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Travel


We’ve been enjoying the middle-of-the-week holiday for more than one day, so we’re going to share a guest post from partner site MainStreet.com.

By Jeanine Skowronski

Airfare certainly isn’t cheap. According to a report from the Federal Aviation Administration, increased demand, coupled with major airline mergers, will lead to higher tickets prices through 2012 and beyond.

To help you counteract the effects of these external factors, here are some surefire ways to skirt fees, find deals and score discounts so you don’t wind up paying top dollar:

Join a frequent-flier club.
“Sign up for a frequent-flier program if your airline of choice offers one,” says Andrew Schrage, co-owner of Money Crashers Personal Finance. These programs allow you to accrue miles against your flights that can be put toward future purchases.

If you’re able to qualify for the club’s elite status, which typically involves flying more than 25,000 miles a year, you may also be entitled to waived baggage fees, priority boarding, bonus miles, exclusive discounts and preferred seating or upgrades.

Get a co-branded credit card.
If you don’t fly frequently enough to join your favorite airline’s club, you could, instead, opt for its co-branded credit card.

“The airline credit cards are a great option” for those who frequent a single airline, live by a hub city or fly four or five times a year, since they help you earn miles towards future travel, Counter says. Some of the best products also allow cardholders to skirt baggage fees.

Additionally, “if you’re disciplined enough not to overspend, watch for travel credit cards with ridiculous deals attached,” says Donna Freedman, a Savings.com DealPro who also runs the blog Surviving and Thriving. But don’t overdo it: Opening too many credit cards in a short time can do some damage to your credit score.

Compare apples to apples.
Thanks to the fee boom, “a base fare is no longer the true measuring stick of the cost of your flight,” says Jami Counter, director of flights for travel review site TripAdvisor. As such, you have to make sure you’re considering all fees and surcharges when researching cheap airfare for your summer vacation.

TripAdvisor has a fee estimator that can be helpful in determining the true cost of a flight available on its website. It can be helpful in assessing baggage fees, meals and other in-flight services on domestic travel.

Fly a low-fee carrier.
Keep in mind, there are still a few low-cost carriers. These carriers may be an ideal option for no-frills travelers who don’t have a lot of time to research flights.

“Fly on JetBlue and you’ll avoid paying for the first checked bag,” says George Hobica, an airline expert and founder of AirfareWatchdog.com. Southwest Airlines won’t charge you for a first and second checked bag if they don’t weigh over 50 pounds. The carrier is also a great option for anyone looking to avoid ticket change fees.

Don’t try to break the rules.
While frustration with fees certainly may inspire rule-breaking, your bad behavior is likely going to cost you.

“Baggage fees have plateaued,” Counter says, which has made carriers all the more aware of the ways customers try to get around them. For instance, trying to cram too much into a single bag so you can avoid paying to check a second one is likely to lead to an oversized luggage fee, which tends to be higher than the one you were hoping to avoid.

Delta, for instance, charges $35 to check a second bag on a domestic flight, but $90 to check a bag that exceeds weight limitations. As such, you’re better off making sure your bag meets the airline’s requirement or resolving yourself to the fact that you’ll need to pack another one.

Pack light.
To avoid getting dinged by the high fee for oversized baggage, it’s important to research flight requirements. A good rule of thumb is to weigh your suitcase before heading to the airport to ensure it doesn’t weigh more than 50 pounds, a common weight limit among carriers.

“I always leave room in my carry-on [when checking a bag] in case I’m overweight, so I can take stuff out,” says Andrea Woroch, a consumer savings expert at Kinoli, a network of personal finance websites. You can also consider flying with only a carry-on to avoid the extra charge.

Ship your luggage.
You might also want to look into shipping your bag via UPS or FedEx to your destination instead of paying for it at airport check-in.

“In certain circumstances, it can be more affordable,” Counter says. These circumstances typically include particularly heavy or oversized pieces of luggage. It also helps if you’re able to send bags a few days ahead of your trip to avoid the high price of overnight shipping.

