This week, super-storm Sandy grounded planes and snarled travel itineraries across the Eastern Seaboard and beyond, with some travelers still marooned even now. In today’s Friday Free-for-All, we want to hear from readers whose travel plans were affected by the storm. Did you have to reschedule a flight, cancel a hotel booking, reroute a train trip or make a travel insurance claim? Was your airline or other travel provider helpful in responding to your dilemma? Tell us in the comments below!
Several staffers from our sister site, Cruise Critic, shared their own Sandy stories.
Managing Editor Colleen McDaniel gives US Airways a gold star for its assistance during the storm. “Six hours before my flight was scheduled to depart from Norfolk to Philadelphia, I got a call notifying me my flight had been canceled,” she told us. “I called US Airways to reschedule, and was able to speak to a real, live person who helped get me booked on a flight a few days later. Sandy came and went in Virginia, causing damage and some power issues, but when it hit New Jersey, knocking out power to millions and causing widespread damage, I realized I was better off staying put. When I explained the situation, the US Airways agent was perfectly agreeable to another switch. I wasn’t charged a dime for the changes either time, and the agents were perfectly pleasant despite, I’m certain, some tough customers.”
Foul Weather Travel Tips
Senior Editor Dan Askin was also booked on US Airways, but his experience was complicated by the fact that he’d booked with frequent flier miles. “When the airline announced to the world it was waiving change fees … we didn’t apply,” he said. “Naturally, there were no ‘awards eligible’ seats available on any flights leaving inside of three days, so there was nothing for us, ostensibly the most loyal fliers, to switch to. Our only option — if we wanted to avoid change fees or recoup the miles — was to wait until the flight was actually canceled. We did so, and were able to rebook on a Wednesday flight. Then that was canceled, so we scrapped the trip altogether.”
United Airlines gets mixed reviews from Editor-in-Chief Carolyn Spencer Brown, who was scheduled to fly from Newark to Istanbul for a cruise. The airline canceled her flight a full two days before the storm even arrived. “At least I had some notice and could make an effort to find another route, but United was absolutely unreachable — as a platinum member all I could get was a fast busy signal when I called. I didn’t even have the pleasure of being put on hold,” she said.
Brown generally doesn’t recommend that cruisers book airfare through their cruise line — “they usually cost more and don’t accommodate personal preferences” — but in this case, asking for help from her cruise line, Regent Seven Seas, saved her trip. “A quick e-mail to Regent’s air/sea department at midnight resulted in a rebooking on Swiss Air, same night, though this time from JFK. It got me onboard — and on time.”
The takeaway? Brown told us she’ll consider booking a cruise line’s airfare for complicated itineraries; that way, “you’ve got back-up if you need it.”
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How did Sandy affect your travel plans? Share your story in the comments.
— written by Sarah Schlichter
I was hunched over my laptop, searching for flights to Montreal, when I hit pay dirt. I’d first checked fares a month or two earlier, only to see unpalatable prices in the $500’s and $600’s for a roundtrip flight from the East Coast. But when I looked this time, they were under $350. Score!
Excited, I consulted Bing.com/travel, which offers a Price Predictor tool that advises travelers whether to purchase or wait for a cheaper fare. “Buy,” said Bing, claiming with “80% confidence” that fares would continue to rise. Clearly the time was right to pull out my credit card.
Except for one little problem. It was a Saturday night, and I couldn’t book until I’d confirmed my desired vacation days at the office on Monday. Who knew how much the fares might change in 48 hours?
Then I noticed an option called “FareLock” on the United Airlines Web site. “United’s FareLock service allows you to hold your itinerary and fare for 72 hours or seven days, for a fee, and is available on select flights. So go ahead and book your flight while you complete and confirm your travel plans. Our FareLock service will guarantee an available seat and the fare you were quoted at the time you booked your reservation.”
Tips for Finding Cheap Airfare
I’d never been so happy to pay an airline fee in my life. For a nonrefundable $14, I was able to hold my seats, itinerary and fare for the following week, giving me time to clear my vacation days with the office and to keep an eye on the fare to make sure it didn’t drop any lower. It didn’t; nor did it go up as I’d feared. In the end the sub-$350 fare was still available a week later when I finally booked it, and would have been even without the FareLock. But as someone who’s been burned in the past by wildly fluctuating airfares, I don’t consider that $14 wasted — to me, the peace of mind was worth every penny.
FareLock has been around for nearly two years now (it started as a Continental service, then was adopted by United after the carriers merged). So why haven’t more airlines followed suit? It seems like a win/win: useful for travelers who need a little more time to book, and lucrative for airlines that are eager to scoop up yet more revenue in fees. As of now, the only airlines I know of that offer similar services are KLM, whose “Time to Think” option allows travelers to lock in an itinerary for up to two weeks, and Spanish carrier Vueling, which permits a 24-hour reservation hold.
