Scrutinizing Southwest Part 1: Overview

I don’t personally have a lot of experience flying Southwest Airlines. The primary reason? I’m from Seattle, and I have spent most of the last 5 years living abroad. Southwest was, until very recently, virtually useless for international travel (they added a few holiday destinations abroad in the past few months). Although Southwest has offered Seattle service for 20 years (after they acquired Salt Lake City-based Morris Air Service), they serve a relatively small number of destinations and don’t have a large number of direct flights. Or a large number of flights, period. Seattle is overwhelmingly dominated by Alaska Airlines and Delta.

Even if you overlook all of the above, the destinations Southwest serves from Seattle are often less convenient. They fly to smaller, out-of-the-way airports like Oakland instead of San Francisco, and Love Field instead of Dallas. Want to fly to Los Angeles from Seattle? You’re not getting there without a connection, and practically everyone else offers a nonstop. Southwest is also really quirky. It does not offer baggage agreements with other airlines, so if you’re connecting to another airline, you will have to claim your bag and re-check it. Southwest is also not a member of any airline alliance, so they offer you access to only their own route network. And they are very proud to serve exclusively peanuts on their planes. I’m allergic to peanuts. Are you a person of size? Watch out! Southwest may charge you for an extra seat, and they are not shy about doing so if you cannot fit comfortably in a regular economy class seat.

More importantly, Southwest doesn’t generally have lower fares than other airlines, and they only sell fares through their own Web site. And the biggest reason why you’ll almost never see Southwest mentioned on the sites of most other travel bloggers: Southwest does not offer a first class cabin. All seats are in economy class (some with unusual configurations, such as family seating sections with rear-facing seats), and seating isn’t even assigned. You board by group (based on when you checked in) and just grab any open seat.

Southwest Airlines plane imageThere are upsides to flying Southwest, though. For an airline, they are exceptionally customer-friendly. They don’t charge any change fees, as long as you change your flight at least 10 minutes prior to the scheduled departure. They also don’t charge baggage fees for up to two checked bags. And of course, you don’t have to pay any fees for carry-on bags. So, if you need to check luggage or think you might change your plans, Southwest might be for you. Southwest also has a very friendly company culture. The flight attendants are famous for singing on planes. The company is known to be family-friendly, going out of their way to ensure that–in the end–families are seated together. And Southwest is innovative: they were one of the first airlines to offer electronic tickets, as well as check-in kiosks (although Alaska Airlines did beat them to both of these).

Should you fly Southwest? It depends. If you insist on flying in a premium cabin, Southwest is not for you and will probably never be for you. If you need to check bags, compare the total cost of a flight with another airline including bag fees to the cost of a Southwest flight. You may well find the total package to be less expensive with Southwest. And if you’re comfortable taking an extra connection, or flying into a smaller airport, Southwest might be a good option if the fare is lower. So, if you’re entirely OK with Southwest’s quirks, it’s probably worth comparison-shopping on southwest.com. Remember, you will not find Southwest fares on any other travel Web sites.

This is the first installment in a 2-part series. In the second part of this series, I will write about the Southwest Rapid Rewards frequent flier program.

How Much Did Priceline Pay For That Room You Bid?

Last week, I was in the Bay Area on some business travel. In my real life, I’m the founder of a tech startup. We’re not yet funded, so my travel budget is usually somewhere in between sleeping in my car and tent camping. I figured I could probably couch surf on my last trip, but that didn’t end up working out for most of the nights. I did manage to couch surf for two nights, but I also tent camped for a night and ended up in hotels, booked through Priceline, for two nights. For my Priceline room nights, the actual amount that Priceline paid was unintentionally leaked to me. This is normally very closely held information so it’s nice to get a rare inside look at the data.

picture of tent camping

Why not camp out to save money? China Camp State Park, California

So, a few words about Priceline, just so you know what I’m talking about and why this is special. Priceline sells hotel rooms through a number of channels. You can make a traditional reservation at the normal, published rate. Priceline receives a commission for handling the reservation just like any other travel agency. They also offer “express deals,” which allow you to choose a hotel by price, date, zone, and star level, with the name of the hotel revealed after you select a specific one. This works pretty much the same way as Hotwire, another popular “opaque travel” site. The best deals in the hotel business, however, are through Priceline’s “name your own price” offers. These work pretty much the same way as “express deals,” but you bid for a room and hotels within the zone can choose to accept your offer or not. In all cases, the amount that you actually pay bears little resemblance to what was either bid or advertised. Taxes and fees are lumped together and added on at the very end (just before you pay), which can inflate your bill by 20% or more. It’s a shady tactic, but just about everyone does this for hotel rooms.

When you use the “name your own price” method, I found out that the actual amount being “bid” to the hotel isn’t the same as you bid on Priceline. It’s actually a lower price. I was able to obtain data proving this in two cases (although it was provided to me inadvertently). For two different Bay Area rooms in separate properties on separate dates, Priceline pocketed about $10 per room night and refused bids that would have resulted in  a lower profit. I still saved a lot, but less than I expected.

