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Monday, June 30, 2008

Fee-Fi-Fo-Fum II

Nearly every day, American airline companies seem to be adding fees, cutting flights, firing staff, and generally making things unpleasant for their employees and for the innocent traveler. We are all now too familiar with the baggage fee that nearly every domestic carrier (except Southwest) is charging. But did you hear the one about the frequent flyer fee? Yep, on Delta and US Airways, there's no such thing as a free ticket, anymore. Redeem your frequent flyer miles on Delta and you'll pay $25 for domestic flights and $50 for international journeys. Delta is calling the fee a fuel surcharge, but whatever. The move follows on the heels of US Airways, which was first to announce a $25 fee on U.S. and Canadian frequent flyer flights. Free flights to Mexico and the Caribbean now cost $35 on that airline, and international tickets frequent flyer tickets cost $50.

In setting up their frequent flyer fee structures, these airlines are proving to be a bit geographically challenged. Delta includes Canada on its list of domestic destinations, which would make any Canuck say "Oh, Canada?" On the other hand, Delta considers Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands to be international destinations. Last time I checked, both were still U.S. territories. They do, after all, get to vote for president. But Delta would have the islands seceding from the Union, which, I guess, isn't extraordinary considering the airline is based in Atlanta.

But I digress. US Airways, in its infinite wisdom, counts Hawaii as an international destination. That's lei-ing it on a bit thick, don't you think?

Interestingly, while Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Hawaii count as international destinations when it comes to frequent flyer fees, when it comes to baggage fees, they do not. This is relevant, because Americans flying to international destinations are not charged for their first two bags. In other words, a passenger who redeems frequent flyer points for a trip to Hawaii will pay $50 for the "international" ticket, but will also have to pay $15 to check the first bag and $25 for the second, per US Airways' domestic baggage policy. Got that?

By the way, American Airlines, our friends who came up with the brilliant idea of charging for the first bag checked, is currently only charging a $5 processing fee for folks redeeming frequent flyer miles. But stayed tuned--that's likely to change any day now.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Laura's Getting Around

And I'm not talking about my month in Europe, which I will report on in upcoming posts. No, the title of this entry refers to recent appearances all around the media landscape.

Radio: For everything you ever wanted to know about Albania, listen to my report on Around the World Radio. The program aired live in California on June 19. But you can listen to it in perpetuity at www.aroundtheworldradio.com. Click on Archives and go to the June 19 show.

Magazines: Head's up. In the June/July issue of Destinations , I write about brewery tours across America. If you are looking for a fun and inexpensive theme for a summer vacation (and you are older than 18), this article might get you hopping.

Online Columns: More than 10 years ago, I was one of the first travel bloggers. Under the name of Jane Air, I wrote a weekly column for the Women on Their Way website. I am happy to report that, after a lengthy hiatus, Jane is back. Read her humorous take on travel at www.wyndhamworld.com/women_on_their_way/jane-air/archives

E-Zines: Here's a link to Pink, which recently quoted me in a story about reading while traveling. www.pinkmagazine/exclusives/julyaugust2008/airport_amenities.html

Television: Stay tuned. I'm scheduled for some on-air appearances in the Washington, DC area in July.

Friday, June 20, 2008

An Airline Wedding...Or Are They Just Co-Habitating?

United and Continental are uniting. Mind you, they aren't merging. But the two U.S. carriers are going to hook up their global networks. What does this mean? First and foremost, the partnership will include new frequent flier reciprocity so that points can be earned and redeemed on both airlines. Travel on either carrier will count toward earning elite status. And members of either airline's airport lounge program will have access to both Continental's Presidents Clubs and United's Red
Carpet Club lounges.

In the U.S., United and Continental will develop an extensive code-share system. This means that both airlines can continue with plans to reduce the number of jets they each fly, while still providing fairly comprehensive domestic service. For flights that may involve a transfer from a United plane to a Continental plane, there will be a (theoretically) seamless process for ticketing, check-in, flight connections and baggage transfer.

Internationally, Continental will join the Star Alliance, thereby allowing code shares not only with United, but with international partners such as Lufthansa, Thai, and SAS.

Islands in the Stream

It's not a good time to be an island. The tourism industries of both Hawaii and the Caribbean are quaking in their boots given recent developments in the airline industry. With fuel prices skyrocketing, and with carriers cutting back on service to vacation destinations, islands, which can't depend on a drive market to pick up the tourism slack, are left treading water.

