Sometimes it seems that airlines have a language all their own. Even common phrases whose meanings seem quite obvious really may mean something very different. Don’t let seemingly straightforward words cost you extra money and time. Here are 10 ways that airlines (and travel websites that sell air tickets) try to confuse you…and how to see right through their doublespeak…
10 Terms You May Think You Understand But Don’t
“Direct flight.” If you don’t want to worry about catching connecting flights, you might book a “direct flight” on the assumption that this will take you directly to your destination.
What’s tricky: Direct flight just means that the flight has the same flight number the whole way, not that it flies directly to your destination. Years ago, it also meant that the entire flight was on the same aircraft, but even that is often not true anymore.
What to do: If you want a flight that will take you from airport A to airport B with no stops or changes in between, find a “nonstop” flight, not a direct flight. If you’re OK with a stop as long as you can stay on the same plane, favor Southwest Airlines, where direct flights usually are on the same plane.
“Basic economy.” This term begins with the word “basic,” so you might reasonably assume that you’re booking an ordinary economy-class ticket.
What’s tricky: Basic economy actually is a new class of ticket that’s significantly more restricted than an ordinary economy ticket. You will not be allowed to obtain a seat assignment prior to departure day…or make changes to your itinerary even if you are willing to pay a fee to do so. On many airlines, you cannot even bring a carry-on bag (you still can bring a “personal item” small enough to fit under the seat in front of you, but not a bag that would have to be stowed in the overhead compartment), and if you try to, it will be diverted to checked baggage and you will face both a baggage charge and a penalty.
What to do: Watch for the words “basic economy” when you book a ticket. If you see this, carefully read any fine print. If booking through a third-party website, visit the airline’s site to review that carrier’s basic-economy rules.
“Personal item.” Travelers traditionally can bring into the cabin both a carry-on bag and a “personal item” such as a purse, briefcase, small backpack or laptop bag. Even discount airlines in the US that impose fees for carry-ons and basic-economy tickets that don’t allow carry-ons still allow a personal item without any extra fee.
What’s tricky: What counts as a personal item varies from airline to airline. The rule of thumb is that the item must fit under the seat in front of you, but how big is that? If you show up at the gate with something that doesn’t qualify, you might be hit with fees and penalties totaling perhaps $50 to $100.
What to do: Check your airline’s “personal item” rules before packing for your trip. For example, on American, Frontier and Spirit, a bag up to 18-x-14-x-8-inches qualifies…on United, it’s 17-x-10-x-9-inches…on JetBlue, 17-x-13-x-8-inches…on Allegiant, 16-x-15-x-7-inches. Some airlines do not disclose a specific size but do list specific types of items that qualify.
“Premium economy.” If you want a little more space and comfort than offered in “standard economy” without the steep price of business or first class, premium economy could be an option.
What’s tricky: Sometimes premium economy refers to seats that are in a special section of the plane and that have extra legroom, extra width, improved reclining ability, footrests and/or come with better food. But often, “premium economy” simply means a typical seat in the economy-class cabin that has a few extra inches of legroom.
What to do: If you book a premium-economy seat through a third-party website, read the small print or visit the airline’s website to check what specific upgrades this seat offers over a standard-economy seat. If you book directly through an airline, seats might not be labeled “premium economy” but instead will sport a label unique to that airline. Examples: If a seat is listed as “Economy Plus” on United…“Main Cabin Extra” on American or “Comfort+” on Delta, all you’re getting is a few extra inches of legroom.
“Boarding group 1.” Being among the first to board a plane ensures that there’s room for your carry-on bags in overhead bins and means less squeezing through crowded aisles to reach your seat.
What’s tricky: You may already know that some people get to board before “Boarding group 1,” but on various airlines, those groups can be quite extensive. Some airlines “preboard” many other passengers first, potentially including travelers who have elite frequent-flier status…those who have paid for early boarding…military members in uniform…first-class passengers…handicapped travelers…passengers traveling with young children…and more. In fact, it’s not unusual for a plane to be half full before boarding group 1 gets called.
