We just returned from a trip to North Carolina and South Carolina. The main reason we went was to attend a friend’s wedding in Charlotte but since we are rarely in that area, we decided to turn the trip into a whirlwind weekend of visiting South of the Border, the cheesy tourist trap right off of Interstate 95, on Thursday, meeting up with friends in Raleigh for dinner on Friday night, and then attending the wedding on Saturday before Continue reading “Hotel Reviews: Three Nights in the Carolinas”
As I mentioned in a previous post, I recently had to book flights for us on routes that offered Basic Economy fares. After studying up on what the restrictions were for each airline and taking into consideration the details of each trip, I decided to book the basic fare for one of the trips and paid the extra money for “regular” economy for the other.
The following is a breakdown of how I made my decisions:
I was doing some serious travel planning over the last two weeks. We are focusing on taking several shorter trips this year and that means I need to book more flights than usual for us. Since I’ve been booking our domestic flights with my Southwest miles or on JetBlue, I haven’t paid much attention to changes the major airlines like American, Delta and United have been making. I did know they started to offer bare bone, or basic airfares, claiming that this will help them remain competitive with low cost airlines.
Originally, these fares were only supposed to be offered on routes where they were in competition against airlines like Spirit, Frontier or Allegiant. However, as you can imagine, the airlines have now started to roll these fares out to a larger number of routes, including some of the ones I now needed to book airfare for. Let me spell out what these fares entail for each airline:
When you book a Basic Economy ticket with American, here is what you get:
- One item that fits under the seat in front of you (no access to overhead bins)
- Seats are assigned at check-in
- Fees to choose a specific seat
- Not eligible for upgrades
- No flight changes or refunds
- Board in last group
For more clarification on baggage, American gives this guidance on their website:
You can board with 1 item like a purse or small handbag that fits under the seat in front of you and is not larger than 18 x 14 x 8 inches (45 x 35 x 20 cm). You won’t have access to overhead bins.
All other items must be checked at ticket counters and cannot be carried on. If you take them to the gate you’ll pay an extra $25 gate service fee per item plus the applicable bag fee.
American does have some exemptions for elite members of their AAdvantage program and those who hold a co-branded American Airlines credit card. They can:
- Take 1 item that fits under the seat (no larger than 18 x 14 x 8 in.)
- Take 1 item free of charge to store in the overhead bin (no larger than 22 x 14 x 9 in.)
- Keep their priority or preferred boarding privileges
- Keep their checked bag benefits
Delta Airlines version of Basic Economy comes with the following restrictions:
- With Basic Economy, you will not receive a seat assignment until after check-in or at the gate.
- Passengers traveling together, including families, may not be seated together
- You will not be eligible for same-day changes or ticket refunds after the Risk Free Cancellation Period
- You will board in the last zone and not be eligible for paid or complimentary upgrades or preferred seats, even with Medallion® Status.
Frequent Delta flyers and cardholders of the co-branded Delta Skymiles American Express cards will still get some benefits when flying on basic economy:
When flying on a Basic Economy fare, Medallion members will continue to enjoy waived baggage fees, Priority Check-in, Priority Boarding and Medallion mileage bonuses. However, please note Medallion members will not receive paid or Complimentary Upgrades to first class, paid or complimentary Preferred Seats, or paid, or complimentary Delta Comfort+™ when flying on a Basic Economy fare.
I hate to be the one to jump on the bandwagon, but United’s Basic Economy fares are the most restrictive of the “Big Three” airlines. Be prepared if you book one of these fares! (I added the bold type below for emphasis)
- Seat selection and upgrades are not available – When you choose a Basic Economy ticket, your seat will be automatically assigned prior to boarding, and you won’t be able to change your seat once it’s been assigned. You will not be eligible to purchase Economy Plus® seating or receive Economy Plus subscription benefits. MileagePlus members, including Premier® members, cannot use complimentary, earned or mileage upgrades.
- Group and family seating is not available – Please note that customers traveling in a group, including families, will not be able to sit together.
- Full-sized carry-on bags are not permitted – You’re not allowed a full-sized carry-on bag unless you’re a MileagePlus Premier member or companion traveling on the same reservation, the primary cardmember of a qualifying MileagePlus credit card or a Star Alliance™ Gold member. Everyone else who brings a full-sized carry-on bag to the gate will be required to check their bag and pay the applicable checked bag fee plus a $25 gate handling charge.
