Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Relying on the Chinatown Bus

The various bus companies whose routes connect the Chinatowns across the East and West Coasts of America--Apex, Today Bus, Dragon Coach, and others--operate reasonably clean, modern buses. When it comes to scheduling, however, taking the Chinatown Bus is practically a hands-on lesson in third-world bus travel.

Last weekend, I walked my girlfriend to 610 I St. in D.C., the location where she was to pick up the return portion of her Chinatown Bus ticket to New York City. We arrived at the bus stop and joined a crowd of perhaps fifty people waiting for the bus, which was scheduled to depart at 8:00 p.m. More people arrived steadily, and there may have been 100 or more when the departure time came. And went. With no bus.

Now, this isn't the first time that she's taken the Chinatown Bus; she does it often. We try to see each other most weekends, and bus travel is by far the cheapest way to get between D.C. and New York. And within the realm of bus travel, Chinatown Bus companies like Apex are even cheaper than Greyhound's e-tickets (though not by much; a D.C.-NYC e-ticket is $40 RT, versus a $35 RT on Today Bus).

Of course, for many travelers, including my girlfriend, what put them off Greyhound was less a matter of price than customer service. Greyhound employees can be quite belligerent, even when responding to simple questions. The Chinatown Bus companies don't have that problem; many of their employees speak no English whatsoever, so arguments are rare. (Actually, some of the contracted bus drivers don't even know which "company" they work for on a given route... but I digress.)

That same inability to argue, unfortunately, came back to bite us on Sunday. By 8:45, there was still no bus, and no sign that there ever would be one. She recounted a previous experience waiting on a hillside in Baltimore as bus after bus came by that was contracted by a different line and wouldn't honor her ticket. On that occasion, she ended up buying a Greyhound ticket after a four-hour wait. Not this time.

With her shift starting at 6:00 a.m. the next morning, we headed to Union Station and got her on the 9:30 Amtrak regional train. She arrived in New York at 1:30 a.m., later than she'd planned but in plenty of time work work.

And all of the others who were waiting for that bus? Well, they didn't take the train. Maybe they were still waiting there the next morning. That's the price of low fares.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

When First Class is the better deal...

When it comes to airline tickets, everyone knows that First Class costs more than Coach, right? Not so fast. This conventional wisdom holds true in most cases, but not all of them. Here are a few situations where you might save money by going with a First Class ticket:
  • When Coach is sold out in advance. On planes where the Coach seating is full, you can usually get a seat only if you pay full-fare (Class Y). Often, the price of a full-fare Coach seat is higher than that of a discounted First Class seat.

    You might assume that other passengers would have already taken these discounted seats, but there's a twist: many business travelers are forbidden to book First Class tickets (even if they're cheaper). That's no guarantee, because some airlines automatically upgrade full-fare Coach passengers at the time of ticketing, but you can potentially save money and enjoy a more relaxing trip by taking a minute or two to check.

  • When restricted Coach awards are gone. The legacy carriers have two types of award fares. Restricted awards are subject to capacity controls (i.e. only a certain number of seats on a given flight are eligible). Unrestricted awards are good for any seat but require twice as many miles.

    What you may not realize is that the miles required for an restricted First Class award are usually the same or even fewer than those needed for an unrestricted Coach award. Most people, though, don't bother to look; once they see that restricted Coach isn't an option, they'll be looking at unrestricted Coach. That can mean First Class seats up for grabs even within a week of the flight.

    Some airlines make it easier to grab these seats than others. On Continental, for instance, both types of awards are shown for both classes of service whenever you search for an award ticket. That means you're less likely to find them hiding. United, on the other hand, requires a separate search for each type and each class of service--too much hassle for most people.
I have personally used both of these strategies to book First Class tickets on domestic and international flights. Recently, I was able to pick up an international First Class ticket from Washington-Dulles to Nagoya, Japan for the same 120,000 miles that it would have taken to secure an unrestricted Coach seat; paid for in cash, that ticket would have cost me over $10,000!

So, take the time to look. But don't wait too long. As many as 72 hours before a flight, airlines start processing standard upgrades for their elite members and assign those unsold First Class seats to them on the basis of fare code and seniority. Once that happens, there won't be any more discounted First Class fares or restricted awards available.

