June 2008

The Ultimate Guide to Airline Fees: Bad News, Easily Referenced

Posted June 26, 2008 by Nicki Krawczyk

Happylaptopkid Grrr.
Groan.
The sound of teeth gnashing.
The sound of wallets exploding.

That’s right kids, it’s everybody’s favorite love-to-hate-it topic: airline fees! I know, I know, this is well-covered territory. Air travelers across the country are up in arms about the extra charges. Checked-bag fees! Seat-choice fees! Snack fees! Why, it’s tantamount to ordering a pizza and having them charge you for each individual topping!

[Beat]

I’ll let you mull that over. Meanwhile, let’s move on to the good news. Thanks to a combination of editorial forces not unlike the Justice League, the good people over at our sister sites—SmarterTravel.com, AirfareWatchdog.com, and SeatGuru.com — have joined forces (and information) to bring a boon to the masses: The Ultimate Guide to Airline Fees.

Dark clouds are clearing …

This regularly updated Compendium of Extra Expense promises to put an end to that unpleasant sensation of Fee Ambush. No more “How much to keep Fluffy out of the hold?” or “Is it cheaper to check Junior as baggage?” or “If I forget my wallet, do I have to lap water from the lavatory faucet?” Indeed, find answers to all of this and more in a convenient chart format. Who knows where the fine print is that matches that tiny asterisk? The Ultimate Guide to Airline Fees knows. Oh, it knows.

Never one to shirk my fair share of the burden, of course, I’m willing to pitch in and offer a little added-value advice on how best to reference this chart and retain the information. First, of course, I recommend bookmarking this page so you can get to the link and print out the PDF anytime you need it (Suggested Bookmark Title: Another Resplendent Piece of Writing! And fee chart.) Good plan. Of course you could just bookmark the SmarterTravel blog page directly. Bear in mind that you miss out on this blog if you go straight to that one. I’m just saying.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, there are a couple of easy-reference methods that I’m not going to recommend. Tattooing, for example. Painful. Time-consuming. Hard to update. Skip it. Also, don’t bother with mnemonic devices. Unless you’re willing to put this chart to song in, say, the 17 minutes of In A Gadda Da Vita, I wouldn’t bother. I include these merely as suggestions, of course, you’re free to do as you wish. (In fact, I’d like to sponsor a contest. The best YouTubed rendition, as judged by the BookingBuddy team, of the Ultimate Guide to Airline Fees set and sung to In A Gadda Da Vita wins special mention on the blog. Tell your friends.)

So there you have it. One chart and four pieces of relevant advice. Plus one opportunity for international stardom. Don’t you kind of feel lighter? Like a weight has been lifted from your shoulders? I’m guessing those fees don’t feel so bad anymore. Or at least you haven’t really thought about them since I got Iron Butterfly stuck in your head. See? We’re all about the helpfulness.

(Photo: blog.wired.com)

American Airlines Cranks Up In-flight Wi-Fi

Posted June 25, 2008 by Zak Patten

Wifiaa You ever have one of those days? You know, nothing's going right, it's raining and your umbrella won't open, your dog is sick, and your boss just dumped a pile of work on your desk? Or maybe you slipped on a wet kitchen floor—courtesy of the leak in your roof? Then, out of nowhere, a little ray of sunshine enters your life.

After a 2008 spent in the doldrums, the clouds have lifted on air travelers, if only for a brief moment. That's because American Airlines has picked today to test wireless Internet service on two flights between New York and Los Angeles. And if those tests go well, we're looking at more trials on planes from New York to L.A., San Francisco, and Miami.

Once the Wi-Fi goes live, "passengers will be able to connect free to American's Web site, Frommer's travel guides, and limited news headlines." All well and good, but what about the Holy Grail of all Internet users: unfettered access to the full capabilities of the World Wide Web? Not surprisingly, that isn't exactly free. Depending on the length of your flight, you'll be paying $9.95 to $12.95 to get fully online. No, that's not cheap. But in American's defense, it's not much more than an average airport lunch. And assuming there's enough bandwidth, the service will be incredibly useful to business travelers and armchair Web surfers alike. And the airline, like all of its peers, is in dire need of cash. You're not going to get all thrifty now, are you?

I know this announcement has brightened my day. How do you feel about it? Is there any technology you'd rather see on your next flight than wireless Internet? Share it with us by posting a comment below.