You can check out Hobica’s breakdown on shipping bags with delivery services versus checking them with the airport to get an idea of how and when this option can save you.

Avoid amenities …
Keep in mind, every amenity you ask for probably has a price attached, so frugal fliers will want to keep requests down to a minimum.

“These days, airlines charge for everything,” Woroch says. “Weigh out the cost versus value benefits of [each add-on].”

You may also want to consider alternatives. For instance, Woroch suggests bringing along a portable DVD player and free library DVD rentals as a substitute for the in-flight movie. You can also eat before heading to the airport and pack a few snacks to get you through the flight.

… and common fee traps.
While you probably know in-flight entertainment or sustenance will cost you, there are several other conveniences for which charges may not be so obvious.

For instance, “never book your travel over the phone, as some airlines charge as much as $25 for this,” Schrage says. You also may want to refrain from checking a bag curbside; this sometimes features a $2 up-charge.

Additionally, Hobica says consumers shouldn’t get so hung up on seat assignments.

“Don’t be coerced into paying for a seat,” he says. “You’ll get a seat eventually. If you’re traveling with a small child or someone with special needs and really need to sit together, call the airline directly and explain the situation.”

Fly at the right time.
Finally, it pays to plan ahead. Flight prices are largely affected by demand, so certain days and times are more likely to carry lower fares. You can find out which dates are the most affordable in our roundup of the cheapest weekends to travel in 2012.

You can also find 10 ways to save on airfare, hotel accommodations and entertainment in our look at how to score affordable summer travel.

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For one to be an aficionado of Apple’s line of computers, it might be fair to generalize that one is willing to spend more money than necessary for perceived superior form — as a device that carries the same function, just on the more common technology modeled after the IBM personal computer costs considerably less. Orbitz has measured this tendency. Mac users pay more for hotel rooms than travelers using Microsoft Windows, and in order to take advantage of that, Orbitz shows different results to shoppers depending on their computer technology according to the Wall Street Journal.

To clarify, Orbitz is not repricing the same rooms higher and showing different prices based on technology. The website is apparently showing different results, emphasizing the higher-priced rooms to Mac users, perhaps hiding some of the low-cost rooms that they predict Mac users would ignore anyway. If Orbitz has found that Mac users almost always ignore Howard Johnson in favor of Hilton or Wyndham, showing options for lodging at Howard Johnson in the search results just creates an obstacle in presenting the information most relevant to the user.

Hotel RoomI’ve never used Orbitz to find a hotel room — call me old-fashioned. I usually use Google Maps, visit the websites for hotels in which I’d consider staying, read reviews of that location on Travelocity, which seems to have the most comprehensive reviews, and use the hotel’s own website or call to make the reservation. Although I generally ignore one- or two-star hotels today, that was not always the case. When I didn’t have as much cash available for vacations or travel, I would stay in Motel 6 or an equivalent hotel when unable to stay with friends or family. I just looked for the cheapest option that didn’t involve camping.

The discovery that Mac users see filtered results is not too much of a big deal. I would have liked to see the filter as an option available to everyone. The option to ignore “budget” hotels should be a switch one can turn on or off regardless of technology used to visit Orbitz. I’m not sure if the algorithm is as simple as filtering out one- or two-star hotels, but if it is, that’s simple enough to replicate for Windows users or to include all results for Mac users. But it doesn’t seem to be that simple. The default setting for search results is to sort by “Best Value,” which is some kind of algorithm that adjusts which results are shown first. A search for hotel rooms Gaithersburg, Maryland presents the best value for me as being Wyndham Garden Gaithersburg at $117 a night, a three-star hotel. This might be listed first because it is located more conveniently than all other options, but my third result is a four-star hotel, Crowne Plaza, for only $90 a night. I’m not sure why Orbitz would consider the Wyndham a better value than the Crowne Plaza, but Mac users might see these results differently and might be unable to replicate the result order.

