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.

The Case For Carry-On Empathy

It’s really easy to lose sight of the human element in today’s air travel experience. It’s generally rushed and miserable. With ludicrous fees nipping at your heels everywhere you step among a minefield of “gotcha” clauses in the Contract of Carriage, it’s no surprise that people are in a sour mood as soon as they check in. And this is before experiencing the TSA circus that is all part of the modern security theatre experience.

So, by the time that you get on the plane, I can appreciate that you’re really upset to be delayed even further by someone in front of you, struggling to fit their overstuffed carry-on bag into the undersized bin on the plane. “That guy,” you think, while possibly snapping a picture and making a snarky Twitter post with a hashtag of #CarryOnShame. This is the latest mean-spirited trend in the already angry world of travel.

Several times over the past four years, “that guy” could have been me. Until very recently, I was living abroad. Last year, I lived in 3 different countries around the world (China, The Netherlands and Costa Rica) and each time, I brought my possessions with me on planes. Before that, when living in Beijing, I’d only get to come home 2-3 times per year. I’d make massive Costco runs, bringing back whatever small comforts of home I could carry on and fit in my checked bag and carrying on whatever I could. Most recently, I took another flight, again using my full baggage allowance. After a long time away, I am starting a new life back in my home country, which has become a mean-spirited place that I sometimes barely recognize anymore.

Overstuffed luggage

Nearly everything I own is in these bags.

Yes, I’m that guy. The guy with a carry-on bag that I had to sit on in order to fit everything inside. The guy who is using 52 pounds of his 50 pound baggage allowance. The guy who stretches the definition of “personal item” into “whatever I can get away with.” It’s really out of necessity. Airlines do not have reasonable prices for extra or checked bags on international flights so let me make things completely clear: in practice, the choice I have faced each time has been either to be “that guy” or to abandon my stuff and start over. Start over even more than I already am, in a country where I don’t know where or whether I can replace my stuff. Sure, I chose to move, you might say. This is true, but I don’t choose to make things any more difficult. The Calvinist notion that people should have to struggle because… well, because… isn’t one I buy into.

The next time you see a person struggling with an oversized carry-on, trying to fit it into the overhead bin, have a little empathy. Consider stopping to help instead of pushing past or taking pictures to post on Twitter with snarky hashtags. Sometimes life just doesn’t easily fit into a small carry-on bag.

US Bank LifeMiles Visa Bonus: Read The Fine Print

A few months ago, US Bank ran a 40,000 mile signup bonus for the Avianca LifeMiles visa card. The Avianca program is one of the most generous in the StarAlliance for booking partner awards, if its limitations are acceptable to you. These limitations are substantial. The program doesn’t allow stopovers, you can only book what is available online even if other award space is available elsewhere, and the call centers are in El Salvador and Colombia (it’s best if you speak Spanish). However, there are some real advantages; award rates are reasonable and there are no close-in booking fees.

US Bank Avianca LifeMiles Visa

There’s always a catch.

I pulled the trigger and signed up. 40,000 miles is double the usual bonus offered for this card. As advertised, the deal was for 20,000 miles after the first purchase, and 20,000 miles after spending more than $3,000 within the first 120 days. Well, that seemed easy enough to achieve, and it was. I put the card at the top of my wallet and made the $3,000 minimum spend in the first month. A month later, 20,000 miles showed up in my Avianca account.

Wait a minute. Only 20,000 miles? I emailed US Bank, who explained that the bonus miles are delivered separately and I would receive them within 6-8 weeks. I was definitely not happy with the delay; frequent flier programs devalue very rapidly (often without prior notice) so 20,000 miles today could be worth the same as 10,000 miles tomorrow. However, I was also traveling on a complicated round-the-world itinerary and didn’t really have time to argue across multiple time zones so I just gritted my teeth and hoped that a devaluation wouldn’t happen in the interim.

8 weeks later, there were still no bonus miles!  I emailed US Bank again. What I found out (and which their Twitter team confirmed) is shocking. The 8 week clock starts after the first 120 days! Yes, it takes a full six months after completing the minimum spend to receive your bonus miles. And you will not receive the additional 20,000 miles if you close the card before then! This is something that I have never seen before with credit card bonus miles, and it’s a very disturbing trend.

