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Airfarewatchdog founder offers advice for snagging upgrades & unpublished airfare deals

Separating fact from fiction when it comes to scoring a seat upgrade or lower priced airline tickets on your next flight has become increasingly complicated and confusing.  We interviewed long-time industry authority, George Hobica, founder and president of Airfarewatchdog.com, to sort out the best strategies for success.

WATCH our interview with George Hobica, founder of Airfarewatchdog.com 

ExpertFlyer: What type of information does Airfarewatchdog.com offer its subscribers?

George Hobica: We search and list unusually low airfares. Even though airlines have consolidated, there are still a lot of unadvertised airfare wars. Some of these deals can be extremely cheap. They’re not last minute fares. They are often for a good long travel period. However, they may only last a few minutes or hours, so you really have to jump on them. One way we get the word out is through email alerts. You can track a particular route or even airport to airport. For example, you can say I want to go from Washington Dulles or Washington National to London Gatwick or London Heathrow. We actually let you specify the airport that you’ll be flying into and out of in the alert. You can also choose the airline or if you don’t like a particular carrier, you can eliminate those from the alerts and we won’t send you alerts on those airlines.

EF:  How do you surface these deals?

GH: We have a staff of 10 people, some of whom are former travel agents. Some of whom were former airline employees, who know their way around airfares. They actually choose the deal. I hate to use the word curate, but they’re carefully chosen deals.

EF: For the more novice flyer, what are some of your tips that you tell folks who want to get a deal?

GH: Well, one thing is, you have to search often because airfares do go up and down without explanation. There might be 26 different fares on a plane or a flight, and there are only a few seats at each fare level. Once those are gone, then you will go to a higher fare level. If somebody’s holding those seats and releases them, then they will go back into a shared bucket perhaps, and you can grab them. Another thing that I suggest, unless you’re traveling with small children, is to book seats one by one because there might be one seat at a low fare and the second seat will be at a higher fare. The airline’s going to sell you both seats at the higher fare. They’re not going to average them one by one.

Also, look at one-way fares. A lot of the cheapest fares are half the lowest round trip price. It might be better to go out on one airline. Maybe on Southwest, for example, and then come back on United. Going to United.com, you won’t see that possibility. Always try those one-way fares. Sign up for airfare alerts. You definitely want to get those by email or by Twitter, using the hashtag #airfare on Twitter, is a really good place to look.

Subscribing to airline newsletters is a good idea. Sometimes you’ll find out about deals sooner than anyone else. Sometimes Singapore Airlines, for example, will send their sales to their frequent flier members first and then everyone else gets them a day later. It could be that some of the best seats and fares and routes have been sold out by that time.  I do think that some of the advertised fares are actually not as good as the unadvertised fares. That’s where Twitter is really helpful. Again, that hashtag #airfare is very useful. There are about 10 different accounts now that post deals on Twitter under that hashtag.

EF:  What are your best practices for getting an upgrade to business class for little to no cost?

GH:  Well, these days airlines are selling a lot of their business and first class seats. In many cases, they’re nonrefundable business and first at a reduced fare. For example, recently I flew one way from LA to JFK, and the regular fare was $300 one way on American Airlines. There were business class seats for about $650, which is a lot less than it used to be. It is nonrefundable at that price. I also, on this trip, booked 15,000 miles and $75 to get a paid upgrade. That was a pretty good deal; for $75 and 15,000 miles, I got $375 worth of value, so I upgraded myself that way. Also look for those last minute upgrades. If you book a ticket with Delta, they offer an upgrade for like $100 on a fairly short flight on the app. You can always ask for if there are any upgrades available when you check in or look for them at the kiosk. Sometimes there are offers.

I think the best way really is to use your miles. Now obviously if you attain upper tier status in the frequent flier program, they will sometimes give you a free upgrade, but those are getting rarer on popular routes. It’s really difficult to get those totally free mileage upgrades, or cheap upgrades. You really have to pay for it. You basically have to use miles plus cash to get the upgrade, I find, at least on American Airline on the transcontinental routes. The final way and many people don’t believe this, but on rare occasions, you get upgraded for no particular reason. Now, let’s say they oversell economy class, and everyone with status has been accommodated with upgrades. I have a friend who is a real estate agent in Los Angeles. She went to London recently and flew economy class, and she got upgraded to business class on British Airways. She said, “Why?” I said, “Well were you dressed the way you are today?”