I performed the same search on my iPad, and the results were wildly different. The first result was a sponsored listing from La Quinta, without a price listed. The next listing was the Gaithersburg Marriott for $149 a night. So the first price listed for my search with an iPad was $32 a night more expensive than the first result when searching with my Windows computer.

Search engines like Orbitz are not neutral parties just delivering facts. They are salespeople intent on making the most money by providing hotel listings designed in such a way to get customers to spend as much as possible. The advice should be obvious.

  • More than ever, it’s important to shop around.
  • Don’t limit your search to one aggregation website.
  • Once you select a hotel, always call before booking online to ensure you’re getting the lowest price possible.
  • Check Google Maps to make sure you haven’t overlooked a possibility excluded from aggregation websites.

What do you think about Orbitz prioritizing more expensive hotels in search results just for using an Apple device?

Photo: zevhonith
Wall Street Journal

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I try to visit my family on the other side of the country a couple times a year. Most of my family has migrated to the west coast from the east. The migration, at least in my immediate family, began over ten years ago, and more of the clan join the California contingent each year. Having family gives me a nice excuse to travel, though, and I’m trying to visit more often.

Over the last few years I’ve tended to not have real vacations while I travel, and I’m now considering that to be a problem. While away from home, rather than also separating myself from work, I’ve mostly remained connected and involved. As a business owner, I felt I had that responsibility. I hope to change that aspect of my travel this year, and have some thoughts on doing so, but first I wanted to write about my latest flight search experience.

Since beginning regular travel to the west coast several years ago, I’ve noticed my location and destinations generally led to Continental Airlines for the lowest fares — often lower than the recommended JetBlue and Virgin America (whose flights out of New York City tend to be less convenient, anyway.) Southwest is the most popular recommendation I receive, but they don’t fly the routes I travel most often. For a few years, I’ve noticed the good pricing pattern with Continental, and that led to my decision to give into marketing pressure and focus on the Continental frequent flyer program.

Continental Airlines LogoHaving accrued a good number of miles, the airline has succeeded in converting me to a loyal customer, price-checking my flights but usually selecting Continental and United. In just a few days, the merging airlines’ frequent flyer programs will be consolidated, making it theoretically easier to use the miles I’ve accumulated in both programs. My favorite benefit comes from holding the co-branded credit card. Most of the time, I’m able to bypass the long security lines, even when I don’t have a first class ticket. (I’ve only flown first class twice, which I was only able to do by cashing in miles I earned mostly through credit card usage for an upgrade. Paying for a first class ticket is not something I would consider at this point in my life with my finances.)

I could have saved some money by choosing inconvenient flight times. Had I chosen to depart at 7:00 am or fly overnight, I might have spent $50 less on the airfare. For me, traveling is not always about choosing the least expensive options, it’s about convenience and compromises. I’m willing to pay a little extra (in this case about 10% more) for convenience. In fact, if I were able to choose a different week to travel, I could have found flights for a little more than half the cost of the dates I chose. I’m bound to what happens to be a popular week for travel, and prices are higher when flights are in demand.

A few days after my flight was ticketed, I decided to compare prices. I was able to find availability on the same flights on the same days in the same fare class for $10 less than what I paid. That’s a $5 savings per passenger. Obviously, this was not significant enough of a price decrease to warrant changing bookings for a ridiculous $150 fee per ticket (the fee does make sense if you consider it as a disincentive to change flights frequently, but there’s no justification for the fee in a “cost of processing” sense). It did make me consider that the day you book a flight might have an impact on the final price. Saturdays may be expensive while the middle of the week could offer slight discounts.

Checking for the same availability today, I see the fare class I originally booked on the return flight is no longer available, and the total price increased by $300 for two passengers.

Unlike every so-called vacation I’ve taken for the past five years, I’d like to prevent myself from working. I usually fall into the habit of mostly continuing to do business while traveling, and I hope that this year I can begin finding time truly for myself. That’s the plan; I’ll see how it works out.