A lot can happen in frequent flier programs in 6 months. I have not only missed the entire summer travel season (and I was counting on using this promotion for a flight this summer), but I would not be surprised to see a massive devaluation strike before my bonus miles are deposited. Avianca has devalued their LifeMiles program overnight in the past, and I expect they may do so in the future amid across-the-board devaluations in nearly all other frequent flier programs this year.

This definitely changes the game with credit card miles and points. For most people, collecting airline miles and points is a bad way to earn free flights. Hotel and other loyalty programs (such as American Express Membership Rewards) are starting to look a lot better.

How I Turned An Overbooked Flight Into $400

I just turned an overbooked $99 one-way flight into an extra day in Seattle (which I actually wanted), $400 in Delta Dollars (which spend like cash on the Delta Web site), and a hotel voucher for the night. Not a bad outcome for a delay that I wanted anyway! I did this by getting bumped off of a flight, and you can too.

Delta voucher

I received a $400 Delta voucher!

Most airlines (with the exception of JetBlue) routinely oversell flights. This means that they sell more tickets than there are seats on the plane. It makes sense for the airlines to do this to soak up inventory that would otherwise go unsold. On almost every flight, there will be a few seats that go out empty because people showed up late or misconnected. Most of the time, this works out just fine for the airlines. Flights go out full (or nearly full), and the airlines pocket the change fees. However, as those change fees have increased–to the point where tickets are now often completely nonrefundable–people have gotten a lot better at making their flights. This has made it a really delicate calculation for the airlines and sometimes it doesn’t work out in their favor.

My flight yesterday was an ideal candidate for scoring a bump. It is the last flight of the day from Seattle to Los Angeles, and it’s also a feeder flight for Virgin Australia’s service to Sydney. These connecting passengers cannot miss their flight without causing a major disruption to their itineraries. Making matters worse, Delta has begun funneling most passengers onto its own flights instead of routing them onto Alaska Airlines, and they just launched a massive expansion in Seattle two weeks ago without adding any additional capacity on the route. Flights (especially connecting flights) are suddenly packed. At the same time, the relationship with Alaska Airlines has deteriorated to the point where the two airlines are no longer cooperating on the route through codeshare, so Delta doesn’t have anywhere for the overflow. And I was booked only from Seattle to LAX, with all of the flexibility in the world.

The US Department of Transportation (equivalent rules exist in other countries) highly frowns on the practice of overbooking when it results in what is called an “involuntary denied boarding” (or “IDB” in industry parlance). There are some really stiff penalties, requiring cash compensation of up to 400% of the ticket price. Additionally, if airlines deny you a seat that you paid for, they have to buy you another seat on the next available flight (whether they operate it or not). If you’re stuck overnight, they have to pay for all of your hotels and if you’re delayed for over two hours, they have to pay for your meals. All of this also gets reported to the Department of Transportation and ends up in published statistics that invariably end up as negative press. As you might imagine, airlines do whatever they can to avoid involuntarily denying boarding to passengers (although if they ultimately do have to involuntarily bump someone, there is a detailed pecking order through which they decide whom to bump).

the hook

This is why airlines will sometimes ask for volunteers who are willing to take another flight in exchange for compensation. The compensation is whatever you can negotiate, although it’s typically a fixed offer and there tends to be a lot of competition for volunteering. United typically starts the bidding at $200 in vouchers, US Airways and American start the bidding at $300, and Delta usually starts at $400. However, Delta will only put you on another Delta flight, whereas other airlines (except Southwest) will often buy you a ticket on the next available flight regardless of operating airline. This means you’re usually facing a longer delay with Delta.

It pays to pay attention. By the time that gate staff makes an announcement in the gate area, it’s probably too late to volunteer your seat. Many airlines (such as Delta) ask for volunteers during the online check-in process, so it pays to check in as early as possible – you can usually check in 24 hours early. Also pay attention to the seat map. If there are no seats available for selection unless you pay extra, don’t pay for a seat. You’re likely to get a free upgrade to a preferred seat when you check in (sometimes even first class), and you may have the opportunity to get bumped as well. Airlines call this an “operational upgrade,” or “op-up” for short. This is because it costs them less to give you a free upgrade than it does to bump you off the flight.