If you are dressed way nicer than everyone else and they need one more person to upgrade, and everyone else looks like a slob, you may very well get upgraded. It’s just the way it goes. It’s happened to me before. It’s happened to my well-dressed agent. It happened to my friend Richard on Air Canada. He was flying from San Francisco to Vancouver, dressed in a business suit. He had no status. I had no status on United and I got upgraded on United because I was looking sharp.

I’ll tell you another story. I was flying on American Airlines last year, or two years ago. There was a seating problem in economy. This guy, a teenager, switched seats in economy class to accommodate somebody who was making a fuss. There was one seat left in business class – the seat next to me – and he got it. I heard the flight attendant say, “Shouldn’t we upgrade so and so who has status?” And the gate agent said, “I’m not going to upgrade that kind of behavior.” Apparently, the guy who was making a fuss was Platinum status on American. He was especially obnoxious, so they decided not to upgrade him.  So, sometimes getting an upgrade is as simple as being a nice, courteous human being.

One more thing about getting upgraded, make separate reservations because they may not want to upgrade two people together. They want to separate you, so if you have separate reservations you may have a better chance of getting upgraded.

 

Quick tips for saving money on flights this summer

airplane

School may still be in session depending on where you live, but your thoughts have likely already drifted to this year’s summer vacation.  Where are we going to go? How will we get there? And, how much will it cost? If your destination requires a plane ticket, here are a few tips for finding the best deals to ensure you are getting the most value from your airline this summer.

  • “Code Sharing:” Understand what it is and how it works

In simplified terms, Code Sharing is an agreement by two or more airlines to share the same flight. This typically occurs between airlines that are part of the same airline alliance, such as oneworld or Star Alliance. Two carriers, say American Airlines and Qantas, for example, agree to offer/market the same flight. So, even though you booked your flight through American Airlines, Qantas may actually be operating the flight and a Qantas plane and pilot will be flying you there.

So you naturally assume that the cost of the ticket you purchased with American would be the same price if booked through Qantas, right? Not necessarily. While you may be a loyal AA flyer, you might actually get a better fare by booking the same flight on Qantas (in this example). And sometimes the difference in fares between airlines can be substantial, especially when flying internationally.

Tip:

If you see that a flight is being operated by a partner of your preferred airline (This information will be listed in smaller type beneath the carrier you’re booking through.), do a quick cross-check on their website to be sure you are getting the best possible price. If the airlines are partners in a major airline alliance your ability to accrue points/miles will not be affected. Continue reading →

Top YouTube travel vlogger, “Hey Nadine,” talks about millennials’ influence on travel industry

Numbering more than 75 million, the U.S. Census Bureau estimates that millennials have surpassed baby boomers as the nation’s largest living generation. To better understand how these tech-savvy up and comers are reshaping the travel industry, we interviewed popular millennial Travel Vlogger and YouTube Celebrity, Nadine Sykora of HeyNadine.com.

WATCH our interview with Nadine Sykora, YouTube vlogger at Hey Nadine.

 

Tell us about your vlog and how you got to where you are today? 

My site is HeyNadine.com and that’s also the name of my YouTube channel, which is kind of my main thing. Originally it started as a fun project when I was in university. I just started creating fun comedy videos in my dorm room to kind of give myself a creative outlet, because I was studying computer science and engineering at the time, which is not the most creative field.  When I graduated I really wanted to go travel before I settled down and started a real job. I was like, “I’m going to go travel for a year.”

I did a working holiday visa in New Zealand and I took my video camera along with me. I started doing little video blogs and text blogs of my experiences when I was traveling. At the time, nobody was doing travel videos – and travel blogging was still relatively new. So within that year, my travel vlogs just blew up from something that was a fun project, to the start of my current career. In the beginning, there was no money, it was just fun.

Who is a typical fan of Hey Nadine’s travel adventures? Who’s watching you? 

I appeal mainly to the millennial audience, so 18 to 35 are my core viewers because youth travelers are increasingly looking to go out and experience the world for themselves, as opposed to just waiting to travel when they are older. Fellow millennials that are in the same situation that I was in, they’re either in university at the moment or they just graduated and they want to go out and experience the world that they see all over Instagram, Youtube, etc.

