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Entries during 2011-07

Play it safe with international connections

Q. I'm flying from Los Angeles to Brisbane on a Qantas flight departing at 11:50pm. I now need to book a flight from Bellingham or Seattle to Los Angeles to connect to my Quantas flight. If I arrive in Los Angeles at 7:37pm, is it enough time to make my Quantas flight? How much time should I leave between flights in order to arrive in plenty of time to check in for my 11:50pm flight?

A. Given all the things that can and do go wrong in the course of a trip, we're not so sure we'd cut it so close. What if your flight to Los Angeles is cancelled and there are no empty seats for the rest of the day? And what if your Qantas fare is non-changeable/non-refundable? Miss your flight to Brisbane and you might have to buy a whole new ticket on the next available flight, if there's availability.

I'd suggest arriving in Los Angeles the day before, just to allow yourself a little wiggle room. And if nothing goes wrong and you make it to LA with plenty of time to spare, you can always drop in on your long lost cousin Gertrude, or grab some In-and-Out Burger and loaf around Hollywood Blvd. Or something.

Get a room! And maybe a voucher too?

Q. I just returned to Seattle from Reno and my flight back on Saturday night on Alaska Air/Horizon was cancelled.  The airline was unable to get me on another plane until Monday morning.  Alaska Airlines put me up in a hotel and covered meals, but shouldn’t I also get compensation—at least reimbursement for my ticket since they definitely didn’t get me home within 24 hours? I’m a little irritated because I have a sneaking suspicion that they didn’t get me on another plane because I wasn’t complaining loudly and being unpleasant—I didn’t see anyone else from that plane at the hotel after Sunday morning.

A. That is a long time to be spending away from home. I'm surprised they couldn't re-route you, even if through Chicago, Atlanta, or another major hub. Alaska is one of the few airlines that still has a Rule 240 in its contract of carriage, meaning that they will put you on another airline if there is a flight irregularity within their control.  I would definitely ask for a voucher good for future travel... maybe $200? Also, there's no law or rule saying that the airline is even required to put you up in a hotel or provide meals, and many won't step to the plate. So Alaska at least did that for you. By the way, those who complain in an unpleasant manner are usually the ones who get the least compensation. Maybe you didn't see the other "loud" passengers at the hotel because Alaska didn't give them hotel rooms.

*Follow up: This reader did indeed ask for compensation, and Alaska apologized and gave her a travel voucher for $300. So it's always a good idea to ask.

Last Chance Dance

Q. I use Orbitz frequently for researching airfares (but then book direct on the carrier site—shame on me!).  I often see fares with warnings on them saying that there are only “three seats left at this price” or two seats left or whatever the case may be.  Are these real alerts, or are they pure marketing to get you to buy now instead of waiting?  

A.They're probably real warnings. Airlines offer a small number of seats in each "fare bucket" (they are often over a dozen different fare levels on each route on any given day). However, airlines adjust the number at each price level throughout the day and week, so if you search again, you may find a different story. By the way, I can see why people search on Orbitz and then book on the airlines' sites directly, but often online travel agencies such as Orbitz, Expedia, and Travelocity will alert you that the best deal is flying out on one airline and returning or connecting on a second airline. Airline websites might show you higher fares because they want to keep you on their own planes for the entire trip.

On-Time Predictions

Q. I booked a flight to Honolulu with a tight connection in San Francisco. Is there any way to predict if my inbound flight to San Francisco and my outbound to Honolulu will be on time?

A. There sure is! The U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics maintains on time data for most domestic flights. For example, if we search JetBlue's flight 0619 from New York to Jacksonville (a flight we frequently take), you see that from May 1 to December 31 2010, the average departure delay for this flight was 32.77 minutes with an average arrival delay of just 22.53 minutes. A total of nine flights were cancelled on this route during this time period. To search any flight, visit BTS and search by flight number and follow the instructions. You can also check averages for airlines and airports in general. All sorts of info available! Afterwards, if you're still concerned about making your connection in such circumstances, next time you fly try to build in a longer layover, which you can sometimes do on line when booking, or with the help of an airline reservationist or travel agent.

A note from home, just in case

Q. What type of documentation does a grandparent need to take her grandchild on a plane trip. Also, what type of documentation would be needed if only one parent is flying with a child when the parents aren’t married? I always insist on a letter from the other parent and I make sure that it is notarized. The kids tell me I am going overboard, but I would hate to get them there but unable to get them back without the proper documents. I also make them fill out a medical form in case of emergencies.

A. Doesn't sound overboard to us, not one bit. You should always travel with a notarized letter of parental consent, when traveling with children who are not accompanied by both their birth parents, especially when traveling to a foreign destination. In this day and age it can save you lots of grief and prevent the trip from being a no-go situation.

