Don’t Be Frustrated By Baggage Friction

Until recently, the majority of airlines had baggage transfer agreements (with the notable exception of Southwest). What did this mean? Provided you weren’t flying Southwest (who did not and does not have agreements with any other airline), you could check in with the first airline in your itinerary and ask them to check your luggage all the way through to the final destination. This was even the case with airlines that weren’t partners (such as United and Delta) and on itineraries involving more than one ticket.

I’m not sure how the airline economics work, but apparently there is some cost involved when bags are transferred between airlines. Over the years, airlines have locked down baggage agreements to the point where the majority of the airline industry looks a lot more like Southwest than previously. The upshot? If your itinerary isn’t all on one ticket, you’re probably going to have to claim your bag and re-check it.

picture of bag with tag

I had to re-check my bag in Phoenix to Seattle

I was just (unexpectedly) bitten by this problem by American Airlines. I’m flying American to Phoenix, and Alaska onward (on a separate ticket) to Seattle. Although American and Alaska are partners, American won’t always check a bag all the way through if you have more than one ticket on the itinerary. Sometimes they will, but it’s inconsistent. In fact, American won’t even necessarily check bags through all the way on their own airline anymore!

How can you be bitten by this problem? It can happen when you buy tickets through sites like Kayak, Momondo or Skiplagged. Many of these sites piece together an itinerary by booking a journey as separate tickets. After all, this can be significantly less expensive. My itinerary is a bit unusual, in that I’m combining an award ticket from Mazatlan to Phoenix with a paid flight from Phoenix to Seattle. However, the award ticket would have been expensive if I’d paid cash (it’s an international flight from Mexico during the shoulder season of a holiday period) and the paid flight was really cheap. It’s the same principle with paid tickets. A ticket from Seattle to Detroit via Chicago might be really expensive if you bought a through itinerary with American, but could be much less expensive if purchased as a Seattle-Chicago and Chicago-Detroit itinerary.

To punish you for saving money (there is really no other explanation I can see when only one airline is involved – if the intent is to charge you two bag fees, they could just collect them up front), American won’t check your bag all the way through. Instead, they’ll force you to claim your bag in Chicago and re-check it. This will require you to clear security again as well. There’s no good reason for this; it just introduces friction that doesn’t need to be there. What’s also odd is that this policy is inconsistent. American will allow you to combine a paid flight with an award flight booked with AAdvantage miles. However, they won’t allow you to combine a paid partner flight with an award flight, and they won’t allow you to combine a paid flight with an award booked on American through a partner (such as British Airways). And this is what just tripped me up. I assumed that the policy of combining a paid flight with an award flight would cover me, but it didn’t because the paid flight I’m taking is on Alaska Airlines (a partner flight) and the award flight I’m taking (on American) was booked with British Airways Avios.

Also bear in mind that I’m relatively expert at this stuff. Even I get tripped up sometimes. The average person, who doesn’t spend roughly 20 hours a week keeping on top of airline policies like I do, doesn’t have a chance.

What can you do? The only way to be (probably) sure that you’ll be able to check a bag all the way through to your destination is to book directly on an airline’s Web site and to book a ticket directly from your origin to your destination (without manual connections). Otherwise, build time into your schedule to claim and re-check your bags and re-clear security in connecting cities. It’s annoying, but not surprising. Full service airlines have been removing almost every last vestige of differentiation between themselves and low cost carriers. It’d be interesting to see low cost carriers go the other direction; when major airlines are creating so much friction that doesn’t need to be there, it stands to reason that they might see an opportunity for differentiation.

And of course, the other option? Travel light. None of this applies if you only have a carry-on bag!

HOT DEAL: $35 Off From Hainan Airlines!

Hainan Airlines is a Chinese carrier and the newest partner of Alaska Airlines. Of the Chinese carriers, I consider them the most reliable with the best inflight service; however, they are also the smallest Chinese carrier so itineraries are less frequent and they don’t serve as many cities as Air China, China Southern and China Eastern (the three major Chinese carriers). Keep in mind that a “small” carrier in China is still roughly the size of a major US carrier. If you want to make a rough comparison, you could consider them something like the Southwest Airlines of China (except they do offer first class, unlike Southwest).