Travel in general, I find is pretty universal.  But types of travel are very different and that could be any age range. If you’re a millennial or if you’re a senior traveler, it doesn’t matter. It’s the style of travel, whether you enjoy museums, whether you enjoy action, whether you enjoy culinary travel experiences or solo travel vs. group tours. I think style more aptly speaks to the type of traveler you are rather than your age category.

The world is so much more accessible now and people are realizing, especially young travelers and future travelers, “Hey, I can do this, this is achievable and I want to go out there and see some stuff before I …” do whatever it is they want to do in their lives.

That’s a great point. Now that millennials are maturing and settling into their careers, they are becoming a force to be reckoned with. They have money, there are a lot of them, and of course, the travel industry is paying attention. From your perspective, how do you think that millennials are reshaping the travel industry? 

I think millennial travel versus other types of travel is very much changing the travel industry because they look for different things. Millennials like a mixture of group package tours where they can meet other people because they’re finding they are traveling a lot more on their own. There are many people that aren’t traveling with a significant other because they’re single or they want to go, but their friends can’t afford it.  So I think you’re seeing a really big mixture of travelers that decide to just go solo and book and plan everything themselves, and then you have solo travelers that want to travel with other people, in which case they end up booking group tours. That’s why you’re seeing kind of an explosion in the youth group tour categories because youth travelers, millennial travelers, they want to travel with other people their own age.

Tour companies are really starting to capitalize on this. Many are distinguishing themselves as the, “Hey, we’re the tour company for 18 to 35-year olds,” and there are multiple options out there that cater specifically to that younger audience, which is really good.

Millennials are also interested in bespoke travels. They want more unique things. They’re not looking for the huge, mega resort, all inclusive, where everything is taken care of. They’re liking smaller places. They’re liking family-owned. They’re liking boutique. They’re liking cool designs or unique aspects, something that differentiates and what I like to call, “gives it that Instagram-worthy value,” because social media is a huge part of travel, and a very high percentage of millennials are on at least one social network.  Many are seeing images on Instagram and Facebook that inspire them to want to visit those places and do those things.  They are looking for places that stand out from the crowd because they stand out from the crowd.

If you were going to project into the future, 5 or 10 years out, what do you think is going to change from the airline or the hospitality industry, specifically? 

Technology is obviously a big thing. Most hotels are keeping up with at least the basics, like WiFi, public computers, in-room iPads, or chargers. They’re integrating technology a lot more into their offerings and services, which I think is really cool. Accessibility, ease of booking, easier access to reviews, all these are features that millennials expect and hotels are hearing us.

I find that millennials do a bit more investigating than other demographics. We’re a little bit more skeptical because there’s so much out there;  we want to see more of what we’re paying for. If I’m thinking about staying at a place, I want to see reviews, I want to see photos, I want to see videos. We expect more information about the places we’re going to. That’s going to affect the way the travel industry markets itself to people like me.

The sharing economy is huge with millennials, so your Airbnb, your HomeAways, your house sharing and couch surfing will continue to grow in popularity.  There is a big push away from the big box standard hotel and going for that unique experience that’s off the beaten path.  Something cool they can brag about to their friends back home and earn that all-important social clout.

Our audience is comprised of frequent flyers and hardcore business travelers. Do you have any ninja tips of your own for getting cheaper flights or just making your air travel experience better? 

There are a couple of different things, but when it comes to getting cheaper flights the biggest one I’ve always preached is flexibility and flexibility on destination. The more flexible you are and the more time you give yourself to book, the more deals pop up. It’s really up to you to keep an eye on the deals that surface.

Some rules of thumb:  Flip your way of thinking about planning a vacation. What I mean is, rather than starting off your planning by picking your destination first and then looking for cheap flights, start with a blank slate on your place and see what options pop up on Skyscanner or Google Flights by searching “Everywhere”.  You will likely find deals to domestic and international spots that are really interesting and you might not have thought of– and even some on your bucket list. If I have a date I want to travel and I seek out my cheaper options, I will achieve my objective to travel more and spend less – Be flexible.

Are there any do’s and don’ts that you think are important for younger travelers or millennials that are just getting started with their travel experiences? 

