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Entries during 2009-08

How to get a particular seat without paying a fee

Q. With more and more airlines charging a fee for advance seat assignments, what advice do you have if you want to avoid the fee but still want a particular seat? I travel by myself, with only carryon baggage. I prefer a window seat, in the back of the plane. Last reclining row, and NEVER over a wing (bad view). I love to get to the airport early, and am usually one of the first on the plane as I don't care how quickly I get off. What are the chances of me getting my preferred seat without paying the fee? And what are the chances if I want a more popular seat (bulkhead aisle)? Even saving ten dollars helps, even if I just get to park a little closer :)

A. Well luckily, most people don't want seats near the last row, so you may not have that much competition. Did you know that seats over the wing tend to experience less turbulence? And most people want to be at the front of the plane so they can get out quicker, or they want exit rows, which are often over the wings. It really depends on how full your flight is. Remember, too, that if you're a loyal frequent flyer, with some airlines you may get precedence in seat selection, no matter how much you pay for your flight. So it pays to fly the same airline exclusively.
 

Standby (and pay up) for take off

Q. On a recent trip from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh, my husband and I wanted to try to fly on an earlier flight. When we approached the US Airways ticket counter, after landing from our flight from Lisbon, we inquired if there was space on an earlier flight and might we be put on a standby status.

The ticket agent explained that because there were seats available for the flight and it was not oversold, she could not list us as standby. We would each have to pay a $50 change fee if we wanted to fly on the earlier flight. Standby could only be available on over sold flights.
Can you tell me when standby no longer became standby?

A. Every airline has slightly different policies for same day standby, and these change from time to time.

Here's US Airways' policy from their web site:

Move up program

We allow you to 'move up' to any earlier flight on the same day of your originally scheduled departure time at the airport (with the exception of flights to Hawaii and Europe). You can only make day-of-departure changes at the airport (and not by calling Reservations).

If there is an open seat available on any earlier US Airways operated flight that departs on the same day as your originally scheduled departure, you may change to that flight and we will automatically confirm your reservation for $50 for flights within the 48 contiguous United States and $50 for flights to Latin America, the Caribbean, Canada and Alaska. This lower confirmation fee replaces the usual $150 change fee, plus any differences between your old fare and new fare, for non-refundable tickets.

If there is not an open seat on an earlier flight that departs on the same day as your originally scheduled departure, you may stand by for that flight at no charge. Standing by at no charge is not permitted if we can confirm that there is an open seat available for that flight. Seats on completely booked flights may become available if passengers with confirmed reservations don't show up for the flight. Unlike a confirmed reservation, flying standby does not guarantee that you will get on the particular flight that you want and may involve waiting for two or more flights before a seat is available to you.

 

On JetBlue, by contrast, you can go standby for the next earlier flight at no charge if seats are available. If you want to fly on the flight before that (assuming there is one), there's a $40 same day confirmed flight change fee.

Last Minute Grandma-to-be Fares

Q. My son and his wife are expecting my first grandchild at the end of October. I live in Central PA and they live in Burbank. They want me to go to California as soon as I can after the baby is born, but since how can I book a good deal in advance without knowing the exact date I'll need to travel?

A. We get this question a lot from soon-to-be grandmothers. Sure, sometimes you might find an inexpensive fare with only a 1 or 3 day advance purchase on certain routes, but those are pretty rare. Your best bet? When you get the call, check out sites that specialize in last minute travel deals like Hotwire and Lastminute. We've always had great luck with Priceline's Name Your Own Price feature, even booking coast-to-coast flights for under $200 the night before we needed to travel.

Save your money for the wedding gift

Q. I was just told by my daugter last weekend that she is getting married in Las Vegas on September 9. My wife and I are DESPERATELY trying to find a way out of Asheville, NC on September 8 to Las Vegas and return to Asheville the next day. How can we find a reasonable rate? Seriously, any advice you could give would be most appreciated. Again, love your site.

A. First of all, if the Wedding is Sept 9, please puhleeez don't plan to fly in on Sept 8! Have you read Dear American Airlines (the very funny but heartbreaking novel)? If not, please do and you'll see why you don't want to take chances with your daughter's wedding. It only happens once in a lifetime. Plan to arrive at least two days before the date in case your flight is cancelled and there's no alternative way to get there.