How to take a real vacation from work

If you run a business or are responsible for a major project, it’s difficult to leave your work behind and trust that any plans you put in place for the work to continue while you’re away.

  • Start planning as soon as you know you’re going to travel to have any necessary responsibilities or tasks handled by someone you trust. This might take some training, so thesooner you can start, the better.
  • Proactively notify your most important contacts, internal and external, particularly anyone who relies on you.
  • If you intend to refrain from answering or reading work-related email, make sure your system sends an automated response to outside contacts informing them of your unavailability and offering options for alternative people to contact.
  • Remove the temptation to check your email or voicemail. If you don’t have your mobile phone or laptop with you, you might find it easier to relax. It won’t be as easy to check in with your coworkers or clients.
  • Realize that the world will not end if you’re not immediately available.

What are your tips for taking a real vacation?

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Airlines Reporting Corporation (ARC), a company that processes airline transactions for travel agents and consumers, has analyzed 144 million transactions for domestic flights in 2011 to better understand airlines’ pricing schemes. The study found the lowest fares were available six weeks in advance of the departure date.

I’ve always been under the impression that the earlier you can purchase tickets for a flight, the better, but buying far in advance does not seem to be the best option when looking at the data. The study makes the case for planning ahead, but not too far in advance. The data also show that waiting until your departure date is just three weeks away can be financially damaging. Prices incline steeply once your departure date is three weeks away. The fare paid according to the study features another, steeper increase seven days before travel date.

AirplaneCustomers who purchased their airline tickets six weeks in advance received an average discount of about 6 percent off the average fare paid for that flight.

Not everyone has the luxury of planning six weeks in advance for a trip. Businesses often need to respond to changing travel needs, and are more likely to pay higher prices for a flight than a family planning a vacation.

I purchased tickets to my most recent round-trip flight, traveling from the east coast to the west coast for Thanksgiving, only seven days in advance. The flight cost $419 including all taxes and fees. It wasn’t the most expensive fare I’ve paid for this type of trip, and there was at least one slightly less expensive option available if I were willing to fly at an inconvenient time.

I haven’t done a great job of planning in advance. It could pay off to know where I will want to go six weeks in the future. I’ll try to keep that in mind if I intend to travel this spring. How far in advance to you plan your travel?

ARC [pdf]

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American Airlines Files for Bankruptcy

by Luke Landes
American Airlines

One of the two major airlines that had not yet filed for bankruptcy or restructuring, American Airlines, gave in and filed for Chapter 11 protection today. The airline will continue to operate its business as usual; if you planned to fly American Airlines, you’ll still be able to do so without any problem. In fact, ... Continue reading this article…

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10 Ways to Avoid Hotel Fees

by Luke Landes
Hotel

I’ve noticed over the past few years that the fees and surcharges that appear on my hotel bills are creeping steadily upward. I’m apparently not alone with this observation. According to a new study by Dr. Bjorn Hanson from the NYU School of Continuing and Professional Studies, hotel fees and surcharges will account for $1.8 ... Continue reading this article…

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Traveling First Class for the First Time

by Luke Landes
Continental Airlines Logo

After using the Continental Airlines OnePass Plus Card as my primary credit card for personal and travel spending for the past year, and the resulting accumulation of miles in Continental’s frequent flyer program, I decided to cash in. For 35,000 points, I was able to upgrade the round-trip ticket from Newark to Chicago. I would ... Continue reading this article…

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Prince William and Kate Middleton Get $300 Refund

by Luke Landes
Prince William and Kate Middleton

I’m no stranger to malfunctioning entertainment equipment on airplanes. Most of my flights are five-hour-long trips across country, and though I’d like to use that time to read or write, I’m usually not motivated to focus much in the confined space. I find myself preferring to listen to music or watch television when it’s available. ... Continue reading this article…

