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Entries during 2011-06

Broken kiosk causes back-up

Q. In May, I bought a one-way fare from Brussels to Frankfurt. On the day of departure I arrive at the airport in plenty of time to stand in one long line (I counted 90 passengers) waiting to do a preliminary check in at a kiosk (this was the only check in option) before reaching a secondary check in line. Only one of four kiosks was operating. I was assured by the lone employee that I would make the flight, but when I finally reached the “actual” check in desk I was told the flight was closed and I would have to buy a new fare for 500 Euros. The airline refuses to refund my new fare and of course I lost the value of my original fare. Is there any thing I can do?

A. Sounds like you were mistreated for sure. The only thing I can suggest is that you file a complaint with the European Commission’s Transport office. You can file a preliminary query on their Web site. The EC has better consumer protection for airline passengers than we do in the US. For example, if a long-haul flight from the EU to the US is 5 or more hours late in arriving, you're entitled to cash compensation of 600 Euros, unless the airline can prove that the delay was beyond its control. You’ll find the complaint form online here: http://ec.europa.eu/transport/passengers/contact/index_en.htm.

Two Fees for One Bag?

Q. If I am checking a piece of luggage that weighs over 50 pounds, will I pay the airline's first checked bag fee in addition to its "overweight" fee, or does just one fee apply?

A. Unfortunately, you'll end up paying both fees, each way. Depending on the airline you fly, it may be cheaper to pack your belongings in two bags rather than pay the overweight fee on just one bag. You might also look into shipping the contents of your bag via FedEx Ground, which is sometimes cheaper than paying airline bag fees.

Alerts, Tweets, the Works! Cover all your bases!

Q. I just read someone's comment stating they paid $61 for a trip from Boston to San Diego! Although I did hear that particular fare was possibly a mistake fare posted by the airline. I'm trying to get to Miami from Houston, but can't get a break! Should I be following you on Twitter? Is that different than signing up for a newsletter?

A. Absolutely, follow us on Twitter, in addition to signing up for our newsletter and a city-to-city alert from Miami to Houston. The thing about Twitter? It's more immediate and we sometimes have fares that may not make our departure newsletters. Come late afternoon, should there be a late breaking sale, we might not bother sending out an additional newsletter if we've already sent one that morning. And by the time you get tomorrow's newsletter, the sale you've been waiting on may have expired. So if you're serious about eyeing a particular route, be sure to cover all your bases.

Honoring Fat Finger Fares

Q. I love Airfarewatchdog and have booked several great deals in the past year thanks to your tweets. I've even saved several of my friends lots of money by sharing your site with them. Thanks to a recent tweet, I purchased a Boston to San Diego ticket on Continental that was going for $61.30 total round trip. I'm about to depart on this trip and just called the airline to ask about their standby policies. I called Continental and asked if I could take an earlier flight the same day, but learned it will cost almost as much to change ($50). When I talked to the ticket agent, she was blown away by the price I paid for my ticket, and asked how I found it. She hadn't heard of airfarewatchdog.com before and said she would have to tell her coworkers about it. This ticket agent was sure it was a mistake but didn't know a mistake could be this low. The breakdown of the fare shows that the airfare portion of the round trip ticket cost just over $18, and the rest of the cost was in fees and taxes. I was worried for a moment that they weren't going to honor my ticket because it was a mistake, but she assured me that they would have to honor it as I bought it directly from the Continental website. If the ticket agents weren't aware that tickets could be sold for this low, how then do these prices slip by? I feel like I alerted the airline to the airfarewatchdog secret, but I know they have enough people watching every fare that they should know when tickets are sold for incredible deals, right? 

My conversation with the ticket agent took a humorous turn when I told her that I traveled to Europe in February for $150 round trip on Delta. I could almost hear her yell over her cubical wall to the ticket agent next to her about this website they had to check out.

A. Yes indeed, we remember those airfare bargains well. Were they “fat finger fares” (i.e., mistakes that some poor airline employee made when programming the computers) or were they intentional? Airlines will never answer that question (we've asked). We think those $150 tax-included fares to Europe on Delta were a mistake (the airline forgot to include the fuel surcharge perhaps), because they didn’t last very long (just a few hours), although they were valid for travel dates through the spring, but Delta honored them. Recently, Spanair and USAir had a joint fare to Spain for summer travel for under $400 round-trip from New Orleans and slightly higher from other cities. Unfortunately, the online travel agencies that sold these fares (Expedia, Orbitz, Priceline, Travelocity, etc.) decided not to honor some of these fares, blaming Spanair and US Airways for the "bait and switch," after they were bought by some consumers. Other purchasers tell us that their flights have been confirmed after buying the very same fares, however. It makes no sense to us. Sometimes airlines and travel agencies honor “mistake” fares, sometimes they don’t, and in this instance it looks like they honored some purchases but not others (some airlines have language in their contracts of carriage that they reserve the right not to honor mistakes). As for your new friend at Continental reservations, although most airline employees fly for free or almost free, many of them follow airfarewatchdog’s free email alerts and twitter feeds, because the tickets they fly on are usually standby and they’d rather pay for a confirmed seat than an "iffy" free one.

Expectant grandmother might change dates

Q. My first grandson is scheduled to be born soon and my husband and I would love to reserve flights but we all know that the baby could come days before or after the due date. I need not tell you that the airline would hit us with all kinds of fees to travel outside of our scheduled flight. I toy with the idea to go stand-by but as you know they have made many changes to the rules that make it difficult to go stand-by, not to mention more fees and loops to jump through. Is there a program out there that addresses our situation?