See the Latest Worldwide Airfare Sales
A new Web site called steadyfare.com, currently in beta, could offer some promise on this front. The site allows travelers to lock in a given “steadyfare” for a particular itinerary, and hold it for two to four weeks. But the site is a long way from prime time; the airports and travel dates available are currently very limited, and you can’t yet choose your preferred airline or flight schedule.
Have you used FareLock or similar services on other airlines? Are they worth the price?
— written by Sarah Schlichter
So many of us spend our lives connected via the Internet. We earn our wages and pay our bills online. With whatever money is left, we shop online. We stay connected to family and friends. We read our news, our books and magazines on electronic devices. We share photos, ideas and snarky comics via social media.
You’d think travel would be the one time we go off the grid, but it’s usually not possible. Travel is often work-related, requiring the posting of content and the reading of emails. We may leave family behind who we have to check in on while we’re away. And a few of us — not naming any names — are addicted to electronics. We panic when there’s no Wi-Fi available. And we don’t like to pay for it.
Yes, Virgin America offered free in-flight Wi-Fi last holiday season, and perhaps will again. And there have been a few promotions where Wi-Fi was offered free or discounted, but for the most part, we pay. When Internet service is provided by Gogo, as with AirTran, Alaska, American, Delta, United and Virgin America, it costs $4.94 to $19.95 for mobile devices (smartphones, tables and e-readers) and $11 to $49 for computer devices (laptops and netbooks). JetBlue and Southwest each have their own Internet service. Southwest’s is not yet widely available, but its free portal contains content such as a flight tracker, shopping and games, all at no charge. Internet access beyond that is $5 all day, per device.
Traveling with a Smartphone: Cut Costs Overseas
Paying for Wi-Fi annoys us , even if it’s only $5. We have hotspot entitlement syndrome. And we’re not alone. When we asked on Facebook if you’d use Wi-Fi if it was offered in air for free, few of you would take a pass.
Hilary Huffman Sommer said, “I would definitely use it, especially when traveling for work or when work intrudes on my leisure travel.”
Gregory Ellis also would log on to work. “Nothing else to do while in those busses with wings,” he wrote.
“Absolutely,” wrote Michele Cherry. She admitted to the amount of time she can kill on Facebook and that she can’t sleep on airplanes. And she already pays for Wi-Fi on international flights or longer domestic ones.
Tips to Sleep on Planes
Ofelia Gutierrez and Marcia Cloutier also already pay for Wi-Fi, so getting it for free would be a bonus.
“Beats listening to my husband snore,” Vicki Hannah Gelfo explained.
Not everyone is leaping at that free bandwidth. Saadia Shafati Shamsie would prefer airlines not offer free Wi-Fi; she’d be too tempted.
And Deb Crosby won’t give up her sleep and reading time while flying.
One more naysayer to continued connectivity is Lavida Rei. “I would prefer if everyone stayed off the grid and off my nerves while in flight,” she wrote.
We’ll take that under advisement, Lavida, and we’ll tap lightly when answering that e-mail.
— written by Jodi Thompson
Maybe you’re having a disastrous day at the airport, trying unsuccessfully to get rebooked after a canceled flight. Or you’re sitting at home on hold with an airline’s customer service department, listening to hour two of Elevator Music’s Greatest Hits. In growing frustration, you may be tempted to take your complaint to social media — but when you pull up your airline’s Twitter page, you encounter something like this:
“@jetblue doesn’t respond to formal complaints on Twitter. For official customer concerns go to jetblue.com/speakup or call 1-800-jetblue.”
“Have a complaint/compliment to share with us? Go to usairways.com/feedback so we can followup [sic] directly. We aren’t able to provide a proper response on Twitter.”
“Tweeting is short and sweet, but sometimes you need more than 140 characters to get an issue resolved. If you require a specific response: For post-travel issues related to travel [on] a United Airlines operated flight, please contact Customer Care at http://united.com/feedback.”
Why are the airlines on social media if they’re just going to shut down the conversation? Can they really do that?
Turns out that they can’t — and despite what their profiles say, they don’t even try. Even though JetBlue claims not to respond to complaints on Twitter, a quick scan of its Twitter page reveals responses to a delayed traveler (“We hear your frustration. What flight are you on so we can provide the most up to date information?”), a person having problems with the airline’s Web site (“You can either try using a different browser or give our Getaways department a call at 1-800-JETBLUE and they can help!”) and a passenger whose TV didn’t work in flight (“Sorry to hear – per our Customer Bill of Rights, you’re entitled to a $15 credit for the inconvenience”) — all within the past 13 hours.
