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Practical travel advice
|Lani Teshima, editor|
Good News, Bad News: Surviving Summer Air Travel
If you plan on doing some air travel this summer, there's good news and there's bad news. The good news is that things shouldn't be nearly as bad as last summer, when a multitude of problems plagued the airline industry and left passengers both stranded and frustrated. In addition, this week saw five major airlines slash summer prices, a move fueled by the weaker economy. The bad news is that things aren't perfect in the airline industry this summer, and there may still be some turbulence ahead.
Last year's labor problem between United Airline and its pilots, which caused thousands of flight cancellations, is now over. This year however, the dispute is with United's flight attendants, who have not given their nod of approval to the merger between United and US Airways. In addition, although American Airlines was able to reach a labor agreement with its maintenance workers, its flight attendants have not signed a contract, and are threatening to strike July 1.
A slalom downhill skier glides over the various bumps and turns on the course by bending the knees and remaining flexible. In the same way, be flexible with your summer travel plans so you can take advantage of low fares.
Airline woes: Has your regular airline been in the news recently because of labor problems? If so, are you willing to change airlines? Keep in mind that many airlines are now partnered, and allow you to transfer the miles you acquire from this summer's trip towards your regular airline mileage account.
Fully refundable tickets: Is this a vacation trip with flexibility in your departure and arrival times, or are you locked into narrow windows in your schedule? For example, if you take a few extra days off after your planned return from your vacation, you won't feel quite so panicked when your return flight is cancelled. On the other hand, if you are attending an event that requires you be there at a certain time, such as a relative's wedding, such flexibility is not an option for you. If you are in this situation, consider purchasing fully refundable coach seats. Even though these can cost significantly more than the discounted leisure tickets, the fully refundable tickets allow you to easily change your flight itinerary should there be cancellations or serious delays. Airlines also tend to want to treat you a bit better if you pay full price on your coach seats as well.
If you can't stand the thought of paying full price for your seats, buy discounted tickets, then buy the full- priced tickets as a form of back- up. You can always turn them in for credit and travel at a later time if you wish.
Fly nonstop: When making your flight reservations, make sure the flights are "nonstop" and not just labeled as "direct." In the confusing nomenclature of air travel, "direct" just means you aren't having to change onto planes that head away from your direction to hook into certain airports. Your airline reservation agent must use the word "nonstop" or else you could be in for some long stopovers. Believe it or not, airlines even manage to force you to change planes and still keep the same flight number, so make sure you specifically ask for nonstop flight. For each additional stop your plane makes, you increase your chances of suffering from a flight delay or cancellation.
Fly first thing in the morning: If you are concerned about not being stranded at the airport, consider taking one of the first flights out in the morning. If your flight is cancelled, you have considerably more options first thing in the morning. Sorry, night owls!
Consider alternate airports: Some of the larger airports get so much traffic that delays seem inevitable, both in the air, and in the parking lots. San Francisco International Airport (SFO) is notorious for weather-related delays caused by fog, and its large size and status as a "hub" causes many delays. SFO was hit particularly hard last year with the United Airlines pilot slowdown, with at times, the majority of United flights impacted negatively.
Fortunately for those in the Northern California Bay Area, SFO is not the only option. Nearby is Oakland International, which while considerably smaller is still a fully functioning -- not to mention pleasant and convenient -- alternative. It also doesn't experience the same fog problems its neighbor across the Bay suffers. Morning radio news reports often announce SFO's closure due to fog, while Oakland (San Jose International Airport, about 40 miles away) report no problems.
Check your flight status: Never assume your flight is on time, or is even going to be running. Call your airline's toll-free number to confirm both your flight, as well as your own reservation confirmation. If you bought bargain-priced tickets and were not given seat assignments, make sure to ask for them before you arrive at the airport, as you are less likely to get stuck in the middle seat if you request a seat assignment early.
By the way, ask the airline representative what aircraft number has been assigned for your flight. On the day of your flight, if you can ask the airline representative where the aircraft is, and you are told it is on the other coast, you can pretty much bet that your flight may be delayed. Ask if another aircraft has been assigned for your flight. If not, don't hang up, but stay on the phone and make alternative flight reservations there.
