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Entries during 2011-11

Schedule Switcheroo

Q. On July 26, I purchased an airline ticket from US Airways. They sold me a "code share" ticket on United Airlines for travel on December 25 (Des Moines to Eugene, OR with a connection in Denver), returning on December 31.  On Sunday November 13, I logged into see what my arrival time would be in Eugene so I could book a rental car. Instead of a confirmed reservation I had found that my Des Moines to Denver and Denver to Des Moines legs had been cancelled. US Airways didn't notify me of this. After over 3 hours on the phone with US Airways and United I was able to get to rebook flights, but was forced to change my return date to January 2. I have requested some kind of compensation for my additional vacation days lost, hotel, food, and rental car expenses. I was told take this or get a refund of my ticket and rebook at my expense at a much higher fare on another airline with two changes of plane. I purchased this ticket in good faith of getting to my destination and returning without massive layovers, only one change of planes and for the dates I wanted to fly.  US Airways told me that to change my flight schedule I would have to pay for a fare difference plus a $150 change fee.  Is there anything I can do to recover some of my expenses for the extra days I will have to spend at my destination?

A: In a word, no. Every week, I receive complaints about airlines changing their schedules far in advance of travel (I'm not talking here about last minute cancellations), causing hardship and considerable extra expense for their customers. It's entirely unfair, and really, what other industry could get away with this, which is why I've called for 12 new consumer protections. Could a retailer substitute a lesser quality item than the one you originally bought at the last minute and expect you to pay more to get the item you originally ordered?  Could a restaurant substitute a hamburger for the rib eye you originally purchased?  Or how about a rock concert. Sure, concert dates are cancelled, but would the promoter change your date to another day and city without telling you? And substitute the some B-list act for the Rolling Stones? And yet airlines get away with these shenanigans all the time. And what really annoys me is that looking at schedules between Eugene and Des Moines on your dates of travel, I see that both US Airways/United still have seats on your original dates, so I cannot understand why they changed your reservation, unless it was to sell your seat at a higher fare (current fares are well over $500 round-trip including tax for your itinerary). I would call US Airways again and insist that they rebook you on your original flights and keep calling until they do so. I would also lodge a complaint with the U.S. D.O.T. here.

Ridiculous Delays

Q. My son was recently delayed for three hours on a domestic trip due to a maintenance issue. They sat on the plane for two hours before being moved to another plane and were delayed further. The delay caused him to arrive at 12:18 a.m. and caused significant hassle for our family in trying to retrieve him from the airport over an hour away from our home. (I received 11 email messages from the airline, each extending the delay.) The airline did not provide food or beverages for the passengers. I called and asked the airline to put him up in the hotel across the street from our home airport so that I could get him the next morning since we had logistical issues with driving at that time of the night. They refused. The airline's contract of carriage states that they will provide accommodations if the delay pushes the arrival to the next day (it did). Also, I had selected that flight instead of a cheaper one so that the timing of pick-up would work for my family. Instead, their failure cost me an entire night of sleep, my son an extra three hours on a plane and a major headache due to not eating for eight hours, as well as the extra cost of the more convenient flight I didn't receive benefit for. I have yet to hear from the airline.  How can they get away with this?

A. They can get away with this because, despite new and more stringent D.O.T. regulations, the airlines seem to be a protected industry that doesn't play by the same rules that other consumer segments do.

And although I hate to say it, while I sympathize with you, your tale of woe pales in comparison with many of the ones I read on a daily basis. I wholly agree that if you paid for a more expensive flight arriving at a more convenient time, and instead ended up with what amounts to an "inferior product"—especially since this was due to a mechanical problem that was arguably within the airline's control—then you should be compensated. But there are no government regulations dealing with this kind of scenario. I would complain to the U.S. D.O.T. here and harass your airline's customer service department until you at least get a voucher good for a future flight.

Shopping & Earning Miles

Q. I have read your recent posts about shopping through airline websites and registering your credit cards to get bonus frequent flyer miles. That is brilliant! But, here is my question: If you use a credit card that gives you frequent flyer miles, do you get the miles on your credit card, and on the airlines that you choose? And, what if you registered your cards on, say, three different airlines. Would you get frequent flyer miles on your credit card and all three of the airlines simultaneously (assuming they all are participants in that particular store)?

A. The reader is referring to an article I wrote and tweeted about warning people that if they're going to shop online it's foolish not to do so through the airlines' shopping mall sites. For those who missed it, airlines award bonus frequent flyer miles (in addition to any miles awarded by using an airline-affiliated credit card) when you shop at over 300 online merchants. Same prices, same stores, same merchandise—the only difference if that if you buy an Apple iMac, for example, at Apple.com you only get miles from your credit card; but if you buy it on Apple's website by first going through an airline shopping mall, you might get an addition one to four miles per dollar spent. These are the same merchants you already shop at: Macy's, Sears, Target, Wal-Mart, Gap, Barnes and Noble, AT&T Wireless, Netflix, the iTunes Store—the list goes on and on.