A. Standby travel rules, as you noted, have changed and as the question above explains, it's only for same day travel where permitted. The only way to mitigate this "expectant grandmother" scenario, other than paying a fee as much as $150 and any applicable fare difference, is to fly on Southwest Airlines. Southwest doesn't charge a change fee. However, you might be charged a fare difference if the current fare is higher than your original fare.

Same day change fee policies vary by airline

Q. I ended my visit to another city earlier than I expected and wanted to take an earlier flight back home on the same day as originally scheduled (my original flight was to depart at 5 p.m. but I attempted to take a12 noon flight). However, United wanted to charge me the same change fee ($150) that I would pay had I changed the day or week of my flight.  I thought I could go standby for an earlier flight for free, or at least that used to be the policy. Do all airlines charge to standby for an empty seat on an earlier flight on the same day?

A. U.S.-based airlines have slightly different policies regarding same day flight change fees. They used to allow standing by for a different flight on the same day for free, but no more. Most airlines charge $50, and only allow confirmed same day changes rather than standby. United charges $75, Jetblue charges $40. Most airlines require that you make your change request no more than three hours before flight time (in other words, if the flight you wish to change to leaves at 5 p.m., you cannot make your change request earlier than 2 p.m.). Southwest is a bit different in that it doesn't charge to make same day changes (or any changes for that matter); however, if your original fare was $59 and there are no more $59 seats available on your requested new flight, you will have to pay any fare difference. However, sometimes airlines will waive same day change fees if it suits them, especially if your original flight is delayed or cancelled (or if show up at the gate minutes before the flight and there's no time to collect the fee). And Jetblue will let you standby for the flight immediately preceding your original one for free.

Fuel surcharges don't add up

Q. I have a question on the fuel surcharge airlines charge.  I was booking tickets to travel in July on Spirit Airlines from Chicago to Myrtle Beach. On the return flight, there are 2 options listed: one is a non-stop and one has 1 stop in Atlantic City.  For the non-stop flight there was a fuel surcharge of $40. However, the route w/ the stop over had no fuel surcharge.  Is there a reason for this?  Logically it seems the surcharge would be at least the same (if not more since the route has to fly a longer distance to reach the same destination).  Is it just a clever scheme to get more people to fly a route that might have a lower capacity?  Finally, do you know if other airlines practice this as well?

A. You bring up a great point regarding Spirit's fuel charge. It appears that Spirit is just charging a flat rate for fuel between two cities regardless if there is a connection or not. Ironically, there are some city pairs where no fuel charge is added at all (regardless if it is a nonstop flight or a connection). It is probably a competitive move to keep prices in line with other airlines.

For example, between Detroit and Ft. Lauderdale/Miami, Spirit is competing with both Delta and American for nonstop flights so they want to keep their prices as low as possible. But between Chicago and Myrtle Beach, there is no other nonstop competition so they can charge a fuel surcharge. This may not be uniform across their schedule, but we suspect they are choosing whether to add it or not based on competitive reasons rather than on all flights.

Really doesnt make you feel like you are genuinely paying for fuel when you catch on to their tricks! Thanks for pointing this out!

There is no other North American airline at the moment that we know of that sets apart the fuel surcharge the way Spirit does. Some airlines do raise their fees, however, because they are building in the fuel surcharge without you knowing what it is. Spirit has always been a market leader in terms of testing out new fee add-ons. Perhaps others will be soon to follow!

The Wacky World of Fluctuating Fares

Q. I had a terrible situation last week: My husband needed to go to Dayton for business. (We're  in California.) We had fewer than seven days in advance to book and I was trying to book on a Wednesday. All flights on Expedia, Travelocity, Orbitz, and even on carrier's direct Web sites (Delta, Southwest) were giving me air fares of over $600 round trip! I was at a loss. I did find one that he would have taken (I think it was around $564 round-trip including tax, but it went to $800 as I was booking it).  I showed him the results on the Web so he saw the fares and options. So the next morning, my husband asked an assistant at his Dayton office to look into it. As it turned out, she got the same flights I looked at but for just $387 round trip!  

This is not the first time that I have had fares go up as I'm researching. Of course, I know that fares fluctuate constantly, but this seems to happen to me all the time. Is it possible that our computers somehow get "cookies" or some linkage that tracks our booking research and jack up the prices. The gal in Dayton also said that she had heard that somehow, fares are higher for people booking in California versus the Midwest. What can I do as I'm losing faith in the travel Web sites and I'm losing credibility in the eyes of those that I book travel for. Does this happen to anyone else?

A. Sometimes there is just one seat available at the lowest fare on a particular flight and since hundreds of thousands of people are searching fares in any given week, it's possible that between the time you saw the low fare and the time you attempted to book it, someone else had grabbed it. Airlines also change fares faster than ever before thanks to "improved" technology. And certainly over the course of a day of from one day to the next, a fare can change dramatically. That's why we urge people to sign up for free fare alerts by email and Twitter. Do "cookies" play a part? It's possible. Our fare researchers at airfarewatchdog.com have noticed that if they research a flight on a particular route and don't book it, but then come back a few minutes later the lower fare disappears unless they clear cookies on their browser. It doesn't happen often, but we have seen this. Is this because the booking engine showed the lowest fare and it wasn't booked so to save time it then showed the next highest fare? We don't know. But it doesn't hurt to clear cookies from time to time.

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