- One personal item is allowed – You are allowed one small personal item that fits under the seat in front of you, such as a shoulder bag, purse, laptop bag or other item that is 9 inches x 10 inches x 17 inches (22 cm x 25 cm x 43 cm) or less. Mobility aids and other assistive devices are also permitted.
- Flight changes and refunds are not allowed – Ticket changes are not allowed with Basic Economy, including advance and same-day changes. Refunds are not allowed except as stated in the United 24-hour flexible booking policy.
- Certain MileagePlus and Premier member benefits are not available – If you’re a MileagePlus member, you will still earn award miles based on the fare and your MileagePlus status. However, MileagePlus members will not earn Premier qualifying credit or lifetime miles or toward the four-segment minimum, and they won’t receive some benefits. See more details below.
- Last boarding group – With Basic Economy, you’ll also be in the last boarding group unless you’re a MileagePlus Premier member or companion traveling on the same reservation, the primary cardmember of a qualifying MileagePlus credit card or a Star Alliance Gold member.
Is it just me or it that the MOST NEGATIVE list of benefits you’ve ever read? It almost seems as if they are daring you to buy these tickets. They do list some exceptions to these rules if you have one of the United co-branded credit cards or if you are a MileagePlus premium member, but these are, by far, the most restrictive tickets.
I recently had to look through the restrictions of basic economy fares and found that there are major differences between the three major airlines offerings. Delta’s basic economy rate’s only major drawback is that you’re not able to pick your seat until check in. American’s fare has a similar set of restrictions as Delta but additionally does not allow you to bring a bag bigger than one that will fit under your seat (and will charge you a $25 penalty on top of the checked bag fee if you bring said oversized bag to the gate). United rightfully earns the last spot with restrictions that would make RyanAir proud, like that you have no ability to pick or to change seat, can’t bring a full-size carry on (with a $25 penalty, the same as American, if you do bring one to the gate on top of the normal baggage fee), no ticket changes and being in the last boarding group.
While the reasoning the airlines gave to offer these fares was sound, to compete with ultra low cost carriers like Spirit and Frontier, in reality it just does not, to lack a better word, fly. These fares are offered on routes not served by any of the ultra low cost airlines. Other blogs have noted that the fares did not go down in price at all. The previous economy fare just became the new basic economy fare and the regular economy fare increased. The irony of these “no-frill” fares is that low-cost airlines like Southwest and JetBlue still offer lower fare structures and manage to offer wi-fi (still not available on many American flights), free checked bags (Southwest) or live TV (JetBlue) at a fare that is less than these “basic” fares. The true ultra low cost carriers, like Frontier, have fares as low as $39 or offers like Spirit’s $9 fare club. These are true “basic economy” fares that are up front about giving you nothing but a seat and having you pay for everything else. These new basic economy fares are just economy tickets with more restrictions that are the same price as the old economy fares. Buyer Beware!
Have you ever purchased one of these basic economy fares? Did you know what the restrictions were when you purchased it? How was the flight experience? Let us know in the comments, on Facebook or Twitter. I’m personally not a big fan of these fares, but as always, Your Mileage May Vary.
I’ve written before about how much we’ve traveled on Southwest recently and even how we haven’t paid for a flight on Southwest Airlines since 2015. Well, the time eventually came when I had to book a ticket on Southwest with cash instead of miles. I just didn’t have enough Southwest miles left to cover the cost of the flight for both of us on this trip.
We are flying to Chicago for a weekend to see Hamilton (Again. Don’t hate us.) and I know I cleared these dates with Sharon before I booked the airline tickets. But sometimes life happens and plans change. This time we needed to change our travel dates because Sharon was cast in the choir of Encore! for their upcoming production of Hairspray at the Dr. Phillips Center in Orlando (shameless plug – tickets are on sale here). This did cause a bit of a dilemma as Sharon now has a rehearsal scheduled for the day we were going to be flying to Chicago, and that just wasn’t going to work.
