Buyer Beware: Do your homework before booking a flight with a “basic” fare

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.

1024px-Airbus_A380-861,_Korean_Air_AN1960985
By Alex Beltyukov – RuSpotters Team [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0), CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL 1.2 (http://www.gnu.org/licenses/old-licenses/fdl-1.2.html)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
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:

American Airlines – Basic Economy

American_Airlines_Boeing_777-200ER_N775AN_PVG_2013-5-21
By Sergey Kustov [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0), CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
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 – Basic Economy

1024px-Delta_Air_Lines_B767-300_N130DL
By Richard Snyder from San Jose, CA, United States of America (Delta Air Lines N130DL Uploaded by Altair78) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
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.

Screen Shot 2017-05-16 at 9.22.50 PM.png
Delta gives members of their co-branded American Express cards priority boarding and one free checked bag even when booking basic economy fares.

United Airlines – Basic Economy

1024px-United_Airlines_777_N797UA
By InSapphoWeTrust from Los Angeles, California, USA (United Airlines – N797UA Uploaded by Altair78) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
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.

Final Thoughts

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.

 

The pleasure of changing or cancelling a flight with Southwest Airlines

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.

Southwest_Canyon_Blue
Photo By Brian from Toronto, Canada – Southwest 737, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2271529

17761038_1121957987914685_4477871181367452954_oWe 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.

Chicago_north_from_John_Hancock_2004-11_img_2618
We will still be going to Chicago, just for a day shorter than originally planned.                         Photo BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=104651

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.

Have you ever need to change travel plans after paying for your ticket? Did the airline or hotel help you out or keep your money? Let us know in the comments below or on Facebook or Twitter.

The joy of being disloyal

When it comes to making travel reservations, I’m disloyal. There, I said it and truth be told I get a bit of a thrill in making that statement. You see, I am an Eagle Scout. Therefore, loyalty is part of the deal. Right here, second on the list behind being trustworthy. 

00000460 - Version 2A Scout is:

  • Trustworthy,
  • Loyal,
  • Helpful,
  • Friendly,
  • Courteous,
  • Kind,
  • Obedient,
  • Cheerful,
  • Thrifty,
  • Brave,
  • Clean,
  • and Reverent.

So why am I not loyal when it comes to my travel? Simply stated, I don’t travel enough to have anyone value my loyalty. Last year we stayed in hotels for 34 nights and flew 19,485 miles, which is a lot for us.
15726306_10210593853075706_5775195351584553238_n

Even if I had paid for all those hotel nights and flights (which I didn’t), I’d barely make it into the lowest level of loyalty with any major airline or hotel. It’s just not enough business for them to value my loyalty.

That’s not saying I don’t have status. I’m able to keep status with several hotel chains. I just didn’t earn it by staying in hotels. Instead, I have it by having credit cards.

  • Starwood Gold  – Provided by having the American Express Platinum Card
  • Access to Starwood club lounges – by having the SPG AMEX Business Card
  • Marriott Gold – Matched with Starwood post the merger of the two companies
  • IHG Platinum – Provided by having the IHG Credit Card
  • Hilton Silver – Downgraded from Diamond. I received that by a promotion that  matched my Starwood and IHG status.

We did actually earn Marriott Silver status last year based on stays, but we use our account with Gold status because of the increased benefits.

The problem is that while having this status is nice, I don’t have to do anything to keep it beyond keeping the credit cards that give me the status. I’ll take advantage of the status I have at those hotels when I stay there, which includes, possibly, a better room. I  just don’t have to go out of my way to stay with any specific brand.

piano
Not having hotel loyalty means that we are able to take advantage of a mistake offer at the Waldorf Astoria in New York before it closed for renovations.
The lack of loyalty to hotels and airlines is a very freeing experience. I have no hotel that I need to stay at to get enough stays to re-qualify next year, while I see people going through all this work for status just to get a free breakfast, a nicer room and possibly a upgrade to a suite (if the hotel feels like giving them one).

Let me look at my upcoming hotel stays:

  • Quality Inn – Dillon, SC (Close to South of the Border)
  • Hampton Inn – Charlotte, NC (getting 2X points by Hilton promotion  and saving $35 with an American Express offer.
  • Kimpton Hotel Allegro – Chicago, IL – saving $50 using American Express offer for HotelStorm 
  • Fitzpatrick Grand Central – New York, NY – booking through Travelocity earning 7% back through eBates and saving $47 with a 9% off coupon.
  • Candy Cane Inn – Anaheim, Ca – Saved $190 with Citi Prestige 4th night benefit.

I have stays with 3 different hotel chains (Choice, Hilton and Kimpton) and two independent hotels. I’m maximizing the offers that are available and I’m able to stay at a hotel that fits the need for each of my trips. I’m also able to stay at interesting locations that are not a part of any loyalty program, if I want.