For the first Priceline room night I booked, my winning bid was $60. The actual price I was charged, after my bill was larded up with taxes and fees, was $76.21. However, the hotel made an error and revealed the price that they billed Priceline. So, I was able to see that Priceline actually paid $65.88 for the room. Their profit on this room was $10.33. It’s worth pointing out that this particular hotel was selling its cheapest rooms for $129 per night plus tax, so the savings were still substantial. However, the hotel was nearly empty and really needed to sell the room. Given how my bidding was structured, Priceline could have sold me the room at a $50 and $55 bid. They held out until my bid was $60, guaranteeing themselves a minimum profit. Priceline thus demonstrated that it would have been willing to let last-minute room inventory spoil rather than selling it at a reduced profit.

For the second Priceline room night I booked, the results were nearly identical. I ended up with a $55 winning bid, which was unscrupulously inflated to a total of $69.64. The amount that Priceline was actually billed by the hotel, in data inadvertently leaked to me, was $61.56. So, in this case, Priceline’s profit was $8.08, and I bid for the same room–in the same zone–at $50 which would have turned a $3.08 gross profit.

So, how much is the minimum gross profit Priceline will accept for a name-your-own-price room night? At least based on my experience, it’s more than $5.33 and probably a little less than $8.08. For a single-night booking, this is actually a pretty slim margin. Priceline, after all, has to pay all of the costs of booking the room and processing your credit card. Still, it’s a little higher than I expected, and finding this data has encouraged me not to bid in even $5 increments. If I think I’m close to a winning bid, I’ll more likely increment my bids by $2 or $3 rather than $5.

Part of the value proposition to hoteliers in listing with Priceline is that it’s a good way to liquidate last-minute unsold inventory, albeit at a steep discount. Priceline, however, has demonstrated a willingness to allow inventory to spoil rather than to sell it at an (in its view) unacceptably low margin. It’d be interesting to know whether Priceline’s contracts obligate it to accept break-even bids in order to help its partners unload stale room inventory, and how much this actually is (bearing in mind Priceline’s operating costs). If not, hoteliers would be wise to insist upon break-even or better sales when it comes to any “name-your-own-price” sites.

You might be asking at this point “How was this data leaked?” I’m not going to go into details, because this would probably get the hotels involved in trouble. I’m also hoping that more data will continue to leak so I will have more points of reference in order to formulate better bids. I will say that there were no hacks or shenanigans involved. The information was accidentally leaked to me in both cases, and this probably happens fairly often; the difference with me is that I actually knew what it meant.

How To Avoid Booking Bad Airports

Sometimes a cheap fare can end up being a lot more expensive, both in terms of time and hassle. I’m not talking about baggage fees or any of the other charges that airlines use to cause last-minute surprises. Most readers of #Seat31B are savvy enough to avoid those. Instead, I’m talking about airports. Pay attention to where you’re flying. It might not be exactly where you were expecting.

Although you can encounter this issue in some North American cities, this problem can really bite you when you’re flying with cut-rate budget airlines in Europe and Asia. These airlines often don’t fly to the primary airports in their cities, leaving you stuck with limited (and often very expensive) transportation options. For example, Ryanair will fly you to a place they call Brussels, but the airport is actually well south of the city in Charleroi. It’s 62km away, and the taxi ride will almost definitely cost you more than your flight. The same is true with the place they call “Frankfurt.” It’s actually Hahn, nearly an hour away. To its credit, Ryanair generally organizes a bus between the center city and airports they serve (often at a price that rings up at more than your flight), but you have to book this in advance or you might find yourself without any other options. The same is true with AirAsia, which flies to Don Mueang airport in Bangkok where taxis are your only option. This might be OK, because taxis are generally pretty cheap in Bangkok, but it might be a disaster: traffic is notoriously bad. You always have to allow considerable extra time when departing from Don Mueang. AirAsia also makes its hub at the KLIA2 terminal at Kuala Lumpur airport. While there are very good transportation connections at this new terminal, it’s easy to end up in the wrong place if you’re not paying attention.

Even with more conventional international airports, ground transportation can be astonishingly expensive. Consider Tokyo. If you take a taxi from Narita Airport in Tokyo to the city center, you can end up spending as much as you paid for your flight! The cheapest train route will require about 2 hours in travel time and cost about $25.

Tokyo taxicab photo

Check the price before you get into a Tokyo taxi

How can you avoid trouble in Tokyo? Avoid Narita airport. Instead, if you can, fly to Haneda airport. It’s much closer to the city and transportation is much less expensive.

What are some of my favorite airports to avoid? Here is my list of the “worst offender” airports that I think are likely to cause you trouble:

Asia

Beijing: Avoid flying into Tianjin. Some budget airlines present this as an alternate for Beijing. It’s not. Tianjin is an entirely separate city located a considerable distance from Beijing. Also avoid booking China United Airlines at Nanyuan Airport. This is a secondary airport in the dangerous southern part of the city. It isn’t on the Beijing Subway and your only option may be to overpay for an illegal taxi.

