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.

The sushi invasion of Eastern Europe

sushi in eastern europeTraveling through Eastern Europe recently, what stood out to me the most (aside from ultra low prices and varying success with capitalism) is the extreme popularity of sushi. Particularly in Kiev and Warsaw, sushi restaurants are nearly as prolific as the national cuisine and if you find yourself in a fashionable restaurant, odds are raw fish will be on the menu.

My husband and I had differing theories as to the sushi invasion. I figured it was popular as it is the exact opposite of most Eastern European food. After many years of boiled meat, heavy sauces, and pickled vegetables, sushi must make a refreshing palate cleanser and a delicious novelty. My husband, who was born in what was then Leningrad, USSR, had a more subjective theory. He maintains it has to do with a way of thinking that is particular to post-Soviet and developing countries: after the oppression of communism, wealth and status are held in high regard; imported goods once impossible to obtain exemplify status and wealth. In other words, nothing says how far you’ve come from bread lines more than eating fish flown in from another country while wearing Louis Vuitton and texting on your iPhone.

In order to delve deeper into the sushi explosion, I consulted a few expats familiar with the former Eastern bloc to get their insights and found both of our theories supported.Political consultant, fellow Istanbullu, and Carpetblogger Christy Quirk easily qualifies as an expert in my book on the peculiarities of the FSU (former Soviet Union), with posts like how to tell if you’re in Crapistan (perhaps “many sushi restaurants” should be added to the checklist?) and how to buy a suit in the FSU. She agrees with the post-Soviet (and new money) mindset theory, noting “nothing says ‘I have more money than sense’ more than eating overpriced frozen sushi from Dubai. EVERY self-respecting restaurant in the FSU — especially those that appeal to the Oligarch class or, more accurately, oligarch wannabes — must have a sushi menu.” She adds: “Our favorite ‘Mexican’ restaurant in Kiev had an extensive one (I hold that up as the paragon of ridiculous dining in the FSU but it did have good chips and decent margaritas, for which it deserves praise, not derision).” As a fellow expat, I understand the importance of a place with decent margaritas, even if the menu is a bit geographically confused.

Prague-based food and travel writer Evan Rail has fully experienced the, uh, Prague-ification of the Czech Republic after living in the capital for the past decade, concurs with the novelty theory and adds that food trends tend to take a bit longer to arrive in this part of the world. Sushi became big especially as “most of this region is landlocked, it’s quite noteworthy to encounter the salty, briny flavors of seafood, especially raw seafood. Fines de claire oysters went through a similar vogue in Prague a few years back.”

Evan further reports that in Prague, sushi is no longer the flavor of the month. “After [sushi], it seemed like every restaurant on every cobblestone lane in Old Town was serving Thai soup, but only a weak interpretation of tom kha gai — you couldn’t get tom yum for love or money. Now the vogue seems to be about Vietnamese noodles, which makes more sense given the Czech Republic’s long-term and quite sizable Vietnamese community. I’ve actually had some of the best bun bo hue I’ve ever tasted here, far better than anything I’ve found in Paris or Berlin.
But banh mi? Well, maybe in another five years…”

While all this may be further evidence of globalization, it’s become part of the food culture, for better of for worse. If you travel to Eastern Europe, be sure to try the local food and keep your mind open to what might be “local.”

Do you have another take on the sushification of Eastern Europe? Noticed another foreign food trend abroad? Leave us a comment below.

[Photo by Flickr user quinn anya]

Ask Gadling: You missed your flight


Even in this day and age of flight delays and cancellations, it’s always not the airline’s fault that you miss your flight. It happens: you oversleep, get stuck in traffic, or just run late on the way to the airport and miss your flight. A few months ago, my husband and I were heading out of Istanbul for the weekend and because of unusually long security lines and non-functional check-in kiosks, our flight closed just before we got to the check-in counter and we missed the flight. Turkish Airlines rebooked and ticketed us on another flight with a small change fee. Recently, some visiting friends missed their flight home though they were *at the gate* due to a last-minute gate change and zero announcements. Despite the fact that other passengers made the same mistake, they paid a change fee plus the fare difference, and they were also flying Turkish Airlines.