When we realized this, I immediately was relieved because I knew I had booked the flights on Southwest and they have one of the most generous policies for changing and cancelling tickets of any airline. They do not charge any fees to change flights and will only charge (or refund) the difference between the original and the new ticket price. If you need to cancel your ticket, Southwest will give you a full refund of your whole purchase price as a credit which would need to be used within one year from when you bought the ticket. If you used points to purchase your ticket, the points will be returned to your account and the taxes would be refunded to your credit card. Any extras purchased, such as EarlyBird seat assignment fees, are non-refundable and would be lost if you cancel the ticket. You may be able to transfer these extras to your new flights if you are rescheduling, but make to sure to call to make the changes. You will not be able to keep the extras if you make the changes online.
Not only is Southwest’s policy helpful if your plans change, but it can also save you money if the price of your flight goes down. If the prices drop on your Southwest flight, you can rebook the ticket at the lower price and get back the difference in points or cash (as a credit for future use). Here is a great post from Deals We Like that describes the entire process of repricing a Southwest ticket if the price goes down.
Having to change our flights did make me look at prices again and it turned out that for Friday morning, Southwest’s current price was $10 more per person than what I had paid for the tickets for Thursday. However, United was also offering a flight on Friday morning that was $60 less per person. Taking into consideration the $15 in EarlyBird fees that we would be losing, it was still worthwhile to cancel the Southwest flight to Chicago and rebook on United. I wanted to make sure the return flight stayed as it was so I called Southwest to cancel the flight instead of cancelling online, just to make sure. On a side note, our flight into Chicago on United is to Chicago O’Hare and the flight home is from Chicago Midway. We are using public transport and Uber/Lyft/taxis for this trip and are not renting a car. However if we were renting a car, I would have needed to find out if there were any additional charges for using different airports when deciding if it was worthwhile to cancel the flight on Southwest and book on United.
Considering that other airlines charge from $75-$200 to change or cancel a ticket, we were lucky we had these flights booked on Southwest. If you have a ticket booked on a different airline and have a true conflict or emergency, it doesn’t hurt to try and call the airline and explain your situation. If you hit it just right, the customer service representative might be compassionate and work with you to change your reservation. Then again, you might end up with someone who says “Too bad, so sad. Sorry, can’t help you.” Your Mileage May Vary in getting this trick to work.
l’ve already posted about how you can sign up for hotel programs. Not surprisingly, I’ve certainly signed up for quite a few. When I look at AwardWallet, I see that I have accounts with these hotel programs:
- Starwood Preferred Guest
- Marriott Rewards
- Hilton Honors
- World of Hyatt
- IHG Rewards Club
- Le Club Accorhotels
- Wyndham Rewards
- Choice Privileges
- La Quinta Rewards
- M Life (MGM Resorts)
- Kimpton Karma Rewards
I’ll freely admit that I wasn’t enrolled in the last two programs on this list until this week. I signed up for them because I was staying, or thinking about staying, in hotels belonging to these programs. You are going to get some benefit if you are a member of that hotel’s program when you stay at their hotels, even if it is as simple as free wifi or not getting the worst room in the hotel.
Kimpton Karma Rewards
We are planning a stay in Chicago for a long weekend this summer, when we go to see “Hamilton” again. I’ve had my eye on a couple of hotels that would be good for our stay and finally got around to booking one. One of them was the Kimpton Hotel Allegro. The prices had gone up since the last time I looked and when I checked on TripAdvisor the the least expensive room now cost $279 a night, which is the rack rate. I did go to the hotel to search if there were any discounts and AAA prices showed a bit lower (this is one of the reasons I keep my AAA membership – lower hotel rates).
Since this was a much better rate than any other website was offering, I signed up for a Kimpton Karma Rewards account and went to make a reservation. After signing up and logging into my account, this rate popped up.
So not only was this rate $55 less than the rack rate, it is also $21 less than the AAA rate that I found. You know what it took me to get this lower rate? Less than five minutes to sign up for an account and now I also get free wifi and a “Raid the Mini Bar” credit upon check in. Not bad!
MGM Resorts – M Life
We are not gamblers and we really have no idea about Las Vegas. We depended on you to give us suggestions on what to do while were there, and you really delivered, with comment after comment on our Facebook page! I also spent quite a bit of time deciding where to stay, finally choosing the Delano with the AMEX benefits I’ll get there. Since I was staying at an MGM Resort hotel, I decided to sign up for the M Life program.
