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What the Southwest/AirTran merger means for consumers

Southwest Airlines announced yesterday that it will acquire AirTran in a cash plus stock deal.

Here's what to expect:

1.) Good news for AirTran passengers and travel to/from/through Atlanta in general. Southwest has better service than AirTran, and lower fees (assuming that Southwest keeps the low/no-fee model, see number 4, below). Southwest is not keeping the AirTran brand.

2.) Southwest and AirTran don't have much route overlap, so the merger in and of itself won't lead to higher fares. But both airlines offer aggressive airfare sales almost weekly. We'll see fewer of these, and fares will inch up. Remember, though, that fares can only go so high before consumers stay home, drive, take the BoltBus, or Amtrak. One route that does overlap is Boston to Baltimore, which both airlines fly nonstop for $78 round-trip; but JetBlue flies the route at the same fare, so as long as there are two airlines flying nonstop on the route, prices will stay reasonable. (In fact, Baltimore probably has the most overlapping routes, so we expect fares to go up there.)

3.) More fare pressure if other airlines continue the merger dance. American and US Air must be in panic mode as Southwest continues to grow. What next? An American/US Air marriage? Frontier/Midwest combine with USAir? JetBlue+American? The Southwest/AirTran merger came out of the blue, so anything and everything could be on the table.

4.) This impacts Delta, at least at first, the most. Will Delta eliminate checked bag and ticket change fees on competing routes to/from/through Atlanta to compete with Southwest's fee model? Or will Southwest add fees? AirTran was a minor thorn in Delta's side, but Southwest is going be a major thorn. AirTran was not a particularly healthy airline financially, and Southwest is.

5.) Southwest now becomes an international airline, if it keeps AirTran's routes to Aruba, the Bahamas, etc. It also becomes a multi-aircraft airline, if it keeps AirTran's Boeing 717's along with Southwest's 737 fleet.

How to avoid a $100,000 airfare

Emergency medical evacuation is a product most people probably don't think they need. It sounds almost exotic, as if one's trip would need to be inherently dangerous to justify the purchase.

Well, think again. Emergency medical evacuation is far from necessary for every vacation, but travelers concerned about potential health problems or accidents, or who are traveling to relatively remote destinations or even just taking a cruise, may feel a bit more comfortable knowing they can easily and affordably get to a health care center in the case of a medical emergency. And speaking of affordability, consider that a domestic medical evacuation can cost tens of thousands of dollars, and it can be over a $100,000 for international evacuations.

There are three main players in the emergency medical evaluation business: MedJet Assist, AirMed, and a newcomer, On Call International, which previously only sold coverage to travel insurance companies as a wholesaler. Each program offers annual subscriptions and individual trip coverage options, but the products differ somewhat, as you'll see in this chart.

Still, you can expect a similar set of benefits, not just medical evacuation, but also "family reunion" transportation (when a spouse or other relative needs to join or travel with an ill or injured family member), medical monitoring/consultation, and travel assistance services such as cash advances and legal consultation.

So google is buying ITA Software. What does it mean for you, air traveler?

First of all, what is ITA Software? Briefly, it's a technology company based in Cambridge, MA that provides the airfare search software behind such sites as Orbitz, Kayak and many airline web sites. Its claim to fame is that it digs deeper into airline reservation systems than some other technologies, and usually finds fares that are only available via the airlines' own websites. And it allows users to do an easy flexible date search over any 30-day period.

But: It does not provide searches on Southwest AIrlines, Allegiant Airlines, Ryanair, and a few other smaller carriers. Similarly, low-cost leader Spirit Airlines keeps its best fares for Spiritair.com.

Nor can ITA calculate promo code or some other special airfares that the airlines reserve for their own web sites.

Recently, for example, US Airways tweeted fares from Philadelphia to Tel Aviv for $99 each way plus tax, summer travel. JetBlue tweets frequently as well, with $10 fares. United recently tweeted 20% off discount codes. These deals were not picked up by ITA Software. If airlines increasingly market their best deals through narrow channels, and keep them from ITA, it will further change the fare finding game. My thinking is that if airlines can figure out how to eliminate all third parties, such as profitable Southwest has done, they'll do it.

British Airways' re-launched First is worth every mile

Recently, I spent $75 to get a seat in British Airways' new and improved first class cabin from New York to London, and although my original flight was ash-canned, I did eventually get there. And to paraphrase the Beatles, man, I did not have a dreadful flight.