When it comes to do’s and don’ts, one of the biggest do’s is to go in with an open mind and to be respectful. When you’re experiencing a new culture for the first time, take time and research the people and their customs, so you don’t behave in a way that is perceived as disrespectful or obnoxious. Even if you’re a paying customer, it doesn’t give you the right to do whatever you please.

Remember that travel is a privilege. We’re very lucky to be able to do it and if you’re out there traveling the world as a millennial, be excited, but be respectful. You are an ambassador for your country and you want to make a good impression to the rest of the world.

ExpertFlyer Travel Survey Shows 40% of Respondents Affected by Electronics Ban

The recent ban on electronics including laptops and tablets on flights to the U.S. from targeted airports will impact inflight activities for many business and leisure travelers, a new survey shows. ExpertFlyer.com, an online airline information website, surveyed 1,566 subscribers to determine how severe the impact would be and what steps, if any, travelers might take to avoid these airports or how they would adjust their inflight travel habits. The survey also asked travelers if they would use laptops and tablets provided by airlines as part of a free loaner program on affected flights. While 58% of respondents said they would consider it, 42% said “absolutely not.”

Of the 1,566 responses, ExpertFlyer found that 40% said they would be directly impacted by the recent ban and 40% of those said they plan to reroute their itinerary to avoid the inconvenience. The remaining 60% affected by the ban said they would not change their travel itineraries and would simply adjust their typical inflight activities accordingly.

The ban targets specific airports, mostly in the Middle East, and applies only to direct flights to the U.S.  Airports currently on the list include Cairo, Egypt; Dubai and Abu Dhabi, UAE; Istanbul, Turkey; Doha, Qatar; Amman, Jordan; Kuwait City; Casablanca, Morocco; and Jeddah and Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

Gary Leff, author at the popular frequent flyer blog, A View from the Wing, analyzed the results of the survey and offered some insight about what this means for international travel, as well as alternative options that travelers may consider to avoid the inconvenience.

“These are major world hubs that have become very efficient places for connections; not just between the U.S. and India but even to Asia from the east coast of the U.S,” Leff explains.  “For business travelers who have sensitive information on their computers, letting it out of their sight is not an option and they are left with only two choices; leave the laptop behind or adjust their itinerary to avoid the ban.” During his interview with ExpertFlyer, Leff discussed ways travelers can use their mobile phone, which is permitted on these flights, as an alternate work machine. He also suggests traveling during business downtimes. “Flying on Friday night through Monday morning minimizes the need to conduct business inflight. It’s a good time to decompress by watching a movie, closing your eyes or if you must work, catch up on emails using your phone.”

“As the survey suggests, a large percentage of respondents will be affected by this ban on electronics,” explains Chris Lopinto, president and co-founder of ExpertFlyer.com. “The ban has had a dual impact on the travel industry. Less people are traveling from these cities and the airlines have reduced the number of scheduled flights. As with the airline industry in general, this situation is creating an ever-changing dynamic that continually needs to be monitored.”

66% of respondents whose travels are affected by the ban (618 respondents) said they would not change their travel itineraries but confirmed their onboard activities would be impacted. This suggests that these respondents typically conduct business using their electronics while the remaining 34% who said it would not have an effect on activities would read, sleep, or access inflight entertainment programming.

“Long-haul flights like these typically offer entertainment centers in the headrests in all classes so if you’re not planning to work during the flight, the ban should have minimal impact on your usual activities,” Lopinto said.

Many airlines are creating laptop / tablet loaner programs for passengers during the ban. Offered primarily to premium cabin passengers, ExpertFlyer wanted to determine if such a loaner program had broader appeal among all passengers, not just those in Business or First Class. 57% of all respondents said they would consider using a loaner device from an airline while 42% responded with a resounding “no way.”

“For the traveler who wants to work in flight, it isn’t a replacement at all,” explains Gary Leff. “You don’t have access to your hard drive and you probably don’t want to use a USB drive for fear of leaving a digital footprint behind. The device doesn’t have the software or apps needed to work effectively and there are serious security issues to consider.” Mr. Leff’s comments echoed those of respondents who would not borrow an electronic device. Sanitary considerations were also frequently voiced. “Do you really think they properly clean those devices after every use?” one respondent barked.

