The elimination of government economic regulation of the airlines has resulted in lower fares and a wide variety of price/service options. In this new commercial environment, consumers have had to take a more active role in choosing their air service by learning to ask a number of questions.
-Am I more concerned with price or scheduling? Am I willing to fly at an odd hour if it means saving $25?
-Will the airline penalize me for changing my reservation?
-What will the airline do for me if it cancels my flight?
This booklet is designed to explain your rights and responsibilities as an air traveler. We hope it helps you become a resourceful consumer.
1. AIR FARES
Because of the emphasis on price competition, consumers may choose from a wide variety of air fares. Some airlines are trying a "back to basics" approach-offering flights at bargain basement prices with few extras. For fare information, you can contact a travel agent, another ticket outlet or an airline serving the places you want to visit. Ask them to tell you the names of all airlines flying there. A travel agent can find virtually all airlines' fares in his or her computer. Or, if you prefer you can call each airline to ask about the fares they charge, particularly any special promotional fares they may be offering at the time. You can also pay attention to newspaper and radio ads, where airlines advertise many of the discount plans that apply to your city. Finally, be alert to new companies serving the market. They may offer lower fares or different services than older established airlines. Here are some tips to help you decide among air fares:
Be flexible in your travel plans in order to get the lowest fare. The best deals may be limited to travel on certain days of the week or particular hours of the day. After you get a fare quote, ask the reservations agent if you could save even more by leaving a day earlier or later, or by taking a different flight on the same day.
* Plan as far ahead as you can. Some airlines set aside only a few seats on each flight at the lower rates. The real bargains often sell out very quickly. On the other hand, air carriers sometimes make more discount seats available later. If you had decided against a trip because the discount fare you wanted was not available on the desired date, try again, especially just before the advance-purchase deadline.
* Some airlines may have discounts that others don't offer. In a large metropolitan area, the fare could depend on which airport you use. Also, a connection (change of planes) or a one-stop flight is sometimes cheaper than a nonstop.
* Does the air fare include types of service that airlines have traditionally provided, such as meals or free baggage handling? If you have a connection involving two airlines, will your bags be transferred? Can you get advance seat assignments? If you are stranded, will the ticket be good on another carrier at no extra charge? Will the first airline pay for meals or hotel rooms during the wait?
* Many discount fares are non-refundable; if you buy one of these fares and later cancel your trip, you will not get your money back. Some fares also have a penalty for changing flights or dates even if you don't want a refund. You may also have to pay any difference in air fares if your fare is not available on the new flight.
* Some airlines will not increase the fare after the ticket is issued and paid for. (Simply holding a reservation without a ticket does not guarantee the fare.) Other airlines may reserve the right to collect more money from you if the fare that you had purchased goes up before departure time. Find out from the airline before you buy your ticket what its policy is on assessing fare increases after the ticket is purchased.
* After you buy your ticket, call the airline or travel agent once or twice before departure to check the fare. Fares change all the time, and if that same fare goes down before you fly, some airlines will refund the difference. But you have to ask.
Differences in air fares can be substantial. Careful comparison shopping among airlines does take time, but it can lead to real savings.
2. RESERVATIONS AND TICKETS
Once you decide when and where you want to go, and which airline you want to use, getting reservations and tickets is a fairly simple process. You can make all of your arrangements by telephone, at the airline's ticket office, or through a travel agent or other ticket outlet. There are a few potential pitfalls, however, and these pointers should help you avoid them.
* If your travel plans fall into a busy period, call for reservations early. Flights for holidays may sell out weeks-sometimes months-ahead of time. Don't buy a standby fare or an 'open return' ticket if you need to fly during a high-demand period, especially the end of August. You could be stranded for a week or more before a seat becomes available.
* Ask the reservations agent to give you the on-time performance code for any flights that you are considering. This is a one-digit code in the reservations computer that shows how often that flight arrived on time (within 15 minutes) during the most recent reported month. For example, an "8" means that flight arrived within 15 minutes of the scheduled arrival time between 80% and 89.9% of the time. If you are deciding between two flights with similar schedules and fares, you may want to choose the one with the better on-time record. (Only the largest U.S. airlines are required to maintain these codes.)
* When you make a reservation, be sure the agent records the information accurately. Before you hang up or leave the ticket office, review all of the essential information with the agent-the spelling of your name, the flight numbers and travel dates, and the cities you are traveling between. If there is more than one airport at either city, be sure you check which one you'll be using. It's also important to give the airline your home and work telephone numbers so they can let you know if there is any change in their schedule.
* Your ticket will show the flight number, departure time, date, and status of your reservation for each flight of your itinerary. The "status" box is important. "OK" means you're confirmed. Anything else means that the reservation is not yet certain (e.g., waitlisted).
* A "direct" (or "through") flight can have one or more stops. Sometimes flights with only one flight number can even involve a change of planes. Ask about your exact routing.
* If you are flying to a small city and your flight number has four digits, you may be booked on a commuter airline that has an agreement with the major carrier in whose name the flight is held out. If you are unsure, ask the reservations agent about the airline and the aircraft type; these flights are identified in the computer.
* When a reservations agent asks you to buy your tickets by a specific time or date, this is a deadline. And if you don't make the deadline, the airline may cancel your reservations without telling you.
* Try to have your tickets in hand before you go to the airport. This speeds your check-in and helps you avoid some of the tension you might otherwise feel if you had to wait in a slow-moving ticketing line and worry about missing your flight.
* If your reservations are booked far enough ahead of time, the airline may offer to mail your tickets to you. However, if you don't receive the tickets and the airline's records show that they mailed them, you may have to go through cumbersome lost-ticket procedures (see the end of this chapter). It is safer to check the telephone directory for a conveniently located travel agency or airline ticket office and buy your tickets there.
* As soon as you receive your ticket check to make sure all the information on it is correct, especially the airports (if any of the cities have more than one) and the flight dates. Have any necessary corrections made immediately.
* Bring a photo I.D. when you fly, and have your airline ticket issued using your name as it appears on that I.D. Many airlines are requesting such identification at check-in in order to reduce the re- selling of discount tickets. (Airlines don't permit tickets to be sold or given to other persons.) On international flights, make sure your name is the same on your ticket and your passport. If your name has recently changed and the name on your ticket and your I.D. are different, bring docu- mentation of the change (e.g., a marriage certificate or court order).
* It's a good idea to reconfirm your reservations before you start your trip; flight schedules sometimes change. On international trips, most airlines require that you reconfirm your onward or return reservations at least 72 hours before each flight. If you don't, your reservations may be canceled.
* Check your ticket as you board each flight to ensure that only the correct coupon has been removed by the airline agent.
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