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Entries during 2009-07

When to pull the trigger on airfares

Q. I'm trying to find a good deal from Hartford to Miami this fall. Do rates change daily? Should I search for fares every day? If I book today, how can I be sure that I've gotten the best deal?

A. Airfares are a lot like the stock market. Prices change up to 3 times a day on domestic routes, and even more frequently on international fares, depending on demand and the whims of the airlines. It's anything but predictable. We do recommend checking Airfarewatchdog (and other fare monitoring sites such as Yapta.com, Orbitz.com, Farecast.com, and Farecompare.com) everyday to keep track of what's being offered. A good way to know that you're getting a good deal is to sign up for Airfarewatchdog alerts for your preferred route and when a great fare becomes available, you'll get an email notification.

If you're jittery about buying too soon, and find that fares have gone down since your purchase, call your airline. Many will offer to refund the difference in the form of a travel voucher valid for one year, as long as you remain on the same flight and travel dates, but they usually deduct a "service" fee (up to $150 on domestic flights, and $250 or more on international ones) that may wipe out your refund. Three airlines, however, will refund your fare drop without a fee: Alaska, JetBlue, and Southwest. Yapta will allow you to register your flight and fare, and alert you if you're entitled to a fare drop refund, but it only works with certain airlines. However, the best strategy is to buy when the fare is low rather than go begging for a refund.

Scales telling tales?

Q. I recently took a trip where I was dangerously close to being overweight with both my checked bags. With this in mind, I weighed both my bags with a certified scale before leaving the house and found that both bags weighed in at 40 pounds. When I got to the check-in counter, however, my first bag weighed in at 57 pounds on the airline's scales, the other at 42 pounds. Obviously, I switched some things around to avoid paying an overweight bag fee. Is it possible the airlines' scales aren't zeroed automatically, or accurate? Or is this a conspiracy to add overweight bag fees.

A. Like any scale, airline baggage scales are not always accurate, and more local authorities should make a habit of checking and certifying airport scales on a frequent basis, especially as airlines add and increase bag fees. Airfarewatchdog.com recommends that frequent flyers who check bags often bring along a portable baggage scale when they fly. We've been testing the Balanzza Digital Luggage Scale and find it highly accurate. Amazon.com sells it for $16.99, but you can also probably find it at local luggage stores. It weighs just under a pound, measures up to 100 pounds, and can measure both pounds and kilograms.

Flyer's Rights? Meh. Not so much.

Q. We booked tickets from Minneapolis to Barbados. Two weeks before our departure date, the airline informed us that our flight was leaving at 7 AM rather than 9 AM; on the return flight, due to another "schedule change," we will need to overnight, at our expense, in San Juan. We live quite a distance from the Minneapolis airport, so it looks like we'll have to get a hotel near the airport, again at our expense since the airline refuses to pay, in order to make our outbound flight (either that or stay up all night). Can the airlines really do this to their customers?


A. Why yes, they can. And all you can do is ask for a full refund and buy a (perhaps more expensive) last minute flight on another airline. This is one of the most infuriating questions that we get at Airfarewatchdog.com and it really burns us up to read emails like this. Passenger rights in the US are in a pretty sorry state. To find out what you can do to help push a Passengers' Bill of Rights, visit Flyersrights.org.


 

Non-stop Bait & Switch

Q. I found a very unusual fare from New York City to Denver at $138 round-trip on a non-stop flight. Needless to say, I was very pleased with myself since I usually pay $250 or more. But then, a few weeks before my departure, the airline called me and told me that I'd now be on connecting flights. Worse, instead of flying in a big 757, all my flights would now be on regional jets. Needless to say, I am now not very pleased. What should I do? Can the airlines do this? And why would they? By the way, I checked on line and there are still lots of seats available on the non-stop for my days of travel, but needless to say they're now charging $700 round-trip. Oh, also the flight times were changed, not surprisingly, and now I have to get up much earlier to make the flight.

