Partnership Pitfalls And Codeshare Confusion

It is very common in the travel industry that airlines will partner with one another. Unfortunately, partnerships aren’t always seamless and this can leave you paying more than you bargained for, and getting fewer benefits than you planned. Sometimes the issues are so sticky that even the best people at the airline you’re paying don’t know the answer.
AmericanDoesn'tKnow

The answer to what, you might ask? Well, it’s a question that ought to be pretty simple. I was shopping for flights last night on the American Airlines Web site (aa.com) and found a great deal for a flight from Long Beach to Seattle. I’ll be in the Los Angeles area in May and although I wouldn’t normally prefer to fly home from Long Beach, the fare was really exceptional: only $79! And, if you didn’t look at the small print under the flight number, you might even reasonably think it was an American Airlines flight. After all, it’s sold on the American Airlines website and there is an American Airlines flight number.

 

Aadvantage1

Better yet, since I am a Citi Aadvantage cardholder, that should entitle me to a free checked bag, right? After all, further down the page, there is a huge ad for the Citi Aadvantage card. It has a whopping $95 annual fee, one of the highest in the airline industry, but offers a fee waiver for the first checked bag.

aadvantage2

 

There it is, right on the page, first checked bag free! With that, probably every CitiAadvantage cardholder in the world other than me would make the logical assumption: you’re buying a ticket on the American Airlines Web site, it has an American Airlines flight number, there’s an advertisement from Citi and American Airlines on the confirmation page promising a free checked bag, so you’re probably getting a free checked bag, right?

I went ahead and put the itinerary on hold (American Airlines allows you to place a 24 hour hold on tickets) and got the confirmation. Check out the confirmation page:

 

Aadvantage3

Right there up at the top in the right hand corner, well, what’s that? An ad for the Citi Aadvantage Signature MasterCard, promising a free checked bag in exchange for their expensive $95 annual fee (almost double the fee of a Costco membership). So now on the AA.com front page, the AA.com sales page, and in the American Airlines confirmation email, American and Citi have promised a free checked bag. It’s all right there, you can see it in the screen shots. So, do you think if you book this flight and you have a Citi Aadvantage Signature MasterCard you’re getting a free checked bag? This isn’t a trick question, take as long as you need.

Aadvantage4

No. Of course not. This suddenly isn’t an American Airlines flight, it’s an Alaska Airlines flight. Ignore all the ads you saw promising a free checked bag, you don’t actually get that.

Well, if it’s suddenly an Alaska Airlines ticket now, I should at least get Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan credit, right? Let’s check with Alaska Airlines to find out:

aadvantage5

 

Suddenly the flight isn’t an Alaska Airlines flight after all. Remember back on the confirmation page where the fare class was shown?

Aadvantage6

 

You have to check these carefully, because the fare class is how airlines weasel out of giving you frequent flier credit for flights you book. This is an especially huge problem with codeshare flights such as the one that I reserved. If I had tried to claim Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan credit for the flight, I would have gotten a nasty surprise of no frequent flier credit to go along with the other nasty surprise of no free checked bag.

I am a reasonably expert traveler, the Twitter teams of both Alaska Airlines and American Airlines are among the best people working for both airlines, and it took all of us combined to figure out what I would actually get and how it differs from what is being promised. I am not normally a fan of government regulation, but there is currently too large a disconnect between what consumers are promised and what they are actually getting. The average consumer doesn’t stand a chance.

In the meantime, what can you do? Don’t assume that you’re going to get anything that is promised and double-check everything. Also, consider credit cards other than the Citi Aadvantage Signature MasterCard. The “first bag free” promise doesn’t measure up.

Free Flights Via Canada

Frequent flier miles are relatively easy to get, but they are pretty hard to use unless you’re going to Alaska in the winter or Phoenix in the summer. Availability is very limited, particularly to places where a lot of people travel and during peak travel times. After all, if airlines can sell the seats, they don’t have much incentive to give them away for free. As someone who likes to travel to nice places during peak times, it can be challenging to find free flights. It’s not impossible though, if you have a little creativity.

“I can get you to Costa Rica,” said the US Airways Dividend Miles agent, “but I can’t get you back to Seattle. I’m just not finding anything.” I wasn’t surprised. I was signed up for a 4 month academic exchange at the top business school in Latin America, and I didn’t want to pay for an expensive ticket to Costa Rica. I would be leaving from Seattle, flying to San Jose, and then returning two days before Christmas.