American Airlines recently announced plans to cut flights to the Caribbean by about one-third. The cuts go into effect in early September. Given that American is the chief source of air traffic to the Caribbean, this development has the potential to create a swath of economic destruction across the tourism-dependent region. The biggest cutbacks are taking place in Puerto Rico, American's Caribbean hub. Daily flights to San Juan from the mainland are being cut from 38 to 18. Among the routes being cut entirely--San Juan-Washington Dulles, San Juan-BWI, and San Juan-Newark. Meanwhile, American Eagle flights out of Puerto Rico to other islands are being shaved to 33 from 55.

Some of the Caribbean islands are trying to fight back. Creating a regional strategy will be on the agenda at the inaugural Annual Caribbean Tourism Summit in Washington, DC from June 21-24. Additionally, individual countries are getting proactive. Tourism concerns in the U.S. Virgin Islands are banding together to intensify marketing in the effort to increase demand for flights. By doing so, they hope to negotiate with low-cost carriers such as Jet Blue and Southwest to bring service to the area.

There is one shot of good news, if you want to call it that, for the U.S. Virgin Islands. It looks like American Airlines will agree to exempt boxes of duty-free liquor from the new checked baggage charge. Woo-hoo.

State of the Union

Hawaii has its own challenges. Even though it's a state, Hawaii often is considered foreign territory in the airline world. You need to redeem more frequent flyer points to get there than to any other U.S. destination. US Airways is lumping Hawaii in with international destinations when it comes to charging fees for frequent flyer point redemption (see 6/16 post). There's been some cutback in service from mainland carriers and the state has suffered heavily from the bankruptcies of Aloha and ATA. Furthermore, Hawaii, which already has the most expensive gasoline prices in the nation, has the highest airline fuel surcharges as well. Hawaiian Airlines just increased its round-trip surcharge to $120 on flights from the West Coast (the surcharge charged by most carriers on mainland routes is $20).

The Hawai'i Visitors and Convention Bureau has launched a $3 million marketing campaign to entice North Americans to take their summer vacations in the state. Airfare-inclusive packages, with savings from $200 to $1000, have been created. Visit www.gohawaii.com for details. Still, whether that will be enough to convince cash-pinched travelers to say Aloha to Hawaii is a big question mark.

Saturday, June 14, 2008


So you've figured out how to get all of your stuff in a carry-on bag to avoid the new checked luggage fees. You've brought your own nibbles to prevent the need to buy on board. You've even booked your flight months in advance to avoid fuel surcharges. Guess what, dude? You're still going to have to reach into your wallet as airlines come up with increasingly annoying ways to nickel and dime you.

To wit, US Airways is going to charge two bucks a pop for soda and other non-alcoholic beverages starting August 1. As to not offend the teetotalers, alcoholic drinks will go up from $5 to $7. US Airways is coming up with other creative ways to make money (sure to be followed by the other carriers). Starting August 6, the airline will charge a new "award redemption processing fee" for all frequent-flyer tickets. Mileage tickets in the continental United States and Canada will cost $25. Flights to Mexico and the Caribbean will cost $35, and flights to Hawaii or to international destinations outside of North America will cost $50. But at least there's some egalitarianism in US Airways' policy. The carrier will no longer award bonus miles on paid flights flown by its elite frequent-flier members.

Complain about fees now, but be warned. There will be more of them, and ticket prices are likely to go sky-high after Labor Day. That's when high-demand, non-discretionary business travel makes a comeback, and when the airlines start paring their fleets. As any student of Economics knows, when supply and demand are going in opposite directions, something's got to give. And that something is low airline ticket prices.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

The Exchange Game

To follow up on a previous post regarding exchanging money overseas...

I just received my latest bank and credit card statements from my monthlong trip to Europe. My credit card company charged a three percent "exchange transaction" fee on every charge. Meantime, Bank of America charged $5.00 for every ATM withdrawal. The banks whose ATMs I used in Scandinavia and Hungary charged about $1 per withdrawal, while the Albanian bank charged nothing.

So, depending on the amount I withdrew from the ATM, my overall transaction fee ranged from three to eight percent. However, given BOA's new policy, starting June 1, that an additional three percent fee (based on the dollar amount withdrawn) will be charged makes ATM withdrawals exponentially more expensive. My advice: Stick to credit card transactions whenever possible, and look for both credit card companies and banks that offer low international transaction fees.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Europe on a Budget?

Europe is expensive. No doubt about it. I recently returned from a monthlong stay on the Continent and have some thoughts about how you can actually make your puny dollar stretch a bit further.