Shanghai: Avoid flying into Pudong Airport if possible. It is located very far from the city center. Hongqiao Airport is a much better choice. Unfortunately, most international flights arrive at Pudong Airport.

Tokyo: Avoid Narita airport if possible. Although transportation connections are excellent, they are expensive. Narita is also far from the Tokyo city center, so plan your time wisely! Unfortunately, most international flights to Tokyo arrive at Narita.

Bangkok: Avoid flying into Don Mueang airport. The only transportation option is taxis which are more expensive than the train from the primary Bangkok airport, and are much less predictable in Bangkok traffic.

Europe

Ryanair – Be generally suspicious of any city names published by this airline and be certain you know where the flight will really be arriving. If it’s not the primary airport in the city you’re visiting, research ground transportation options before you book the flight. The overall package might still prove to be a good value, but be sure to know what you’re buying.

London – Avoid Luton and Stansted airports. Heathrow and Gatwick have good transportation connections, although Heathrow is the better of the two. London City airport has few flights, but is located directly in the city center.

The Netherlands - Avoid Eindhoven, the hub of Ryanair. It’s an expensive train ride from there to anywhere you’ll likely want to be.

Brussels - Avoid Charleroi airport. Not convenient!

Frankfurt - Hahn is not Frankfurt!

Rome - Ciampino Airport, used by many budget carriers, is actually closer to the city center than the main airport (Leonardo da Vinci). However, it has only bus and taxi connections. Given the terrible traffic in Rome, be sure to allow extra time when using this airport.

North America

Southwest Airlines and Allegiant AirlinesLike Ryanair in Europe, Southwest Airlines and Allegiant Airlines often fly to inconvenient, out-of-the-way and smaller airports with cheaper landing fees. Unlike Ryanair, you don’t need to read the fine print as carefully: they are both pretty up-front with showing the city names correctly. Just be sure that you don’t get carried away with booking a cheaper fare; it could mean more expensive ground transportation and longer connections.

San Francisco – There are often cheaper flights into Oakland and San Jose, both served by Southwest Airlines. However, ground transportation connections are not very convenient from either airport unless you’re renting a car. To be fair, Oakland will get much more convenient when it is linked to the BART railway network in Fall, 2014, at which point I might instead be calling it the Bay Area’s best kept secret.

Los Angeles – The most convenient airport is often not LAX, which is the biggest airport in the Los Angeles area and the primary international airport. If you’re visiting Disneyland, consider flying to Orange County – John Wayne Airport (SNA), which is practically across the street. For Universal Studios and Hollywood, fly to the Bob Hope Burbank Airport (BUR). The small Long Beach airport (LGB) is primarily served by smaller aircraft, so you can get in and out very quickly. The airport to avoid? Ontario (ONT), which is inconveniently located to almost everything except its immediate surrounding area. Don’t be tempted by the lower fare!

Washington, DC – Avoid Dulles Airport (IAD) and fly to National Airport (DCA) if possible. The latter airport is on the excellent Washington DC subway system, and is conveniently located to the city.

New York – Avoid Islip (ISP) and White Plains (HPN). These are both far from the city. Also avoid LaGuardia (LGA). This airport is delay-prone, its facilities have been charitably described as “third world,” and there are only bus and taxi connections. JFK airport, the primary international airport, has an inexpensive subway connection but is very busy and located far from the center city, so plan accordingly. Newark airport (EWR) is closer and has more expensive, but still excellent transportation connections to Penn Station via the AirTrain.

Are there any airports that you go out of your way to avoid? Drop me a line on Twitter @Seat31B.

Avoiding Awful Hotel WiFi

Of all of the things that hotels get wrong, few things are more infuriating than poor or nonexistent WiFi. Annoyingly, many hotels view WiFi as a profit center and provide the service at rates that can’t be reasonably viewed as anything other than a price gouge. I have been on the road for the past few weeks and have encountered a lot of issues myself. In some cases, I’ve come up with workarounds. Here are a few things I have learned along the way that I hope will help you to survive your next hotel WiFi experience.

Terrible Signal. You arrive in your room and there is only one bar of signal, and it fades in and out. Forget using your mobile phone or tablet, they can’t connect to WiFi at all. So, you pull out your laptop and try to connect, but the connection keeps dropping. It’s an exercise in frustration but one that you can solve with an external WiFi adapter. I use the TP-Link TL-WN822N. It has a more powerful antenna than the one on my laptop, and with a long USB cable, I can move it around to a location in the room that gets a better signal. Additionally, you might look for whether a wired connection is available in the room. Many hotels offer both wireless and wired connections, and the wired connection is invariably faster.