Don't wait at the counter: If your flight is cancelled or severely delayed, chances are you will learn about it at the same time as all the other passengers waiting in your lobby area. Instead of joining the stampede to the airline counter, head over to a pay phone (or better yet, use your cell phone) and call your airline. Explain that your flight has been delayed, and that you need to make alternate arrangements. Since the agent on the phone is punching information into the same reservation system as the gate agent you see behind the mad stampede in front of you, you have basically hopped over all of them to get to the head of the line. This increases your odds of finding a spot in another flight.
Note however, that not all airlines provide rescheduling or re- routing services over the phone. For this reason, I suggest you use your cell phone to call them while standing in line.
Avoid electronic ticketing: Computer geeks, beware; airline electronic tickets -- or e-tickets -- are not necessarily a good thing. E-tickets are touted as a modern convenience, but mostly for the airline. If you must change flights or worse, change airlines in order to get home, the e-ticket provides little protection or convenience. The standard paper ticket however, is an actual document that you can use as a commodity, available for you to trade and negotiate in order for you to make arrangements for your trip. Without this paper ticket, you may very well be required to stand in that long line you tried to avoid by calling the airline's toll-free number.
Rule 240: The golden words of air travel, and the secret to resolving some major flight problems for you. No actual Rule 240 exists anymore since the Civil Aeronautics Board disbanded and airlines deregulated in 1978, so in a sense it's now a code word. Stated simply, Rule 240 is your airline's obligation to get you to your destination within a reasonable time. That is, if your flight is delayed (by two hours or longer), cancelled, or you miss your connection, the airline must confirm you on its next flight out to your destination. If they cannot, they must put you on another carrier or give you a full refund, even on a nonrefundable ticket.
Most of the time, airlines reschedule you on another flight and you only end up being somewhat late. However what if you are stuck in the connecting city late at night, with no friends or relatives to call to get picked up, with no more flights going out on your airline until the next morning? At that point, invoke Rule 240 and your gate agent is likely to take notice, and start checking flights with other airlines. Make sure the agent for your airline endorses the paper ticket first, though, or else the other airlines will not honor it.
Be aware however, that Rule 240 only works for mechanical delays, and other delays that are the fault of the airline. Delays caused by weather, labor strikes, work slowdowns, riots, or "acts of God" (what the fine print calls force majeure) are not covered, although airlines will refund your ticket for force majeure events. Unless you know exactly what the cause of your flight's delay is, however, you may not get very far calling on Rule 240.
Not sure what your airline is willing to provide? Look for the phrase "Contract of Carriage" on the back of your airline ticket, or check out your airline's Web site. It's definitely fine print stuff, but may be worth reading.
Oh ... and do try to be polite. Everybody else is in the same boat as you, and your politeness will go a long way to encouraging the gate agent to respond nicely to you. After all, you may be frazzled about how you're getting home, but the agent has to deal with 200 of you!
Pack lightly: Try to minimize the amount of things you take with you. If at all possible, travel with just your carry-ons. It's not as hard as you might think (visit my Web site at http://www.travelite.org to learn how). If you must check in some items, make sure all your valuables are in your carry-ons, and that your check-in luggage is labeled both inside and out with your contact information.
If you travel with just your carry-on, you can easily change flights at the gate without worrying about your check-ins. If your schedule is flexible, you can volunteer to be bumped from a full flight without worrying about your suitcase ... and end up acquiring some extra goodies for your volunteering to give up your seat. As gate agents become more and more desperate, they may up the ante on what they are willing to give in exchange for being bumped. Don't forget that if you voluntarily get bumped, you will be flying stand-by on later flights, so be sure you have plenty of reading material.
If you are cautious and are willing to be flexible, you should be able to find some really great air travel deals this summer. Prices may not necessarily be a lot lower compared to last year, but with business travel withering, airlines will be catering to the leisure traveler pretty heavily this summer. Expect to see far more seats available at sale prices, with longer sale periods.
Contact Lani Teshima if you have any travel tips or questions about trip planning.
A Hawaii ex-patriate, Lani is a technical writer for a San Francisco Bay Area software company.
When Lani is not managing the copy editing tasks here, you can usually find her at the gym, slogging away those slow miles on the treadmill as she trains for the WDW Marathon (held in January). She also maintains her internationally recognized Travelite FAQ.
In the occasional spare moment, Lani and her husband, Alexour MousePlanet CEO and MouseAdventure event coordinatorattend baseball games, and drive down to Disneyland in their 2003 Honda Civic Hybrid (which gets 50mpg).
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