Revisiting India with Louise Nicholson

A lot has changed since 2015 when we last caught up with author and India travel expert, Louise Nicholson. We recently interviewed Louise to revisit the wonders of this exotic far east destination. The most notable change is the drastic improvement in the country’s transportation infrastructure and hospitality amenities that have expanded the possibilities in an already expansive country. Read our Q&A and watch our interview with Louise below to learn more.

WATCH our interview with Louise Nicholson

Give us an update on what you’ve been doing? 

I’ve been spreading my wings!  Just done a fabulous new tour through Central India seeing a string of star sites and staying in great hotels that make this a new take for the first time visitor, and without tourist traps of the familiar Delhi-Agra-Jaipur itinerary.  And about to do a new tour to Ladakh in the stunning high Himalayas, seeing painted monasteries and staying lakeside on the Tibetan plateau in pristine mountain beauty – my stunner for July.  Also, working with museum trips, institutions, and lots of private trips for families.

When we talked in 2015, you gave us an overview of your top 5 destinations in India: Mumbai, Rajasthan (Vlarspur, Jodhpur, Nagaur), Tamil Nadu, Ajanta and Ellora and Sikkim. Anything new to report? 

My top favorite India destinations do change as places become more accessible thanks to India’s manic road-building and improvements in local accommodation.  So, while Mumbai, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu and Ajanta/Ellora are still up there, Sikkim’s formerly great hotel in the west has unfortunately plummeted in admin and staff.  I’d replace it with the newly more accessible glories of Central India’s early cities – where you can wander Champaner, Mandu and Chanderi’s stunning medieval buildings in beautiful rural settings with few tourists.  This region has additional options to visit India’s tribal belt villages and markets as well as see sophisticated weavers making exquisite traditional textiles thanks to great NGO leadership – such as Rewa and Women Weave at Maheshwar and LemonTree and Chanderiyaan at Chanderi.

What’s hot in India now?

  1. An increasing number of heritage hotels in off-beat places – for instance, there’s a beautiful mansion on the fringes of Kolkata, a fantastic multi-layered and complex city, so you could do a few city days and then a few in this rural idyll.
  2. Pondicherry.  The revival of the French colonial area began more than two decades ago and continues to be done with great taste thanks to the local conservation body INTACH.  There are now lots of beautiful historic buildings to stay in large and small, such as Palais de Mahe, and lots of stand-alone bars and restaurants, as well as boutiques stocking India’s superb young fashion designers – which I just don’t understand why they are not available globally.  The only downside of Pondicherry is there is no beach of quality, but Indian beaches rarely come up to US east/west coast standards.
  3. Ahmedabad city in the west.  Really buzzy with its old city heritage walks, the Calico museum of textiles, the LD Lalbhai museum of historic art, great Gujarati food found at House of MG’s rooftop restaurant, buildings by Le Corbusier and Louis Kahn.  And a newly opened (Jan 2017) gorgeous historic mansion renovated by Rahol Malhotra and containing the collection of another Lalbhai, Kasturbhai Lalbai, which has both historic and very good contemporary collections, a real treat.

 Anything that we need to me mindful of as we plan a trip to India?

My motto is ‘Less is more’, meaning the fewer places you go the longer you have in each and therefore the more you will get out of your whole trip.  India is not about manically ticking off places from the Taj Mahal to seeing a tiger; it is about getting down on the ground to see the sites, sure, but also to walk old cities, stay in a nature reserve for three days, encounter locals, visit markets, experience the contemporary such as going to the movies or hanging out in a cafe with locals or arranging a spice shopping outing and then a cooking demonstration.

Movies like The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel idealize India as a place for expats to set down roots.  What’s your honest take on that consideration?

Well!  As you may imagine many of my friends and clients have asked me to set up my own Marigold Hotel in India!  Seriously, though, India is a very good place to select one place – very carefully – and put down roots for, say, six months or a year.  You would get to know the local people from mango sellers to schoolchildren, you would feel the rhythm of the seasons, share in the festivals, and also be able to contribute your skills and get a lot of fulfillment.  But choose carefully: a city may suit some, a village others.  But it is not a breeze.  India is simultaneously very welcoming and fairly tough.  You would have to be quite self-sufficient emotionally and self-starting in finding something to occupy your days, as Judy Dench and the other actors in Best Exotic Marigold Hotel showed us very clearly!