Sunday, April 11, 2010

Traveling Well - For Less!

Roadboy's Travel Tips: Part 1 Airlines

Time to update my "Traveling Well" post.

I believe that travel should be something to remember. Never a chore. So I plan trips to experience unique places. I just like to do it in comfort at a fair price. The next three posts will cover how to select and get the best possible prices for airlines, rental cars, and hotels.


Flying is a crapshoot. Mergers, hidden fees, and tarmac waits - oh my!

• Alaska
Nice people, an expanding route system, clean planes, and fair rates. Their first class on long flights is always nice. Check them out.

• Southwest
Smiling superbly trained staff (the best in the business - period). Clean almost new planes. Terrific refund / change policy. What's not to like? Lets start with "Just OK" fares and a new vein of special fees. Southwest's rabidly loyal customers drink the cool-aid and think they are always getting the best price.

Reality - After Southwest lost their fuel hedge pricing advantage, their prices began to mirror everyone else.

They also have some nasty quirks that annoy me.

Quirk one. When you go to cash in a free trip you find that they now limit award seats just like everybody else. Now you must surrender 2 awards to get high demand flights.

Quirk two. The free bag thing. Recently I needed to change plans and return home from Denver on short notice. On the way to the terminal my I-phone showed Southwest had the most convenient flight at a $20 more than a less convenient Frontier flight. When I get to the counter I am told the fare was actually two times the price on the web. I show the agent the price on my web-phone. Counter agent laughs and says "That's web only, we can't sell it at the counter"(!?!?) So I fumble through a time consuming smart phone web purchase (the fare saving went a long way to pay for that little I-phone). 

For giggles I asked how come Southwest's web fare was $25 more than Frontier's? The agent winks and says, "we don"t charge $25 for checked bags". Got to hand it to Southwest, instead of just charging the passengers that check their bags, they charge everybody!

In their zeal to perk up the bottom line, Southwest now charges (a lot) for the first 10 passengers (Business Select) and another $10 each to buy boarding passes numbered below A30.

• Continental
Clean planes, nice people, decent fares. They tell you what is going on and treat you well during delays. Their first class is very nice. But.... I hate having to fly through crappy Houston.

• Delta
Another "recovering" legacy airline. Their planes are old and their merger with NWA increases their inventory of antique planes along with another bad new hub in Minneapolis? Delta's main liability is Atlanta. Atlanta's airport is North America's worst hub airport. Everyone working there is incapable of a smile. 

While I find the state of Georgia to be filled with some of the nicest, most wonderful people in the US, none work at Hartsfield.

• American
American operates a fleet of old skinny MD 80's. This airline rivals United for having the most patronizing, godawful, staff. American staff exudes contempt for their passengers. Their upgrade policy (segments) is the worst in the industry. Throw in another wretched hub (Dallas) to boot. Avoid them.

• US Airways
Schizophrenic Airways! Odd hubs like Charlotte. Quick, name an international airport that shuts down at 10 pm!

Great pilots and cabin crews stuck flying dirty planes. Rude counter and gate staff. Tempe Management strives to perfect its "death by a thousand cuts" management style. Doug, quit trying to find a suitor and fix thyself. 

A great upgrade policy nets a sad first class. Breakfasts with eggs and a tossed green salad? crumb laden and broken first class seats with minimal pitch allows the person in front of you to lean back and crush your laptop.

To be fair they have a very nice "Envoy" business class on international runs and I love them being a part of the wonderful Star Alliance.

• United
Another "Legacy" carrier in and out of trouble. It is hard for me to ignore that so many of my worst travel experiences have been on United. But, like Delta, lately I see glimmers of hope! Planes getting cleaned up, fair prices, and improvements in service.

• Jet Blue / Virgin America
No service (VA) or limited service (JB) into PHX.

• Spirit
Lets all boycott Spirit. These bozo's deserve to fail. It is bad enough airlines charge to check bags, these idiots plan to charge for carry-ons! 

Getting the Best Airfare

Normally it is best to buy a month or so in advance. That said, fares can fluctuate wildly. All it takes is one company starting a 48 hour fare sale and all bets are off.  99% of the time, however, waiting to buy tickets just before you go is nuts. 

1. Always buy more than 14 days in advance. Usually the time frame between 14-45 days is when savings can be secured.

2. Test fares using, Sidestep. and Kayak. They will search everything but Southwest.

3. If you are more than 14 days out check Southwest. After that don't bother.

4. Check Hotwire.

5. Check your favorite airlines website and search their last minute deals. Once in awhile they are great. 

The Best For Last!
I've saved the best tip for last.  Register for Travel Zoo's weekly "Top 20".  In the past two years every week they have unearthed truly exceptional deals.

Thats how Roadboy does it.

Roadboy's Travels © 2010