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Entries during 2010-09

Does Southwest's Acquisition of AirTran Mean its Fees Will Change?

Q: Couldn't help but notice that by purchasing AirTran, Southwest now owns an airline that charges bag fees, something Southwest has refused to do. Does this mean Southwest will be changing its policy?

A: In a word, no. Sure, it was strange to see Southwest, which loves to boast "Bags Fly Free," acquire an airline that charges for the privilege. But Southwest execs made it clear right off the bat that most of its policies, including those two free checked bags, will remain. The airline has no plans to adopt AirTran's business-class seating or assigned seat assignments, choosing instead to stick with its' tried-and-true single-class, cattle call approach.

What to expect from the Continental/United merger?

Q. Now that the Continental/United Airlines merger has been approved, what can I expect as a consumer? What will happen to my frequent flyer miles (Continental’s miles don’t expire in inactive accounts, but United’s do)? If I have membership in Continental’s Presidents Club will I automatically get membership in United’s Red Carpet Club? Will fares go up? How about fees? Am I right in assuming that mergers aren’t good news for us consumers?

A: Let’s start with airfares. There have been dozens of mergers and failures in the airline industry over the last few decades, and yet airfares have actually gone down when adjusted for inflation. So on average, if fares go up as a result of this latest merger, then they won’t go up much. It’s a fact that when fares go up too much, passengers stay home or seek other means of transport, so the airlines will be careful.

What we will see, however, are fewer unadvertised hit-and-run airfare reductions between the airlines’ hubs. We’ve been tracking these price wars for years at Airfarewatchdog.com, and some of them were pretty amazing, such as the time a few years ago when Delta reduced every single domestic fare from Continental’s hubs to $88 roundtrip, and Continental retaliated soon after with $128 roundtrip fares systemwide. That sort of thing won’t happen anymore. Now that Delta has merged with Northwest, those two airlines won't be battling each other; nor with US Air, with America West, nor Continental with United, nor Midwest with Frontier. And should US Air combline with, say, American, or American with AirTran (we're purely speculating here), then competition will be further reduced.

And as more airlines merge, the news isn’t so good concerning fees. When there are many airlines to choose from, they tend to compete somewhat by offering different fee structures. With fewer airlines, there are fewer places to take your business if you’re trying to avoid fees.

But don’t worry about your frequent flyer miles. In fact, the merger may be a plus in that regard, since if you have only 10,000 miles on United and 15,000 on Continental (neither amount worth a free ticket) now you’ll have a combined 25,000 miles, which will get you a free ride. However, usually in mergers, the more restrictive airlines’ policies apply, so we suspect that those miles will continue to expire, per United’s policy. And yes, you’ll now have access to both airlines’ airport clubs. 

One positive development might be that if your flight is cancelled or delayed, now you’ll have a much larger route network to reschedule on. Pre-merger, if your flight from New York to Los Angeles, connecting in United’s Chicago, hub was delayed or cancelled, then United wouldn’t have tried getting you there via Continental’s Cleveland hub. But now that the two airlines are one, very big and (hopefully) happy family, you’ll have many more connection and rerouting possibilites through the combined airlines’ expanded hub network.

Are Your Fares Reversible?

Q.  Your fares are so fantastic and I use them to visit my boyfriend all the time, but what if he wanted to come and visit me? Can we get the same low price for a roundtrip ticket coming from the other direction?

And finally, what if we decide to stop all the "back and forth-ing" and settle down in one city? Would one of us be able to use your great round-trip fares for a one-way ticket?

A.  Almost all the domestic sale fares that we list are good for travel starting in either city listed.  Here's the quickest and easiest way to check:  if you see a fare on your city's farepage or in your newsletter alert (such as a fare to JFK listed on the LAX page), then go to the other city's farepage on our website to check if the opposite is true as well (if you see a fare to LAX listed on the JFK page, you're golden!).

As for snagging that one-way sale fare for domestic travel, we conveniently note it in our listings whenever it applies.  Just look for the magic words "One-way for half the roundtrip fare" - which means for roughly half the price of a roundtrip ticket, you can purchase a one-way ticket with this sale fare.  Make sure to check out our FAQ page entry on how to book one-way fares on third-party websites like Travelocity.

Continental United Mile Merger

Q. Do you think it is advisable to use all your Continental OnePass miles before the end of the year merger with United? I can't imagine them allowing you to keep and combine all your miles from both programs. The question is addressed in a Q&A on United's website, but the answer is evasive and only states that they will combine the best aspects of both programs. It also says that you can continue to use miles from both sources. It is worded in the present tense, and does not actually state that you WILL be able to continue to use the miles from both programs after the merger. Am I being paranoid or are they being deliberately unclear.

