‘Gardening’ your airline reservation

Many travelers consider all their flight-planning work done once they buy a plane ticket, and they don’t think about it again until it’s time to fly. In most cases, that’s a recipe for trouble. There are many things that could go wrong and ruin your trip long before you arrive at the airport, and paying just a little attention — I call it “gardening” your reservation — and knowing how to handle those issues in advance could prevent a travel disaster.

Let’s begin with the simple things. As you may have discovered, sometimes there are no seats available for you to select at ticketing. That could be a result of overselling the cabin, or the only seats left may require an additional fee. Many fliers simply leave it at that, hoping for a seat on the departure day.

It doesn’t take much to do better than that. Whether you have no assignment or are stuck in a middle seat, chances are a decent seat will open up before your travel day, as other passengers get upgraded or cancel their reservations. All you have to do is check the seat map from time to time. Convenience and comfort are very important to me during a trip, and I don’t like to leave anything to chance. That means there are certain things I have to do to “tend” to my bookings, so that any potential issues can be resolved in advance…

How airlines could make more money

Even as most flights are packed these days, some planes still take off with plenty of vacant seats, including in First and Business Class, effectively losing the airlines hundreds of thousands of dollars. Offering lower last-minute fares on undersold flights seems a logical solution, and carriers do it sometimes, but those attempts are utterly insufficient.

Let’s look at a recent international flight — most U.S. airlines give away free upgrades on domestic routes to fill their premium cabins. I picked a United Airlines flight on a route with traditionally heavy demand in Business Class: San Francisco to Sydney. As the above image shows, on June 19, that Boeing 747 left with 18 empty seats in Business Class, including on the upper deck.

The lowest Business Class fare on United on that route is — and has been for some time — about $6,400, which requires a 50-day advance purchase. If bought at least 21 days before departure, a ticket costs about $9,800, and about $12,300 at least three days in advance. The lowest last-minute fare is about $12,800. You do the math to figure out how much money United lost as a result of those 18 unsold seats…

American tries to entice top United fliers

American Airlines has finally decided to take advantage of the problems many United Airlines fliers have experienced since the merger with Continental Airlines was completed on March 3. In an extremely rare move, American is now offering conditions-free top-elite status match to United’s most loyal customers.

Having read and heard about many United customers’ troubles after the carrier adopted Continental’s reservations system — and having encountered some problems myself — I e-mailed American spokesman Tim Smith on March 16. Smith has been the best PR person to deal with at any airline since I started writing my column in the Washington Times in 2008. I asked him whether American had any intention of capitalizing on United customers’ dissatisfaction by stealing some of them away through a status-match offer…

Did United choose the best rez system?

The decision by United Airlines’ management to use Continental’s Shares reservations system for the merged carrier has been causing serious problems since its implementation last weekend. So the news that the airline is working on a new version of its IT platform, integrating some of the features of the pre-merger United’s Apollo system, is very welcome, indeed.

It was hardly surprising that CEO Jeff Smisek and his team chose to keep Shares, given that most policies and practices of the combined carrier have followed the way Continental did business under Smisek. But in this case, the decision made good financial sense — Continental has owned Shares for years, while United paid Travelport, the company that owns Apollo…

Rethinking government air travel costs

It’s no secret that the U.S. government wastes huge amounts of money on airfare, and that waste has been institutionalized. So it’s hardly a surprise that Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul has done the same, as an Associated Press story pointed out yesterday.

The reason for the story was the apparent discrepancy between Paul’s crusade against excessive government spending and his own spending. But while he did waste taxpayers’ money, he didn’t break any rules. So perhaps it’s time for the rules to change. Government employees are usually required to buy full-fare tickets — meaning Y or B booking class — when traveling on business. The main reason for that is to have the flexibility to change and cancel those tickets for free…

Fighting airlines’ attempts to overcharge

How do you know that an airline agent is trying to charge you much more than necessary to change a ticket? Two agents attempted that on me just yesterday, but they quickly realized they were messing with the wrong guy and retreated from their positions. The difference was thousands of dollars.

In my book, I explain why it helps to know what exactly you want before calling an airline, and more importantly, to know the outcome of an agent’s actions. I never trust agents to tell me how much I need to pay for anything — I call them simply to accomplish something I can’t do online. A couple of months ago, I issued a Business Class ticket for a client who flew the outbound portion but had to cancel the return. I called the airline to take him off that flight and said I wasn’t ready to rebook yet but would call back when I was…

Consider options before giving up seat

Volunteering to get bumped from a flight is an issue often raised by participants in the events on my book tour. As is the case with most situations I discuss in “Decoding Air Travel,” I advice travelers to think carefully before giving up their seat and examine the alternative ways to get to their destination — and to know exactly what they would get in exchange.

U.S. airlines, which overbook flights all the time, offer discount vouchers valued at as much as $400 for bumps on domestic flights, and up to $800 on international flights. Those certificates are very tempting and can save you lots of money. In fact, many travelers take certain trips only because they have vouchers to use. However, unless you are familiar with alternative flights that will get you to your destination, you may be asking for trouble…

Is the travel-agency model sustainable?

When was the last time you used a travel agent? I asked that question in my book “Decoding Air Travel.” Last month, President Obama asked it, too, and the American Society of Travel Agents speedily protested. So let’s examine the modern — or perhaps not modern enough — travel-agency system and the value it brings.

Many young people don’t even remember the time when using a travel agent was the only practical way to book a trip. While many consumers today book their own travel, using travel agencies is still quite prevalent in the corporate world. However, many business travelers I know are unhappy with their company’s travel agency. It’s clear the current system isn’t working well anymore for a variety of reasons. Without taking sides, let’s look at those reasons from the perspective of travel agencies and their customers…

Should airline booking codes be secret?

Flying Blue, the frequent-flier program of Air France/KLM, has banned customer service agents from revealing the codes the airlines use when booking awards or upgrades. If you ask them, they will tell you it’s none of your business. Is this misplaced paranoia or do carriers have the right to keep that information secret?

For smart and sophisticated travelers, the importance of having access to raw airline data cannot be overstated. Benefiting from that access has changed my travel life — it has ensured that I always pay the lowest possible fares and fly in comfort and luxury at the same time. Booking codes, of course, use letters of the alphabet…

Delta SkyMiles needs new leadership

Delta Airlines has cemented its status as the network U.S. carrier with the worst frequent-flier program, further devaluing its long-cheapened SkyMiles. The leadership of the program or the airline — or perhaps both — doesn’t seem to understand what the loyalty business in 2011 is about. It may be time for a new team at the top.

For more than a year, Delta failed to publish an award redemption chart for most of the world, resulting in lack of transparency about how many miles were really needed for an award ticket. When it finally unveiled a chart this week, the mileage rates on many routes were increased significantly. Many loyal SkyMiles members felt cheated and disrespected, calling Delta’s move a “stunt” in comments posted on FlyerTalk, the largest online travel community…