What time of day is the wedding? If it's not at night, you might consider this option from Travelocity TotalTrip:

This is flight plus two nights hotel for $385 all taxes included.

Even if you don't need the hotel, it might be the cheapest option.

However, it's going to much cheaper to drive the 100 miles to Charlotte and fly from there.

Airtran and Northwest currently have tax-included fares of about $280 roundtrip.

Have a great event! Throw some rice for us!

Dogs on a Plane

Q. Let me state upfront that I am not anti-pets, but I do have a question about pets in the cabin on aircraft. The first leg of a recent flight included a dog in my row--the owner sat in the middle seat with the dog under the window seat. Although not severely allergic to dogs, being seated that close for hours (as well as having the human in what could have been an empty seat between us) was going to be a problem and I asked to be reseated. The flight attendant accommodated my request, but I discovered that there was a dog under my new seat! What are the rules with respect to pets in the cabin, particularly if someone onboard has life-threatening allergies to animals? Who has precedence, the person with the allergy or the pet owner (who has paid more to have the animal in the cabin)? Are the flight attendants aware of where pets are on each flight? In an incredibly bizarre coincidence, on the second leg of my trip, I was again seated next to a person with a dog. At that point, I was too tired and the plane was too full to bother moving!

A. You bring up good points. Airlines do have some indication in advance how many pets will be on board a particular flight, because usually pets are booked far in advance. JetBlue, for example, allows up to four pets per flight, and three of those spots are booked in advance by phone, while the fourth and final pet must be booked at the airport at the ticket counter on a first-come first-serve basis. But the airline might not know exactly where the pets are located until everyone is seated. You have every right to request a seat reassignment and it shouldn't be too hard finding an animal lover to trade places with you. If no one will trade in your cabin, you could ask to be seated in another cabin if available.

Fares to Europe Remain Stubbornly High

Q. Why aren't you listing fares to Europe anymore? Seems like lately all your international fares are to Canada, and sometimes Asia.

A. Of course, one person's "high" is another's bargain, but we're noticing that airfares to Europe, even for dead of winter travel, are much higher than they were for summer travel when the airlines had some sales earlier this year. Perhaps the most frequent question we get in the Airfarewatchdog Q&A mailbox is, "Why aren't you listing fares to Europe anymore?" Trust us, we'd love to, and we have been searching for you, but because we saw tax-included summer fares to Europe this past spring in the $500's, $400's, $300's, and yes, even the $200's, we just can't get all that excited about today's fall/winter fares in the $700's and $600's. Of course, it's true that the airlines have cut back flights to Europe for travel after Labor Day, and perhaps the reduced seat capacity allows them to charge more. Perhaps $600 winter fares to Europe are the new reality. But somehow we doubt it. We are loathe to predict airfares. We'll leave that to our fellow airfare pundits--the ones with the turbans and working crystal balls-- but at current prices, can there be much downside to waiting for the next shoulder season or winter season seat sale to Europe?

International Fares Not Always Equal in Reverse

Q. I'm paying for my sister to fly from New Zealand to Los Angeles, so I checked Air New Zealand's website for airfares. I first looked at fares from Los Angeles to New Zealand, round trip; then realizing that I had to be on the 'New Zealand' side of the website, I looked at fares from NZ to LA. Same flights, sorta, just different starting points. Is there a reason why the plane that would carry my sister here for $993 (NZ$ 1,500) would turn around and carry someone here to NZ for only $746? Again, the fares were round trip, so the same airport fees and surcharges would be factored in to the price.

Is it because there's more demand for getting out of NZ than there is for getting in? Is it because it's winter in NZ and perennially warm in California? Is it because my sister is coming for my wedding and, like the caterers, Air New Zealand is charging more simply because it's wedding related?

A. First off, congratulations! And aren't you a nice to buy your sister's ticket! We say, scrap the caterers and ask her to whip up the food. Two birds, one less expensive stone? No? Ok, well maybe that's a bad idea. Anyhoo...