So what can you do if you miss your flight?

View more Ask Gadling: Travel Advice from an Expert or send your question to ask [at] gadling [dot] com.
  1. Proceed to the airport check in counter – There used to be an unwritten “flat tire” rule that meant if you got a flat tire en route, you could show up and be put on the next flight with no charge. That rule seems to have gone the way of the free meal in coach, but many airlines may still try to help depending on demand and schedules. If you are on your way but think you will miss the check in cut off time but not the departure time, try calling the airline in case they are able to check you in and then rush you to the gate. Even if you know you will miss your flight, your odds of being rebooked are better if you are physically at the airport than if you go back home or to your hotel. You may even still make the fight if you can (politely, please!) push through security if you tell other passengers you are about to miss your flight.
  2. Use your status if you have it – If you are flying an airline you hold status with, now is the time to call the Gold desk. Flying a full-fare or upper class ticket can also help. This is not to say you should threaten anyone or act self-important, you want to show you are a valuable customer who would greatly appreciate being accommodated. Missed flights are another good case for travel insurance, if you’ve ensured your trip, you may be able to be rebooked for free.
  3. Be calm and flexible – It may not be your fault that your taxi driver took the long way to the airport, but you’re still in the weaker position and at the mercy of the ticketing agent. It won’t help to be difficult or angry. Additionally, being flexible about your routing can help, especially if you’ve missed the last direct flight of the day. Ask about connections or even flights to neighboring cities where you can take a train or drive the rest of the way. The day we missed our flight out of Istanbul to Pristina, we ended up on the next flight – to Prague. Your travel plans may not always be so flexible, but getting a seat on a connecting flight may mean you get home – or on vacation – faster.

Gadling readers: what’s your experience been when you’ve missed a flight? What airlines do you find to be the most accommodating?

Money buys happiness, except maybe in Spain

The five happiest countries in the world have two things in common: their all pretty far north in Europe, and money generally isn’t a problem. Denmark, Finland, Norway, Sweden and the Netherlands top the latest list of the world’s happiest nations, due in large part, it seems, to the fact that basic needs are covered by sufficient incomes. Spain, on the other hand, ranked seventeenth of 21 European countries … it must be the relaxed lifestyle.

Gallup, which conducted the study, found that money is good for a certain kind of bliss:

“Money is an object that many or most people desire and pursue during the majority of their waking hours,” researchers wrote in the report. “It would be surprising if success at this pursuit had no influence whatsoever when people were asked to evaluate their lives.”

Denmark boasted a per-capital GDP of $36,000 last year, putting it ahead of 196 of the 227 countries for which the CIA collects data (don’t go down the conspiracy road – it’s for the agency’s “World Factbook”).

Now, monetary satisfaction only addresses how happy people are about future prospects. When it comes to day-to-day smiles, having basic social needs is much more important, which is why Gallup found that Costa Rica finished sixth:

“Costa Rica ranks really high on social and psychological prosperity,” says [Jim] Harter [chief scientist at Gallup]. “It’s probably things systemic to the society that make people over time develop better relationships, and put more value on relationships. Daily positive feelings rank really high there.”

So, there are two keys to happiness: being rich and being loved. How do you measure up?

[photo by dotbenjamin via Flickr]

Hilton gives free internet access by status

The elites get free internet access at Hiltons, and the rest can eat cake … which is how it should be. The hotel company has decided to reward its best customers with this perk, which translates to between $10 and $15 a night in value. To qualify, you need to be gold-level or above. Internet access is one of the more unpopular extra charges, especially for business travelers who have no choice but to incur it. For Hilton, tying the waived fee to status provides an easy way to experiment with easing up on the fee while keeping it contained.

Jeff Diskin, a Hilton senior executive for customer marketing, “Business travelers rank quality, high-speed internet access as one of the most important guest room attributes.” He adds, “By giving complimentary internet access to our Hilton HHonors Gold and Diamond members globally, we will meet our guests’ evolving demands.”