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Newark Liberty International Airport Has the Highest Fares

by Luke Landes

The same day I purchased airfare from New Jersey to California for what I thought was one of the better rates I’ve found in the past decade or so, I came across statistics showing that New Jersey’s Newark Liberty International Airport sports some of the highest fares in the country for the past two years, ... Continue reading this article…

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Why Airlines Continue to Add Fees

by Luke Landes

I don’t like the fact that when I think I know how much it will cost me to travel round-trip from where I live to where some of my family lives, New Jersey to California, there always seems to be new fees I hadn’t considered. I’ve managed to eliminate most of these extra fees by ... Continue reading this article…

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Soften the Effect of High Gas Prices

by Luke Landes
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I got lucky: I decided to leave my job, and the associated daily commute, around the time gas prices started rising faster. Now, with more unrest in northern Africa, a gallon of gasoline at the pump costs more than $3.50 on average, with some location sporting a price north of $4.00. High gas prices, though ... Continue reading this article…

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9 Ideas for Spring Break

by Luke Landes
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My girlfriend is a teacher who never takes days for vacation, so we schedule our time away from our regular lives over the summer or during one of several of the breaks in her academic calendar. I do my best to design my schedule around hers; when I worked for a corporation, I requested vacation ... Continue reading this article…

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Comparing Airfare is Frustrating: What Would Make You Loyal?

by Luke Landes

Retails airlines are battling their customers. People shopping for flights generally want one thing: the lowest price on airfare. The airline industry doesn’t want that to be the case. They’re making this shopping process more difficult for their customers. For example, some airlines do not make their prices available through websites that aggregate fares, like ... Continue reading this article…

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Continental Airlines to Merge With United Airlines

by Luke Landes

Yesterday, the boards of directors for Continental Airlines and United Airlines agreed to merge the two companies, creating the largest airline carrier. The new company will bear the United name and the Continental brand will cease to exist. If the government approves the merger, like it did recently for Delta and Northwest, there will be ... Continue reading this article…

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Spirit Airlines Now Charges for Carry-On Luggage

by Luke Landes

Just a few days ago, I arrived home from a vacation that took me to Las Vegas and Death Valley. When preparing for the trip, I used SideStep for finding the best fare that fit my schedule, settling on a flight from EWR to LAS on Continental Airlines. My flights were mostly full, so I ... Continue reading this article…

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Travel On a Budget

by Kelly Whalen

This article is presented by Kelly Whalen, Consumerism Commentary staff writer. Traveling can be expensive, but worthwhile. At some point everyone needs to take a break from their regular routine. Whether you stay at home, take a car trip to Grandma’s house, or fly across the country, there are ways to travel without spending all ... Continue reading this article…

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Smithee’s First Vacation with Cash

by Smithee

I’m currently winging my way down to San Antonio (where The Alamo is), except in a car and not with wings. My wife and I are signed up to join some of the members of The Atlantic Paranormal Society with an investigation of spirit activity in a gorgeous inn. We’ve been talking and daydreaming about ... Continue reading this article…

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How to Avoid Excessive Airline Fees While Traveling

by Luke Landes

My recent experiences traveling across country gave me more appreciation, or disapproval, of the lengths airlines are now gong to empty the wallets of travelers. The flight industry once positioned itself as luxury travel, with a variety of free amenities, but the industry takes the opposite approach now. Yes, it is true that airlines compete ... Continue reading this article…

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Delta Airlines: Good Airfare But Not My Favorite Airline

by Luke Landes

As of this past Saturday, my brother is now a married man. He and his wife live in California, and I spent Halloween attending their wedding and the past week visiting with my family in that state. I am happy I was able to take a week off from my day job and spend it ... Continue reading this article…

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Visa Signature Concierge: Useless for Immediate Travel

by Luke Landes

As I’ve mentioned recently, my maternal grandmother passed away a few days ago, my second of two grandmothers to pass away in the past few weeks. A few years ago, she moved out to California to be cared for by my mother and brother who had also moved out to the west coast several years ... Continue reading this article…

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