Now to the question: yes, you do get the bonus miles in addition to miles earned by using your credit card. But no, you can only get miles on one airline at a time per purchase. Click here to see links to all the airlines' shopping malls.

Last Minute Bookings

Q. I need to book a flight today for travel tomorrow. Where can I get the best last minute airfare?

A. You'll often get the best fares if you book at least 7 to 21 days ahead of departure. But what if you don't have that luxury? Other than the airlines' last-minute weekend fares, which you can find on their sites, your best bet is Priceline.com's "Name your own price" feature (bidding for travel) or Hotwire.com. Also take a look at Lastminute.com which packages last minute airfares with hotel and rental car deals. Amazingly, the cost of these packages is often less than what you'd pay for airfare alone.

Unfair Itinerary Changes

Q. Earlier this year I booked a trip on United from Baltimore to Las Vegas for my wife and two sons (ages 2 and 3). With some hesitation we booked a one-stop flight (total travel time 6.5 hours) for the return because it saved us $1000 over the nonstop return flight (5 hours). We like to keep the flights as short as possible with the little ones and an extra 90 minutes seemed worth it to for this cash-strapped family to save $1000. I was notified last week that the schedule had changed from a Las Vegas to Denver to Baltimore itinerary to a Las Vegas to Los Angeles to San Francisco to Baltimore trip! In other words, United added an extra stop with a change of planes in San Francisco and with a total trip time of 11.5 hours.  

I've called twice and spoke to different reservations agents and they say they can't get me on anything less than the two-stop flight we're already on that day. They offered to change the dates of flights, but the date changes offered didn't work with our schedule. I go on their website and I can see several one-stop and even nonstop flights available to the Washington D.C area.

Is this a common practice? Is there any recourse?

A. It is a common practice, unfortunately, and it should be outlawed, if, in fact, there are still seats available for sale on your original itinerary. This happened to a friend of mile who found a great fare on Delta flying nonstop from New York to Denver for $149 round-trip. Delta informed him that he was now on connecting flights, even though Delta still flew that route nonstop. But at the time of the change, only $700 fares were available on the nonstop. Clearly, Delta had decided that they no longer wanted to fly my friend nonstop for so little money and was selling the nonstop at higher fares. My friend had to call Delta three times before they agreed to put him on the nonstop again at the original fare.

If you were to change your travel plans, United would charge you $150, but it appears they're allowed to change your plans at will. I would absolutely call United again and again until they change you back to a one-connection or one-stop flight (I don't believe that United flies Las Vegas to Baltimore nonstop, and perhaps you were actually booked on a US Airways code share flight on the outbound trip). Especially now that United is being integrated with Continental Airlines, you should be able to connect through one of the combined airlines' many hubs, such as Houston, Cleveland, Newark, Chicago, and Denver on a one-stop itinerary. Or insist that they fly you to Washington Dulles, which is also a United hub.

Corrections

Q. In a recent column, a reader asked you about documentation when flying with a grandchild without his or her parents.  In your response, you advised that "You should always travel with a notarized letter of parental consent...by both their birth parents."  As an adoptive mother, I was taken aback by your terminology.  Unfortunately your choice of words also made your answer incorrect.  Birth parents are the individuals who provided the genetic material to the child prior to birth but who may or may not be the child's current legal parents or guardians.  I think that your response to the reader would have been more accurate if you had said, "...a letter of ...consent ...by the legal parent(s) or guardian(s)."  (It would have also been helpful if you could have included information for situations where one parent has sole custody, but that may have been too detailed for your allotted space.)

A. You're absolutely correct. I apologize for the incomplete answer to that question.

Carry ons weighed at gate

Q. Recently I flew on Hawaiian Airlines from San Diego to Honolulu and and they brought out a portable luggage scale at the gate to weigh our carry on bags. Any bag over 25 pounds had to be checked in at the gate and a checked bag fee had to be paid. You couldn't get on the flight without a sticker showing the bag had been weighed. Is this a common practice?

A. I have to be honest, this is the first I've heard of this, but checking Hawaiian's website there is indeed a 25-pound limit on carry on bags (11.5 kg). Checking further, I see that a number of airlines, mostly foreign-based ones, also have limits, some as low as 15 pounds (EVA Airways for example). I tweeted an inquiry from @airfarewatchdog and learned from followers that many travelers have been surprised by these limits, including those flying on Lufthansa, British Airways and Ryanair. Even worse than paying a checked bag fee, when a carry on bag is snatched from your hands at the gate upon boarding you might forget to remove medicines, valuables and electronics from the bag. Airlines do not take responsibility for these items if they're lost in transit.

Limit on Liquids

Q. I know that the TSA limits liquids and gels in your carry on bags to three ounces each, but is there a limit to how many such items you can carry on board? 

A. Actually, the official limit is 3.4 ounces, or 100 ml. You may carry as many containers as will fit in a one-quart clear plastic "zip" bag. More information at http://www.tsa.gov/311. By the way, several websites specialize in a wide range of TSA-approved travel sized products, many of them impossible to find at your local drug store, including  www.3floz.com and www.traveltoiletrykits.com.

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