IMGP1183
We had the entire attic level of the J. Palen House when we stayed in Cleveland. We couldn’t have booked this room if we were worried about gathering nights to qualify for status.
What about my flights? Since airlines award miles based on cost, I will never fly enough to earn status so I’m not compelled to work to give anyone my loyalty. I use my miles for flights when appropriate but will pay cash when necessary.

IMG_2622
Not needing to chase status with any airline has allowed us to enjoy JetBlue nonstop flights from Orlando to our vacation destinations like Austin and New York
If I want a nicer room at a hotel, I’ll pay the extra money for it. We fly different airlines to and from our destination more often than we fly the same airline (depending on price and schedule) because I can book the airline I want, flying the time that I want, and get the seat I’m willing to pay for. I never need to worry that I will not have enough stay credits or feel the need to book a room with points and cash instead of points. I will be able to stay at the independent hotel or the bed and breakfast if I want to.

I’m disloyal……… and I love it.

Do you feel compelled to stay loyal to a hotel or airline or are you a free agent?
Let us know how you feel in the comments or keep touch on Facebook or Twitter.

How we haven’t paid for a flight on Southwest Airlines since 2015.

You read the title correctly. We haven’t paid anything for a trip on Southwest Airlines, except for taxes and fees, since June of 2015. That’s 22 flight segments and 18,170 miles of travel. I’ve traveled with my dad, and Sharon’s gone on a trip with a friend, and we didn’t pay for their flights either.

map-2
Image from Great Circle Mapper

I bet you’re wondering how we managed that. It really wasn’t that difficult…I’ve just used several tips that I picked up over the years to make it happen.

The Chase Southwest Rapid Rewards® Credit Cards

This was my main way to accumulate Southwest Rapid Rewards miles. I signed up for the Premier version of the card and received 50,000 miles as a sign up bonus. I then picked up the Plus version of the card about 6 months later for another 50,000 points. The bonuses on these cards fluctuate but right now they are offering the 50,000 bonuses on both of these cards after meeting the minimum spending requirement. If you are interested in signing up for the Premier card, send a message to let me know and I’ll send you one of my referral links. Besides getting the bonuses for both cards, there was a good reason I signed up for both of them so close to one another: the Southwest Companion Pass.

The Southwest Companion Pass

In all of my reading posts on miles and points, one thing kept coming up as the most valuable item you could acquire: the Southwest Companion Pass. This card has magical properties that gives your miles a 2X boost. You earn one of these passes when you fly over 100 flight segments, or earn 110,000 miles in a year on Southwest and the companion pass is good for the current and all of the following year. This pass lets you bring a guest with you on any Southwest flight for free (all they need to pay is the taxes on the ticket). You do have to pick your companion and you only get a limited number of times you can change who that is.

Miles and points junkies have found out that the sign up bonuses from the Chase Southwest cards (Premier, Plus and Business versions) count towards that 110,000 mile threshold. So if you sign up for two of the cards in a year with the 50,000 mile bonus and then earn another 10,000 miles, you’ll earn a companion pass. So I went on my journey to get the elusive companion pass. At first I tried signing up for the Premier and Business versions of the credit card and Chase approved the Premier card but rejected my business card application. With that, I figured that my chance at getting a Companion Pass was over, but later in the year I saw that the Plus version of the card was offering the higher bonus, so I applied and was approved! After earning the second 50,000 mile bonus,  I only needed to charge enough to earn the extra 10,000 miles. I did finally meet the threshold towards the end of the year and I was able to get the Companion Pass for the entire following year.

It turned out that for our travels, the pass only had limited usage because several of the places we wanted to go weren’t easily accessible by Southwest. We still tried to get the most out of the pass by planning some trips where Southwest does travel to, but then we had to postpone them. Fortunately, Southwest does not charge any fees to cancel a trip and will refund your miles. If you travel with the same travel companion on multiple trips places that Southwest flies, the pass can provide thousands of dollars in value. For regular travelers who go on 1-2 trips a year, it’s not worth going crazy over trying to get one.

img_2342
I’ve learned to love this view flying for free on Southwest.

Southwest Revenue Based Award Pricing

Southwest bases the cost of an award ticket on the actual price of the ticket instead of using a set value. Some people dislike this revenue based method because it eliminates the chance for getting an oversized value. While this is true, it also makes shopping for flights with your miles easier to understand. The cheaper flights cost you less miles. Simple. You make the choice if the less convenient flight times are worth the savings, just like you would if you were paying in cash. You also don’t have to worry about buying a ticket if you see a good price. If the trip doesn’t work out, you can always refund the miles back to your account. This revenue based system for paying with miles also lets you take advantage of another thing I like about Southwest.

Southwest Fare Sales

One way I was able to stretch out the value of my Southwest miles was to keep an eye out for fare sales. Remember, Southwest does not charge any fees to change or cancel your ticket. This means that if your trip goes down in price, you can rebook it and get back the difference. I’ve used this trick several times to get back thousands of points.

img_2367
We used Southwest miles to fly to El Paso and then drove out to Carlsbad Caverns. I love visiting our National Parks. They are truly amazing.