It's Always Expensive to Philadelphia

Q. I have been tracking fares from Chicago to Philadelphia, New York and New Jersey for the last few months. While I frequently see great deals to New York and New Jersey, in fact some amazing deals, I have yet to see an actual deal on flights to Philadelphia. I don't understand the discrepancy. The airports are only a couple hours apart and I could easily fly into Newark or New York instead of Philly so why is it so much more expensive to fly there? This is driving me a little nuts!

A. Part of the reason is that Philadelphia is a US Airways "fortress hub," meaning that US Airways is a predominate carrier there. True, Southwest now serves Philadelphia, and that has helped a bit, but New York's two major airports (LaGuardia and JFK) are served by almost every U.S.-based airline. Newark is a Continental Airlines hub, but Southwest recently started flying there and introduced some amazingly low airfares. One workaround is to fly into Newark and hop on the train to get to Philadelphia. The trip takes about an hour. You can also take one of the many discount bus services, such as Bolt Bus, between the two cities.

Longer the stay, the more you pay?

Q. Why do airlines charge more if you stay longer than 30 days? My husband and I are flying Lufthansa overseas this summer. My ticket is $566 more than my husband's, because he's staying just 3 weeks and I'm staying for 5 weeks. I would think to encourage tourism the price would decrease the longer you stay, but apparently not?

A. The airlines figure that casual vacationers who are just looking to go somewhere for a week or two, have more discretion in choosing where to vacation and thus need to be wooed with lower sale fares. Someone who's staying longer usually has a more compelling reason (such as work or a family visit), which makes them more willing to pay the higher fares.

Of course, there are exceptions! Just look at this Fare of the Day, which works out to be a real bargain for lengthy stays!

Connecting Trains

Q. I paid for a flight from Nuremberg to Toronto. The airline had a stop in Frankfurt. When i checked in at Nuremberg, they told me they were not flying to Frankfurt, instead they gave me a ticket on a train to Frankfurt instead (train ticket costs 2 Euros). I had to lug my luggage to the train station, do a train transfer, and took almost twice as long to get to Frankfurt than the plane would.  
Am I not entitled to a refund of the portion of the ticket that they didn't provide the flight for? Is a train ticket a fair substitute?

A. Lufthansa frequently combines high speed rail service with flights, although it may not be absolutely obvious, on connections over short distances. Yes, it's a bit of a pain but in many ways the train is faster and experiences fewer delays than a short flight might, especially in bad weather. It's a good idea to ask the airline if a train connection is involved. In the U.S., Continental Airlines often adds a rail connection for short hops into Newark.

Search sites not as cheap as DIY itinerary?

Q. I received an airfare alert recently of a great fare from Houston to Tokyo on Delta for $456 roundtrip including taxes. I live in Dallas, and the fare from here to Tokyo was almost $1000 roundtrip with tax on the very same dates. However, searching further I discovered that on those dates I could fly Dallas to Houston for anywhere between $100 and $200 roundtrip. So doing the math—well, you see where this is going. My question: why didn’t any of the fare search sites I looked at, and I queried about a dozen of them including Travelocity, Kayak, and Orbitz, tell me how I could combine the two fares and save almost $500?

 A. That’s a very good question, and I’m not sure I have an easy answer other than that the software these sites use aren’t equipped to figure out combination fares such as the one you found. Keep in mind that were your flights to and from Dallas delayed or canceled, the airlines wouldn’t have much sympathy for you, and you wouldn’t be able to check any bags through to Tokyo in one transaction (of course, you might argue that even had you bought the single more expensive fare, the airlines wouldn’t have been much help either). If you decide to use this perfectly legal fare strategy, please give yourself plenty (5-6 hours isn’t too much) of time between connecting flights. Another comment I’ll make which will gladden the hearts of any travel agents reading this: good brick-and-mortar travel agents come up with fare savings like this all the time, and I’m sure they too would caution you about the pitfalls.

About that free round-trip ticket you gave up your seat for...

Q. I volunteered to give up my seat when my flight was overbooked and was given a free round-trip ticket in compensation. But now I’m finding that the ticket is hard to use because of restrictions, and it was only valid for a year and will expire soon. Can I trade it in for a voucher that will last another year, or shouldn’t I bother calling the airline to ask this favor?

A. It’s usually better to ask for a cash payment in situations like this, or at least a voucher in a set amount (such as $200 or whatever) rather than a free ticket. Often these free tickets are the equivalent of frequent flyer tickets or fares, which are capacity controlled.  You can certainly ask the airline to extend the voucher. Miracles do happen.

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