I remembered a post I read a while ago on Heels First Travel about how having a M Life membership can save you on hotels. I signed up and was immediately granted Sapphire status, the lowest level in the program. Just for fun, I looked for rates at the Luxor, one of the hotels I was considering before.
Just for signing up for M Life, the rate I was offered is $16 a night less than before. And that’s with only having the entry level Sapphire status; if you are a higher level then you will get even better pricing than this! If you happen to have status with Hyatt, you can match that to M Life. Having the Hyatt Credit card grants you Discoverist level and you can match that to M Life Pearl which will get you free self parking. Mommy Points, one of the blogs I follow, gives a full description of how to match status (unfortunately, the best perks she mentions were eliminated in March 2017).
These lower rates at the Luxor will make me reconsider where we might stay in Las Vegas (I know Sharon is just thrilled about me having to go over all of these hotels again). (Edit from Sharon: just kill me now…)
These are just two examples of why you should always sign up for hotel loyalty programs even if you will never stay enough to earn status. The benefits of being a member far outweigh the costs (it’s free!) of signing up.
When we drove home from Key West, our original plan was to leave early and visit the Morikami Japanese Gardens in Delray Beach and then go to dinner at Mai-Kai in Fort Lauderdale (more on Mai-Kai at a later date – it deserves a post all its own!). After driving from Key West and then having a full day of events, we figured we would most likely need to rest after dinner instead trying to drive three more hours to get home. We do have family in the area so we figured if we stayed overnight, we could plan to meet them the next morning for breakfast. We’ve stayed in the Fort Lauderdale area recently but decided we’d rather drive a little ways towards home after dinner so that our ride the next morning would be that much shorter.
Since I am not loyal to any specific hotel chain, I looked at what options I had that were near my relatives’ house and still close to the highway. I usually end up obsessing over these one night stays just as much as I do about where to stay for a week in Austria because I just never want to end up in a bad hotel. So I spent way too much time looking at TripAdvisor reviews before deciding that the best combination of location and price for us was the Fairfield Inn & Suites West Palm Beach Jupiter.
Now when looking at where the hotel was, it would be a stretch to consider this location to be near West Palm Beach. However since we needed to stay near Jupiter, this was a good place for us. It was located right off of I-95 and the Florida Turnpike and would therefore be a great location for anyone wanting to staying overnight near the highways.
On our last night in Key West, we decided that we were going to sleep in and stay in Key West until around lunchtime. We’d miss going to the gardens and would drive straight to our dinner in Fort Lauderdale. This worked out well but we also didn’t plan on dinner ending so much earlier than we thought it would. So after all that planning, we arrived at the hotel around 8PM, pretty well rested (we thought we would be there around 10PM and exhausted from our travels that day). We worked out our plan while walking to the lobby: if the front desk would allow us to cancel the stay, we would just drive home that evening. If we were going to pay for the room anyway, we’d stay at the hotel and get up early the next morning to drive home.
The front desk clerk on Sunday evening was exceeding pleasant and funny. I explained our situation and asked if we had to stay in the room. She said that she understood our dilemma and we weren’t forced to stay there. Unfortunately, Marriott would still charge us for the stay because we were past the cancellation deadline. I said that if we were going to pay for the room anyway, we might as well stay. We had a good chuckle over this and she then told us that since I am a Marriott Rewards Gold member, they upgraded us to a suite so we could live it up!
We were handed our room keys and went up to our suite, which was quite nice.
It had a living room with a full sitting area that included a desk, couch and TV. There was a dividing wall separating the bed area from the living room but it was still quite open so it would be difficult for someone to watch TV in the one area and someone else to watch TV in the other. Since we usually just read or watch our iPads in bed, this wasn’t a problem for us. I would say that for the $89 plus tax we paid, it was a very nice room.
The bathroom was a typical basic set up for a mid level hotel. The sink was outside of the bathroom, along with a microwave, coffee maker and refrigerator. The bathtub/shower and toilet were behind the door and there wasn’t all that much space (or light) in the room.
