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Talking travel with frequent mileage expert John Lopinto
What Are the Most Effective Ways to Work the Upgrades Game?
The Holy Grail of air travel is flying in business or first class for the price of a cheap coach ticket. Short of "squatting" in a first class seat and hoping you won't get caught (you will, so don't try it), there are ways to use your frequent flier miles to score that seat in the front. If you are an "elite" status member in your favorite frequent flier program, you have a better chance than the average member, but if you are at the program's very highest elite level, you have more options and better odds at getting that upgrade that sometimes can be free.
For the rest of us, however, using miles to upgrade is usually the easiest and can be booked at the time of ticket purchase. They also offer a better value for the miles used compared to using miles to "purchase" a coach award ticket. But upgrade inventory is always limited so it is best to book as far in advance as possible and for mid-week travel if possible. But if you can't upgrade when purchasing your ticket, go on the wait-list. Most upgrades don't clear until days or hours before departure.
What are Fare Buckets and How Can Flyers Take Advantage of them to Save Money?
Airlines don't sell all their seats at the same price. In fact, on some flights there may be over a dozen different fares just for coach. In general, the further in advance you buy a ticket the more fare options there are. These are called fare buckets and the cheaper the fare the more restrictions and conditions there are attached to that bucket. If you are willing to agree to them the airline is willing to sell you a cheaper ticket. But there are only so many tickets in a given bucket that the airline is willing to sell at that price for a particular flight. That's why just changing the time of departure, say from 7:00 am to 9:00am may find that a lower cost bucket still has seats for sale than the earlier flight. Sometimes just leaving a day earlier or later will help you find a cheaper fare bucket with seats.
What's Your Stance on Fast-Track Security Programs Like Clear?
If you have elite frequent flyer status with the airline you are flying on, or traveling in business or first class, almost all airports have a special security line that has almost no wait to get to the TSA screening point. If this is the case for you, then programs such as Clear offer little or no advantage. However, if this is not the case and you are typically one who shows up at the airport at the last minute or have repeated security issues, then this may offer some value for you.
How Do You Find the Cheapest Flights
I actually use the airlines' own website. I find their fares to be the lowest available and they may show many fare options, not just the lowest. Airline-independent sites like Kayak, Orbitz and others are good for surveying all the airline offerings at once, but one of the advantages of booking directly on the airlines' site is that you have established the sale directly with the airline.
Although the fare may be the same, when flights are canceled or you need to be re-routed at the last minute it will be easier to negotiate an alternative with the airline agent if you had purchased your ticket directly with them. Also, some airlines now charge a fee if you want to simply change your seat assignment and didn't purchase your ticket directly from the airline. You may also want to use an airline-independent web site that does not sell tickets that just lists all the fares and rules for all flights such as ExpertFlyer.com.
Is It Ever a Good Idea to Use a Travel Agent To Book Flights?
Yes, of course. Travel agents are professionals who have experience with the nuances of air travel. Unfortunately, today their commissions from the airlines are either very small or non-existent. So, they must extract a fee over and above the airline ticket price from the passenger in many cases. But if the itinerary is complex, especially for foreign travel, then a good travel agent may well be worth it. Also, they sometimes have access to special consolidator fares that are not offered directly by the airlines.
What About Consolidators?
First, make sure you book them through a reputable agent who normally deals in consolidator fares. Next, make sure you know all the conditions and restrictions associated with the ticket. What happens if you need to change the date of the flight? What are the cancellation penalties? What airline is being used? Is the fare eligible for frequent flyer miles or can it be upgraded? In short, they can offer a good value, but buyer beware.
Are There Any Secrets for Getting First or Business Class Tickets for Cheap?
If you fly Business class to Asia look into the CX Leverage program at cxleverage.com. This program offers up to a 20% discount on full-fare unrestricted business class tickets, and 5% off first class, between the US and Asia on Cathay Pacific, arguably one of the better airlines in the world. You only have to be a small business in the US and register your business on their site.
The airlines also offer discounted first and business class tickets with limited inventory on certain routes. The so-called I-fares are restricted business class tickets on certain routes that offer excellent value on some competitive routes. There are also consolidators that specialize in discounted business class fares. Also, consider using your miles to upgrade from a less expensive coach fare into business or first class.
Is There a Free Resource to Find the Perfect Seat on Any Plane?
There are two web sites to visit: seatguru.com and seatexpert.com. Both offer seat maps of most airlines and their individual aircrafts showing graphical layouts of the cabins and pros and cons for various seats on the plane as reported by passengers. For seat maps on specific flights that show which seats are occupied or not, try ExpertFlyer.com.