(Image: stickergirl.com, wisewifi.net)

Airfarewatchdog Guards Against Confusing Airline Fees

Posted June 22, 2008 by Zak Patten

With new airline fees appearing daily for everything from checked bags to antlers, it can be hard to keep track of who's charging whom what for which. If you think the previous sentence was confusing, try figuring out what you'll pay to check a bag of golf clubs for your next flight to Myrtle Beach. Luckily, our friends over at Airfarewatchdog.com (and we do mean "friends"; see below) have put up two great charts, one detailing checked-bag charges and the other covering those extra airline fees you'll get hit with for changing a ticket, booking by phone, and taking Fido or Fluffy aboard.

AfwdlogoAirfarewatchdog has all of the major U.S. carriers on its checked-bag chart, so you can find out how much that first suitcase will cost you on Delta (nothing) or what you'll be charged by JetBlue  if you're traveling home after the holidays with 75 pounds of your mother's Christmas fruitcake in your checked baggage (an extra $100). There are categories for first, second, additional, and overweight and oversized bags, so you should be all set, unless you like to fly with 11 or more bags. But let's face it, if you're trying to get through Chicago O'Hare with a dozen pieces of luggage, you need much more help than any chart can offer.

The other chart features the same airlines, but lays out the charges for different activities (change fees, phone bookings, unaccompanied minors, taking a pet in the cabin, and selecting seats in advance or in premium-economy service). As Airfarewatchdog notes, Southwest has the lowest and fewest fees—you won't pay a cent to change a ticket if you travel within a year, or if you send your kid to Grandma's house for the summer. Presumably you'll purchase a return ticket for junior, though Southwest is known for its cheap one-ways. At the higher end of the scale are some of the legacy lines, three of which (American, Continental, and US Airways) take $150 for domestic ticket changes. Delta and United each charge 25 bucks for booking by phone, and United wants $30 for in-person reservations. Dog and cat lovers are advised to consider AirTran, which offers the lowest fees ($69) per pet.

With outrageous oil prices, these aren't easy times to be in the airline business, and consequently, it's a bit of a bumpy ride for passengers as well. There's no solace in paying more, but at least these charts keep us informed about how much we'll need to fork over.

(Image: Airfarewatchdog.com)

(Editor's Note: BookingBuddy.com is published by Smarter Travel Media LLC, a member of the TripAdvisor Media Network, which also owns Airfarewatchdog.com.)

Update: The latest on airline fees

OpenSkies to Mix Business (Class) With Pleasure

Posted June 18, 2008 by Zak Patten

OpenskiesbizWhat's in a name? In the case of OpenSkies—the new mostly-business-class subsidiary of British Airways—a whole lot. When first announced, the airline's name was inspired by the new deregulating treaty that allows airlines to operate on any routes they choose between the U.S. and E.U. Today, OpenSkies might also be taken as a comment on the lack of competition in the air, particularly since the demise of all-business-class carriers Eos, Maxjet, and Silverjet.

Sure, OpenSkies only has one airplane, a 757 that holds 82 passengers, but the Little Airline That Could has big plans for that one plane. We're talking three classes of service, with the top of the line being Biz, which boasts "truly lie-flat seats." Don't want to sleep that well? No worries. OpenSkies has Prem+, which must denote its premium-economy class, because I doubt it’s a typo (unless OpenSkies is planning on professionally curling its passengers' hair en route). Last but not least (well, actually it is the least, but OpenSkies swears it's not too bad at all), is the economy cabin. There are only 30 seats (genuine leather ones) there, so you should get plenty of attention, assuming there's also a designated flight attendant (kidding!). And everyone, regardless of class, will have access to the 50-plus hours of audio and video programming on their personal entertainment systems, so that's a step up from my favorite in-flight game: staring at the back of the seat in front of me.

So where exactly will OpenSkies fly? Let's just say it doesn't have a massive worldwide route network. In fact, there are just two cities involved, but they're pretty decent ones: Paris and New York. The plan is to scale up by adding new destinations as business results allow for it. Currently on the list of potentials are Amsterdam, Brussels, Frankfurt, and Milan.

In these days of cutbacks and fee increases, any airline looking hopefully toward the future should cheer us all up. No matter what it's called.

(Photo: AirFlights.to)

Shocking News: JetBlue Tops Customer Service Rankings!

Posted June 17, 2008 by Carl Unger

Jetbluenumberone As formerly free amenities such as, oh, onboard snacks vanish from the air travel landscape, the term "customer service" takes on a whole new meaning. Sure, there's still plenty of customer services to be found, but these nice little touches (if you can call checking bags a "nice little touch") are now the target of industry nickel-and-diming—a revenue source instead of a standard perk for passengers.