Hainan Airlines plane taking offHainan has been steadily expanding service to the US, most recently between Shanghai and both Seattle and Boston. They also fly between Beijing and both Seattle and Chicago. Within the US, Hainan codeshares with both Alaska and American Airlines, but Hainan is only a partner with Alaska. You won’t get any mileage or elite benefits through American. They also also offer a lot of connections throughout Asia via their subsidiary Hong Kong Airlines. Now that you can transit China visa-free, it’s really worth considering them as an option. This is especially true now that they are an Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan partner (although only Hainan-operated flights qualify for Alaska Airlines mileage plan credit).

On their Facebook page, Hainan is currently offering a $35 off coupon – and given that their flights are often the least expensive anyway, there is even more reason to try them.

How American Airlines Is Stranding Me Overnight In London (At My Expense)

One of the best deals going in economy class award redemptions is between North American and Europe with the American Airlines Aadvantage program. You can redeem awards for only 20,000 miles each way when you fly off-peak and all you have to pay is the actual taxes for your flight. Better yet, this phenomenal bargain is available when departing Europe, unlike on Delta where you have to pay a fuel surcharge ex-Europe. However, this comes with a catch: it’s really hard to find transatlantic award availability on American Airlines, even in economy class. British Airways has plenty of availability, and you can redeem your miles for flights with them, but you have to pay a ridiculous fuel surcharge which costs nearly as much as just buying a ticket would. So, I was excited to find an itinerary that would work to return me from Zagreb, Croatia to Los Angeles.The first segment was on British Airways to London, and then the onward segment left two hours later on American Airlines via Chicago. I paid a total of about $80 in cash and 20,000 miles. Life was good.

zag-lhr-ord-lax map

My original itinerary would get me to LA in one day.

Last week, I received a call from American Airlines from a very fast-talking agent. She rushed through my itinerary and then asked for my credit card number. Wait, what? I had already paid. “There’s extra tax,” she said. Whoa, wait a minute. “I feel like we’re starting in the middle of a conversation I missed the first part of. Can you explain to me why you called, starting from the beginning?” I said. More rushed explanation, the upshot of which was that I was being asked for nearly $300 additional, and finally, “If you don’t want to pay the extra and you want to get back on the same day, I can’t do anything. Would you like to speak to a supervisor?”

Yes, I did want to speak to a supervisor. The supervisor was much more experienced and personable on the phone, and for the first time, I spoke with someone who could actually explain the true reason for the call. British Airways changed the schedule of my outbound flight from Zagreb to London, and they only had one flight a day. This would get me into London too late for me to have any option to return to Los Angeles on the same day. And there weren’t any options to connect through another city. So I had a choice: I could either be stranded in New York or in London overnight at my own expense. Or, I could have my miles refunded and figure out another way to get home. Which bad option would I prefer?

I’d prefer neither, actually. Figuring there might be something wrong with the information I was being given, I got in touch with the excellent American Airlines customer support team on Twitter. They confirmed that I actually didn’t have any other options, and American Airlines really did plan to just strand me overnight due to a schedule change. Mind you, there is a British Airways flight that would get me back the same day, and British Airways created the problem by changing their schedule, but being accommodated on the British Airways flight wasn’t an option unless I paid their fuel surcharge.

My new, horrible itinerary

My new, horrible itinerary

I ultimately opted to be stuck in London overnight. It’ll be cheaper than being stuck in New York and with a better chance of avoiding East Coast winter weather delays at the airport. Granted, I’m redeeming miles for the ticket. I don’t have any status whatsoever. And American Airlines is pretty much unaware that I’m the author of Seat 31B, so I believe they treated me no differently than they would treat you or anyone else. Still, this drives home a valuable lesson: Airlines can change their schedule whenever they want, strand you overnight in a connecting city, and dump the problem on you. Plan accordingly.