How To Deal With The Ridiculous New Airline Change Fees

The big news in the travel industry this week was that United and US Airways raised the cost of changing tickets from $150 to $200. This means that if you need to change your ticket for any reason prior to departure, whether you got stuck in traffic on the way to the airport or your pet goldfish died, you’re going to have to pay a little bit more.

Gouging? Probably. Expected? Definitely. As airline prices continue their slow appreciation over the years decouple from the actual inflation rate, they’re turning to more and more ancillary fees in order to gain revenue. We saw it in baggage fees and in-fight meals and entertainment. Ticketing fees were bound to increase.

Rather than get angry about the fees, let’s focus on moving forward. Change fees only apply when you need to change your ticket, so the first thing that passengers can try to do is book the right ticket. A little-known rule when purchasing tickets is that the airlines have to give passengers 24 hours to cancel or change a reservation. At American Airlines you can put a ticket on hold until midnight the next day. United will let you cancel a reservation at no charge within 24 hours. And online travel agents like Orbitz and Expedia will cancel most reservations within 24 hours if you call their customer support and carefully draw out your complaint.How does holding or canceling a reservation empower a passenger? It lets you find the right ticket, book it, think about your schedule over night and finalize your itinerary. Not a week goes by when I don’t have one or two tickets on hold at AA.com – it’s both a failsafe and a backup if the price changes the next day.

Once booked, it behooves a traveler to know your schedule. We’re in an era of ultra-long security lines, mergers and sequester delays, so plan ahead and get to the airport early. On the flip side of that equation, if the airline is delayed because of bad weather or a mechanical issue, the leverage transfers to the passenger. Take a look at the departures board and try to get on an alternate flight on the same airline. Usually the passenger change fee is waived if the airline is experiencing irregular operations (IRROPS).

In the worst case when you actually do miss your flight, your options are fairly limited, but a little known rule that is still in effect on some airlines might save you some time. Called the flat tire rule, this loophole might let you change your itinerary to a later departing flight at little or no cost – but you have to know how to frame your complaint. Consumer writer Chris Elliott has a series of great articles on the topic, which varies by airline. You can read the thorough reporting here.

As with most changes to ancillary fee pricing, it’s important to note that these changes only apply to everyday travelers on deeply discounted tickets. One could logically get around these fees by purchasing semi flexible or fully refundable fares, or by reaching the top tiers of an airline’s elite program. But 95% of passengers won’t have the time or financial means to make this investment, especially when fully flexible fares are often 2-3 times the cost of an economy ticket.

Unfortunately, your best bet to avoid change fees lies in carefully planning your itinerary and executing on the day of departure. In the worst case, you’ll get to the airport a couple of hours early and will need to visit the pretzel counter at Auntie Annies.

[Photo Credit: Flickr user dykstranet]

Fees And Penalties Waived By Travel Companies: Nice Or Strategic Move?

fees and penalties

Frequent travelers know that fees and penalties happen when we change plans. Booked elements of a travel plan, especially when discounted, often carry heavy charges to prevent changes. But when major disruptive events happen – situations beyond our control that force plans to be modified – travel companies often waive those fees. It seems like a logical, good business move to make. But sometimes they need a little encouragement to do so.

Weather events, like a hurricane, a massive winter snowstorm or even disasters far away like an earthquake in Japan can throw off air schedules, empty or fill hotel rooms and make normal operations nearly impossible. When that happens, airlines, hotels, car rental companies, cruise lines and more adjust quickly to do the best job they can under the circumstances. Commonly waiving cancellation or change fees for these situations out of our control, it’s a show of good will by travel service providers. They don’t have to do that.

But it’s also a strategic move since the rescheduling is going to be done anyway, putting a severe strain on reservations systems and personnel. It’s kind of like the boss that is mad when someone calls in for work vs. the understanding employer who wishes them well and hopes they get better soon. Either way, the worker is not coming in today but the understanding employer gains good will with his workers. The mad boss? Not so much.As Hurricane Sandy caused aircraft to be grounded or moved out of harms way, United spokesman Rahsaan Johnson told USA Today, “We will likely suspend operations scheduled for tonight and tomorrow at several airports in the region. Conditions are likely to keep us from operating with an acceptable margin of safety.” Delta went on to suspend change and cancellation fees, as did most major airlines, asking passengers to consider departing earlier, postponing or re-routing their travel. At the time of Hurricane Sandy, it made sense.

After the storm passed and normal operations resumed, back came the fees and charges. But on the ground, the lives of those affected where far from back to normal. Homes left standing were still without power in many areas, forcing residents to live in hotels, scramble to find a rental car and change plans well into the future. For a while, it looked like airlines were going to hit passengers with fees again until Senator Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) stepped in to lobby airlines on their behalf. As a result, airlines reevaluated their policies and made the right move.