TP-Link Wi-Fi AdapterNo WiFi. Sometimes hotels don’t have WiFi at all. This is where having an unlocked phone with portable hotspot capability comes in handy. I carry the Moto G as my primary mobile phone, and use prepaid SIM cards that allow for unlimited data (typically 1-5GB at 4G speeds, and the remainder at 2G or 3G speeds). This allows me to use the “portable hotspot” feature to share out my mobile phone data plan to other devices. Most unlocked Windows Phone devices also support this feature. On iOS, the “Personal Hotspot” feature is available at the option of your mobile carrier. Unfortunately, most North American carriers don’t allow this feature to be made available on versions of their phones without paying extra, so an unlocked phone is required. The speeds I get aren’t as good as I typically see with a dedicated device for data services (such as a Verizon Jetpack), but for infrequent use, it’s a good solution. This does not require carrying multiple devices and subscribing to multiple data plans.

Charges for each device, or only one device allowed for free. Sometimes hotels want to charge you for each and every device that you connect to their wireless network. If the WiFi is free, they may only provide access to one device. Typically, devices are authenticated by MAC address. There are a couple of ways around this problem. The first is to clone a single MAC address onto multiple devices. However, this isn’t particularly easy; it’s a relatively technical thing to do. Another option is to use a travel router. Many of these have software that can “take over” the connection you set up on your laptop, and can then share it out to multiple devices. Additionally, travel routers can share out a wired network connection if one is available, which provides faster service and less complicated to set up.

ASUS WL330NUL image.

The tiny ASUS WL-330NUL travel router has scored high marks on reviews.

Slow speed is “free,” high speed costs more. Many hotels advertise “free WiFi” when you’re booking a room. When you get there, you find out that the “free” WiFi is barely faster than dial-up, and you’ll have to pay more in order to do anything more than send and receive e-mail. How do hotels do this? They have crippled previously fast WiFi by deploying “traffic shaping” software which limits the speed of your connection. Fortunately, a lot of this software is badly designed and you can sometimes get around its annoying speed limits without paying extra. One of the workarounds that works for me most consistently is using a VPN service to connect to the Internet. I run my own VPN service so that I can reach Facebook and other social media Web sites from countries with censored Internet access, but anyone can buy a VPN service at low cost.

Hidden free WiFi areas.  Many hotels offer free WiFi in public areas of the property, but don’t expect them to tell you this. If you are prompted to pay for WiFi in your room, check the lobby, conference areas and business center before you pull out your credit card. You might find fast, free access available a short walk away.

The bottom line: Hotels, like everyone else in the travel industry, are always looking for an opportunity to lard up your bill with extra charges. When it comes to WiFi, come equipped for battle. With the right moves, you could save $20 or more per day.

 

Reducing Rotten Resort Fees

One of the most evil and insidious creeping inventions of the hotel industry in recent years has been the “resort fee.” These originated in faraway tropical destinations but have spread to many destinations that you’d never consider to be resorts.

Typically a resort fee isn’t advertised as part of the base room rate. So, for example, at the Rio in Las Vegas (where I completed a recent stay) the room rate was advertised online at a low $37. It’s only after reading the fine print and adding up the charges that you see that the rate nearly doubles:

  • Room charge: $37.00
  • Tax: $4.44
  • Resort fee: $22.40
  • TOTAL: $63.84

Obviously, the $63.84 that you actually end up paying is considerably more than the $37.00 that is advertised. Even though the FTC has warned hotel operators against this type of deceptive “drip pricing,” the industry continues to advertise room rates that bear little relation to what you’re actually charged.

Picture of Rio Las Vegas

Resort fees sneakily cram $22.40/day onto your bill at the Rio

How can you fight back against resort fees? Make sure you actually get everything you pay for. Hotels will hold firm on charging a resort fee if the services that were promised are available (typically services that really ought to be free anyway such as access to the fitness center, local telephone calls and WiFi). However, you have a reasonable argument that the resort fee should be waived in the event that services weren’t available, particularly if you complained to the hotel and they failed to solve the problem. But this only works if you use all of the resort fee services so you can find problems with them before you’re charged.

In my case, once I arrived in the room, I began by trying to make a free local phone call. Often, the hotel phones don’t work well or even at all. The ancient telephone was essentially inoperable. Heavy scratching noises accompanied the audio and the microphone inside the handset had become unglued over the years so my speech was muffled and nearly inaudible to other parties. I called the front desk at the Rio, who immediately agreed there was a problem and assured me it would be corrected.

3 days later, at the end of the day, a technician finally showed up and replaced the phone. I could finally make free local phone calls. I asked the technician to note in my folio that there had been a maintenance issue with the phone, and it was replaced, “just to avoid any confusion about the phone in case they try to charge me for it.” He was happy to oblige. So, when I checked out, I was able to successfully challenge the resort fee because I didn’t receive all of the services I had paid for, and it was partially (proportionate to the number of days I was inconvenienced) waived. Remember, hotels stick to their guns on resort fees, so if you are able to get anything waived, it’s unusual. I was satisfied with the result.The next time you see that a hotel charges a resort fee, start figuring out how you might be able to get out of it. The more that resort fees become more trouble than they’re worth to hoteliers, the more likely they are to disappear.