Make Your Travel Complaint Count
US Airways, meanwhile, tweeted this morning that it would rebook a delayed passenger, and asked other travelers having problems to DM (direct message) their confirmation codes so that the carrier’s Twitter team could look into the problem. United Airlines answered traveler questions and offered the appropriate customer service phone numbers and Web sites to Twitter followers who needed more in-depth assistance.
It’s clear that despite the airlines’ efforts to discourage passengers from speaking out on Twitter, people are doing it anyway — and the airlines are responding, often within minutes. Really, it makes sense; a tweet that goes viral can turn into a public relations nightmare, so it’s in the airlines’ best interest to resolve issues on Twitter as quickly and effectively as possible.
So the next time you’re fed up with a flight, consider the power you have in those simple 140 characters.
How to Use Twitter in Your Travels
Follow IndependentTraveler.com on Twitter!
— written by Sarah Schlichter
When Delta first began charging for a second checked bag internationally about four years ago, my husband and I swore we’d never fly them again. My husband is European and every time we go over we bring loads of stuff with us. Eventually we simply got used to the $50 fee. But then it went up to $75 and that was it for us — no more second checked bag. And then it went up again!
Unfortunately, the airline is no longer alone in charging a truly hefty fee for that second bag. United just announced that it too is raising the fee for a second checked bag from $75 to $100 for international flights.
Seven Smart Ways to Bypass Baggage Fees
I can’t help but wonder why the airlines are doing this. Do they really hope to make more money from folks who either don’t know how to trim their luggage down or are visiting relatives and therefore expected to lug over boatloads of gifts?
Or maybe they’re aiming for the point of no return at which most fliers will simply throw up their hands and say no more. Are too many second checked bags weighing the airlines down?
Some say this is what Spirit was aiming for when it recently began charging folks up to $100 for putting carry-on bags in the overhead bin. Cranky Flier, for one, said the airlines are penalizing passenger behavior they want to discourage. In Spirit’s case they’re hoping to cut down the number of people who wait until they’re at the gate to inform the airline they’ll be using overhead bin space.
The Carry-On Challenge: How to Pack Light Every Time
With fuel prices what they are and airlines trying to save every penny, perhaps it’s in their interest to cut down on the number of second checked bags. And for those who aren’t getting the message — or don’t care — I guess the $100 fee covers the extra fuel.
What do you think? Would you pay $100 for a second checked bag?
— written by Dori Saltzman
On my last flight, the gate agent announced that anyone in boarding zone five with a roll-aboard carry-on should go ahead and bring it up to the desk to be gate checked, as there wouldn’t be enough overhead bin space for it on the plane. I wasn’t particularly surprised; it seems that every time I fly, the boarding process turns into a chaotic mess of passengers stumbling down the aisle with their hefty carry-ons, searching row after row for a precious sliver of overhead bin space. (And don’t even get me started on the de-boarding process, when all the people who stowed bags 10 rows behind their own have to fight their way against traffic to be reunited with their possessions.)
Fortunately, the airlines — who created this problem in the first place by imposing fees on checked baggage — are responding by making overhead bins larger. According to a report from the Associated Press, four U.S. airlines are planning or have already begun making changes to the overhead bins on select aircraft: American Airlines, Delta, United and US Airways. These updates include more spacious bins as well as new bin doors with a more generous outward curve, allowing bags to be stowed wheels first rather than sideways.
Jet manufacturer Boeing is also tweaking the bin designs on its new planes to better accommodate standard roll-aboard bags.
Seven Smart Ways to Bypass Baggage Fees
On the one hand, it’s about time. Having effectively instituted penalties for checking bags, the airlines ought to be prepared to accommodate more carry-ons. On the other hand, if fliers know the bins are getting bigger, will they just bring more stuff? (According to the AP story, the airlines are going to be more vigilant about policing the size of carry-ons — so it may not be an issue.) Plus, the ballooning bins are just more dispiriting evidence of what we already knew: that those pesky baggage fees are definitely here to stay.
Hate gate checking your bag? Here’s how to prepare in case it happens to you: A Bag Inside a Bag.
— written by Sarah Schlichter
From the moment you book your plane ticket (want to select your seat in advance? That’ll be $10, please) to the day you roll up to the check-in counter and shell out $50 for your checked bags, the airlines leave no fee unturned. And this past weekend, most major U.S. airlines found yet another way to line their pockets at the expense of the flying public.
