AIR TRAVEL BLUES – BRAVING THE UNFRIENDLY SKIES

Although the tough economy has driven the number of air travelers toward a downward trend, the numbers will spike over the next month as those with holiday travel plans head to the airports to face the inevitable crowds. While we all find ways to tighten the purse strings and spend less this holiday season, it might be wise to hold on to your wallets a little tighter while flying this year. As always there are those looking to make an easy buck off of holiday travelers, a number that include con artists as well as the airlines themselves.

Here are some things to keep in mind when flying this holiday season.

AIRLINE CONSOLIDATOR SCAM
The con artists include an emerging trend of airline consolidator scams. In an attempt to save money on air travel many have found a great resource by booking their tickets through airline consolidators. These companies buy discounted tickets in bulk from the airlines then resell them at a savings to the consumer.

This can be a great savings – if you have an honest-to-goodness airline consolidator. There are also a number of scam artists passing themselves off as consolidators. Victims don’t even realize they’ve spent their cash on bogus and fraudulent tickets until they get to the airport. At that point they are out the money spent, and probably looking at a difficult time finding any available last-minute flights.

A little due diligence can go a long way towards not being taken by these crooks. Before buying a ticket research the company from whom you are planning to purchase a ticket. Get their full address. If they won’t or can’t provide it, you’re probably dealing with a scam. Once you have the address, visit the Secretary of State for the state the company is located in. They should have a business search engine. If they don’t show up they aren’t registered and you shouldn’t buy.

Read the fine print. If the ticket is nonrefundable, try another consolidator.

STAY ALERT AT CHECKPOINTS
There has been a rise in complaints of stolen and lost property at airport checkpoints. Don’t be fooled into thinking just because you are surrounded by security personnel that your belongings are actually secure.

Often times it can be a crime of opportunity. Someone decides to lift a laptop or ipod which is sitting exposed having already been through the x-ray machine while its owner is held up at the metal detector. Of course, it is known that two-person gangs often operate a similar scam. One will go through the metal detector and wait as their partner, next in line, keeps setting off the metal detector. Meanwhile, passengers continue to put their goods through the x-ray machine, while the first guy through the line has time to pick through whatever is coming through.

If it sounds like a crime that would be easily rectified, consider the mob like crowds at the airports in the holiday. Security guards main concern is getting folks through the TSA checkpoints and on the planes. By the time they are able to investigate a stolen item claim, the thief is likely already in the air.

Even worse, you might not even realize you’ve been stolen from until far too late. Lynne Berry shared a story on Today’s MSNBC Family Blog about an acquaintance who suffered this fate. She boarded the plane and opened her duffel to grab her purse, where she had stuffed it just before going through security. Her purse was gone. The only time the duffel was not in her possession was when she was held up at the metal detector and it had passed through the x-ray machine.

She was at the beginning of a five hour flight and feeling helpless about her situation. The airline was helpful, calling the airport she had left from and alerting them. The purse was found in a bathroom, but the traveler found herself landing in a city where she had limited contacts without any ID or credit cards, unable to pick up her rental car and having to survive by trial and error as she navigated the loss of her wallet while in an unfamiliar city. That would make for an unpleasant travel experience, especially on the holidays.

BEWARE OF AIRLINES
They get us to where we need to go, but first and foremost they are a business, a big business, and look to take a little extra out of their customers’ wallets at every chance they get.

Take for example Continental’s Bereavement Fares. The “reduced” fares are listed online, but come with a caveat – they can only be booked by the telephone. What one traveler discovered and wrote an illuminating post about on the website Urban Semiotic, is that often times, you can actually book a cheaper fare online. After being quoted a bereavement discount price that was higher than the online fare he was looking at while on the phone, he asked the operator why there was a discrepancy. He was met with silence. The operator finally spoke up and told him he wasn’t supposed to look at those online, he was supposed to call for a bereavement fare. He said he got that, but inquired why they would offer a bereavement “discount” that was higher than a fare he could book himself. The operator could only lamely answer that the bereavement fare structure was different from online booking.

When booking online though, the price you are quoted is often not the price you end up paying. There are so many hidden fees, you might book a flight at $450, then end up paying over $500 due to the after-the-fact fee structure. Going with the $475 ticket from a different airline might actually have saved you money in the long run, depending on how they hit you with fees.

The checked baggage fee was implemented at a time the fuel prices were surging and the airlines had an easy scapegoat to blame them on. Fuel prices have since dropped, but the checked baggage fees stay. There is no set fee schedule for checked baggage fees, with every airline marching to the beat of their own drummer. A few, Southwest Airlines for example, don’t charge a fee at all. Some are based on number, and almost all will hit you with large, $50-$75 charges for baggage that is not within their weight guidelines. So be sure to measure before you get to the airport.

Pay attention to the counter agents too. One traveler posted a bad experience on My3cents.com where he was charged $39 for an oversized bag that was measured improperly. The agent said the bag was within the acceptable weight range, but measured over 63 inches and was therefore considered “over-sized”. The customer knew the bag was under 62 inches tall, having measured it himself and also flying with it dozens of times previously without incident. As he watched the agent measure the bag a second time, he noticed they were standing the bag up to the edge of the scale, and then measuring from one wall of the scale to the other, adding 1-3 inches to any bag being tested. The traveler had no luck talking to the manager, it was company policy. He paid the fee and flew on. Two days later he flew a different carrier without incident.

There are so many other, unheralded, hidden airline fees it just about boggles the mind.

Charging anywhere from $5-$20 to make reservations over the phone or at the ticket counter.

Charging $5-$15 for a seat assignment. A fee that goes up to $15-$20 at some airlines if you request an exit row seat.

Charging $10 for a child to sit your lap.

Charging $25-$50 if you want to move your flight up on the same day and try stand by.

Charging for meals, headphones, and at this point some carriers are even hitting passengers up for pillows and blankets. How much longer before pay toilets are installed?

There is a way to know what you are getting going in though. New software is making it possible to comparison shop different flights with the possible fees you might incur included in your estimates. This gives you a truer picture of how much each potential flight will run before you actually book it.

Flying is expensive enough without being taken advantage of by con artists and money-grubbing airlines. So stay on your guard, both when you are booking your flight and when you actually travel and the skies will be a much friendly means of transportation.

**Note: For extensive fee listings and comparison shopping the following site is a great resource: flyingfees.com

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