You can almost never find frequent flier ticket availability around Christmas. Not even if you call 330 days in advance (when most airlines open up seats for the next year). It’s next to impossible. Still, I went through the motions. “Are you OK for time?” I asked. With the agent answering in the affirmative, I asked “OK, can we try to find the flights one by one? Let’s see where I can get from San Jose, and then let’s see if we can find a way to Seattle from there. I’m really flexible, I just want to be home for Christmas. I have only seen my family once this year. I’m sure you can understand.”

US Airways telephone agents are pretty friendly and most of them I have spoken to genuinely want to help you get where you’re going. The company more or less gives them the latitude to help people, because everyone using them is paying a booking fee so the service is paid for. However, most of the agents formerly worked for America West, a fairly small airline based in Phoenix with few international flights, and agents are sometimes not very familiar with US Airways partners or geography. Additionally, their computer system only looks for direct routings (a very common scenario). This means a lot of potential options don’t show up.

Fortunately, I was prepared when I made the call. Before I called, I first researched the airlines I could use to get to and from Costa Rica (StarAlliance airlines at the time; note that US Airways is leaving StarAlliance 3/30/14). The following airlines had service from North America:

  • Air Canada
  • Avianca (aka LACSA and TACA)
  • Copa
  • United
  • US Airways

I also looked at the routing rules. Flights to and from Central America are not allowed to route through South America, but can route through Central America and/or North America. This meant that in order to get to and from Costa Rica, I was allowed to make any number of connections in Central America and North America necessary to get back to Seattle.

US Airways was out. No availability to Seattle via Phoenix. United was also out, no availability via Houston, Newark or Chicago. Copa could get me as far as Miami, but this isn’t a hub of any StarAlliance carrier in the US and there was no way to get to Seattle from there.

“Air Canada?” the agent said incredulously. “I’m not sure if you can do that… well, the rules say North America, I guess that includes Canada. That’s creative, but I’m not seeing any availability… hold on, wait a minute!” exclaimed the agent. “I think I may have found something!” A flurry of furious typing, a deep breath, and he said “Got it! OK, here is what I have for you,” he began to explain. “I have never heard of this airline before–LACSA? You will fly with them to Toronto with a stop in San Salvador. You’ll have to overnight in Toronto, I don’t see any way around this, I checked everything. But then I have you on a nonstop flight on Christmas Eve from Toronto to Seattle. Do you want to book it? You’ll be home for Christmas.”

Yes, I wanted to book it. I could use my Marriott points to stay overnight in an airport hotel. Later, this turned out not to be necessary, because there was a very significant schedule change in my itinerary. This is a get out of jail free card allowing an award ticket schedule change (note that this is the only reason that US Airways will change an award ticket after your trip has already started). I watched seat availability like a hawk and as soon as a seat opened up on the Toronto-Seattle flight on the 23rd, I grabbed it.

yyzTransitSure, it was a little out of the way, and I had a 6 hour layover in Toronto, but my trip took only one day and–most importantly–I flew for free and I did it during the peak Christmas travel period. All I paid was tax on a ticket that would have cost me over $1200 (via the most direct route) if I had paid cash. I just had to think outside of the box a bit. Most Americans don’t think of Avianca and Air Canada as their first choices to Central America.

Fast forward to today. I will be flying from Kunming to Los Angeles in May, using an Aadvantage award seat and flying on Cathay Pacific. I plan to attend a conference this July in New York, so I took advantage of the free one-way domestic award loophole that is available with American Airlines international itineraries. On international Aadvantage awards, American Airlines allows one stopover in the North American gateway city. If you are flying with Cathay Pacific, this means you can stop in Vancouver, San Francisco, or Los Angeles on the way to your final destination. American further allows you to use any partner airline to get to your final destination from the North American gateway city (this is different than some other airlines, which only let you fly on their own planes when you use one of their partners).