Until we truly have a global economy, prices will always vary from country to country, depending on the comparative value of currency and local economies. It's similar to when folks from one country flock to another to stock up on luxury goods for half the price they'd find at home. The same applies to airfares. airlines charge whatever they think the market will bear, based on passenger loads, competition, seasonality,  and other factors. In general, also, the airport fees and other fees leaving from a foreign airport will not be identical to those leaving from a US airport.
 

Beware of Seat Scams

Q. I purchased a great fare from Chicago to Paris on United for late July travel via Orbitz. When I got to the seat selection part, the computer said that online selection for this flight had ended, so I called United only to be told that they would not give me seat assignments until I checked in at the airport. Since this was a very long flight and we were traveling as a family of four this was really rather upsetting, so we arrived at the airport extra early to get our seats. After waiting in a huge line to see an agent he told us that there were no seats left in economy but that we could sit in "economy plus" for $398 more per person! After refusing this ridiculous offer he proceeded to go ahead and give us the seats in economy plus anyway at no extra charge - basically they are overselling regular economy then trying to scam customers into paying extra for five extra inches of legroom! Is this a common practice?

A. It's good that you stood your ground. If regular economy was oversold, then United would have had a choice between upgrading you for free (which they did) or bumping you (involuntary denied boarding) and compensating you in cash for as much as $800 per person. Unfortunately, we've heard of other instances where United would only assign seats in advance if passengers upgraded to their Economy Plus seating. Keep in mind that it's becoming a more common industry practice to charge for advance seat assignments, or to offer the perk only on more expensive fares. British Airways, for example, offers this service just 24 hours in advance on its cheapest fares, giving those who pay more the opportunity to snag the best seats.

Capacity Cuts: Taking the long way home

Q. I bought a flight on United from Cheaptickets.com but they changed my itinerary on the way back from Europe, forcing me to layover in Chicago for six hours, which means when I get to Albuquerque, my final destination, at 10 p.m., I'll need to get a hotel overnight at my own expense. United claims they have no earlier flights and there are not any other convenient connections that would avoid the layover. I guess this illustrates the risk of dealing online with a company like Cheaptickets. Any advice would be greatly appreciated.

A. Actually, this has nothing to do with Cheaptickets. What you've come up against is that airlines are cutting service to smaller cities such as Albuquerque, and unfortunately we're going to see more and more of this as the airlines cut capacity over the next few months, especially for travel after Labor Day. Addressing your itinerary, there are flights that depart Chicago O'Hare earlier, but they require one or two connections and they actually arrive later than the flight you've been rescheduled on. Even United's connecting flights arrive in Albuquerque at 10:39 p.m. now, later than the nonstop you've been put on. Even if you were to beg United to put you on another airline, your only option to get you there sooner would be an American nonstop leaving at 7:05 p.m. and arriving at 9:05 p.m. And chances are that United wouldn't do that.

If you're desperate to get home earlier, the only option is to head over to Chicago Midway and take a Southwest Airlines flight leaving at 5:05 p.m. that arrives nonstop at 7:10 p.m. But at current prices, that'll set you back $188 plus tax. The only silver lining is that if your incoming flight from Europe is delayed, at least you'll have a better chance of making your connection.

When Does Hawaii Go On Sale?

Q.  Aloha Watchdog! Our family is hoping to fly to either Kauai or the Big Island from SFO in August of 2010. What time of year do airlines usually have big airfare sales to Hawaii? Mahalo!

A.  And a big Aloha to you too!  One of the most predictable thing about airfare sales is that they're unpredictable.   If only we could say, "The week after the cherry trees blossom on the East Coast has always been the time of year that we've found the lowest fares for travel to..."   In fact, the airlines use the element of surprise to try to undercut and undersell each other all the time with unadvertised sales and price reductions.  Signing up for our alerts or visiting the website often is one of the best ways you can keep on top of what's going on with your route.  You'll be able to keep an eye on both prices and fare periods.  Then, when you see your period of travel coming up, you'll be coiled up and ready to pounce on a great price, like the sale fare predator we know you to be!

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