The hotel did have a pool and hot tub that were in good enough condition that I considered changing into my bathing suit. When push came to shove, though, I decided that changing to sit in a hot tub for 15-20 minutes and then having to shower that night before going to bed just wasn’t worth the effort. Instead, Sharon and I sat in bed and watched a special on the History Channel for two hours about the Shroud of Turin. Don’t be too jealous of our glamorous lifestyle.
The hotel offered a free breakfast, as is normal at most Fairfield Inn properties. Because we were meeting relatives for breakfast, we didn’t try it but it looked pretty standard for a hotel in this range. Think eggs, pastries, coffee, juice and oatmeal. For those interested, as we are, there is a Starbucks coffee directly in front of the hotel but the drive-thru line was about 10 deep when we drove by on a Monday morning, so plan your time accordingly.
This hotel was a perfectly acceptable as a right-off-the-highway place to sleep. It had a great location which was close to the two major highways but did not get any of the traffic noise. The upgraded room was almost too big for what we needed. The person working the check in desk on a Sunday evening was very pleasant and funny (something rare to find with night staff). The room was quiet and dark, which let us get a good night sleep so we could get back on the road the next morning. While I doubt we’d ever need to stay in the area again, we wouldn’t hesitate to stay here if we needed to.
I’ve flown on a bunch of different domestic airlines in my lifetime. Off the top of my head, I’ve flown on Delta, United, American, JetBlue, Virgin America, Southwest, Alaska, Hawaiian, Silver, Continental, US Airways, Eastern, America West, TWA, Northwest, People’s Express, TED, Song and Midwest Express (am I showing my age?). So why, when it came to booking a flight on Allegiant, did I have second thoughts?
Let me set up the story. Sharon asked me earlier this week to look for a hotel in Pigeon Forge, TN. It’s not an uncommon request from her, as we get friends asking us all the time to help with travel; that’s why we started the blog in the first place. I asked for the dates because I can’t tell what hotel rates are going to be without knowing when the stay is going to be. She told me the date and the location and I came up with some hotels for decent prices. That’s when I get the open ended question of, “Would you mind if I went away for the weekend?” Huh, this was for you? For what? We are already traveling so much this year already, why do you need to go away?
For those of you not following our exploits closely, the most important purchase in our household this year was Sharon’s new Xtreme Purple Jeep Wrangler Sahara Unlimited, that she calls Jeep Jeep.
She obsessed over every part of ordering this car, right down to the cigarette lighter. It was ordered as soon as it was available (Xtreme Purple was a new, special color for the 2017 models) and she even followed the tracking information from the factory to the dealership. It was a big deal! During the process of getting the Jeep, Sharon was brought into the Jeep community (there is such a thing) and got to know several friends online. Thus the interest in going to Pigeon Forge. There is a huge Jeep event happening there and she’d be able to meet her Jeep people and talk Jeep things. I’d usually have nothing to do with this but I’ve been to Pigeon Forge before and would love to revisit the Great Smoky Mountains area again. I might even get to visit Dollywood.
Here’s the catch: the flights into Knoxville (the closest airport to the area) are MEGA expensive. Like, I could fly across the country for less money, expensive. Like, for two people to fly from Orlando to Knoxville on our preferred dates would cost us almost $700. And forget about using miles if flights are that much for cash (for newbies: it would cost way too many miles for flights that are that expensive). However, when searching with Google Flights I got a notice that if I changed my dates I could fly for $91 round trip per person. Why the huge difference? Allegiant flies non-stop from Orlando to Knoxville but only on 2 days a week and those were not the days we were going. Drat!
One thing I’ve learned from my reading of travel blogs is that if your dates are not flexible (ours usually are not) then you may need to be flexible with your airports.
I did some digging and found that while Allegiant did not fly to Knoxville on our preferred dates, they did fly from Orlando-Sanford Airport to Bristol, Chattanooga and Greenville, SC, which are all airports in the general area of Pigeon Forge. The search then went to Allegiant’s website to look for flights.
Reasons I almost booked with Allegiant
- Allegiant airfares are listed from a low of $80 round trip to Chattanooga up to $112 round trip to Greenville. This is compared to flights to the same cities on Delta starting at $244. You can’t just ignore a price difference that large.