I was hoping to find a red-eye flight leaving on a Thursday night, so I wouldn’t need to spend money for a hotel on Thursday for a Friday-Sunday conference. Unfortunately, the only flight that American had available was a flight leaving at 6am, connecting in Dallas, and going to Newark. I do not like taking flights at 6 in the morning, and I do not like connecting in Dallas. However, American Airlines allows unlimited changes to Aadvantage award tickets as long as you do not change the origin or destination cities, so you can grab a flight that isn’t ideal (so you at least have something) and then tweak the itinerary if something better opens up.

Tonight, I was researching my upcoming flight with Cathay Pacific, and I noticed that they have an unusual route. Flight 888 from Hong Kong to New York stops in Vancouver, and you can actually book the segment from Vancouver to New York. “I wonder,” I thought, and after verifying that I could catch a connecting flight from Los Angeles to Vancouver on Alaska Airlines, I called in to make the change. “Cathay Pacific from Vancouver to New York? Are you sure?” the agent said. Answering in the affirmative, I could practically hear the agent’s jaw drop as he said “Well, look at that, you’re right! And yes, there is a connecting flight on Alaska Airlines. There is a difference in the taxes though, it will cost another $35.10.”

yvrTransitI was happy to pay $35.10 to avoid a 6am departure from Los Angeles and a connection in Dallas. I also expect to get a decent night’s sleep on an internationally configured Cathay Pacific flight. And I will have a few hours to enjoy a nice dinner in Vancouver and maybe even visit friends before the flight. And all of this for remembering our polite Canadian neighbors and all the excellent additional flight options that their airports can provide.

 

My Travel and Savings – January and February 2014

2014-Feb-FlightDiaryI have stayed in the Western Hemisphere for January and February, and have traveled entirely on paid tickets. Here is a rundown of what I have spent and what I have saved:

SEA-PHX: Seattle to Phoenix $220 roundtrip, US Airways, sale fare (Total savings: $530).

  • I originally booked this flight with United for $280. It was a flight with a connection in Los Angeles. United made a schedule change that was genuinely inconvenient, so I asked for (and received) a refund rather than accepting the change. Loophole savings: $200 refund fee waived
  • I rebooked with US Airways who was offering a nonstop to Phoenix for $220 roundtrip. The schedule wasn’t very good, and I had to take flights very late at night. However, the schedule changed to a slightly later arrival time, so I was able to change to an earlier flight based on the schedule change. Loophole savings: $60 lower fare vs. United, $200 change fee waived
  • US Airways offers a free checked bag to Silver members of the Aegean Airlines frequent flier program and for a 2+ month trip, I needed a checked bag! It is very easy to get Silver status (only 7,000 flown miles) and almost anyone can do this. Loophole savings: $70 roundtrip bag fee waived

PHX-UIO $397 round-trip: Phoenix to Quito, Aeromexico, mistake fare, hotel points used. Total savings: $358.14 (excluding airfare savings) or $658.14 (vs. typical Quito deep discount sale fare).

  • Aeromexico published some fares to Quito from Los Angeles and Phoenix that were extremely low, and I bought a ticket during the few hours these fares were available. These are widely believed to be “mistake fares” resulting from an error in data entry, but Aeromexico honored all of the tickets purchased at these low fares.
  • The fares qualified for frequent flier credit with the Delta SkyMiles program. I value Delta miles at 1 cent per mile, so the fare was effectively 16.66% lower. Points savings: $66.14
  • I booked a return flight that left me on the ground in Mexico City for 23 hours. A stop in Mexico City while in transit for a period of less than 24 hours is not considered a stopover, so there is no additional charge. Loophole savings: $50
  • On the longest leg of the return flight, I was able to upgrade to first class for only $40 through the Web site optiontown.com. It was a rare escape from #Seat31B (and one I didn’t think was really worth it), more than paid for by savings obtained through loopholes. Cost: $40
  • In Mexico City, I stayed in the Marriott Reforma Hotel, a property that would normally cost $257 per night, but for which I cashed in a Marriott Category 1-4 certificate obtained by signing up for their credit card (with no annual fee). I avoided the $25 wireless Internet fee by using the computers in the business center for free. Points savings $257, loophole savings $25.

CUE-UIO: Cuenca – Quito, 1 way, $54, Total savings $7.50

  • Booked with an airline called LAN to get Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan credit. I value Mileage Plan miles at 1.5 cents per mile and LAN flights get the 500 mile minimum. Points savings $7.50