First off, ponder the place you will visit. I went to four countries. Alphabetically, they were Albania, Denmark, Hungary and Sweden. Expense-wise, from cheapest to most expensive, the order changes to Albania, Hungary, Sweden, Denmark.

Yep, if you want to do Europe cheap, visit Albania. No, it's not inexpensive to get to, but once you're there, accommodations (such as they are) and food, are cheap. Of course, it's not easy to get around the country, and getting to the places that are of major interest (Butrint, Saranda, Gjirokastra) is nearly impossible. But accommodations and food are cheap. For a country that's a bit more accessible, albeit a bit more expensive, there's Hungary. A stay at the charming Hotel Gerlozcy in the heart of the city, just footsteps from Vorosmarty Square, runs about $125 a night. The Mercure Metropol, located on one of the city's main boulevards, is only $108 per night, with a full breakfast included. With a Budapest Card ($41 for two days; $50 for three days), most major sights and public transportation are free. And food can be had for reasonable prices.

Not so in Scandinavia. Everything is out of sight in Denmark and Sweden. A few years ago, one dollar bought 13 Swedish kroner. Now, it buys six. In Denmark, the exchange is five Danish kroner to the dollar. What does five kroner buy you? Maybe a stale Danish at the low-cost Netto grocery store.

But don't give up on the Continent. Aside from lower-cost destinations like Albania, Hungary, Romania or Bulgaria, there are other ways to save, no matter what country you are visiting.

1. Friend-hop. If you have friends living in Europe, now is the time to visit them. Don't have friends on the Continent? Get some. There are several homestay organizations that arrange for overnight visits (of course, you have to be willing to reciprocate). Two of the biggies are The Hospitality Club (www.hospitalityclub.org) and SERVAS (www.servas.org).

2. Find lodging that includes breakfast. Eat a lot. Then, have lunch later in the afternoon and make it your main meal of the day. Restaurants often charge much less for lunch than for dinner.

3. Stay at a place that has a kitchen, or, at the very least, an in-room fridge. Then, go grocery shopping. Stock up on snacks and items like bread, cheese, and yogurt that can serve as mini-meals.

4. Buy a multi-day or multi-ride pass for public transportation. In Denmark, a single ride on the Metro cost $5.00. Buying a card for 10 passes brought the per ride cost down to $2.50. Almost every city that has a subway system offers special passes.

5. Similarly, if you plan to do a lot of sightseeing, check to see if the local tourism bureau offers a special pass. In Denmark, the Copenhagen Card provides free entrance to scores of attractions, plus free rides on all public transportation, and restaurant discounts. It's $42 for one day and $88 for three days. In Sweden, the Stockholm Card offers free entry to 75 attractions, free travel by public transport, free sightseeing by boat, and other goodies. A one-day pass costs approximately $55. Two days cost $77 and three $97. Both cards offer discounted rates for children.

6. Looking for the best exchange rate? Use plastic. Your credit card will give you the most for your money. I used to recommend use of the ATM as the best way to get cash. Certainly, the commission rates changed at Bureaux de Change are a rip-off. And changing money at banks can be inconvenient and laborious. But I've got to tell you, while convenient, the money-saving appeal of the ATM is diminishing. Banks just keep adding on fees on ATM transactions. There's the fee you are charged by your bank to use an out-of-network ATM. That can be $5 a pop. There's the fee charged by the local bank. That's wrapped up in the exchange rate, so you never quite know what that is. Just this month, Bank of America has decided to charge an extra three percent of all foreign transactions. So, in addition to the ATM usage fee, you will pay another $3 for a $100 withdrawal; $15 for a $500 withdrawal. Nice, huh?

7. Check into Europe's low-cost carriers. There are some good ones. Of course, Ryanair nickel and dimes you for everything from beverages to bag, but the base fee is worth it. Scandinavia's Sterling is a real gem. If you book far enough out, it's really cheap. A one-way trip from Copenhagen to Stockholm booked 30 days out costs $52. And that includes the extra two percent charge Danish companies and websites charge for using non-Denmark issued credit cards. I'll admit, the first time I booked on Sterling, I was confused by the extra charge to book a seat. After all, one would expect that when you buy a ticket, you buy a seat. My confusion was cleared up the second time I booked on Sterling. You can buy a seat with extra legroom or you can buy a regular seat or, for free, you can leave seat selection to chance. I did the latter on the return flight from Stockholm to Copenhagen and was quite happy with my free window seat near the front of the plane.

8. Wait. What goes up must come down. And at some point, the dollar will regain its strength. In the meantime, if you are hankering to go elsewhere overseas for cheap, consider destinations in South America and Asia