- We’re big fans of non-stop flights. There is no chance of your flight being delayed and missing your connecting flight. The flights on Allegiant are all non-stop while all other flights to the area involve a connection. The cities in the area are considered minor markets and so the major airlines fly regional jets from the smaller airports to their larger hubs. This means flying through Atlanta (Delta), Charlotte (American) or Chicago (United, are you kidding with that routing?)
- Allegiant flies out of Orlando-Sanford (SFB) airport. This is a much smaller airport than Orlando International Airport (MCO) yet still has TSA Pre✓ when flying with Allegiant. Parking at Sanford airport would also be closer to the terminal and less expensive than what it would be at Orlando airport.
- I can reserve an exit row seat on Allegiant, ahead of our flight, for $15 each way. Prices for these seats on other airlines can go for up to $50 extra (per flight).
- The best alternate for us to get to the area is with Delta Airlines but their pricing for these routes is starting to drive me crazy. In the two days that I’ve been researching flights, Delta’s price for two tickets has changed from $173 round trip last night to $244 this morning. Now, if I search just for one seat, I can find space for $163, but only if I choose a flight with a three hour layover in Atlanta. I was going to pull the trigger on the $173 flights but I’m not booking tickets at the increased price.
Reasons I didn’t book with Allegiant, yet
- You need to be cautious when booking with Allegiant. While they list very low fares on their website, they charge you extra for everything. I went through the booking process to see what the final cost would be. Bringing a roll-aboard bag as carry-on to go in the overhead bin is $16 per person per flight ($64 total) Booking seat assignments is extra an $10 for regular seats and $15 for the exit row. If I have to pay, I’ll pay the extra $5 for the legroom. ($60 total). We would not need to check a bag for this short weekend but if we did it would cost $20 if we paid when booking, $45 pre departure and $50 at the airport. They also charge for all on board snacks, including $2 for water and soda. That means our $81 ticket would end up costing us $145 round trip. Still not bad but that’s pretty close to the $173 that Delta charges.
- While Allegiant does fly non-stop to several airports from Orlando-Sanford, the flights we are looking at only fly twice weekly (Thursday and Sunday) and only once each day. That means if the plane is delayed, you are stuck at the airport until they can fix it. If the plane can’t be fixed and gets cancelled, there is very little chance you are getting to your location (for several days). That’s a hard pill to swallow for a weekend getaway and if you Google it, you’ll see that Allegiant doesn’t have the best reputation for customer service.
- While Orlando-Sanford is a smaller airport, it is quite a trip from most of the Greater Orlando area. It may be convenient if you live northeast of the city, but it’s not so close for those in the Walt Disney World area (the lower left corner of the map). It would be about a 45-60 min drive for us to Sanford airport, as opposed to a 10-15 min drive to Orlando airport.
- The flight times for Allegiant are not great. Chattanooga is about a 2-1/2 hour drive to Pigeon Forge. The only flight on Thursday leaves at 6:17PM and arrives at 7:52PM. That means if every connection is perfect and we have no wait for a rental car and a quick check in at the hotel, we might be into our hotel room by 11PM. Forget it if there are any delays; we’d be driving around Tennessee in the middle of the night and that’s not the way I’d prefer start to my vacation. The flight times coming home are not any better, as we would arrive in Sanford at 10:08PM. Best case scenario would get us home by 11PM (doubtful) and I’m scheduled to work the next day.
- I can’t get out of my mind all of the maintenance problems that were in the headlines last year about Allegiant. I’ve read up on the topic and it seems that the FAA has cleared the airline and approved the changes they have made to their maintenance program. The airline is flying planes every day with no issues for months and the flights I’ve been looking at have been tracking on time per FlightAware. But I’m still leery.
So what to do?
For now, I’m just sitting tight. I have a Google Flights search for the Delta flights that I want. They were $173 last night and $244 today (???). I’ll see what they are listed at tomorrow and wouldn’t be surprised if they were then $100 or $400. I looked at the seating maps for the flights and the planes are really empty. I still have 3 months until our trip so I can take some time to wait to see what happens to the fares. While it takes every bit of my self control to keep from booking something, I’ve learned that patience is often rewarded. So I’ll wait, for now.