Does badmouthing airlines help anyone?

Airlines are consistently among the most criticized companies by both the public and the media. While much of the criticism is deserved, does some of it amount to nothing more than badmouthing that helps no one? Isn’t it time for fliers to learn the air travel system’s ins and outs, and not blame the airlines for all their ills on the road?

In this column, I’ve denounced certain airline practices, such as the fictitious “direct” flights that are simply two flights with the same number but nothing else in common. There is no question the industry has made the system very complex, mostly for financial reasons, and it’s profiting from customers’ lack of knowledge. However, the system is what it is, and there isn’t much we can do to change it to our liking…

Avoiding luggage and other airline fees

A new survey by the Consumer Travel Alliance released this week found that luggage and other additional airline fees increase the average ticket price by up to 50 percent. The truth is, there is a relatively easy way to have most of those fees waived — if only travelers were better educated and more open-minded.

My impression during almost constant global travel for most of the last decade is that people think they know how to travel — but then they complain about being “scammed” by the airlines. My approach has been to learn as much as possible about rules, restrictions and fees, and then to look for ways to waive them and generally make the system work for me…

‘Tweaking’ airlines’ yield management

Have you been accused by airline agents of trying to “game the system” by asking if they could open up for mileage redemption seats they obviously won’t sell for cash? Now a top airline executive is encouraging fliers to alert agents when the system fails in its predictability, so it can be “tweaked.”

Before you do that, however, make sure you know what you are talking about — learn all booking codes used by the respective carrier, if you haven’t already, and be able to access and understand its inventory data. Just because there are dozens of open business-class seats months before a flight doesn’t mean you are entitled to an upgrade or an “award” ticket…

U.S. airlines handle disruptions best

How many times have you been jerked around at an airport and made to wait in several long lines after a flight delay or cancellation forced a change to the rest of your itinerary? Chances are, that happened abroad. For all their faults, U.S. airlines handle irregular operations better than their foreign peers.

I’ve always wondered why airport agents in the United States — whether at check-in counters, gates or even business lounges — can do almost anything a passenger needs, including rebooking, rerouting and reissuing tickets, while agents in other countries are much more specialized, and thus less helpful…

Airlines cut back on first-class service

If you ever wanted to sit in first or business class but couldn’t afford it — and upgrading wasn’t an option — your time may have arrived. While airlines await the return of paying “premium” passengers, some of them are letting lower-class fliers occupy plush lie-flat seats.

On Australia’s Qantas Airways and Germany’s Lufthansa, you can now sit in first class even if you hold a ticket for business — no miles or other upgrade instruments are necessary. Qantas also allows coach customers in the business cabin. The two carriers still offer standard three-cabin service on most of their international networks…

Unlimited prepaid airfare comes back

Bargain airfares have been abundant this year and rarely make news anymore, but it was fairly easy for JetBlue Airways to grab headlines last week with its very generous “all-you-can-jet pass.” The question is: Does this prepaid pass make sense for you?

If you have no plans or desire to travel between Sept. 8 and Oct. 8, you are not likely to benefit from the low-cost carrier’s offer. On the other hand, if you have several trips in mind — even if you’ve already bought tickets for some of them — the new $599 airpass can be your best friend for a month. Although it went on sale Wednesday, demand has already exceeded JetBlue’s expectations…

Airlines require credit cards at check-in

Do you always pay for your airline tickets? If not, what would you do if you are denied boarding unless you show the credit card used for the purchase at check-in?

It may sound unreasonable, since many companies buy tickets for their employees with corporate cards that all of their travelers cannot possibly carry with them. It happens often enough, however, for all of us to keep our eyes open for any alerts with such requirements during the booking process. Last month, I used the Singapore Airlines Web site to book a ticket to Indonesia for a co-worker. I was asked if I was the passenger, and when I proceeded to enter my credit card number, this message appeared on the screen…

American ends stopovers on ‘awards’

Do you rely on the media to tell you about changes in your preferred frequent-flier program? If you did that when American Airlines introduced its one-way “awards” last week, you missed the loss of a significant benefit — a free stopover previously offered on mileage tickets.

It was no surprise that American omitted that detail in its press release, but it was shocking to see how many mainstream-media reports parroted the corporate line. They apparently didn’t notice the discontinued stopovers — a sign of a successful public-relations campaign. Given the recent rich history of “enhancements” in the airline industry, which has been hit hard by the global recession, one of the first questions I ask when I hear about new features is whether any old benefits are being taken away…

New hopes for rail travel

Have you heard that trains are “in” again? They have been “out” for so long, it’s almost hard to believe it, but President-elect Barack Obama’s decision to ride the rail into Washington for his inauguration has excited many train lovers.

Since flying became the main form of long-distance transportation in the United States in the past couple of decades, repeated warnings by railroad executives and industry advocates that insufficient funding and out-of-date equipment would lead to the system’s collapse seemed to fall on deaf ears. Finally this fall, Congress more than doubled funding for Amtrak, the semi-public company, in a $13 billion railroad improvement bill sponsored by Reps. James L. Oberstar, Minnesota Democrat, and John L. Mica, Florida Republican…

Get refund if airfare drops

Are you angry at yourself for buying a plane ticket for the holidays too early and the price is now lower? Do you even know whether the fare has dropped? Either way, you may be able to get some of your money back.

For years, travelers were warned against procrastinating when it comes to holiday trips, since conventional wisdom held that air fares usually get higher the longer you wait. But this year, wild swings in the price of oil and a global financial meltdown have shattered stereotypes about air travel. Although many U.S. carriers have resisted lifting the fuel surcharges they imposed when oil was much more expensive, fares have been cautiously coming down of late…