A. The airlines spell out very clearly in their contracts of carriage that they can change schedules without notice (at least you were notified!) and that, in one airline's contract, "Under no circumstances shall American be liable for any special, incidental or consequential damages." It's entirely possible that your airline had second thoughts about selling prime non-stop seats at such a low price, and is now selling them to last minute travelers for a lot more. I do think, however, that if you call the airline and are kind but persistent they will put you back on your original flights. If you don't like the answer you get at first, call again and again until they agree. Ask to speak to a supervisor. You might even go out to the airport and see someone face to face. And good luck.

Preventing Miles from Expiring

Q. I'm not a frequent flyer so I don't know how these miles work. I understand that if I don't use them then they could expire, and I'd hate to lose them before I even have enough to put towards a trip. I thought I read somewhere that you can do something to keep those miles from expiring. Any ideas?

A. Most frequent flyer programs will expire your miles if there is no "activity" in your account over a 12, 18 or 24 month period depending on airline (Delta uses a 24 month limit, JetBlue and Air Canada a 12 month limit). In our opinion, the best way to preserve frequent flyer miles, other than flying of course, is to buy something, anything, online using the airline's shopping mall. Not only do you preserve miles, but you get extra bonus points as well. Most all airline have relationships with online retailers, such as Apple, Target, Sears, and Walmart and when you buy through the airline's mall web site you'll get between 1 and 10 frequent flyer miles for each dollar spent, even if it's just a $1.49 iTunes purchase. You can also sign up for and use an airline-affiliated credit card, which counts as account activity, but these can have hefty annual fees. More on this, and links to the airlines' mall sites, in the Airfarewatchdog Blog.

Flying with Fido

Q. I am traveling to Oregon this summer and would like my dog to fly with me. Will this be possible, and will it be expensive? 

A. It really depends on your airline. Some allow small pets to fly in the cabin, as long as they're in a kennel that fits under your seat (and the kennel counts as your one allowed carry on item.) Other airlines will have you check your dog and fly him in the cargo hold below, and a handful of airlines (including Frontier) refuse to transport pets entirely, although Southwest recently reversed its no pets in cabin policy and now carries them for a $75 each way fee. 

As far as costs go, flying pets doesn't come cheap. Even in cargo, it's possible that your dog's fare could exceed your own. For those traveling to Europe with a larger animal, the kennel services of Cunard's Queen Mary 2 may turn out to be cheaper than flying cargo, although the crossing takes almost a week. For pet fees by airline, visit the Airfarewatchdog airline fee chart. 

Pet owners who travel might also want to investigate Pet Airways, set to begin flying mid-July. Pet Airways allows pets ("pawsengers") to fly in the cabin, where they receive much more attention than if they were crammed in the underbelly of the plane with the golf clubs and the surfboards. Unfortunately, owners are not allowed to fly with their animals.

Same Day Flight Changes

Q. I am flying to Jamaica with my girlfriend this weekend. At the time I booked the flight, I was kind of rushed and distracted and I booked it for an evening departure. In the fullness of time, I realized that we will not be making it out of the Montego Bay airport and to our rental car before 8:30 PM (our flight arrives at 7:30). We then have to drive for 2 hours to our hotel. Anyway, long story short, I would like advice on the best way to minimize the cost of changing to an earlier departing flight on the same day. Are airlines often willing to do this at a nominal fee if there are seats available? How does one go about asking them to do this--does it matter?

A. Airlines usually charge for a confirmed same day flight change and they're often higher for international travel than for domestic. For example, US Airways charges $50 for flights in the US and to Canada, Latin America and the Caribbean, and changes are only allowed to earlier flights, not later. However, if you wish to take your chances and fly standby for the later flight, there may be no charge. You're taking a chance with standby, since the earlier flight may fill up. 

However, you could also do this to avoid the fee:  show up a couple of hours before the scheduled departure of the flight you really want to take and throw yourself at the mercy of the ticket agent. Maybe your original flight has been cancelled, in which case they will most likely confirm you on the earlier flight at no charge; or maybe it's oversold, so again it's in their interest to send you earlier in the day. 

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