 

Frequent Flier Flag Stops

If you’re looking for frequent flier seat availability during a busy peak travel period, it can be really tough. Often the biggest problem is the most frustrating one: flights to and from airline hubs. You might be able to find, for example, a flight “over the water” from Europe to a hub city, but not onward to your home city from there. This is why it’s really important to shop your flights one segment at a time, and to look at unconventional ways of reaching your final destination. Flag stops are a rarely used technique and can really help when inventory is tight.

The bad news from an American Airlines agent last summer was a typical conversation. “I don’t have any availability at all from Amsterdam. I do have availability from Dusseldorf to Chicago, though, on our new flight. There isn’t any availability onward from Chicago to Las Vegas, though.” I wasn’t particularly surprised by either the excellent geographic competence of the seasoned AAgent (international agents at American Airlines are usually excellent) or the news. Las Vegas is one of the most popular summer travel destinations in the world. Getting there was going to be hard. “Would you like to add a paid onward ticket? It will cost $184.50.”

Most people would just pay up. After all, even with the additional cost of a paid onward ticket, the overall redemption would still cost less than the fuel surcharges involved when booking on British Airways. However, don’t pay up before looking for a flag stop. What’s a flag stop? It’s a non-standard connection, sometimes (though not always) inconvenient, occurring in a non-hub city. Because these connections are non-standard (particularly if they involve partners) and would not normally be sold, they typically don’t show up in automated searches and have to be pieced together one segment at a time. Having an extensive knowledge of airline route networks and available partners works well here.

I knew that this was coming, and had done some research on the Alaska Airlines Web site prior to calling. Although you might not expect it, Alaska Airlines has one flight a day from St. Louis to Seattle. With a forced overnight in Seattle (which didn’t count as a stopover because it was 23 hours, not 24 hours), there would be onward availability the following morning to Las Vegas on another Alaska flight. The only piece I wasn’t sure of was a connecting flight to St. Louis. “Not yet,” I said. “I found availability on Alaska Airlines from St. Louis. Do you have a connecting flight there?” The agent replied in the affirmative, and a few minutes later, was issuing me a ticket for a grueling and complicated 3-stop itinerary that would take me all the way to Las Vegas with no fuel surcharges.

DUS-ORD-STL-LAS map

Yes it sucks, but it’s free…

Of course, I didn’t actually want to fly this awful itinerary. It would have gotten me there if I couldn’t find anything else, but I was hoping to replace it with something more sane. One nice advantage with American Airlines awards is that you can make essentially unlimited changes to the routing as long as your origin and destination cities are the same. This means that if space opens up on a more convenient itinerary, you can make the change with a simple phone call. Also, if your itinerary later breaks anywhere along the way due to a schedule change, American Airlines will generally open up inventory on their own flights to get you to your final destination. With a complicated itinerary like this, a lot could potentially go wrong so I figured the chances were better than even that I could score a better itinerary because of a schedule change.

In this case, I lucked out. Alaska Airlines changed the schedule of their St. Louis to Seattle flight, which resulted in a greater than 24 hour stop in Seattle. This was no longer “legal” under the fare rules, because it constituted a stopover. These are not allowed. So, when I called to inquire about the change, the American Airlines representative noticed the issue. She started off by telling me that my entire itinerary would be cancelled because I had booked an invalid connection. When I explained that the invalid connection was there because of a schedule change and I didn’t actually want the stopover, she said “Oh! Let me see if I can get you a better itinerary than this.” She contacted the Revenue Management department, who then decided to open up award inventory for me on an American Airlines connecting flight from Chicago to Las Vegas. dus-ord-las route map

This itinerary was much more reasonable.

Fast forward to two weeks ago, when I needed to get from New York to Los Angeles–again on an American Airlines award. I only needed an economy class seat, but no award space was available. I decided to work backwards, looking for nonstop flights from east coast destinations to Los Angeles. To my surprise, I found an early afternoon flight from Columbus, Ohio with availability. So, all I needed to do was to find a flight from a New York area airport to Columbus that would connect. I was in luck! There was an almost perfectly timed connection available from LaGuardia Airport.

LGA-CMH-LAX map

Not a hub, but it works

Although this isn’t an itinerary that would normally price out as a paid fare, adding Columbus as a flag stop proved to be perfectly valid when I searched for the award space one segment at a time. The itinerary priced out correctly at 12,500 miles and my checked bag did transfer correctly at Columbus.

The next time you’re looking for a hard-to-find seat, look for flag stops. It takes extra time–both when searching and when flying–but you may be able to magically find inventory when none existed only moments before.