How do you know whether you might have a chance at getting bumped? There are a few clues. If you’re asked online to volunteer your seat, you know the flight is definitely overbooked and there is a very high chance of getting bumped. Airlines will offer the lowest possible compensation you might accept online, but you can generally bid a higher amount. Just keep in mind that higher bids are lower in priority, and airlines usually don’t need very many volunteers (sometimes they only need one). If you accept the lowest offer at the earliest time with the least complicated itinerary, you will have the highest chance of being bumped. Note that you won’t always be asked online. If you check in and your boarding pass doesn’t have a seat number but instead says something like “assigned at gate,” you know that the flight is overbooked and you’ll probably have a chance to get bumped.

If you haven’t volunteered your seat online, go to the gate early (the gate typically opens an hour before the flight leaves) and be the first in line to talk to the agent. Ask politely whether the flight is oversold, and if it is, ask whether they are looking for volunteers. If they are taking volunteers, they’ll take your boarding pass. Sit down near the podium (in a place where they can easily see you) and pay attention. Everyone else will board before you. If you do end up getting on the flight, you will be the last person on. Don’t worry, the gate agent hasn’t forgotten about you (and if they have, they will need to give you compensation anyway). So, do not bother the gate agents, they are very busy getting the flight out on time, and if you hassle them they might just put you on board to get rid of you (and you’ll lose your chance at being bumped for compensation). Wait in the gate area and stay visible until they call you to the podium.

What will you receive if you’re voluntarily bumped? It’s whatever compensation you can negotiate, or if you didn’t negotiate up front, whatever you can negotiate with no leverage (being nice and polite to the gate agent goes a long way here). You’ll usually get a hotel voucher for the night if you’re not in your home city and you’re stuck overnight, an airline voucher that is good for up to $800 (although usually for much less), and sometimes meal vouchers depending upon the length of the delay. You should be aiming to get the maximum amount possible with the minimum length of delay (unless, of course, you want the delay), but remember you have competition. If you’re too greedy the airline will accept another volunteer’s less demanding offer!

Meet Seat31B This Summer in New York and Las Vegas!

Even though Seat 31B has been online for less than a year, I’m really happy with the overwhelmingly positive and supportive feedback that I have gotten so far. Interestingly enough, even though travel hacking has been a niche area for some time (and there are a number of blogs on the subject), this is an area that has been more popular with frequent fliers than hackers.

Hackers? Yes, for many years, I have been involved in the hacker scene and I am a regular columnist for 2600: The Hacker Quarterly (I write the Telecom Informer column). These days hacking isn’t about committing crimes (it never has been for me), and is a lot more about learning how things work and building amazing stuff. So, you can probably guess how excited I am to help connect the hacker world to the travel hacking scene this summer, where I will be speaking at HOPE X and bSides Las Vegas.

If you’re into travel hacking and you’d like to meet the world’s top experts at hacking computer systems and phones, you’ll definitely want to come to one of these conferences. I’ll cover some of the more common travel hacking techniques and I expect there will be an extensive Q&A where I’ll have the opportunity to cover a variety of subjects. It is sure to be a lively discussion!

Don’t come to either conference just for my talks. Also note that I’m paying my own travel expenses for both and they aren’t paying me anything, so you can rest assured that I’m not promoting these conferences for personal gain. Do, however, come if you’d like to broaden your knowledge about hacking things that you may never have considered were possible to hack! Even if you don’t know anything about being a hacker, all it takes is being curious about learning how things work and interested in finding out what happens when you try something out of the ordinary. You’re sure to learn at least one new skill, if my experience is any guide.Without you sharing these stories and telling your friends, Seat 31B would never have grown so fast. See you this summer, and thanks so much for your support!

Is It Safe To Book A Mistake Fare?