To quickly explain: I signed up for a British Airways-branded Chase Visa Card ($75 annual fee) and was awarded 100,000 bonus frequent flyer miles, enough to cover the 75,000 (one-way) required for a ride way in BA's newly-refreshed premier cabin. Heck, I don't fly much these days, and my 56-year-old posterior isn't as padded as it used to be, nor are my joints quite as supple, so $75 for a little comfort is just what the chiropractor ordered.

Had I actually bought that seat? Well, honestly, on my salary and at my pay grade, that would have been unlikely. It would have cost several thousand dollars-more if I paid full freight, less if I had bought a heavily discounted fare.

As it turned out, that Iceland volcano had other plans for me, and my flight was canceled. My hopes of attending a reunion at my Oxford college, where I was a graduate student 30 years earlier, were vaporized.

But last week, I was invited as a guest of BA, in my capacity as an airfare/airline pundit, to give First Class another shot.

A modest proposal: Let's ban large carry-ons altogether

A bill introduced in the U.S. Senate last week would ban airlines from charging for carry-on luggage, according to Reuters. Two senators rightly point out that carry-ons often contain items that are "important for the safety and health" of travelers, including medication and eyewear.

But can we please keep in mind that Spirit Airlines' now infamous decision to charge for carry-on luggage only applies to items too large to fit in the seat in front of the passenger? You can still carry on personal items for free, and that would include a large purse, brief case, or backpack into which you can stuff whatever essentials or valuables you desire. Coats, strollers, cameras, and certain other items are also carried in-cabin for free.

Let's get real here. To avoid looking disingenuous, Spirit should simply ban carry on bags altogether rather than making them a profit center. And the US Congress should let airlines conduct business as they see fit, and if it really cares about airline passengers, instead legislate a solution to the real safety risks of carry-on luggage.

Spirit's CEO, Ben Baldanza, with some justification, claims that the overhead bin fee will discourage carry-on overcrowding and lead to safer air travel, both for flight attendants and passengers, who are sometimes injured when lifting heavy bags into the bins and by bags falling out of the bins, despite the airlines' constant "bags do tend to shift in flight" PA announcements.

But most likely, safety isn't the real issue here, at least not for an airline CEO. Baldanza also suggests that the airline will be able to board and deplane their aircraft faster, which implies that Spirit will profit by faster airport turnarounds, and thus be able to complete more flights per day and earn more revenue per plane (or fly more passengers with fewer multi-million dollar jets).

Is safety the real issue here?

Once a free perk, many airlines now charge for advanced seat selection

A recent Airfarewatchdog poll revealed that after checked bag fees, the most hated airline fee is the one extracted for advanced seat selection. This used to be entirely free, but no more.

Say you log on to JetBlue's Web site to book a flight. You choose one, you select a seat you like – paying $10 or more per leg for more room up front or in an exit row. Bang. You're done.

Now try doing the same on Delta.com – what, you want an exit row? You want to sit up front? Better have your SkyMiles number handy.

Got none? Back of the bus, sir.

Let's say you're on the Web once more, surfing the site of Denver-based low-fare flyer Frontier. Here, you book the lowest fare available – clever you! – there will be no getting anywhere near a seating plan, let alone any selecting of favorite aisle seats up front. Not until 24 hours before takeoff, you won't – and then, let's hope that all that's left isn't the dreaded middle seat.

Where did all the bargain fares to Europe go?

Will this be the summer of our discontent when we search for cheap airfares to Europe? Is the party over?

In January 2009, US Air kicked off the summer selling season with tax-included fares for peak summer travel to Europe in the $500's and $600's but that was nothing compared to the $200 and $300 fares that appeared later in the spring and summer.

But that was last year. The winter just ending is the first time in memory that we didn't see dead-of-winter deals to Europe. In winters past, the airlines went into panic mode, selling fares for February travel for as low as $250 or $300 round-trip including taxes, even on nonstops from New York to Paris. This winter, however, fares remained stubbornly stuck in the $600's, $700's and even $800's to most destinations, although there were a few fleeting $500 bargains to such places as Dublin, Barcelona and Madrid.

Even Frankfurt, typically the cheapest gateway to the Continent, saw no amazing deals as in past winters.

So what's going on here, and how does this bode for travel this spring and summer?

Of course, only fools dare to predict how an irrational airline industry will react, so we'll steer clear of hard and fast prognostication. However, the bargain-less winter does not give us much hope.

