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Entries during 2012-12

American's New Fare Options

Q. I am confused by American Airlines new economy class airfares, some of which let you change your date of travel and include a checked bag. Can you change your flights as many times as you want? Is the checked bag included for round-trip travel? More importantly, is it worth paying the higher fares, which seem to be $68 round-trip?

A. The new American airfares, which were introduced in December, may be a wise choice for some travelers. Airline passengers hate all those extra fees for bags and flight changes, and according to my emails and twitter feed, many would like the extra perks to be "re-bundled" into fares (i.e., stop "nickel and diming us"). Well, American Airlines seems to be experimenting with fare bundling (as have Air Canada, Southwest and Frontier previously).

In brief, American's newest fare initiatives (and they are indeed "fares," not "fees") which they call "choice essential" and "choice plus," offer several packaged perks for a set price.

For a $68 add on, Choice Essential fares include no change fee on domestic flights, which normally costs $150 per change; one roundtrip checked bag (normally $50), and "Group 1" priority boarding, which some airlines also charge for (Southwest charges $20 round-trip, for example, to board ahead of other customers).

For an $88 fare add on, Choice Plus gives you all of the above plus a free same-day flight change (normally $75) plus a premium beverage (which costs $7-$8 on American).

These fare add ons (and again, they are fares, which will be taxed at the 7.5% federal air transportation excise rate, whereas "fees" are not taxed), are optional, obviously, but for some people they may make sense. The "expectant grandmother" who isn't exactly sure when the baby will arrive and who normally checks a bag might be happy to pay just $18 for a "change fee insurance policy" rather than the onerous $150 fee (that fee is charged for each change, and I don't believe you're entitled to just one change per fare, although you will have to pay extra if the fare on your new flight is more than on your original one).  Business travelers frequently change their plans, too, so if there's a good chance that the meeting will go shorter or longer than originally planned, paying $20 extra for same-day change flexibility plus a cocktail might be considered a "bargain."

There's no telling, of course, if American will keep these fares, or whether they will increase them later on. Also uncertain is whether American will end up losing money on change fees (in the first quarter of 2009, for example, customers paid American $116 million in change and cancellation penalties). It will also be interesting to see if other airlines follow suit.

Extending the Validity of a Voucher

Q. I have an airline voucher that I cannot use before it expires. Is it possible to book a flight and then cancel and somehow receive a new voucher to be used at a future date?

A. You can book a flight using the voucher before it expires and then you’d have up to a year from the ticket issue date to change the flight, if necessary. However, most airlines will charge a change fee, typically $150 on United, American, Delta and US Airways. There’s no change fee on Southwest, but you’d pay any applicable fare difference.

Missed The Boss!

Q. I had a seat on Alaska Airlines to Oakland leaving Portland at 2:45 p.m. and arriving Oakland at 4:47 p.m. I was flying down for a Bruce Springsteen concert. If you’re not a fan, you could be forgiven for saying, “Oh, a concert." But this is an important part of my life. I have seen about 200 shows over 35 years. Tickets are very hard to come by.

I was meeting friends from London, Barcelona, Indianapolis, Boston, New York and throughout California. People I only get to see on such occasions. The only reason for this flight was to see this show and be with those friends for the experience. I paid $360 for my seat. At 2:45 they announced the plane would be delayed. The flight was canceled and I missed the concert, which was to begin at 8 p.m. I’m sure Alaska will throw me a bone, like some miles. But what am I entitled to in this situation?

A. Because your flight was severely delayed, you could have decided not to fly at all, asking Alaska for a full refund of the fare paid, even on a non-refundable ticket. Alaska may indeed offer you a voucher or whatever, but you won’t get back the value of the experience or the money you paid for the concert. What I don’t understand is why you played it so close, planning to arrive at the Oakland airport just three hours before the concert. Since this was an important event, you should have left earlier in the day or even the night before. Hundreds of flights are canceled or severely delayed every day, and that’s just the way it is. I give this advice to anyone who needs to be on time for an important event—a cruise departure, a funeral, a wedding, important business meeting, or a Bruce Springsteen concert. Assume that your flight will be delayed or canceled and be sure to get there the day before or at least in plenty of time.


Shanghai & Visa-free

Q. I'm flying from Los Angeles to Melbourne, Australia this month, and on the return I have an overnight layover in Shanghai, just over 24 hours. I was under the impression that a visa will not be necessary, even if I plan to leave the airport and spend the night in a hotel, as long as I have my ticket back to the States, and my stay does not exceed 48 hours. Though when I explained this to a couple of well-traveled friends, they scoffed and said EVERYONE needs a visa for mainland China. Who is correct? I really don't want to spend the holidays in an airport holding area.

A. You are, at least according to the Chinese Embassy. The following is lifted directly from their page on visa-free transit:

1. Visas are not required of aliens who hold air tickets to the final destination and have booked seats on international airliners flying directly through China, and will stay in a transit city for less than 24 hours without leaving the airport.
2. Visas are not required of passport holders of the following countries, who transit through Pudong Airport or Hongqiao Airport of Shanghai, provided they hold valid passports, visas for the onward countries, final destination tickets and have booked seats, and stay in Shanghai for less than 48 hours : Republic of Korea, United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Germany, France, Netherlands, Belgium, Luxemburg, Portugal, Spain, Italy, Austria, Greece, Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Finland, Iceland.

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