George Hobica is founder of AirfareWatchdog.com, an airfare alert and listings website.
What’s a bigger hassle these days than traveling on an airplane? Trying to get a good deal and accurate pricing information from the airline in the first place.
Airlines have become adept at using complicated fee schemes to maximize the amount of money they get from passengers while filling up every seat on the plane. But you can improve your chances of getting a good deal and a flight that meets your needs if you know what to watch out for.
Six things that the airlines are not telling you…
• Fuel prices are down—but our fuel surcharges are as high as ever. The “fuel surcharges” that many airlines tack onto ticket prices for foreign trips really took off in 2008, when jet fuel approached $4 a gallon. Some airlines renamed the fee, but it has never gone away.
Many airlines even tack fuel surcharges onto “free” awards tickets earned through frequent-flier programs. Some “free” round-trip international tickets cost more than $800 because of “fuel surcharges.”
What to do: For tickets booked with frequent-flier miles, proceed through the airline’s online booking system far enough to determine what the total price is, including all fees and fuel surcharges. Whether you are using money or frequent-flier miles, shop around. A partner airline or a competing airline might charge a lot less because of different surcharges.
• Didn’t get the upgrade? We’re still keeping your payment. Airlines often neglect to refund prepaid fees when passengers don’t actually get what they paid for.
Example: You can prepay for an upgrade to “premium economy,” a class of seat above standard economy but below business class. But if you get bumped back to a regular economy seat when the airline substitutes a plane that has fewer premium-economy seats, the upgrade fee likely will still be charged.
What to do: Call the airline, explain that you did not get the upgrade you paid for, and ask that your fee be refunded to you. Airlines typically back down when confronted about this. Trouble is, some passengers never notice that the fees were not automatically refunded.
• We’re improving our on-time arrival record—by giving ourselves an extension. Airlines have found a way to boost their on-time arrival statistics without actually getting passengers to their destinations in a more timely manner. They simply list later flight-arrival times, building in a cushion that allows them to be officially on time even when there’s a delay.
Unfortunately, that means many flights now are arriving earlier than they are expected, in many cases leaving passengers sitting around airports waiting for a long time for connections or rides.
What to do: If someone is picking you up at the airport, ask the person to use the free flight-tracking service FlightAware.com to determine when your plane actually will land, rather than trust official airline arrival times. In addition to the website, there are apps for iOS and Android devices.
• You have options if you have a nonrefundable ticket and your flight is delayed or canceled, but we’re not telling you what they are. Airlines are required by their “contract of carriage” to let passengers skip the trip and receive a refund if their flights are canceled or significantly delayed—even if they are flying on nonrefundable tickets.
But airlines rarely mention this. Instead, they act as though the only option is to wait for the next available flight on the same airline. (The length of delay required to trigger this rule varies by airline, but generally it is 90 or 120 minutes.)
What to do: If your flight is canceled or delayed so long that the trip no longer makes sense—or if you are able to obtain a better flight from a competing airline—you might want to tell an airline representative that you want a refund, not a later flight. This advice applies even if you booked your flight through a travel website, but you may not get back any service fee that you paid to that site.
In years past, airlines were required to put passengers on any available flight to their destinations—even a different airline’s flight—if the original flight was delayed or canceled for non-weather–related reasons. Now, because of changes to their contract of carriage, airlines can make passengers wait for the next available seats on their own flights—although they may sometimes still choose to follow the old rules, so it’s worth checking. (The old rules still apply at Alaska Airlines, for example.)
• Want an economy seat? Our website might make it seem, falsely, as though that isn’t an option. You purchase an economy ticket through an airline’s website…but when you try to select your seat, only pricier premium-economy seats might be shown as available. It appears that the only option is to pay extra for an upgrade.
What to do: You do not have to upgrade to premium economy if you don’t want to. If you don’t select any seat, the airline will assign you one prior to flight time. If no economy seats remain, you even might be assigned a premium-economy seat for no additional charge.
• The passenger in the seat next to you bought a ticket from a completely different airline—at a much lower price. Because of airline partnerships and mergers, a single airplane trip might be listed as two different flights on two different airlines—and the fares charged by these airlines could differ by hundreds of dollars.
Examples: A Delta flight to Europe might also be listed as an Air France or Alitalia flight…a United flight to Canada might also be listed as an Air Canada flight.
What to do: Before booking any flight, use a fare-comparison site such as Orbitz.com or Kayak.com to scan for a flight on other airlines that feature exactly the same airport, departure time and arrival time—there’s a good chance that it’s the same plane.
You often can opt to earn miles in a particular airline’s frequent-flier program even if you purchase your ticket through one of its partner airlines, though in some cases you might earn miles at a lower rate. Check the airline websites for how to do this.