“JetBlue and Delta have stepped up to the plate for those teachers and families with students whose travel plans have been ruined by Superstorm Sandy – now other airlines and cruise lines should follow suit ASAP,” said Schumer on his website. “Having to cancel a long planned vacation because of the storm is bad, but being forced to shell out hundreds or thousands in cancellation or change fees is worse.”

Whether it is nice to do in order to earn or keep our good will, or a strategic move that should make resuming normal operations more efficient, we’re always happy when fees we don’t think are justified are removed, regardless or what (or who) caused them to happen in the first place.

Want to know more about how to avoid fees? See this video that tells us fees are big business for airlines, between 3 – 4% of their income:


[Photo Credit: Flickr user swanksalot]

Extra Travel Fees Here To Stay, Like It Or Not

Extra Travel Fees

Extra travel fees bring customization options that can make for a more pleasant air, hotel, land or sea experience. Also called “user fees,” those who value the option they provide are relatively happy to pay. After all, these are not mandatory fees but options. Still, just the dollar amount makes experts wonder, “What’s next?”

Airline fees should add up to $36.1 billion in 2012, according to a recent study from IdeaWorksCompany reported in the Los Angeles Times. That includes extra travel fees for checked baggage, Internet use, food, drinks, premium seating, quick boarding and more. Up more than 10% over 2011, online travel agencies and airlines have figured out how to position buying options in the booking process. Out of convenience, passengers make online buying decisions to save time at the airport.”They are understanding how to raise and lower fees to maximize overall revenue and how to better position items in the booking path to drive better sales,” said Jay Sorensen, president of IdeaWorksCompany in the Los Angeles Times report.

While there are no hard numbers on cruise line extra travel fees, those can add up too, as travelers choose premium dining options, tours ashore and onboard extras to customize their travel experience.

Sure, we don’t have to check luggage, enjoy a drink on board or use the Internet in the air. It is a choice travelers make, an optional travel expense.

Air travelers can choose to carry on their luggage, take any seat they get, enjoy whatever is included with the flight and not spend one penny more on extra travel fees. Cruise travelers can indeed sail and spend nothing more than the price of the cruise.

But do we really want to?

Apparently not, as extra fees are becoming so commonplace that they are rarely questioned or even complained about. Optional user fees are designed to charge those who want the service and let others save the charge as we see in this video:


[Photo Credit: Flickr user mroach]

$6.79 Breakfast Sandwich And Other Avoidable Travel Expenses

Paying for travel fees

Which airline does the best job, which hotel has the best perks and which cruise line has the best past-guest program are topics that few travelers agree on. But when it comes to extra travel fees, all seem to agree: they are something to be avoided if at all possible.

Getting to the final cost of an airline ticket was made easy with recent truth in advertising rules put in place. But nowhere in that legislation was a requirement for airlines, airports, hotels, cruise lines and other travel service providers to be fair. We have to watch out for ourselves when traveling and while some parts of our travel plan are bound to cost more on the road than they do at home, some can be controlled with a little thought.

Talking to a person can cost. Some airlines charge $25 or more if you buy your ticket over the phone, speaking to a human being. While thinking the airline employee on the other end of the phone might be able to help out when we run into trouble scheduling online is not a bad idea, be prepared to pay more for the extra service.

Unnecessary insurance can add up fast. Rental car insurance fees are often redundant. Most travelers who own a car at home are covered if they rent one on the road. Check with your personal auto insurance agent to see. While you’re talking to them, ask if you have any travel coverage for anything at all and ask that same question of your health care insurance provider. Many travelers assume that they have no coverage but many do, if not through their regular health insurance, then through credit cards they may have if travel is purchased using those cards.

Post-Security purchases at the airport can be insanely high-priced. A $6 bottle of water can be avoided by bringing an empty re-usable water container that will make it through the security check. Planning on a meal between home and your destination? Bring it with you and save. Portable foods that are nutritious and not perishable are the best bets. Planning ahead for flight delays, energy bars like KIND bars are a good choice when brought from home – $1.50 versus at the price at a convenient kiosk in the airport by the gate for $3.79.

Breakfast sandwich at McDonald’s on the way to the airport: See the dollar menu.
American Airlines breakfast sandwich in the air: $6.79.


Printing cruise documents, what was once the cause for dancing, as travelers who looked forward to their cruise of a lifetime waited for the mailman to deliver, has gone electronic on all but a few cruise lines. Many major cruise lines simply don’t have the option of paper documents anymore. Royal Caribbean still offers a printed version of cruise documents, upon request at time of booking, for a $35 fee per document.

Probably one of the worst and most avoidable extra fees is Spirit Airlines $100 Carry-On Fee, due to start in November.

