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Entries during 2010-10

Play-it-Safe Connections vs. DIY & Save

Q. I'm planning a trip to Europe this summer, starting in Rome and ending in London. The thing is, a multi-destination ticket is way more expensive than a round-trip ticket to London I have found I can save $220 if I purchase a round-trip to London-Heathrow, and then just a one-way from Heathrow to Rome on the afternoon I arrive. It's even the same airline and same flight numbers as the connecting flight, yet it's cheaper to book them separately! My question is, since it's the same airline, will they transfer my bag or will I have to go through passport control/customs, get my bag, and go back through security? Will the airline frown on this, since I didn't buy the through ticket?

A. You are perfectly well within your rights as a consumer to purchase these tickets separately, and as long as you use both the outbound and return portions of your round-trip to London, the airline will have nothing to complain about.

That said, we'd like you to consider the following and weigh the savings versus the potential hassle.

One issue is baggage limits may be vary on trans-Atlantic flights vs. intra-European flights. You may have to pay additional baggage fees, or check your carry-on if it's too big in size for flight number two.

Also, if your incoming flight to London is delayed or cancelled, the airline is in no way obligated to get you to Rome. Whereas if it's all one itinerary, they'll put you on the next connecting flight for free, or put you on another airline. Otherwise, should you enounter some little snafu, you'd be on your own. If you do purchase these tickets separately, it would be a good idea to leave as much connecting time as possible, just to be safe. And yep, you may indeed have to go through security and collect your bags and re-check in, if you purchase separately.

There's a reason why they charge more for a through ticket. Because they know it's more trouble to do it the other way!

Last Minute Upgrade Fees

Q. During check in online for a Milwaukee to Los Angeles flight, we paid $25 each for "premium" seats in order to sit where we wanted. While we were waiting at the gate, an announcement was made that there were a few first class seats available for $100 each. We didn't attempt to purchase those seats, but wondered if we would have lost the $25 fee we had paid.

A. Chances are that the airline wouldn't be able to re-sell your prime spots at the last minute and therefore they'd keep the fee. Indeed, most airline fees are non-refundable. We once paid extra for an exit row seat on JetBlue, but changed to an earlier flight. We weren't allowed to apply the fee to exit row seating on the earlier flight, even though seats were available. By the way, $100 is a pretty amazing deal for first class on that route, and I would have grabbed it. Airlines are increasingly offering cheap last minute upgrades, and even if you don't hear an offer at the gate, it's not a bad idea to ask about whether one is available next time you check in.

Connecting flights: Not always as much time as you think

Q. When I book tickets on Travelocity, Orbitz and the airline sites directly, they frequently only offer 45 to 60 minute connections, sometimes even less, even at busy airports such as Amsterdam's Schiphol. I want to make sure I make my connections, so how do I get around these automated schedules and build in more layover time?

A. You might try contacting Travelocity (or whatever online service you use) by phone to see if they can build in a longer layover, or you can call your local travel agent or the airline directly. In most cases, airlines will let you to a forced layover of up to 4 hours without incurring any extra charges for a "stopover."

The only downside to calling a travel agent or airline is that you'll have to pay a service fee (most airlines now charge $20-$25 to speak to a human), but perhaps it's worth it considering the alternative, which might be missing your connecting flight. It is indeed difficult if not impossible to build in longer layovers using online airfare searches, so it's best to involve a real person to help you.

Jewelry missing from your luggage?

Q. I took a trip from Los Angeles to Buenos Aires. The flights were all delayed due to weather. I arrived in Buenos Aires and my bag arrived on the following flight. Somewhere from the time I arrived and when my bag was delivered, my jewelry was stolen out of my bag. I had booked the flight through Expedia. I filed a claim with Expedia and have never heard anything. I had about $3500 in jewelry stolen from my bag. What recourse do I have?

A. Never, ever put valuables in you checked luggage. Expedia is not responsible for your loss. If anyone is, it's your airline, but all airlines specifically say they do not cover the loss of valuables such as jewelry. Your only recourse is your homeowner's insurance at this point, but beware they might increase your premium or refuse to renew your policy if you file a claim. Always carry valuables in your carryon luggage. In addition to homeowners insurance, premium charge cards such as the American Express Platinum Card offer coverage for losses from both carryon and checked luggage, and if you had bought travel insurance from a company such as TravelGuard, you might have been covered.

Miles & Co-pays to Upgrade?! No thanks.

Q. For years I have been an Executive Premier flyer on United.  I make two trips a year to London from Washington, D.C. and I would buy a coach ticket at prices ranging from $1,000 to 1,400 and would spend 20,000 miles each way to upgrade.  About five years ago the number of miles required to upgrade went up to 30,000 each way. But this year it’s a brand new world.  On my first trip I was shocked when United wanted $1,400 for an economy class ticket for March travel from D.C. to London and then wanted 20,000 miles and a fee of $500 each way to upgrade.  Also odd, I was able to buy a one-way business class ticket at $2,200 for a trip in July.  When did United add these co-pay fees and do all airlines charge them?