Every time there is a widely publicized and unusually good mistake fare, I end up answering the same question: “Sure, you got a great deal, but will the airline honor it?” A follow-on question is often something like “When I get to the airport, will I be able to check in for my flight?” The answer is usually yes, but there are some cases where the answer is no. Here are 5 simple rules to help you avoid getting tripped up along the way.

trip hazard sign

Rule #1: An itinerary and a confirmation number is not a ticket. You booked your ticket. The online travel agency sent you an itinerary that indicates the price and the amount charged to your credit card. You even got a confirmation number (one of those codes that looks like CNF1NQ). And then you show up at the airport to check in, the agent types in her computer, frowns, and says the dreaded words:

Sir, your reservation is not ticketed on this itinerary. You will need to purchase a ticket to travel today.

So what happened? Occasionally there can be a glitch in booking where you make a reservation but a ticket is never actually issued. You need both a reservation and a ticket number to travel, and without both, you’re not going anywhere. Do you have any recourse? Only if you were charged for the flight. 99% of the time, when you go back to review your credit card statement, you were never actually charged and will be stuck either buying a very expensive last-minute ticket or abandoning your itinerary.

Rule #2: Don’t Call The Airline. While a deal is active is not the time to contact the airline. If they find out that you got a good deal, they will use every trick in the book to void your contract and cancel the tickets. Only after a ticket number is issued and confirmed, and enough time has passed to thwart shenanigans (72 hours to be safe), should you contact the airline.

Rule #3: $0 fares can be voided. If the airline mistakenly gave you a completely free ticket (charging only government imposed taxes), there is some legal precedent that they can get out of the contract by refunding everything you were charged. This is because the airline never actually took your money in exchange for providing a service (they only collected taxes on behalf of the government), so they never actually entered a contract with you. This theory hasn’t been tested lately because airlines decided that the revenue lost from a few seats mistakenly given away wasn’t worth going to court. However, do keep in mind that they could probably go to court and win. One attorney suggested that if there is any airline-imposed charge in the booking (such as a fuel surcharge or even 1 cent in fare), the airline would have a much more difficult legal case to make. Of course, I am not a lawyer and this is not legal advice.

Rule #4: Frequent flier tickets are a whole different ball game. An airline makes a mistake and offers a routing to Aruba via Amsterdam with a free stopover in Europe, but charges you only the mileage for a single-leg journey to the Caribbean. You can’t believe your luck, and the airline can’t either. A few days before you are due to travel, after having already prepaid for hotels in Amsterdam, you are contacted by the airline. They deliver an ultimatum: either cancel the whole journey (losing all of the money you have already prepaid) or alternatively, they’ll essentially wipe out your whole frequent flier account by re-pricing the trip as three one-way trips: one from North America to Europe, another from Europe to the Caribbean, and finally from the Caribbean to North America. “You’re lucky we can’t prove that you did this on purpose,” they say, “or we’d close your frequent flier account.” Your biggest question is whether they can really do this, and unfortunately, the answer is yes, they can. Airlines are allowed to do pretty much whatever they want when it comes to administering their frequent flier programs. They have very wide latitude, so tread carefully when a frequent flier redemption seems too good to be true.

Rule #5: Contracts Rule. By taking your money and issuing a ticket number, an airline has entered a contract with you. This isn’t true with frequent flier or other $0 fare tickets, but if the fare is 1 cent or more, the contract is in place. You can’t get out of a contract with an airline just because you wish you hadn’t entered it, and the same goes for the airline. So, don’t be afraid to assert your rights if an airline contacts you and tries to get out of the contract. Airlines know this, and also would generally prefer not to alert the general public to mistake fares. So, they usually just try to sweep mistake fares under the rug and allow anyone who has already purchased tickets to fly with no trouble.

Mistake fares can offer some incredible values in travel, and take you to some places that you might not consider visiting otherwise. I enjoyed an incredible visit to Ecuador on Aeromexico, which moved to the top of my list when roundtrip fares (widely believed to be mistake fares) dropped below $400. I was even able to upgrade one segment to first class for $40, I squeezed in a side trip to Mexico City, and I received Delta SkyMiles for the entire itinerary! As long as you follow the 5 simple rules above, you should have no problem flying on mistake fares you find!