The idea is to discourage their customers from making last-minute luggage decisions. The current bag charges of $20 for $9 Fare Club members, $30 for online orders and $35 for telephone reservations go up $5 each on November 6. The prices for carry-on bags paid for at airport ticket counters or kiosks go from $40 to $50. Forget to pay that before you reach the gate? $100 will be the fee. The airline still allows one free small personal item that will fit under the seat.

Check this quick video with some ways to save on airline fees.

[Flickr photo by stevendepolo]

Airline Fees: You Get What You Pay For Or Weapons In Travel Class Warfare?

airline fees - plane seat meapLast month, the media was abuzz over increased airline fees for pre-assigned seating, with many concerned that it would especially affect families who want to sit together for no additional cost. Even New York Senator Chuck Schumer got involved, asking airlines to waive fees for families traveling with children. Rather than look for victims or call airlines “anti-family,” however, look at the bigger picture. Airline seat fees are nothing new, but they are increasingly being used as another weapon in the arsenal against the airlines’ least desirable customer: the infrequent flier. If travelers will choose airfares based on a difference of nickels and dimes, does this force the airlines to nickel and dime the traveler?

The real divide in travel now isn’t between business and leisure travelers, families and singles, or even first class and coach; it’s between frequent fliers with airline loyalty, and price-conscious consumers who won’t hesitate to switch carriers for a cheaper fare. Savvy travelers who fly more than a few times per year understand that it pays to be loyal to one airline. In addition to earning miles for future trips, frequent fliers can jump to the top of upgrade lists, skip long check-in and security lines, and even waive many of the fees not included in the base fare. Travelers who fly only a year or less are more likely to book the cheapest ticket they find, even if the difference between carriers is just a few dollars, assuming the service will be similar (or worse, the same as they remember the last time they flew). What’s the incentive for airlines to give such passengers anything for free if they might never fly them again? “The customers that are more loyal, who fly more often, we want to make sure they have the best travel experience,” said American Airlines to Associated Press.

People are quick to call airlines greedy, and while they are looking to make money, running an airline is hardly a lucrative business these days. The Wall Street Journal recently ran a nifty graphic breaking down the cost of an average flight, showing that on a 100-person flight, the airline is making a profit off only a single seat. Between the rising costs of fuel, staff, security, insurance, and maintenance, most airlines are struggling to avoid bankruptcy or just stay in business. While you shouldn’t feel sorry for the airlines, understand that the alternative to fees is increased base fares, where you may be stuck paying for amenities you don’t need or want.As I’ve lived abroad for two years, I’ve become loyal to Turkish Airlines. They not only have the most flights from my current home airport in Istanbul, but I know I’ll always get a meal even on short flights, never have to pay fees outside of excess baggage, and even be able to use a dedicated check-in desk for travelers with children at Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport. I’ve often paid more to fly on Turkish Airlines than other carriers on the same route to guarantee the same standards of service. This makes me a valuable customer, and the more money I spend with them, the more perks I receive.

Earlier this year, I was looking for tickets from New York to Austin for a friend’s wedding. It was slightly cheaper to fly on American Airlines (my preferred carrier when I lived in New York) than Jet Blue, but as a solo traveler with a baby, I knew I’d be checking a bag and wanting to take my stroller up to the gate. Jet Blue would offer these services for free (American wouldn’t let me gate-check the stroller, but I could check it at the counter for free), and the overall cost would be about the same, plus I’d get free snacks and entertainment. In the end, I chose Jet Blue and was even given a priority seat without charge because the flight was relatively empty. If I were still based in New York and flying frequently, it would be more worthwhile to me to fly American to build my frequent flier status and miles for places I’d like to go.

As a parent who travels frequently with my child, I understand the potential nightmare separate seating could cause, but I also understand that airlines can’t make exceptions without making some passengers unhappy. If airlines were to waive a seating charge for families, travelers would complain about special treatment. Fliers with elderly parents would ask for exemptions to sit together, people with a fear of flying would want their travel partner close with no fee, and single travelers would feel they were being forced to subsidize everyone else.

Over at Huffington Post, my colleague (and fellow baby travel expert) Corinne McDermott contacted all of the major airlines regarding pre-assigned seating fees. Only Spirit Airlines explicitly said families should pay fees to be guaranteed adjacent seats. In fact, much of the hype about families being separated might really just be that: hype. Most airlines will try to accommodate people traveling together, just reserving preferred aisle and window seats to reward frequent fliers, or sell for an additional fee. It makes sense for an airline to offer a premium like preferred seating for free to a loyal customer, and instead try to make as much money as possible for a customer they may never have again.

Instead of spending time writing angry comments online, spend that time educating yourself about the full cost of an airline ticket and decide where your priorities lie: do you want to pay the absolute lowest fare and expect nothing more than a seat, or do you want to pay for service instead surprise fees? The old axiom “you get what you pay for” is the new reality in airline travel.