A. United started charging co-pays, in addition to frequent flyer miles for upgrades, in January of 2010. American, Continental, and US Airways also charge co-pays; Delta does not, but you can only upgrade more expensive economy class fares to business or first on Delta. During the summer months, when business travelers tend to fly less, you will find heavily discounted business class fares to Europe, and it makes no sense to pay $1400 or so, plus $500 in co-pays, plus 30,000 miles to upgrade; you’re much better off just buying the discounted business class ticket.

Sky High UK Flight Tax

Q. Looking at roundtrip airfare to London travel in the first week of December this year I have found base fares for $230, which does not include the additional $400 plus in taxes and fees. This brings the total for one person to well over $600. What are these taxes and fees?

A. British airports have some of the highest taxes and fees of any in the world, and the British government’s “air passenger duty tax” was scheduled to go up on long-haul flights, such as New York to London, from 40 to 85 pounds per person in November. So that’s $135 right there. Airlines are just as unhappy about this as you are, with British Airways’ CEO Willie Walsh calling the increase a “disgrace.” In addition to British taxes, the U.S. government imposes taxes and fees, and there are also fuel surcharges, which the airlines themselves impose. All of which is to say that the “base fare” is somewhat of a joke.

A marriage ruined, a vacation saved?

Q. In April, we booked ourselves and our daughter and son-in-law on Hawaiian Airlines for a family vacation to Hawaii on my credit card. In September, we learned that they were getting divorced. When I asked the airline about options, they said there were no refunds, the tickets couldn't be transferred to someone else, and changing the tickets to a different date would cost $300-$400 for each ticket. Are those the only options?
 
A. Aside from a marriage counselor, yes. That is, unless you had the foresight to purchase travel insurance. Many policies do cover divorce these days, along with whatever other little wrench you may find tossed your way before a big trip. We can't stress it enough: Always spring for trip insurance, because you never know. We suggest InsureMyTrip.com, a comparison site that searches many policies from several different insurance companies.

Bonus glimmer of hope: There's always the slim chance that, for whatever reason, your flight could be cancelled or your departure time drastically changed, in which case you could ask for a full refund. Hey, it does happen!

Fall Fares to Europe

Q. We'd like to visit Europe in late fall/early winter. What travel periods will be the cheapest?

A. Although there were several excellent sales for travel to Europe this past spring and even summer, fares to most destinations went up and have remained there, even for fall travel. We can't see that there's much downside to waiting for prices to fall. In past years, fares to Europe have decreased for travel between November 1 and December 17, and especially for travel just after the New Year through late February. We would not be surprised to see this pattern repeated, but there are a lot of variables at play here, such as fuel prices, and even the unemployment rate. And keep in mind that fares vary widely depending on your destination. If Paris is out of reach, take a look at Frankfurt; if London is high, consider Dublin. It's pretty easy and inexpensive to travel between European cities on cheap airlines such as Ryanair and easyJet.

Flying on Empties?

Q. Do the airlines fly "repositioning flights" (for example, there is a 777 on the ground at Los Angeles, but that airplane is needed at New York JFK) that are not listed on their web sites, but that do have seats available for sale through their call centers only?

A. According to airline expert Ramsey Qubein, when an aircraft is repositioned, it is either flown as a ferry flight (no passengers) or publicly sold as an extra section. The former happens all the time: a plane taking a sports team somewhere and not returning with them; a plane going for maintenance at another station, where it is flown empty to and from the airport (Tulsa and Greensboro, for example, see all kinds of large international planes coming and going, but they’re empty because they were flown in for maintenance). The latter happens only during an IROP (irregular operation). For example, if a plane “goes mechanical” and they have to send another plane to pick people up in the event they couldn’t be accommodated on other flights, the new plane would fly over empty.

Also, airlines add extra sections (mostly between hub cities) when planes are being repositioned and they will sell seats on those. However, these flights are publicly listed in the reservation systems and on airline web sites. They usually can be spotted because they have unusual flight numbers (often four digit numbers beginning with 8 or 9) and only operate once, but most people would have no idea they’re repositioning flights.

Continental & Amex Rewards: Where to put those points?

Q. Perhaps it was inevitable that after forging so close a relationship with Chase Bank, Continental would leave the American Express membership rewards program next year. But I’m worried:  I have about 450,000 miles in the Continental OnePass frequent flier program, and about 600,000 points with American Express. I was hoping to pool these and upon retirement do something fancy.  What’s your advice?  Where will my points do more in the end?

A. A couple of things to consider: You can certainly transfer your Amex points into the Continental program (although this is non-reversible once done) and you’ll have over one million points in Continental, which will next year mean that you have that amount in United’s MileagePlus program. Plus, any miles you might have in United’s program will be added to the pot. You should be able to fly almost anywhere the combined United-Continental flies in first class. But there’s no need to decide this year since Continental won’t leave the Amex program until Sept. 30 next year. 

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