"Ch-ch-ch-changes… turn and face the strange." That's the refrain from the David Bowie song. Perhaps he was reflecting on the ever-changing customs, rules and practices for travelers.
There's a new change or modification every week or so. Earlier this month, Alaska Airlines ditched its "low fare guarantee," which enabled travelers to recoup money if the fare dropped on their itinerary after purchase. Just last month, I got $220 back on my Anchorage-Kona flights. Alaska deposited the sum in my "e-wallet" so I could use it on a future flight. "We have seen relatively low usage of this program," said Alaska Airlines' spokesman Tim Thompson. " And it's time- and resource-intensive to process requests."
Last week, Delta Air Lines upped the cost of checked luggage to $30 for the first bag, each way. The second bag (up to 50 pounds) costs $40. Delta wasn't the first airline to do this. That dubious honor belongs to JetBlue, followed quickly by United.
There are ways to avoid these fees or policies, but it almost always involves buying a more expensive ticket or becoming an elite-level frequent flyer. Regarding the low fare guarantee, MVP Gold travelers can simply cancel their entire reservation, then purchase a new one at the lower fare. The entire ticket amount (instead of the fare difference) then would be available for a future Alaska Air ticket purchase.
For bag fees, waivers are available for Alaska residents who join Alaska Air's "Club 49" program. on flights to or from Alaska, travelers can check two bags at no additional charge. But if you're stopping for a few days, then flying from Seattle to New York, you'll get hit with Alaska's bag fee of $25 for the first and second bag. Elite travelers don't have to pay the fee. If you have the Alaska Airlines Visa card (and charged your ticket on that card) then you'll get the first bag free.
Other airlines, including Delta and United, allow for bag fee waivers if you carry the airline's credit card or if you're an elite-level frequent flyer.
I met a fellow traveler, Dr. Terrence Cole, at the Fairbanks airport last week. Dr. Cole is about a foot shorter than me—and asked why I don't talk more about the crowded seats in coach.
Uh, it's not that I enjoy giving the person in front of me great lumbar support (from my knees). It's really because most airlines have configured their planes to accommodate those who want to pay for extra room. Previously, you had to pray for an upgrade or mortgage the farm and buy a first class seat. On Delta, it's called "Delta Comfort." On Alaska Airlines, it's called "Premium Class." On United, it's called "Economy Plus." Typically, the perks include early boarding at the front of the main cabin and legroom that is about the same as exit row seating.
There always are travelers who maintain that nice legroom, free meals and free bags should be included in the cost of the cheapest economy ticket. But that's not the case. Airlines are unbundling their services to offer cheaper prices, even though it seems like "bait and switch," since it's obvious that you'll end up paying some extra fees.
For example, United Air offers a $180 one-way fare from Anchorage to Los Angeles/LAX on short-notice. Here's the rub: you can't take a full-size carry-on. In fact, if you try and use the online check-in, it won't work unless you pay for a bag. Delta also offers a $180 one-way fare, which allows for a regular rolling suitcase that fits in the overhead bin. But it's in "basic economy" so you can't make an advance seat assignment. Alaska charges $228 one-way on the same day, allowing for seat assignments and carry-on bags.
Not all changes are bad, of course. Alaska recently got rid of Horizon Air's Q400 aircraft here in Alaska. That means if you're flying to Kodiak or to Fairbanks, you get a nice, big 737. Gone also are the 737-400 combis, which means there's plenty of room when flying up to Nome or over to Bethel.
Another sector where the rules always are changing is with frequent flyer plans. Alaska Air's plan still is the best in town, in my opinion. However, if I lived in Chicago or Atlanta, I would learn to work with United's or Delta's plan. But I don't, so I won't. Alaska recently changed their mileage redemption to allow 5,000-mile awards between Anchorage and a handful of cities, including: Juneau, Fairbanks, Bethel, Nome, Kodiak, Cordova, Nome, Kotzebue or Yakutat. You have to plan 21 days in advance—but that's a good deal.
Waiting around airports is one of my least-favorite things to do. I'm not a fan of the TSA or their checkpoints. Finally, I was so worn down by the shoes-off, laptop out, frisking process that I coughed up $100 to get the Global Entry pass. Yes, I got fingerprinted. Yes, there was a personal interview. But now, I get TSA "pre check" on all domestic flights.
Do you like to wait around in airline lounges? Me, too. Many of the high-priced credit cards, such as the $450/year Chase Sapphire Reserve card, comes with a $300 annual travel credit, in addition to the Global Entry reimbursement ($100 every five years). But there's another benefit: the Priority Pass program. There's an entire list of lounges that you can access while traveling, including Alaska Airlines' lounges. But there's been a change. Earlier this month, Alaska locked out the Seattle lounges from the Priority Pass program. That includes the main lounge, the new "C" concourse lounge and the lounge by the "N" gates. There are two other Priority Pass lounges you can use at Sea-Tac, but neither of them are close to the Alaska Air gates.
Just like airfares, the rules are changing all the time. Bon voyage!