So into that fiery pit of cynicism, I toss the recent J.D. Power and Associates Airline Satisfaction Study, the annual report on customer satisfaction for the airline industry. JetBlue is number one again this year, giving it four consecutive years at the top of the heap, and it also took the low-cost carrier crown, for the third straight year.  Alaska and Continental tied for the highest score among traditional network airlines. I won't get into the gory details of some of the lower-ranked airlines, but suffice it to say you won't find many surprises."

So here we go: Time to rant about endless fees and high fares dragging down the airlines' performance, right? Not so fast.  According to the study, "Deteriorating levels of customer service provided by airline staff—rather than prices and additional charges for amenities—€”have led to a significant decline in customer satisfaction." Yep, high fares aren't leading to lower customer satisfaction; it's face-to-face interactions with airline staff that are causing problems.

Now, before we start yelling about rude flight attendants and unhelpful gate agents, the study does make it clear that the airlines' corporate management is still mostly to blame. According to Sam Thanawalla, director of the global hospitality and travel practice at J.D. Power, "Passengers are being affected by the ramifications of carriers making staff cutbacks and have expressed that performance and attitudes of airline staff are suffering."

See, the thing is that widespread staffing eliminations, poor economic conditions, and a generally uncertain future for the industry don't exactly add up to high employee morale. If 20 percent of your company was laid off and the six o'clock news was constantly prognosticating on the subject of your company's demise, you probably wouldn't come into work whistling show tunes, would you?

(Photo: JohnnyJet.com)

United Airlines Reservations: Two Seats or a Table for Two?

Posted June 12, 2008 by Nicki Krawczyk

Gourmetairlinefood_2 That saying about “the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach” is definitely not true, as evidenced by personal experience: More than a few past dates could best be subtitled “He’s Just Not That Into You … Even Though He Loves Your Pumpkin Ravioli.”

Hmph.

Well, if good food can’t necessarily be counted on to elicit love, it may at least make you an eensy bit happier if you’re strapped into a capsule with a hundred strangers hurtling through the atmosphere. (Note to self — is there anything useful in this scenario for future dates?) I’m referring, of course, to air travel and a new trend toward … drum roll … gourmet in-flight meals.

Uh-huh, I’m serious. And believe you me, as someone who just can never get enough food, this is one exciting development. Where previously the best you could expect of tray-table-tastiness was a bag of pretzels (maybe), airlines like United are pulling in top chefs to dial up the dining pleasure. The good news? We’re talking succulent delights like apricot curry-braised lamb medallions with Israeli couscous and spicy roasted eggplant. The bad news? You can kiss the couscous bye-bye if you’re not heading overseas. This taste-bud tempting meal is only being offered on select international flights.

Let’s go back to the good news. If you are, in fact, flying internationally, you’ve got quite a smorgasbord of gourmet airline meal options. Might I, perhaps, interest you in lobster thermidor aboard Singapore Airlines? Can I tempt you with Swiss escalope guinea fowl with air dried beef and sage on Lufthansa? Or perhaps you’ll be partial to Scandinavian Airlines’ “humanskost”, which sounds suspiciously like Soylent Green but is apparently traditional Scandinavian fare. (I almost regret writing that. I fear that now there’s an executive somewhere scheming to save money by serving up the coach passengers to the first-class ones.)

Speaking of in-plane class consciousness, bear in mind that some of these uber-fabulous meals will only be available to those willing to fork over a private school education’s-worth of lettuce to fly first class. So if you’re planning on taking advantage of one of these gourmet meals, the fine-print rule is in effect. As in: Read it. It’s also a good idea to call ahead and make sure there will be meals enough for all, meals that satisfy your dietary requirements and meals, period. If your airline should, perish the thought, discontinue the program without notifying you, it’s dollars to donuts that you’re not going to be a happy camper on your 18-hour flight to inner Siberia.

Of course, should you just happen to be sitting next to a charming fellow jet-setter such as myself, all you’d have to do is flirt a little, bat those baby blues and I’d gladly share my emergency granola bar and snack mix. But … well … you’ll call me after we land, right? Right?

<Sigh> What a sap.

(Photo: mensvogue.com)

JetBlue Expands Movie Selection, Films Still $5

Posted June 11, 2008 by Carl Unger

Jetblue Late last week, JetBlue announced a new deal with six big-time Hollywood studios. Judging from JetBlue's press release, the move should have elicited banshee screams of delight and countless red carpets unfurling across our proud nation. More choices! First-run movies! Horton Hears a Who!

Except the movies still cost $5 a pop.

Now, don't get me wrong, better films equals a better entertainment experience. Imagine flying from New York to L.A. with nothing but Paris Hilton movies playing on your seat-back screen. Yeah, it's terrifying.