A. United will most certainly combine the miles you have in OnePass into your United MileagePlus account. In fact, if history is any indication, they may even provide an incentive, such as 500 miles, for you to help them by merging the two accounts yourself online.  No worries! I also believe that if you have elite status in OnePass, that will carry over into the United program as well.

Low Fare Guarantee not so Guaranteed?

Q. I wanted to make consumers aware that United's Low Fare Guarantee (LFG) is primarily a marketing ploy and not much of a guarantee.  I was purchasing a ticket from Washington to Bangkok.  The top result on Bing's travel search engine was from airfare.com.  It was $100 cheaper per person than United's fares.  However, I made the terrible decision to trust United's Low Fare Guarantee.  I went through the trouble of taking screenshots, submitting a form, and reading the fine print that requires me to send a follow-up email in addition to the form submission. 

The end result was that my claim was denied and I was out $200 on two fares.  Worse, I did not heed the advice of my wife (who wanted to buy the cheaper ticket on airfare.com) and now I must endure her ridicule and teasing (which I expect to last for years).  As it turns out, United's fine print excludes "consolidators" and "travel agencies".  As far as I can tell, that excludes pretty much all online competition.  Isn't every online travel site a consolidator?   United's response implied that I should contact any website with a lower fare, call them, find a person to confirm their status as a travel agent and their ticket terms, and then submit my claim.

In short, buy the cheapest ticket you can find and don't expect United to price match.  Their guarantee is nothing more than a ruse to discourage comparison shopping.  My question:  Any thoughts on how get my wife to stop teasing me for being gullible enough to trust United?  Alternatively, any thoughts on how to get my money back?

A. As you discovered, lowest price guarantees come with a lot of fine print. And you’re right that by excluding travel agencies and consolidators, the United’s guarantee isn’t worth much. The only good news is that consolidator fares often come with fine print of their own, and airfare.com was probably selling you a consolidator fare. The restrictions on some consolidator fares include but are not limited to using the ticket only on the exact flight that you reserved, absolutely no reuse or refund under any circumstances, and no validity on another airline should your original flight be canceled or delayed. So, for example, should you miss your flight due to a traffic accident your ticket might be completely worthless, whereas a fare bought from United might be changeable for a fee or they would probably put you on their next flight out or on a partner airline. So tell your wife that. For $100 in savings, consolidator fares might not be worth the possible aggravation.

DIY Ticketing: Less Money, More Headaches?

Q. On a recent rainy day I was searching for flights to Christchurch, New Zealand. When I checked roundtrips departing from O'Hare, the cheapest fares ranged from $1689 to over $2300. When I searched roundtrips from Los Angeles to Christchurch, I got prices from the mid $900s to $1042. The difference in departing from O'Hare versus from LAX ranged from a minimum of over $700 with Travelocity to almost $1300 with Orbitz. I could fly from O'Hare to LAX and from LAX to Christchurch for far less than flying all the way on one ticket from O'Hare. This strikes me as odd. Could you explain?

I would prefer to travel on a single ticket since I think I would be better protected in case there are complications getting out to LAX. However that approach seems expensive, particularly since I have enough miles on American, Delta or United to have a reasonable chance of getting out there on one of them. Another complication is I'm taking my bike along (that would seem to prohibit using Delta with their exorbitant prices to take a bike). What are the drawbacks of having separate tickets ie; a roundtrip from Chicago to Los Angeles and a roundtrip from Los Angeles to Christchurch?

A. The price difference is probably due to the difference in the demand and/or supply of the local airfare market.  Simply put, there are probably more flights available to choose from to get to New Zealand from Los Angeles, which creates greater price competition in this market and results in lower prices.
You are right about booking a trip as two separate itineraries.  Any protection due to delays or cancellations of flights will not apply, so that's a major consideration. If you miss a connecting flight, the airline won't be required to rebook you on another flight, a potentially expensive catastrophe. Also, you may not be able to check your luggage all the way through (including your bike!) and this would create an additional hassle during your travels.  You may have to retrieve your luggage and check it in again, so do some research to find out what to expect.  And be sure to check for both your outbound and return, because sometimes inter-lining agreements between carriers can vary, depending on the route and direction you're going in.
Of course, saving money is always a good thing...but sometimes paying more for a little peace of mind can be worth it.

Acceptable Compensation: Voucher vs. Cash

Q. I was bumped from my flight last week, which caused me to arrive at my destination two days later and $500 lighter (meals and hotel), and all I was given was a measly $400 voucher. This can't be normal, can it?

A. Normal, yes. Acceptable, no. Airlines sometimes bump passengers who booked a lower discounted fare to accommodate walk-ups who willingly pay the big bucks for those last-minute fares. Also, you were entitled to cash, not a voucher good for future travel. Anyone who is bumped should insist on cash; needless to say, the airlines prefer handing out vouchers since it impacts their bottom line less.

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