Anniversary Bonus for having Southwest credit card

The Chase Southwest credit cards provide an Anniversary bonus after the first year of having the card. This is currently 6,000 miles for the Premier and Business versions and 3,000 miles for the Plus card. These miles somewhat offset the annual fee of $99 (or $69 for the Plus card).While I’ve since cancelled my Plus card, I still keep the Premier. The 6,000 miles I’m getting a year almost makes up for the $99 annual fee I have to pay.

No fees for checked baggage or seat assignments

While other airlines promote that you can get a free checked bag if you have their co-branded credit card, Southwest does not charge anything for your first two checked bags (within weight and size limits). Southwest also doesn’t charge extra for special seats. I’d guess that’s because they don’t have any seat assignments. You pick any available seat when you board, so your boarding place in line is very important. That leads me to the one thing I do pay for when flying Southwest.

Southwest Early Bird Check In

Southwest lets you check in for your plane 24 hours ahead of time. The trick is to check in exactly 24 hours before your flight, because your boarding number is based on the order of checking in. The earlier/lower your number, the better the seat you get to choose. If you forget or are busy at the check in time, you’re at the back of the plane in a middle seat and have plenty of time to regret your mistake.

I was really good at checking in on time. Then one flight I checked in at 24 hours out and still was in the middle of the line. What happened?  Early Bird check in happened.  For $15, Southwest will now automatically check you in 36 hours ahead of time – that’s a full 12 hours before you can check in without it. This is now a $15 I am happy to spend.

So I guess I really don’t fly for free on Southwest. There is a $5.60 fee for each flight due for taxes. I also pay the $15 for Early Bird check in. Still, that’s a small price to pay. For our travels, Southwest is often the best choice for us. We’ve learned to live with the process and we even end up with a row to ourselves a lot of the time. I’m not ready to share that trick…..yet.

 

 

 

How will we get to New York? Oh, hello companion ticket!

Sharon and I just finished a very quick trip to NYC. We left on a Friday morning and returned late Sunday night. We don’t usually take such short trips but we had snagged impossible-to-get ticket for the Broadway show Hamilton. I’ll break the trip up into segments because I think each one is interesting on its own merits. The one in boldface is the one I’m focusing on today.

Now that we had tickets to see Hamilton, it was time for me to book our plane tickets to New York. I have a great deal of freedom in making airline choices to New York, as at least 6 different airlines fly there from Orlando. I also do not have any status with any airline so I don’t have to worry about upgrades, segments or mileage earning. Our only real requirement is that we will not fly an ULCC (Ultra Low Cost Carrier) such as Spirit or Allegiant (I’ll discuss that in another post sometime in the future).

I usually start searching using Google Flights, as this gives me a really quick look at what prices are available. Just be aware that Southwest Airlines does not list their prices anywhere but on Southwest.com.

Quick Tip: you can type in airport code NYC and Google Flights will search all 3 major airports. (LaGuardia, Kennedy and Newark). If you aren’t renting a car (which is not necessary and very expensive if you are only going to stay in and around Manhattan), then you can even fly into one airport on one airline and home from a different airport/airline, depending on price. Unfortunately, the days of cheaper pricing for round trip tickets are long gone.

It is usually at this time when I’ll also do a quick search to see if there are there are any award tickets available to book with frequent flyer miles. Hint: It is possible to book a one way ticket from Orlando to New York for only 7,500 miles. I’ll cover this in a later post. 

Well, there was no award space available and tickets were more than I wanted to pay. In cases like this when I’m not in a rush to book tickets, I’ll just wait. Airfares go up and down all the time. Patience is a virtue. You can even use websites like Yapta or Hipmunk to track specific flights and notify you when the price drops.

Since I knew the most likely flights I’d book, I did a quick look every day or so. Then it happened – a flight to LaGuardia Airport on Delta showed up for $166 round trip. BINGO! That’s well under my acceptable price. IMPORTANT REMINDER: If you know you are taking a trip and see an airfare which is great for you, BOOK IT NOW! Prices can change in an instant. Feeling unsure? In most cases airlines will let you cancel within 24 hours with no penalty. Taking my own advice, I stopped what I was doing and booked the ticket.

Getting to the payment page, I saw there was a prompt for me to click on for coupons/vouchers. I didn’t remember having any but I clicked on it anyway. Delta then reminded me that I had a voucher for a free companion ticket from having the Platinum Delta SkyMiles American Express card. While this card does have a hefty $195 annual fee, I picked it up when I got a special offer for 75,000 Delta miles in the mail. I didn’t plan on keeping the card for much longer but why not use the Companion Ticket I had earned. Sharon’s ticket was suddenly free (I just had to pay the taxes which came to $28). The total we had to pay for both our plane tickets to New York was $194.

Step one of planning our trip was complete: we knew when and how we were going to get to New York City. Now for the next step: where were we going to stay?