What to do: If boarding early is important to you, you often can pay a fee for “priority” boarding—precisely when passengers with priority boarding get on board varies from airline to airline. This might be worthwhile if you are initially placed in a low boarding group on a crowded flight and you don’t want to risk having to check your carry-on bag…or if you are flying on Southwest, which does not have assigned seats. Or you should travel with bags small enough to fit under the seat in front of you so that you never have to depend on limited overhead bin capacity.
“Nonrefundable ticket.” Most airline tickets are sold as “nonrefundable”—you cannot get your money back if your travel plans change.
What’s tricky: Because of Department of Transportation (DOT) regulations, passengers actually can get their money back even if their tickets are nonrefundable—under certain circumstances. To qualify, you must cancel within 24 hours of booking a ticket that was purchased at least seven days prior to departure (or purchased at least two days prior to departure on American Airlines).
These DOT rules apply only to flights booked directly through the airline (though many travel agencies will apply the same policy) and only for domestic flights and international flights departing from US airports.
What to do: If you might have to cancel a booking, do so at least a week before departure (two days on American) and within 24 hours of booking.
“Changeable.” Although most tickets are “nonrefundable,” they are at least “changeable”—you can adjust details such as departure date.
What’s tricky: Although travelers usually have the right to change their itineraries, most airlines impose “change fees” so steep that it often is not worth doing so—as much as $200 domestic or $500 international. You might be able to buy a new ticket for less.
What to do: If there’s a good chance that you will need to change your itinerary, fly Southwest, if possible—it has no change fees (although you still pay the fare difference, if any). Before paying a change fee on another airline, check to make sure that paying it is cheaper than simply buying a new ticket.
“No blackout dates.” One of the most common complaints about frequent-flier programs is that it’s hard to get an awards ticket when you want one. Thus programs that advertise “no blackout dates” can seem very appealing.
What’s tricky: Although no-blackout-date programs do not have any dates on which no awards seats are offered, there might be only a small number of awards seats that inevitably are quickly snapped up. If the program says any open seat is available to awards travelers, the number of miles required for that awards seat will increase with the cost of the ticket, which can be prohibitive during peak travel times. Example: A ticket that costs $1,000 might require 100,000 award miles, four times as much as the standard 25,000 miles for a round-trip domestic ticket.
What to do: Do not be swayed by promises of “no blackout dates” when you decide which frequent-flier programs to participate in. The best programs for you are those offered by airlines that fly to the destinations you travel to most often, blackout dates or no.
“Check-in time.” Your flight’s departure time is not the only deadline you need to worry about—there also is a “check-in time.”
What’s tricky: These check-in times vary from airline to airline and airport to airport. Plus, there might be a deadline for reaching the boarding gate in addition to the deadline for checking in. You could reach the gate while other passengers still are boarding and be told that you’re too late—you missed a deadline, and the airline gave away your seat.
What to do: Search the name of the airline and “check-in requirements” or “check-in times” to find specific deadlines for your airline and airport. Check in online via the Internet or your phone so that you can focus on only the deadlines for checking your bags and arriving at the gate. Or just arrive at the airport early enough that checking in at least one hour before departure time and reaching the gate at least 30 minutes before departure time will not be a problem. Avoid booking flights that have connections too tight for this.
“Hot meals available.” Meals seldom are provided at no extra charge in economy class on domestic flights these days, but on long flights airlines often do say that economy-class passengers can buy meals onboard.
What’s tricky: It’s not unusual for a flight to run out of economy-class meals before every economy passenger who wants one has had a chance to buy one. Airlines cannot be sure how many passengers on a flight will want a meal, and they would rather run out of meals than carry too many.
What to do: Buy food at the airport to eat on the plane, or bring food from home. Visit the Transportation Security Administration’s website to confirm that you will be able to get food from home through security checkpoints (TSA.gov/travel/security-screening/whatcanibring/food).