Avoiding A Cabotage Calamity

With the increasing difficulty of using frequent flyer miles, it’s no surprise that many people are seeking to redeem on partner airlines instead. This sometimes creates situations that would rarely arise before, and one of those situations is called “cabotage.” Ever since another travel blogger, Jeff from Canadian Kilometers, lodged a cabotage-related complaint with the US Department of Transportation, it has made it a lot harder to book awards between US locations while transiting third countries.

Blame Canada

Blame Canada

What is cabotage? It is, quite simply, the practice of a foreign airline (or cruise line) carrying passengers between two points within the United States, even when transiting a third country. For example, consider a flight between Los Angeles and New York via Toronto. It seems like an awfully logical connecting point, just look at the map:

lax-yyz-lga route map

This routing could cause you trouble

If you were to fly Air Canada from Los Angeles to Toronto, and then connect to another Air Canada flight from Toronto to New York, this would be cabotage because a foreign airline carried you the entire way between two US points. And Air Canada would be slapped with a huge fine. It’s $25,000 each time, so they have a strong incentive not to do this. Making matters worse, you might even be able to book this itinerary as an award flight if the airline you’re using has a badly programmed booking engine, causing you unexpected trouble at the airport.

This is what happened to Jeff, who booked a flight from Seattle to Guam on Eva Air, via Taiwan. He was (correctly) denied boarding because this would create a cabotage situation, torpedoing the risky hidden cities itinerary that he’d planned on the mistake fare he found. Rather than accepting that these things can happen when you play dangerous games, he filed a complaint with the DOT and created a situation where even entirely legitimate itineraries can now be difficult to book, and some itineraries are no longer possible to book at all with Avianca LifeMiles.

How do you avoid cabotage? It’s really easy: make sure that at least one part of an itinerary between US locations, which transits a third country, is on a US carrier. So, for example, it’s totally OK to book a flight from Los Angeles to Vancouver on Alaska Airlines, which then connects to a flight from Vancouver to New York on Cathay Pacific. This is not cabotage. In fact, I am doing this right now. Similarly, Jeff could have flown ANA to Tokyo, and switched to a United flight to Guam. You can even transit a city in a third country using a US carrier and this is also no problem. So, for example, if you want to fly from Seattle to Las Vegas via Vancouver BC on Alaska Airlines (which you might want to do if award inventory is only available with this itinerary), it’s entirely OK and there is no cabotage. You would have to pay both US and Canadian immigration and airport fees, though (and endure all the immigration hassles, and travel with your passport) so this is probably something you don’t actually want to do unless it’s truly necessary.

As long as you know the cabotage rules, you can probably manage to book itineraries that don’t actually involve it, but it might require booking over the phone and appealing to a supervisor in order to get it done. Plan extra time at the airport in case you’re challenged. And be aware that airline search engines are imperfect. They may recommend (and allow you to book) itineraries that involve cabotage and will result in you being denied boarding at the last minute. Conversely, they may not display itineraries that are perfectly valid and don’t involve any cabotage, but do transit through a third country. In this case, you may have to piece these itineraries together manually.

As always, the thrill is in the hunt when traveling on miles and points. Avoiding cabotage situations sounds difficult, but in reality, it’s really simple: always book at least one leg (either into or out of the US) on a US carrier.

Double Miles Disaster

Delta Air Lines has been battling Alaska Airlines for market share in Seattle. Both airlines are running double miles promotions between Seattle and West Coast cities where the two airlines compete. However, it’s important to read the fine print (which, to Delta’s credit, is reasonably clear). As I discovered yesterday, double miles offers could be only as lucrative as the initial segment.

Delta double miles promo text

I had booked a flight between Seattle and Los Angeles via Salt Lake City, and traveled yesterday. Since I registered for the promotion several months ago, I didn’t remember the details. Disaster! I was surprised to see that when the flights credited to my account, I only received double miles for the Seattle to Salt Lake City portion, and I received only regular mileage credit between Salt Lake City and Los Angeles (note that although Alaska Airlines is now competing with Delta Air Lines on routes from Salt Lake City, Delta apparently doesn’t take the threat very seriously and is not offering a double miles promotion in these markets).

It’s worth pointing out that Delta is delivering exactly what they have promised here. I just failed to carefully read the fine print. For what it’s worth, I also failed to read the fine print a month ago on an Alaska flight from Long Beach to Seattle. Contrary to my expectations, I received only ordinary mileage credit even though Alaska Airlines is offering double miles to Seattle from every other Los Angeles area airport. Long Beach isn’t on the list.

Mileage promotions come and go, and Alaska and Delta aren’t the only airlines with promotions requiring registration. If you do register for a promotion, read the fine print! Otherwise you may be in for a nasty surprise when you view your statement.

The Dangerous Game of Hidden Cities

I am seeing more and more people write about “hidden cities” itineraries lately, and I don’t think that enough is being said about the risk of using these. Things can very badly go wrong with these itineraries and if it happens even once, it is likely to cost you far more than you will ever potentially save.