Everything you need to know about buying airfares as cheaply as possible, in 500 words or less.

If I could tell you just one thing, it would be this: sign up for free fare alerts. Time and again, I see articles whose main point is to crown one search engine-Kayak, or Travelocity, or Momondo or whatever-as the best bet to find a low fare. But usually, the price differences in these "bake off" comparisons are small potatoes, if they exist at all, because all airfare sites pretty much use the same fare data provided by the airlines. That said, meta search engines such as Kayak and Tripadvisor will do a better job at finding the relatively few fares that the airlines sell only on their own sites.

There is no one "magic bullet" airfare search site! The only sites that perform better on international fares are those selling "consolidator" fares, but these often come with caveats and extra restrictions, such as "miss your flight and you have to buy a whole new ticket" (you get what you pay for).

The big savings come from realizing that airfares can have wild and sudden swings, like stocks on the S&P 500. You may not have time to check them hour-by-hour or day-by-day, but airfare-tracking sites do, and will alert you when a fare goes down, sometimes by hundreds of dollars, either to a level you specify or by a percentage amount.

So sign up, it's free! Some alert systems require that you first search for a fare before they'll offer free email alerts; others let you sign up before searching. Here are some sites that offer alerts:

Sometimes, collecting frequent flyer miles with a credit card pays off

Are frequent flyer miles worth collecting anymore? I've asked that question elsewhere, and have been advocating the use of credit cards paying up to 5% cash back as a better alternative for many travelers who rack up most of their miles using airline-affiliated credit cards. For many people, now that there are new fees associated with cashing in miles, the answer is no.

Most of us travel domestic economy, and $25,000 spent on a frequent flyer credit card only gets you a domestic coach ticket, assuming you can even find available seats and aren't paying a fee to cash in the miles at short notice or to redeposit them if you change your mind. That same $25,000 spent on a 5% cash back card gets you $750 which you can spend anyway you wish. You might even be able to find a seat to Hawaii. Try that with your frequent flyer miles.

So do I personally collect miles with a frequent flyer credit card? You bet I do. Recently, I applied for a British Airways Chase Visa card ($75 annual fee), but only because they were awarding 100,000 miles after you charged a paltry $2000 to the card (caveat: sadly, this offer is no longer available). My BA Executive Club account had something like 300 miles in it, so it was time to top it up. I wasn't planning on going anywhere in particular, but just a few days ago I learned that my Oxford college was having a reunion, and I thought, fun, might as well go.

So I went to spend some miles. What I found at ba.com was pretty shocking. On the day in April that I wanted to fly from New York to London, I had exactly one option: a first class seat for 75,000 miles. And the return didn't look much better, although there were several business class seats on BA's new London City Airport to JFK all-business-class flight for 50,000 points. Award seats in economy (not that I was devastated) were sold out in both directions.

Needless to say, I didn't have enough points, but BA kindly suggested that I buy the outward-bound first class flight with miles plus $285 in cash and $163 in fees and surcharges. Not that my return flight was free either. I got hit with a fuel surcharge plus taxes and fees of $358.

So my "free" flight, including the BA Chase card's $75 fee, ended up costing me $881. Still, not bad considering that when I checked on Expedia.com, these same flights would have cost over $14,000 had I bought them with cash. Lesson learned: if you play your credit cards right, collecting frequent flyer miles with them can indeed pay off. Just don't expect to have a lot of seat choice or to get something for nothing.

George Hobica is the founder of Airfarewatchdog™, the most inclusive source of airfare deals that have been researched and verified by experts. Airfarewatchdog compares fares from all airlines and includes the increasing number of airline-site-only and promo code fares.

What? You're still paying the airlines to carry your bags?

Now that the airlines have raised, yet again, their fees for checked bags, it's time to take another look at the alternative: shipping your bags, or better yet (if you're staying in one place once you arrive) just the contents of your bag ahead of your arrival using economical ground shipping services.

Why deal with the airlines, when UPS Ground and FedEx Ground offer better tracking, insurance and security, can be much cheaper in some scenarios, and will actually refund your shipping fee if there's a delay or loss? No waiting in line at the airport! No pilferage! No schlepping!

Airfarewatchdog.com has looked at four domestic route scenarios (short, medium, and long haul) and compared three shipping services and two airlines (one with high bag fees, and one with low fees) to see how much you can save by not entrusting your bags to the airlines.

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