So JetBlue's new movie package is definitely a welcome addition. Too bad about the cost, but it brings up an interesting point: Is it really fair to expect airlines to offer amenities such as first-run films for free? With oil prices at unfathomably high levels, carriers today are quite literally in a life-or-death battle with seemingly unstoppable economic forces. Can we seriously ask these airlines, engaged in fisticuffs with an unrelenting foe, to put on a first-run movie? For free?

It's an interesting question, and one that could quite convincingly be argued in either direction. On the one hand, you have the "tough luck" crowd, which justifiably blames poor business management and exorbitant executive salaries for the industry's financial woes. "$5 for a movie?" they might say. "Give me a break!"

On the other hand is a more sympathetic crowd, one that points to a wild economy as the root cause of the industry's sorry state while acknowledging that, sure, most airlines kinda sorta didn't make things any easier on themselves. "$5 for a movie?" they might say. "Maybe I'll just read a magazine."

In my opinion, this is something JetBlue has to do. It's providing a premium service (first-run films), so it has every right to make a few bucks off people that use it. Yes, onboard movies were free in the old days, but this isn't the old days anymore. For whatever reason, airlines today have to scrap for every dollar, and passengers will probably save themselves a lot of grief if they simply accept this paradigm shift: The old days are gone, my friends. Time to face the future.

Airlines to Charge for Excess Emotional Baggage

Posted June 10, 2008 by Carl Unger

Airline fees have been piling up lately, a sign that the industry is struggling just to break even in the face of sky-high fuel prices and a weak economy. 

Therefore, it was startling, although not entirely unexpected, to hear that several airlines would begin charging passengers for excess emotional baggage. The airlines initiating the fees have not yet been revealed, and there's a good chance they don't even exist (a real good chance), but several anonymous CEOs spoke with the press to explain the rationale behind the charge.Psychiatrichelp

"We simply felt it was a fair way to collect extra revenue from passengers who, figuratively speaking, weigh more," said one CEO. "A bunch of us were talking about it and, you know, strength in numbers, so we're going to give it a go."

"Many people will wonder how we determine when a passenger has excess emotional baggage," said another CEO. "Basically, we used ourselves as benchmarks for what 'normal' people are. Take me, for example: My father left home for the circus when I was seven, and only communicated with me and my mother through postcards sporting two- or three-word messages like 'Very good.' Sometimes he sent sketches of bears and lions, but no message. Then one day when I was in college he showed up at my dorm dressed as a clown and told me I was adopted. I mean, that's normal, right? So there you go, there's your benchmark. It's pretty normal, anyway. I'm normal, right?  RIGHT?"

"Actually," said a third CEO, speaking privately of the CEO with the circus-clown father, "he'd be facing roughly $200 in excess emotional baggage fees."

"The real process for determining excess emotional baggage," added a fourth CEO, "involves a series of forms featuring a number of highly-intrusive and potentially embarrassing questions, to be filled out and assessed at the check-in desk. All of that information then becomes part of public records shared among the airlines. This will hopefully speed up the assessment process in the future."

"That said," he continued, coughing nervously (in my opinion), "we're not expecting any significant increases in wait times at check-in. For serious."

When reached for comment, CEOs at actual airlines such as American and United, reacted as if I was making the whole thing up, saying, "Yeah, yeah, whatever, kid," before hanging up.

Regardless, the prospect of airlines charging for psychological baggage has to be a concern for passengers. As the price of oil continues to rise, and the number of previously free amenities for which airlines can charge dwindles, it only makes sense that carriers have to look deep into the very souls of their passengers for new sources of income.

"Look," said the first CEO, "We love our passengers, don't get me wrong. But in this economic landscape, we need to be realistic. If someone is carrying on 40 years of repressed anger toward a sibling, or a deep emotional scar from parental pressure to be perfect at all costs, we need to account for that somehow. It's only fair."

(Image: Salem-News.com)

End of Aloha and ATA Cause Record Hawaiian Searches

Posted June 6, 2008 by Kerry Sainato

We’re data geeks here at BookingBuddy. Pm7235a_spam_asap_page

No. Really.  We rank ourselves in order of Excel wizardry.

So, when I needed to report on popular routes for the year, I saw a strange anomaly: Searches for flights between Los Angeles and Honolulu doubled from March to April. In fact, LAX to HNL was our number-one-searched route for April and beat January, February, and March’s top-ranked route (Detroit to Las Vegas) by 18 percent!

Of course, being an analysis nerd, I thought, “Look at that variance! Something must be wrong with that number!” But then my brain kicked in to gear. I remembered that April saw the end of ATA and Aloha Airlines; both carriers specializing in flights from the West Coast to Hawaii. I guess people were frantically looking for other ways to get to the Big Island and eat their weights in Spam.

