Tuesday, September 29, 2009

A fee for holiday travel? Yep.

Everyone knows that it costs more to fly during the holidays. For as long as there have been airfares, those fares have been priced higher whenever there was peak demand: Thanksgiving, New Year's Eve, and the Fourth of July weekend all come to mind.

Not content with fares, though, airlines have started a new tradition: in addition to charging more for the ticket, you'll now have to pay a special $10 "holiday fee" for the privilege of doing so.

The holiday fee was announced last week by American and United. A few days later, U.S. Airways and Delta came out in support of it. Today, Continental jumped on the bandwagon. At least among the legacy carriers(1), it's a done deal.

No one can say whether the low-cost airlines like Southwest, JetBlue, and AirTran will join this insanity. I doubt it; Southwest didn't even adopt baggage fees, and the others are likely to benefit more from increased holiday bookings by passengers protesting their usual carriers than they would by adding this sort of junk fee.

I know that many of the airlines have struggled with reduced business bookings and excess capacity during the recession. I sympathize, and I have defended them on more than one occasion. But the "holiday fee" is nothing more than a fare hike by another name, added onto what are already higher-than-other-days holiday fares.

There's just no excuse, and I hope that this comes back to bite them in a big way.

1 Excluding Alaska Airlines, which is also technically a legacy carrier but often behaves as a special case since it retains near-monopoly status within its home territory.

United miles: Not just for flying anymore

Starting right away, members of United Airlines' Mileage Plus program may use their miles to book hotel rooms and car service.

Hotel rooms start at 10,000 miles per night and go up from there, with some premium properties listing for more than 50,000. Cars also start at 10,000 miles per day and vary by class of vehicle.

There are no blackout dates.

While this is a "first" for the airline industry, it's worth noting that Hotels.com has long offered a simplified rewards program where staying at any listed hotel gives one credit per night towards a free stay at any other listed hotel (with free nights costing ten credits), which can be a better value over time if you stay in mid-range hotels for business and then want to pick out luxury accommodations for special personal trips.

If you're a United frequent flyer, this new program is a pretty good benefit, especially if you're earning lots of bonus miles with a United credit card, elite bonuses, etc. If you do most of your flying with another airline, you're probably better off staying where you are.

Monday, September 14, 2009

United adds international baggage fee

Last year, some pondered whether financial considerations would result in U.S. carriers canceling Coach-class meal service on international routes. At the time, I laughed. Now, I'm not so sure.

As recently as a year ago, even as airlines were buckling under the pressure of record fuel prices and adding fees to find new revenue in nearly every way imaginable, checked baggage remained free on international flights.

The economic meltdown and decline in overall passenger traffic, particularly the near-collapse of business travel, has left airlines in an arguably worse financial position in 2009 than they were in 2008, even as fuel prices have dropped.

In part, this situation is because fuel prices--possibly driven by speculation--have recovered faster than passenger demand.

Now, United is joining U.S. Airways and Continental in imposing a $50 checked baggage fee for a second bag on international flights between North America and Europe.

Will free meals follow as the next thing to go?