“But wait a minute,” you might say. “Weren’t you just telling us about co-terminals and how you can save with these?” There is a big difference and it’s very key. Using co-terminals is allowed (and even encouraged) under the fare rules. However, using hidden cities is a big no-no in both the Contract of Carriage and in the terms of every airline’s frequent flier program.

So, what exactly is a hidden cities itinerary? Suppose you’re in New York, and you want to go to Miami. The weather in New York is lousy and everyone else has the exact same idea, so fares to Florida are relatively high. It’s $199 each way. However, you do a little searching with Kayak Explore, and you notice that American Airlines is running an “Amazing Alabama” sale with $99 one-way fares to anywhere they go in Alabama. “Hmmm,” you think, and you quickly find the following itinerary:

JFK-MIA-CLT-MOB itinerary screenshot

Looks perfect, right?

“I have a brilliant plan,” you might think. “Why not just get off the plane in Miami and skip all of the rest? I can go for half price!” Smug in your ingenuity, you buy a $99 ticket to Alabama and go to the airport, only to find out when you arrive that your flight has been cancelled. “The pilot caught the flu, so we have to reroute you” says the friendly counter agent. “Great news, though, we have you on a much better itinerary. You’ll get there much earlier!” she says, practically beaming, and hands you your new boarding passes.

JFK-CLT-MOB itinerary screenshot

Your new direct routing

That sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach is real when you realize that your beach dreams are being replaced with … whatever there is to do in Alabama. It probably doesn’t involve a beach.

Thinking fast, you try to figure out a way to get back your original routing and salvage the trip. “I won’t get as many miles if I go this way,” you nervously say. “I was really hoping to get enough for the big trip I have planned.” An assured smile and the reply of “No problem! Just write in to Aadvantage after your flight, send in your boarding passes and original itinerary, and ask for original routing credit. They’ll take care of you. Enjoy your trip to Alabama!” says the agent with an air of finality, and you leave the counter defeated.

You’re now faced with a decision. You can abandon your trip entirely, and lose the $99 that you paid for your ticket. Fortunately that’s all you’ll lose; you weren’t sure when you were coming back, so you hadn’t bought a return ticket from Miami yet. You can buy a last-minute ticket, but a quick check of SkyScanner shows that the cheapest last-minute fare is $363 and it leaves at 3:50 this afternoon. This pushes your total cost to almost $500 and you’re going to be stuck for the whole day at JFK instead of sitting on the beach. Or, you could continue on to Alabama. “Maybe that’s not so bad, I’ve never been there,” you think. You start looking for things to do, and find this:

What they do in Alabama

Cultural heritage of Alabama

Since you’re already at JFK, you decide to go to the beach at Coney Island instead. It’s cold and covered in trash. Shady teens are hanging out on the street corners, doing a really bad job of hiding the fact that they’re dealing drugs. You are left alone to ponder your bad life choices.

OK, rewind. Suppose the above didn’t happen. Let’s say that your original itinerary worked. You totally got away with it. In fact, US Airways had a sudden last minute $99 fare sale from Fort Lauderdale to New York for the return, and you even got American Airlines Aadvantage miles. You showed off your tan in the office Monday morning, gloating about how you managed to score a peak season flight to a subtropical beach paradise for less than the cost of a limo to the airport.

Two months later, a letter arrives in your mailbox from American Airlines. It looks different from everything you’ve ever received from them, and it is a stern letter from their Account Audit department. The letter explains that the airline is fully aware of your shenanigans, outlines exactly what you did and the sequence of events, quotes the clause of the Aadvantage contract that you violated, and ends with the following quote:

Your Aadvantage account has been closed and all miles forfeited. While you are welcome on board American Airlines, you are no longer eligible to participate in the Aadvantage program.

That mileage balance you spent years accruing and were saving for a Christmas trip to Hawaii? It’s gone. You begin to think that maybe the $99 savings wasn’t worth it. What’s worse, you just realized that you could have flown to Fort Lauderdale, only a short train ride away from Miami, for the same price as your ill-conceived hidden cities itinerary.

As you can see, there is a lot that can go wrong with hidden cities itineraries. So much can go wrong, in fact, that booking them is almost never a good idea. And this doesn’t even get into the numerous other problems, such as only being able to take carry-on bags and being good for one-way fares only. Through the use of co-terminals and alternate airports, you can often find savings that are equal or better than hidden cities itineraries.

Skip hidden cities itineraries. They are a minefield on the best of days, and worst case scenarios can and do happen.

The Magic of Co-Terminals

If I haven’t said it enough before, I will say it again: it can be really tough to find award seats priced at the “low” or “saver” levels. This is particularly true if you’re traveling to a popular destination during a popular time on a popular day. There is always plenty of availability to Fairbanks or Minneapolis in the winter, but not so much to Hawaii.

Airlines don’t exactly make it easy to search for award space either. Consider Delta. The only flexibility they offer in award searches is by date, and they will often only display their own flights in award searches (rather than partner award space that could be available at a lower mileage redemption level). This means that if you’re searching for award space in cities with co-terminals, you could miss out on a whole host of options.