Now, if I could just figure out why so many people from the Motor City (DTW) want to visit Sin City (LAS) every month, I’d feel like a real sleuth.

(Image: spam.com)

Never Assume: It Makes a Bass Out of You and Me

Posted June 5, 2008 by Nicki Krawczyk

Or: The Fish Roll Comes to Charlestown, Chopsticks Not Included

Mistaken assumptions throughout history: Galileo Galilei’s contemporaries assumed the sun revolved around the earth. Christopher Columbus assumed he had ended his voyage in the East Indies. I assumed I’d be writing today’s blog about some other lousy airline charge. Ah, how wrong we all were.

Instead, today I invite you into my world: Come, sit down with me. Pull another roll-y chair into my cube, read my screen over my shoulder as I type, and breathe down my neck in that creepy way that you do. Today, you are with me here at BookingBuddy HQ, high atop a fifth-floor building in the charming hamlet of Charlestown, Massachusetts. It is here, as we gaze out over the tree-lined streets and condos worth more than you and I combined, that I will give you a little glimpse into the inner workings of BBHQ and divulge another erroneous assumption. Specifically: that a plastic bass won’t change his tune.

Two pieces of backstory before we go on with our Glimpse. Number 1: Big Mouth Billy Bass, the Singing Sensation. According to Amazon.com, this “singing fish is hilarious fun.” He is a plastic mounted fish that looks at you and sings Take Me to the River and Don't Worry, Be Happy. Hilarious. Fun. Probably not David Byrne-approved. And, as if that weren’t enough, he features “Synchro-Motion, a cutting edge technology in animation.” Who says you can’t buy happiness? Anyway, we’ve got one of those in the office. Specifically, in the cube of one Erin Liszewski, aka Sparkles, who’s been the Fish Keeper since she inherited Billy Bass from her predecessor in 2007.

Billythebassxl_2

Backstory Number 2: The Rickroll. All absurdity is funny. All Rick Astley songs are absurd. Ergo, all Rick Astley songs are funny. As far as I know, the closest anyone has come to scientific testing of this theorem is the phenomenon dubbed “the Rickroll,” wherein one friend with no concern about being caught wasting time at work forwards an email to another friend. Within this email is a link to, oh, perhaps a news article about encephalitis or a graph about Norwegian cheese. You know, basically, the kind of link you’d be compelled to click. But when they click, oh boy, what do they get? Wait for it … a video of Rick Astley singing his hit Never Gonna Give You Up! It’s absurd! It’s funny! It’s pretty played out by now. Well, in that incarnation, at least.

Rickastleyxl

Back to the bass. In Erin’s own words, “When I began as an editorial intern in the winter of 2007, I was told by my predecessor that I was not only to play the fish (every Friday at 5 p.m.) but to hold him up as an idol and prance around both floors of the office. This was a sacred tradition bestowed upon me, and I should be proud to carry him around every week. I did not learn until weeks or months later that no one had ever danced around the office with him before, but I embraced the new tradition. And even though today, I am nowhere near the newest employee, and I am not even in the editorial department, I do keep Billy around and play him every Friday.” There’s a reason we call her Sparkles, you know?

Then there’s Dave MacGugan and Tom Lamay, who appear to have time on their hands. Or maybe they’re just really efficient. Really, really, uber-efficient, leaving them with more than enough time to do their jobs and still rewire a bass. (I’m kidding; they actually work very hard. Have you ever had a slander lawsuit levied against you? Me neither … cross your fingers.) And when I say rewire, I mean rewire. These guys don’t mess around. Should you be so inclined, here’s a little high-level look at what goes into adding some Astley to your bass:

Fishrollxl

Well, now, if you’ve been paying attention, you ought to know where this is going:

Billy the Bass, meet Rick Astley. Fishroll, meet Sparkles.

That Friday, at the stroke of 5, as we at BBHQ packed up our things and a glorious weekend stretched before us, when the only thing that stood between us and the open road by way of the BBHQ parking lot was poking a fish and making him sing like the Talking Heads and/or Bobby McFerrin, Erin Liszewski—Sparkles—purportedly roll-resistant—was Fish Rolled.

My friends, that is how we at the BBHQ like to end the work week. And what have we learned from today’s blog and our view into HQ? That sometimes the most expected things can end up bass-ackward.

Roll on.

Photos:
Rick Astley http://www.flickr.com/photos/krisez/1380153858/
Billy the Bass http://diztopia.typepad.com/diztopia/new_york/index.html


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