Award blocks still irk United fliers

There is rarely a single specific issue a reporter writes about that provokes huge interest from its first mention, and then continues to do so for months on end. For loyal customers of United Airlines, however, the carrier’s blocking of “award” seats made available by its partners in the global Star Alliance is not just any issue.

That was evident as soon as this column exposed the previously secret practice in September, as hundreds of members of United’s frequent-flier program, Mileage Plus, complained either to me or the airline. Although I haven’t dedicated a column to the issue since early December, I continue to receive e-mail messages about it. I also try to answer some questions in a thread on FlyerTalk…

Traveling solo has its charm

How many times have you wanted to take a trip somewhere, but ended up staying home because you didn’t want to travel alone? Next time, don’t let that ruin your plans. Traveling solo is a great way to see new places and make new friends.

I don’t mean joining a tour group, though that’s certainly one way to meet like-minded people. Such groups tend to visit the most obvious tourist sites and don’t interact with locals — not the best path to learning about other cultures and lifestyles. If you pay for a plane ticket to a foreign country, you are probably not the type to spend the trip watching MTV in your hotel room and eating at McDonald’s. And most likely, you do at least some preparation by reading travel guides to figure out what places you should visit…

Air miles’ value drops

Next time an airline offers you 5,000 miles as a “good-will gesture” for something that went wrong on a flight, you might want to negotiate a bigger number.

Miles devaluation is here, and along with rising air fares, service cutbacks and various fees, it is likely to remain a prominent feature of the travel experience for a while. Some U.S. carriers have already increased the number of miles needed for an “award ticket,” and others, no doubt, will follow suit. Airlines have awarded so many millions of miles in recent years, thanks to numerous credit card and other promotions, that they started to weigh on the carriers’ balance sheets…

Officials ordered back to coach

Washington is a government town, and most of its travel business is related to the many federal agencies here in one way or another. For those of us living in the nation’s capital, the most visible proof of that are big national events, such as a presidential inauguration, along with the numerous visits of foreign leaders that often result in street closures.

The travelers less visible to Washingtonians are U.S. officials traveling across the country and around the world on official business, which means spending taxpayers’ money. The Bush administration decided about six years ago to allow business class airfare for federal employees whose one-way journey lasts 14 hours or more…

Website soothes travelers

About two years ago, an economics professor in Maine thanked me for the free travel advice that I had unknowingly given him through my posts on a Web site called FlyerTalk.com.

While my experience on the fly has taught me a great deal, little did the professor know that most of what I was sharing online I had learned from FlyerTalk. The site, which just celebrated 10 years and 10 million posts, has helped thousands of travelers plan trips that might have seemed overwhelming at first, deal calmly with delays or cancellations and maximize benefits from airline and hotel loyalty programs…