On Friday, Congress failed to pass legislation to reauthorize the Federal Aviation Administration. As of Saturday, FAA-funded construction projects have been put on hold, all non-essential employees have been furloughed and — most importantly for fliers — the agency has lost the ability to collect various taxes that normally go along with the purchase of a plane ticket.
Hurray! Cheaper airfare for everyone, right?
Well, no. Instead of passing the tax savings on to travelers, most major airlines are raising their fares to offset the cost of the taxes — and pocketing the difference. The Associated Press reports that American, United, Continental, Delta, US Airways, Southwest, AirTran and JetBlue have all increased their fares, typically by about 7.5 percent.
According to an earlier AP report, “Passengers who bought tickets before this weekend but travel during the FAA shutdown could be entitled to a refund of the taxes that they paid, said Treasury Department spokeswoman Sandra Salstrom. She said it’s unclear whether the government can keep taxes for travel at a time when it doesn’t have authority to collect the money.”
Editor’s Note: On August 5, the IRS announced that passengers will not be getting refunds for taxes paid during the FAA shutdown after all. You can read the IRS statement here.
There are a few airlines out there that are giving travelers a break, including Virgin America, Frontier, Alaska and Spirit. Yes, that’s the same Spirit we wrote about a couple of weeks ago as one of the ugliest airlines in the industry. But hey, we can give credit where it’s due. It’s nice to see Spirit making the customer-friendly choice for once.
As for the big guys, shame on them. Really, it’s no wonder we hate the airlines.
— written by Sarah Schlichter
Egg nog at a holiday party … Grandmom’s homemade sugar cookies … those can’t-eat-just-one gift chocolates from a client at work … is it any wonder December is the hardest time of year to stick to a diet?
For travelers trying to count calories on the road, it can be even more difficult — especially since most food served on airplanes is salty and fattening (and it often tastes lousy, to boot). However, there are some healthy options out there for air travelers who are watching their waistlines.
DietDetective.com recently released its annual airline food survey to spotlight the most — and least — nutritious menu items on a variety of U.S. carriers. The survey included both small snacks and meals, whether given out free or available for purchase.
According to the survey, United and JetBlue top the list for the healthiest choices. United earns kudos for its Lite snack box; featuring lemon pepper tuna, pita chips, chocolate-covered pretzels and unsweetened apple sauce, it adds up to just 430 calories (the equivalent of 112 minutes of walking). DietDetective.com also likes JetBlue’s 484-calorie Shape Up meal box, with its nutritious combo of hummus, pita chips, almonds and raisins.
Weighing down the bottom end of the scale is US Airways, for its “poor overall choices and not much variety.” If you’re traveling on a morning flight, for example, you’re better off packing your own breakfast than buying the French toast sandwich box (a diet-busting 705 calories).
For more help maintaining a healthy lifestyle on the road, see Eating Well and Staying Active.
–written by Sarah Schlichter
It’s nice to snag a seat in the front row of a plane and exit early … but is it worth 20 bucks?
With American Airlines’ recently announced Express Seats service, travelers can now select seats in the front of the plane for quick and easy debarkation. This new program also includes Group 1 boarding, which means passengers who sign up for Express Seats can be among the first coach fliers to board the plane. This is an especially beneficial product for those impatient travelers who bypass the line and slyly sidle up to the gate opening moments before the flight attendant calls their group number (and yes, we see you cutting the queue).
Surprise, surprise: This will cost you. Prices vary based on mileage, but introductory fees start at $19 each way. For example, buying an Express Seat on a flight from St. Louis to Chicago will cost $19, and on a flight from New York to Los Angeles the cost jumps to $39 (the service is available for domestic flights only).
American is one of the last big-name airlines to jump on the pay-for-priority bandwagon. US Airways, Continental, United, AirTran and several others have similar systems, charging coach passengers more for earlier boarding, seats that are near the front of the plane, or window and aisle seats.
Airlines have long been advocates of the class system, forcing proletariat passengers to wait in lines and wedge into shoebox-size seats while the elites fully extend their legs and ponder the in-flight wine list. But we have to wonder: Has this gone too far? In ancient times when checked bags were free and front-row coach seats were first come, first serve, a passenger who purchased a standard-fare ticket was qualified for a comfortable, pleasant flight. These days, a “comfortable flight” costs way more than the airlines’ published fares — and budget-minded travelers who simply wait in line and book ahead are denied the perks once to credited to early birds.
Will the airlines continue to split coach seats into sub-classes, forcing passengers to pay a fee for virtually everything but the smelly row next to the bathroom? Such a scenario isn’t realistic (well, we hope it isn’t), but there are still plenty of free onboard features, from tray tables to reclining seats, that could cost extra in the near future if this trend continues. Tell us what you think!