Monday, August 13, 2007

The Route to Low Fares

As has commonly been observed, airline fares are extremely complicated and difficult to predict. They literally change on a constant basis, responding to supply and demand equations built into elaborate computer algorithms that take into account the price of fuel, passenger load, previous years' booking for the same time period, and other factors.

Travel sites like Expedia and surveyors like Kayak give you an edge in finding low fares. The airlines' own sites promise that they offer you the best possible deal on a specified itinerary. But none of these tools can really get you the lowest possible means of going from one destination to another, because the possible combinations of any itinerary--taking into account possible connection cities, stops, class-of-service changes, etc.--are too numerous to analyze.

Enter ITA Software's Fare Shopping Engine, a no-frills tool that appears at first glance to have nothing new to offer versus competing fare-finders and has an unattractive interface at the same time. You have to log in to use it. There aren't any flashy colors. You can't make hotel reservations at the same time. Yet you should take note, because this tool is something special.

The power of ITA's engine is that it allows you to submit queries in route language, a structured code similar to that used by airline mainframes to organize and retrieve their actual real-time data. Any fare-finder will let you ask for a low fare from Washington D.C. to Seattle; ITA can find you the lowest fare from D.C. to Seattle that has exactly one stop going out, at least one coming back, and routes through Chicago. It's also extremely careful to match your preferences, so when you say that you want a morning flight, you will only get morning flights. Period.

ITA's engine doesn't provide for online booking in all cases, because some routes are just too complicated for the airlines' customer-facing Web sites to process. But the software will generate ordering information that you can give to your travel agent or an airline ticket agent in person or over the phone, and you'll get exactly the itinerary and fare code that you saw online.

Does ITA guarantee you the lowest fares? No; it's limited to what it can see, and special rates offered by the airlines on their own Web sites in particular are often restricted from outside viewing to give these sites a "home field" advantage. In the ongoing battle to find low fares, though, there's no doubt that an informed consumer is going to get a better price than one who jumps blindly for the first fare offered.

So, sign up and give ITA a try. It's free, and you just might save a lot of money for the effort.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Calculating Miles: Stops vs. Layovers

A friend of mine asked me today about a flight that she took from Washington, D.C. to Boston. The flight routed through New York City, and she was surprised to notice that she'd been credited with 500 miles for the DC-NYC flight and another 500 for the NYC-BOS flight. Here's an explanation that you can apply to your own travels.

Most of you are aware that airlines compute mileage as the straight-line distance between airports, so earnings are fixed even if a flight plan change is required (to avoid a storm, for instance). The mapped distance between Washington-Dulles (IAD) and Boston-Logan (BOS) is 413 miles. The legacy carriers have a 500-mile minimum credit, so had my friend taken a direct flight, she'd have been credited with 500 miles and nothing more.

What most people don't realize is that the mileage calculation--and the 500-mile minimum--is per segment rather than per flight. A segment is defined as a numbered flight with a set itinerary. Segments may include stops, but those stops don't impact the distance of the itinerary, so a flight from D.C. to Boston that had a listed stop on New York would also earn only 500 miles.

Here's how a flight with a listed stop might look:

Flight 213 IAD-BOS Depart: 12:00 p.m. Arrive: 1:30 p.m. Stops: 1 Miles: 413 Award Miles: 500

A large number of flight itineraries, however, are actually made up of multiple nonstop segments, each of which is calculated as a point-to-point distance for mileage purposes. Whenever the flight number changes, you've started a new segment--and that means you'll earn miles for each segment independently. And if those segments are shorter than 500 miles, they each receive the 500-mile minimum credit.

Here's a sample itinerary that includes multiple nonstop segments:

Flight 901 DCA-LGA Depart: 12:00 p.m. Arrive: 12:50 p.m. Stops: 0 Miles: 229 Award Miles: 500
Flight 417 LGA-BOS Depart: 1:05 p.m. Arrive: 1:40 p.m. Stops: 0 Miles: 185 Award Miles: 500

What does this mean for you? If you want to maximize your mileage earning, always choose a flight with multiple nonstop segments over one with listed stops. In many cases, the price is comparable, and you can come away with hundreds or even thousands of additional miles for the effort, often for spending the same amount of time in the air. The only difference is whether the time you spend on the ground is called a "stop" or a "layover."