Knowing your rights can help you financially, make it easier to deal effectively with airline personnel, and increase comfort and amenities that help put some of the fun back into air travel. Knowing how airlines think and operate gives you the edge you need to be a savvy traveler.
What airline policies say and what they mean are not always the same. Sometimes what they fail to say is most important of all. Let's take a stroll down reality lane. The bold print contains statements most airlines would prefer that you accept as fact. Our reality checks follow.
There is no price fixing in the airline industry.
Reality check: We have often seen airlines increase fares by exactly the same amount (to the penny) at exactly the same time. Either it's a planned event or all airline CEOs are psychic.
Airlines change fares often to remain competitive.
Reality check: Airlines raise fares in markets where they have little competition and know they can get away with charging what the traffic will bear. They raise fares because they know their major airline competitors will raise their fares too. They lower fares when they're forced to, usually because a low-cost carrier has come to town and cut into the major airlines' market share.
Airlines that cancel unredeemed frequent flyer miles are practicing good bookkeeping.
Reality check: The few airlines that still cancel miles aren't thinking about bookkeeping; they want their miles back. Canceling miles help the airlines' bottom line.
Call the airlines for the best service and the best fare.
Reality check: It's a wonder they don't all walk around with Pinocchio noses for this whopper. Calling the airlines and trusting that you will get the best fare almost guarantees that you won't. Good travel agents are your best allies; agents who do price comparisons and check low-cost airlines, including those not on major computer reservation systems. Call the airline when every travel agency is closed and a fare war is scheduled to end at midnight. Call the airline if you find an irresistible "snooze, you lose" fare at the news desk on Bestfares.com at 2 a.m. Call the airline when you need a fee waived or a special request granted and you know the travel agent's hands are tied. Otherwise, the best you can get from the airlines is their best published fare. Do you really think they'll quote a competitor's better deal?
Flight delays are inevitable and aren't that big of a problem.
Reality check: 20% of all domestic flights arrive late (more than 15 minutes after scheduled arrival). You spend time on a stuffy airplane, stuck at the gate, or on a runway because airlines have too many flights coming and going during high demand periods. The schedules are so tight that inevitable mechanical or weather delays can play havoc with arrivals for hours. A departure is deemed to be on time if the aircraft pulls back from the gate on time -- even one foot will do it. That's why you end up sweating and irritable during lengthy delays. If they let you back in to the gate area, they get a black mark on their on-time record.
Most major airlines have similar policies.
Reality check: Rules can vary from airline to airline, and from flight to flight. On one airline you can check in a bicycle for free; on another, you pay $65. On almost every airline you must fight availability limits when you want to book a frequent flyer award ticket. (On Southwest, you get the last seat on the flight if you want it.) On most domestic flights, you are required to check in a minimum of 10 minutes prior to departure; on United you lose your seat assignment if you don't check in 20 minutes prior. You need a minimum of 25,000 frequent flyer miles to get a free ticket on most major airlines, but a few allow shorthauls to be booked for 20,000 miles. Knowing the rules on one airline does not make you conversant with other airlines' rules.
If you can't get a fare war price, it's because you didn't act fast enough.
Reality check: Pick an itinerary included in a newly announced fare war. Be the first person to get the airline on the phone and ask for a seat on a specific flight on that itinerary. "Sorry," you may be told, "there are no seats available." Where did they go? A previous fare war may have already sold out the fare class set aside for the new fare war. Your best strategy when you run into this all-too-common event: Try to be flexible on your travel times and put the best flight possible on hold (unless it's an instant purchase fare). Wait for the dust to settle and the other airlines to join the fare war, then call your travel agent. By then, another airline may have what you need.
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