from a current maximum of $800 to a new max of $1300.

Lost Bag Rules Differ for International Flights

Q. We flew to the Bahamas, and our bag was lost for a few days. Although we were reunited with it, we were surprised to learn that, if it had been lost forever, a different set of rules would apply for compensation because it was an international flight. For domestic flights, the maximum liability would have been $3300, but it would just be pennies for international flights. Does this apply to all airlines and international travel?

A. A lot depends on the originating country of the flight in a case such as this, since certain jurisdictions, such as the European Community, might have different compensation rules than others.

Many countries and thus airlines follow a set of rules, which limits liability for loss or damage to luggage at $9.07 per pound (or about $20.00 per kilo) for checked baggage and $400.00 per passenger for unchecked baggage, unless a higher value is declared in advance and additional charges are paid. That’s why it’s so important to buy excess valuation coverage when checking bags on an international flight. Ask about this coverage when you hand over your luggage at the airport and check out our excess valuation chart to learn more.

Airfare-Inclusive Cruising for Summer?

Q. My husband and I overheard a conversation at a party about taking a cruise in Europe, which we've never done before. The couple speaking were bragging that they found an airfare-included one-week luxury cruise for $2200 per person last year. Since airfares to Europe are so expensive right now (about $1500 for summer travel from where we live), I can't imagine how this would be possible. Perhaps such a deal could be found on a Carnival cruise, but we're looking for something better. Do you know of any airfare-inclusive luxury cruises in Europe this summer?

A. Unfortunately, no. Cruises continue to be one of the best bargains in travel, but as you've found, airfares to Europe can be quite high for peak summer travel dates. However, I have seen some amazing airfare-included cruise deals in past months. Last year, the ultra-luxurious Seabourn Cruise Lines had some seven-day, shoulder-season (late summer, early fall) airfare-included cruises in Europe for $2000 per person, double occupancy, plus port taxes--close to what your fellow party-goers were discussing. The cruise industry has built a lot of new ships in the past few years, and they're not all filling up. So huge price reductions can be found. The best way to learn about them is to sign up for emails from various cruise lines or to contact a travel agent specializing in cruising, or even check out CruiseCritic.com.

Reliable Research: Know Before You Go!

Q. When I checked in for my trip at Los Angeles I asked the Swiss attendant how much I would have to pay to bring a bicycle. The agent told me that international flights have a two bag allowance and since I only had two bags, there would be no fee. When I went to the Rome airport to begin my homeward journey the Swiss attendant told me I would have to pay $200 for the bicycle to take it home. She also gave me the choice of leaving it at the airport to donate to charity. I contacted Swiss and told them of the mistake and how my choice of paying the bicycle fee was deceptively taken away. Swiss said they were sorry but they cannot change the policy. After contacting the State Consumer Protection Board of New York State I was told that although Swiss may have poor business practice, they did not break any laws. Is there nothing I can do?

A. Though you would expect the folks working behind the counter to be familiar with the rules and regulations of the airline that employs them, the harsh reality is that not every agent you encounter will be the best and brightest, and can't always be taken for their word. For example, the agent that insisted I would need a visa for a flight from Sydney to Honolulu, that escalated to a reminder from a manager that Hawaii is an actual US state. Anyhoo, there is some degree of responsibility that falls upon the traveler to do a little research of our own before we begin our trip. You'll find the website of your airline to be much more reliable than what you might be told over the phone or at any counter. Swiss.com does state the additional charge for sporting equipment, including "1 regular bicycle without motor or 1 tandem or 1 child trolley for the bicycle," considered medium size, at $200 on intercontinental flights. Next time, read up before you go. 

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.  

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