Before we started Huckleberry Travel, we were really savvy air travelers. We’d had elite status on more than one airline, including lifetime status on at least one major US carrier. We always booked direct with the airline, and we assumed we were getting the best fares. We built our loyalty with one carrier, and booked with them or their partners, without fail. We figured out how to maximize our miles and to use our points.
But there’s a lot that we didn’t know, and there were some things that we were getting wrong. So here are a few things you might consider, before booking your next flight.
Basic Economy = Bad Experience.
We’ve had clients who wanted to book their own airfare only to discover, later, that they’d purchased so-called “basic economy” tickets, which ultimately frustrated them. They weren’t able to choose seat assignments in advance, or to be guaranteed to sit next to their traveling companions. There were fees for checked bags and for carry-on bags. And they had to board dead last. Our personal opinion—it’s just not worth it to save a few bucks. If you only care about the lowest possible fare, you don’t mind being nickeled-and-dimed, and you don’t mind an uncomfortable middle seat with no room for your bags in the overhead bin, I’m sure you’ll be fine with the basic economy ticket. But for the rest of us—buyer beware.
How to Get Leg Room.
About 20 years ago, I switched my loyalty from United to American, when American unrolled its “More Room Throughout Coach” concept—basically, by flying American, you were guaranteed a reasonably comfortable seat, even in the last row of the plane. Well, American switched back to cramped, uncomfortable seats a few years later, so those days of getting leg room in every seat are long-gone. It’s been a race to the bottom as far as comfort on a domestic air carrier goes.
If you’re like most people, and you want a comfortable seat, you’ve got a few options:
Purchase a Premium Economy or Business Class ticket
Purchase a seat assignment with more leg room, on those airlines that don’t sell “Premium Economy” tickets. On American and United, for example, you can purchase an upgraded seat assignment after you buy your ticket. This might be a seat toward the front of the cabin with more leg room, or it could be an exit row seat. Be careful, though—some airlines charge a lot extra for the seats with more leg room, and a little more for seats with no extra leg room, but added services (drinks or snacks).
Choose one of the few airlines that hasn’t joined the race-to-the-bottom. Among domestic carriers, we’re talking about Alaska, JetBlue and Southwest. Each of those airlines has 32” to 33” between rows of seats. The other major carriers—United, Delta and American, have 30”-31” between rows, and believe me, that extra inch or two makes a huge difference, in terms of comfort. Other low-cost carriers, like Spirit, Frontier and Allegiant have even less leg room, if you can imagine such a thing. And some of them don’t have any options to upgrade (which would negate the savings anyway). So, if you can handle sitting in a middle seat with only 28” between seats—well, more power to you, I guess.
Of all of the ways that air carriers have devalued their product, the problem of disappearing legroom is the worst, in our opinion.
Beware the Codeshare.
Codeshare flights—flights that are operated by one carrier, but marketed by another carrier—can actually save you a bit of money. If you’re flying from New York to London, you might be on an American Airlines ticket and flight number, but it could be a British Airways plane and crew. That’s great for saving money, but there can be some complicating factors. For example, if you aren’t paying close attention, you could arrive at the wrong desk to check-in—or perhaps even the wrong terminal!
Also, if you’re on a codeshare, sometimes it’s impossible to get an advance seat assignment. I was recently flying on Japan Airlines from New York to Tokyo, but my ticket was issued by American. I could not do anything to get a seat assignment until I got to the gate. I tried calling American, I tried calling Japan Airlines. I tried doing it online. I tried having my air ticket consolidator do it. And it was just completely impossible to get my seat assigned. Fortunately, I was in Business Class, and Japan Airlines has a really good product, even in middle seats. But if I’d been in coach, I’d have been really upset.
Where to Place Your Loyalty.
Every single airline loyalty program has been substantially devalued in recent years. It’s harder for passengers—especially leisure travelers on discount airfares—to earn miles to use for future flights. Those free flights and upgrades cost more miles than they used to. It’s more difficult than ever to get elite status, and once you get it, the benefits are watered down—fewer upgrades. And perks like lounge access or free checked bags? You can get those just as easily with the right credit card.
Speaking of credit cards, we think that for a lot of people, it makes more sense to be loyal to your credit card than it does to your airline. If you live in a city where one airline is the major carrier out of that hub, you should get that airline’s co-branded card. But if you live somewhere where you’ve got options, you’re probably better off hoarding Chase Ultimate Rewards, Citi ThankYou Rewards, or American Express Membership Rewards points. Those points can be used to purchase tickets on any airline, or can be converted to miles in some of the airline rewards programs. There are lots of blogs and websites that can help you maximize the value of these points, but be aware that some of them are paid by credit card companies. In the interest of disclosure, we don’t have a sponsorship from any bank or credit card company, and we’re also not making a recommendation of which program is best. Probably it’s a different answer for different travelers. But the upshot is, we have a strong view that credit card points are more valuable than airline miles, these days.
Finding a Discount on Airfare.
You can poke around on online booking engines, endlessly, and you’re not likely to find different prices on airline tickets from site-to-site. Look on the airline’s website, and then cross-reference the same itinerary on Orbitz, Hipmunk or Kayak, and it’s probably going to be the same price. However, if you use a travel advisor, like Huckleberry Travel, we might be able to find you a little bit of savings.
Travel agents have access to consolidator airfares, which is discounted airfare that is sold by most major airlines to help fill seats. Many consolidated airfares are substantially less than the lowest published fares offered directly from airlines. Since airlines stopped paying commission to travel agents many years ago, Huckleberry Travel charges a nominal booking fee for air tickets that don’t have a tour, a cruise or a hotel stay attached. But even with that fee, sometimes consolidator fares are less than published airfare.
We can also bundle airfare with a hotel stay to access bulk airfares for our clients, and when we do that, we don’t add any fee to the booking, but the savings can be substantial, over booking the hotel and air ticket separately. And, from some US gateways to popular resort areas, we have travel partners that run chartered air, which we can access for you, when you book a package, say, to a Caribbean or Mexican resort.
Even if you’re using miles or points for your vacation, it might be worth a call to us to see if we can help. We might be able to find options that meet your budget that you hadn’t considered, and if you book with us, you’ll have an advocate when you travel. (Just try getting an online booking engine to return your phone call, right?) So, let us know if we can help!