ExpertFlyer Hot Topics — Where the Rubber Meets the Runway
Joe Cortez, travel expert and contributing writer for FlyerTalk, the Frugal Travel Guy, About.com and others, took ExpertFlyer for a deep dive on hot topics and predictions that are generating buzz in the airline industry and among consumers.
It’s still early in the year and travel experts are still making predictions on where the airline industry is heading in 2016. One trend we’re seeing is airlines competing for customers in the front of the plane – business class, first and premium economy. What’s your take and will economy flyers have any perks to look forward to?
There is good news and bad news here. The truth is that airlines are focusing more attention on the front of the cabin – but even that is changing. Legacy carriers are moving from a three-cabin aircraft to a combined business first, and offering more rewards to those who are flying in the combined Business-First class and premium cabin.
The bad news is that economy travelers will see more divide in their experience. That is, those in economy class will get exactly what they pay for. You may recall in 2014 when Delta Air Lines changed their economy pricing model to run across five tiers, with the lowest tier being just the seat and nothing more. Those in economy class can expect to see more of that, along with encouragement to upgrade to premium economy for more perks.
The good news here is that for what the economy experience lacks, airlines are making up for in customer service and customer experience. For example, United Airlines is resuming free snacks and free drinks on certain flights. Airlines realize that the only way to retain customers is to improve the customer experience – even in the economy section.
Frequent flyer rewards programs from Delta and United have seen significant overhauls, now basing award points on dollars spent vs. miles flown. Last fall, AA announced that it too would be following suit much to the dismay of many AAdvantage fans. This seems another striking blow to consumers. Is there a work around for leisure travelers – can they still find ways to accrue miles without breaking the bank?
There are two different points to differentiate here: elite qualifying miles and award miles. Prior to the American Airlines changes, a mile flown was an award mile earned. With the announced changes, an award mile flown is no longer earned. Instead, award miles are earned based on the base price, as well as certain other purchases. Therefore, flying is no longer an efficient way to earn miles alone.
However, miles flown are still miles earned when it comes to Elite Qualifying Miles. Those who are looking for airline status can still accrue elite qualifying miles for the distance flown on their flight. Therefore, there is still some value to be had for flying with one airline across country – just not towards discounted flights.
Which credit cards are the best for building points? Any pros/cons?
It all depends on your traveling style. For those flyers who know they will be loyal to one airline, it may make sense to do all your spending on an airline branded credit card that offers miles for everyday spending. If you are focusing all your attention on one airline, then it may even make sense to consider an upgraded credit card. For example: while the Chase United Explorer card offers miles for spending, the Chase United Club card offers bonus points for spending with the airline, as well as membership to the United Club lounge.
Those travelers who are not married to one airline may want to consider a card that offers cash back or flexible points instead, such as those offered by American Express, Chase, and Citi. Cards with flexible points offer travelers the opportunity to book flights direct through their portals, or transfer their points to airlines or hotel partners. Through these opportunities, travelers can make the most of their regular credit card spending.
Now that Expedia and Priceline have a monopoly on airline bookings, are there any creative alternatives worth exploring?
There are still some very good opportunities to book flights outside of the Expedia-Priceline monopoly. Many people still don’t necessarily know that Google purchased ITA Software years ago, and uses their software to power Google Flights. I always recommend Google Flights as a great tool that offers a lot of flexibility for travelers to determine when and how they want to travel. For those advanced users who know they will be traveling a lot, it may be worthwhile to learn how to use ITA Matrix, for complete flexibility.
While travelers cannot book through ITA Matrix, they can build ideal itineraries through the matrix and then go back to a booking engine to complete their itinerary. Finally, if all else fails – it does not hurt to consider working with a travel agent. After building an itinerary, travelers can take their information and hand it over to a travel agent, who can then build out that flight in turn.
Up and coming budget airlines, like Norwegian, WOW and Viva Columbia seem to be offering to-good-to-be-true prices to Europe, South America, among other desirable destinations. Are there any catches or should we be jumping on these deals?
As with many things in life, there is good news and bad news. The good news is that yes – these fares are believable. Travelers can fly on the advertised fare. However, that’s where the good news ends. While not “hidden,” fees can increase the price of those flights very quickly. Want to carry on more than one bag, or select a seat prior to flying? There are fees for that – and the fees can add up. If you are a traveler that can get away with flying around the world with the clothes on your back and one small personal item? Then you can get away for free. Otherwise, consider budgeting more than the printed price if you plan on flying an international low-cost carrier.