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7 Airline Policies that Punish Leisure Travelers

Nov. 07, 2014
7 min read
7 Airline Policies that Punish Leisure Travelers
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Airlines are in business to make money, but it's important that they balance their bottom line with the comfort and satisfaction of their customers. Today TPG Senior Points & Miles Correspondent Jason Steele looks at some airline policies that are tipping that balance in the wrong direction.

Last week I wrote about the effect of revenue-based frequent flyer programs on leisure travelers and families (as opposed to business travelers). The outlook is mostly grim, but there are many airline policies that hit flyers in that demographic even harder. Here are 7 things airlines should do away with in order to win back leisure travelers:

Once you buy a ticket, you shouldn't have to pay extra to choose a seat.

1. Seat selection fees. I have no problem with airlines charging more for better seats, whether they have more leg room or are just closer to the front of the plane. What really hurts families and other groups is having to pay an additional fee just to sit next to those traveling with you on the same ticket. Some airlines have even gone so far as to randomly assign each individual a seat at check-in, rather than allowing passengers to choose from what's available.

While this practice is merely distasteful when groups of adults are traveling together, it's stressful and dangerous for parents who fear being separated from young children. It's disgusting that airlines would seek to monetize this fear rather than allow parents and children to reserve seats together at no additional charge.

To work around this issue, always try to make a seat selection as soon as your reservation is ticketed. If seats together are unavailable, try to speak with a customer service representative (or possibly a supervisor) who can override restrictions on blocked out seats. If that doesn't work, check seat assignments again at check-in, and do your best to check in online as early as possible (usually 24 hours in advance).

If that doesn't work, try calling the airline again, as agents might have additional seats available at that time. Sadly, travelers may have to appeal to gate agents, flight attendants, or other passengers in order to sit next to their children.

When you buy several tickets, airlines charge the highest fare for all of them. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

2. Pricing tickets in the highest buckets. Airline fares are confusing enough individually, but a lesser known aspect of how airlines sell tickets is that they will always quote prices that are available for all travelers in a group. So if you need five tickets, and there are only four available in one price group (also known as a bucket), then airlines will quote you a price for all five seats in the higher bucket. The difference can add up to hundreds of dollars. This principle even applies to frequent flyer award bookings, where passengers are quoted the highest price in miles that's available for all passengers in a party.

What's worse, these policies seem to contradict the airline's own Customer Service Commitments. Each airline has a written policy to offer customers the lowest fare available (see United, Delta, American, Southwest, and US Airways for example).

The only way around this is to search for tickets one person at a time, and book groups under multiple itineraries to buy remaining seats in lower buckets. Unfortunately, this is very time consuming, and few passengers know to do this.

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Flying internationally with an infant can be expensive due to lap child fees. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock,

3. Infant lap child fees. Baggage fees and seat selection fees are trivial compared to infant lap child fees. These charges (typically 10% of an adult fare) can add up to hundreds of dollars on an international trip in business or first class, and parents receive nothing in exchange except the right to carry their child on their lap. There's no logic to these charges, which never apply domestically, and which sometimes aren't charged for travel to Canada, Mexico, or the Caribbean.

Even more infuriating is that airlines don't properly disclose infant lap child fees, and it's difficult to get infants ticketed properly on flights operated by partners. The best way to avoid these fees is to book awards from a program that charges a reasonable alternative to 10% of the ticket price. For example, British Airways charges 10% of the price of the award in points, and Air Canada charges a more reasonable flat fee for infants. Lufthansa does not charge for lap children on awards, but you'll have to pay fuel surcharges for the adults. For more information, see my post on How to Plan Award Travel With An Infant Or Lap Child.

4. Severe award capacity controls. I get it that frequent flyer programs have to have some capacity controls, but too many airlines have created situations where awards are only available for a few passengers on the same flight. This makes award travel with a family or in a group more difficult, and forces passengers to book very far in advance if they want any hope of finding availability.

For possible solutions, check out my post from earlier this year for tips on finding multiple award seats together, and for what to do when you can't.

Southwest Airlines no change cancellation fees
Southwest is popular for more than just its color scheme.

5. Ridiculous change fees. Last year, the four major U.S. legacy carriers raised their change fees to an outrageous $200, and international tickets can incur change fees of $400 or more. While businesses can more easily afford to purchase refundable tickets or absorb these costs when plans change, change fees are devastating to leisure travelers and families.

Change fees are often more than the price of a ticket, and bear no resemblance to any actual cost born by the airlines, especially when they can resell the seat for a higher walk-up fare. Of course, travelers are offered little or nothing when airlines change their schedules. Thankfully, I know some good ways to avoid change and cancellation fees.

Baggage Claim
Checked bag fees can add up quickly, but there are ways around them. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

6. Baggage fees. Leisure travelers are hit hardest by airline baggage fees, since business trips are typically short enough to require only a carry-on. In addition, leisure travelers are most likely to need additional gear for ski trips, beach vacations, and other activities that business travelers don't engage in.

Thankfully, there are still many ways that leisure travelers can avoid baggage fees. For example, most airline credit cards come with checked baggage fee waivers, and other cards (like The Platinum Card from American Express) offer credits for airline incidentals. Finally, leisure travelers can shift business to airlines that offer free checked bags to everyone like Southwest (2 bags per person) and Jetblue (1 bag per person).

7. One way pricing. One of the best ways to save money on airfare is to price out each leg separately, and use award travel where available. The problem is that some airlines still insist on pricing their discount tickets as round-trips, which means that one-way flights can cost as much or more. Although this practice is less common than it used to be for domestic travel, it persists on international flights.

To work around this issue, leisure travelers need to shop around to find airlines that don't price their tickets this way, which tend to be discount carriers. When a one-way fare seems too high, try booking a dummy return flight at a later date, and see if the price goes down. While it technically violates the contract of carriage with most airlines, you can just book a cheaper round-trip flight and abandon or delay the return portion.

Which airline policies do you think punish leisure travelers the most?
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Featured image by Take advantage of those airline checked bag fee waivers to cover the cost of the annual fee.

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