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More pesky airline problems

SmarterTravel

As I noted last week, I get more questions about airline matters than all other subjects combined. And also as noted, I’m not surprised, given the airlines’ penchant for crazy fares and even crazier rules. Here’s the second and final installment of short airline questions and short answers.

Forget that flight

My husband is flying from Detroit to Columbia, South Carolina, with a change of planes and a long layover in Charlotte. I could drive to Charlotte, pick him up there, and get home well before he would arrive after taking the connecting flight. However, on his return, he will fly from Columbia to Charlotte to Detroit, as ticketed. If I pick him up in Charlotte, will the airline cancel his return flight? Can he tell the airline his plans so that it will not be canceled?

The answer depends on what kind of ticket your husband has. If it’s refundable or two one-ways, you should have no problem, but if it’s a conventional round-trip, the airline will almost surely cancel the return flight if he doesn’t take the connection. He may want to call the reservations office and ask about this specific case, however, since the airline may have some exceptions to the general rules. But if the airline refuses to allow him to forget the Charlotte-to-Columbia flight, he should probably take it, even if it means a later return home.

Miles to New Zealand

My husband and I have 300,000 American Express miles— enough for two first-class tickets to Auckland. How do you recommend we use them?
This is a tough one. Continental and Delta are the only airlines serving almost all of the U.S. that allow you to dump AmEx miles into their airline accounts, and neither of them flies to New Zealand. What you’d have to do is convert your AmEx miles to miles in the programs of Air Canada, Continental, Delta, or Singapore, then fly a partner line affiliated with one of those lines. I suggest you call each of them to see (1) who has the best deal and (2) who has seats. Incidentally, these days, you should probably ask for business class rather than first class, since international business class has become so opulent that many lines have given up first class entirely.

Your miles are enough for two business class round-trips. But those seats are extremely tough to find. You could also use AmEx miles to buy a ticket, but at an exchange rate of 1 cent per mile, $3,000 isn’t close to being enough for even one business class ticket, let alone two.

Big frequent flyer group

I have enough frequent flyer miles for four tickets. How far in advance should I book the flights?

Depending on your airline, where you want to travel, and in what class, you might find it easy to get seats or very tough. In your shoes, I’d start looking as soon as possible—11 months on many lines—and keep looking. Once you get seats, you can always change your flight dates if you need to.

Finding even one frequent flyer seat can be very difficult; finding four on the same itinerary could be next to impossible. Consider splitting you party into two groups of two and looking for separate itineraries on the same day.

Overseas delay

My friend’s flight from Egypt to the U.K. was delayed 23 hours. The airline gave her a hotel room for the night but nothing else. Is she entitled to more compensation?

As far as I know, Egypt does not fall under the new EU compensation guidelines, so your friend is entitled only to what the airline is willing to give her. My guess is that the airline will claim the hotel room was enough.

New low-fare airline

I heard that there is a cheap flight from Burbank, California, to Columbus, Ohio, for $50 round-trip. Can you tell me how to find out more about it? Does it have a website?

Yes, the airline is Skybus. It promises to offer at least a few seats on every flight from Burbank to Columbus (and on other long-haul routes) for as little as $50 one-way, but those seats will sell out well in advance. The only way to buy tickets is through its website.

Miles or cash?

I booked a frequent flyer ticket from New York to Los Cabos on United using 35,000 miles. But American just announced a promotion under which I could get the same trip for 17,500 American miles, which I also have. Moreover, American has a somewhat better schedule and a better seat availability. Is the $100 penalty to put back the miles with United worth 17,500 miles I’d gain by going with American?

Look at it this way: If you assume your American and United miles have equal value, you’d be paying $100 to “save” a net of 17,500 miles, or about six cents a mile. To me, miles are worth about one cent, so, in your shoes, I’d do the deal, especially since American has better flights. But it’s your call.

Open skies

I’ve heard about a new “open skies” agreement with Europe that will allow greater access to U.S. and European airports. What’s up and what can we expect?

So far, we’ve seen only a few changes: Two low-fare lines, flyglobespan and Zoom, have started flying from the U.S. to a few European points. Delta and Continental have announced new nonstops from their major U.S. hubs to several smaller European cities, some this summer and some next.

Most of the attention about this agreement is centered on London—and specifically on Heathrow airport, the preferred hub for business travelers. Until now, only American, British Airways, United, and Virgin Atlantic have been allowed fly from the U.S. to Heathrow, and from only a list of designated cities. But thanks to this agreement, Continental, Delta, and others are negotiating for Heathrow “slots.”

What American travelers really need is more nonstop flights from smaller U.S. cities to the main European hubs—a development I haven’t seen yet.

Overbooking

Overbooking is not the result of passengers not showing up for flights. We all know it is a ploy by the major airlines. Why can’t we be guaranteed a seat once we have purchased and paid for a ticket?

I disagree. In my experience, many business travelers routinely double- and triple-book flights (with refundable tickets) so they’ll have a minimum wait for a departure no matter when they can get to the airport. This practice and the resulting numbers of no-shows have been pretty well documented over the years.

Rental car package surprise

I bought an air-and-car package from Allegiant Air, but when I picked up the car, the rental agent said I owed an additional $114. I complained to both the airline and rental company, but got no reply. What can I do?

I don’t know enough about the deal to give a precise answer, but I have a guess: Allegiant quoted the package with just the base car rental rate, before all the fees and taxes. Those fees and taxes can add at least $114 to a weekly rental—more in many places, and more if you also buy the “insurance.”

Check the fine print on the airline’s package offer. If it included only the base rental rate, you’re on the hook for the extras. But if the airline promised an inclusive rate, then you should complain to that airline.

Round-the-world planning

I’m planning a round-the-world ticket for a trip on United and its Star Alliance partners that could extend for up to a year, but the airlines accept bookings no more than 11 months in advance. That works for the first couple of legs but I expect the trip to extend beyond that time. What is the best way to plan this trip?

If you can’t reserve all your flight segments on a proposed RTW itinerary, Star Alliance (and most other alliances) issue tickets with some “open” legs that you can fill in later. Keep in mind, however, that there’s a one-year maximum travel time. You can book and change flight dates at no charge, but you have to pay a fee if you want to change your routing.

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