What is a co-terminal, you may ask? In some cities, there are multiple airports and these are all considered the same airport for the purpose of calculating a fare or award (e.g. they are not considered an “open jaw” which may result in a higher fare or not be allowed under award rules). This is really important when it comes to Delta awards (along with certain other airlines such as Korean Airlines) which require a roundtrip purchase. So, if you pick your co-terminals correctly, you can fly into one airport and out of another and it’s considered a roundtrip fare to the same cities.

Here is an example for a November flight from the Los Angeles to the New York areas. When I search for availability between Burbank and Newark on the Delta Web site, these are the options that are presented:

Delta.com Burbank to Newark award space

No saver award availability?

As you can see, it’s a couple of awful itineraries that take pretty much all day and cost 32,500 miles, which is considerably more than the 25,000 mile “saver” award level. The Delta Web site only searched for the exact cities I input. This was, I’m sure, for my convenience.

Now let’s try the same search on the Alaska Airlines Web site:

Alaska Airlines availability calendar

Plenty of seats now!

For this particular itinerary, there were many, many more options available on the Alaska Airlines Web site than the ones I selected here. However, you’ll notice a difference. The outbound flight is an Alaska Airlines flight with a conveniently scheduled connection through Seattle, and it is exactly from Burbank to Newark. However, for the return flight, there isn’t any availability from Newark to Burbank. Instead, I need to use the co-terminals of JFK Airport in New York and LAX Airport in Los Angeles. Neither of these would be my preferred airports in these particular cities, but because the flight is a non-stop flight, it more than makes up for the extra time spent on the ground.

bur-sea-ewr-jfk-lax map

“That’s fine,” you might say, “but I have SkyMiles and need to book these awards on the Delta Web site. So how does this really help me?” Fortunately, if you know the exact flights that you want and their availability, you can usually book them on the Delta site using the multi-city search tool. I described in detail how to do so in this post, and for this sample itinerary the same technique worked just fine:

Delta bur-sea-ewr-jfk-lax itinerary, 25,000 miles

Now it’s only 25,000 miles!

What cities are considered co-terminals? It depends on the airline you are flying. Most airlines operate under similar rules, though. Here is a list of cities that United Airlines considers co-terminals:

  • BWI-WAS (Baltimore, Dulles and Washington DC)
  • FLL-MIA (Fort Lauderdale and Miami)
  • FLL-PBI (Fort Lauderdale and Palm beach)
  • MIA-PBI (Miami and Palm Beach)
  • LAX-ONT (Los Angeles and Ontario)
  • LAX-BUR (Los Angeles and Burbank)
  • LAX-SNA (Los Angeles and Orange County/Disneyland)
  • ONT-BUR (Ontario and Burbank)
  • ONT-SNA (Ontario and Orange County/Disneyland)
  • BUR-SNA (Burbank and Orange County/Disneyland)
  • NYC-EWR (New York LaGuardia, New York JFK and Newark)
  • NYC-HVN (New York LaGuardia, New York JFK and New Haven, CT)
  • NYC-HPN (New York LaGuardia, New York JFK and White Plains, NY)
  • NYC-ISP (New York LaGuardia, New York JFK and Islip/Long Island, NY)
  • EWR-HVN (Newark and New Haven, CT)
  • EWR-HPN (Newark and White Plains, NY)
  • EWR-ISP (Newark and Islip/Long Island, NY)
  • HVN-HPN (New Haven, CT and White Plains, NY)
  • HVN-ISP (New Haven, CT and Islip/Long Island, NY)
  • HPN-ISP (White Plains, NY and Islip/Long Island, NY)
  • OAK-SFO (Oakland and San Francisco)
  • OAK-SJC (Oakland and San Jose)
  • SFO-SJC (San Francisco and San Jose)

Co-terminals are really useful for finding award space, but they also often work for paid fares. Suppose there is a really great sale fare, but it’s sold out for the dates you’re checking. Before you give up and pay a higher fare, check whether a co-terminal is available. If a fare is sold out to New York JFK, try Newark, LaGuardia, Islip, New Haven or White Plains. You might find that there is still availability to smaller and less popular airports.

Co-terminals also exist outside of the United States. For example, Heathrow and Gatwick airports in London and Narita and Haneda airports in Tokyo are considered co-terminals by most airlines. If there is more than one airport in the city where you are visiting, it’s worth checking whether a nearby airport might qualify as a co-terminal and including it in your searches.

Is there ever a time you shouldn’t use a co-terminal? Remember that there can be considerable distance between the primary airport in a given city and its co-terminals, and public transportation may not be readily available. For example, even though Ontario and Burbank airports are co-terminals, they are 52 miles apart! In LA traffic, this can be a 3 hour journey. Look at a map and figure out ground transportation before using an unfamiliar co-terminal, or you could be in for an unpleasant surprise.