The Doctor has been out—having surgery—and deeply apologizes for the gap between posts. Meanwhile, recovery is coming along, and so are the travel tips. Here are a few favorites:
The moment one of the major airlines changes your schedule, usually all you have to do is call and you can change your ticket to a different time, and sometimes even a different day. Often, that is grounds for a refund as well. This even applies to basic economy tickets in most cases. If you really don’t like your options when you book, this can be an excellent reason to book early. I booked a Christmas trip to Chicago, my absolute favorite city. I really wanted to come home December 26, but departing after Christmas costs a lot more than departing on Christmas, so I sucked it up and found myself a nice late afternoon Christmas Day departure. I booked my flight in June. By July that flight had been changed once to an evening flight and by late August it had been changed again to early afternoon. Finally, I called the airlines: “Look, this is really messing with my Christmas Day plans, and you have changed it twice. Now I am seeing there are no flights at all at the times I booked. Can I just fly home the 26th?” And a very nice American Airlines representative named Lisa said “Sure. Do you want to go at that 2:25 time?” That same ticket right now costs over $100 more than I paid for it. Book early. Sometimes the airline will do the changing for you. Now I get to spend my entire Christmas Day in Chicago and even sleep in the day after. Thanks, American Airlines, for the lovely Christmas gift. (But be sure you are happy with what you book because they don’t always change schedules.)
Book flights early and hotels late. Really, book everything early. Always book refundable hotel and rental car reservations in case the prices go up. And if your flights are for busy holiday travel book them early. But when it comes to hotels and rental cars, check back in the week or two before because often those rates will drop substantially. Hotels, especially, start letting their unsold inventory go at lower prices. Now, this is not the case for special hotel sales where advance purchases are necessary, such as IHG’s 3, day or 14 day advance purchase sales, but it’s still wise to put some rooms on hold three months out, then pay for the lower priced rooms 3 or 14 days out with the sales—those prices can vary wildly. One I compared while writing this post has a three day advance of $97 for IHG members vs. a $127 for non-members at a flexible rate—for the same room on the same night.
These are in Kansas City—another place I visit often and compare room prices frequently. I am partial to Hilton’s accommodations whenever I can swing them. Their lowest rates seem to be with the AARP advance purchase discount, which usually comes in slightly lower than the member discount advance purchase. Currently, for example, a winter room in Chicago (I always use Chicago as one of my examples—because I love it and maybe one day Chicago will foot the bill for my trips there! I mean, a girl’s gotta hope, right!) goes for as low as $69 at a Hilton Garden Inn on the South Loop with the AARP Advance Purchase rate, while it goes for $72 at the refundable AARP rate. The Hilton Honors Advance Purchase Rate for this one is also $69, but the Semi-Flex Honors rate is $73, so in this case, having the golden AARP number—which, again, everyone can qualify for—is the way to go.
Always book directly through the hotel or airline. I know this one is a bit controversial for budget travelers. But look, when something goes wrong, you will be glad you did. I am not a negative Nellie. I generally have good trips, other than little things like a cranky gate agent or dumb delay (like that de-planning incident over an extra apiece of plastic at DFW on June 21! YIKES!)—but if you have a major incident, which happens more and more these days, and you booked through a third party, guess who the airline or hotel is going to send you to in your moment of crisis? Yeah, if it’s Hilton, they might take care of you because Hilton is pretty classy, but then again, they might not if there are a bunch of people in crisis and 75% of them booked through Hilton. If you book through a travel agent, you have to reach your travel agent. You ever tried to do that at 2 a.m. in Dublin? If you booked through Hotels.com, you get to call them from Valencia—I could not even figure out how to use my phone with in Rome last year (which was a whole chore just trying to call my hotel shuttle!). Don’t do it. Booking direct through the chain puts the onus on the chain, the hotel, the airline, to fix it. Many of them have guarantees. If it’s an airline, depending on the country it happened in, they may even have national laws to which they are subject. I have watched people settle for less than they are entitled for major delays or changes. You should know your rights and take advantage or them. I don’t mean in an ugly manipulative way, but in a legitimate way. If you are delayed overnight somewhere due to an airline pilot being drunk and you are in Canada, you are owed some serious compensation, and guess what—that probably cost you—time, vacation, money, comfort, whatever. Contracts of carriage, which you “sign” when you buy a ticket, go two ways.
Get a credit card with travel protections and always always use it. Did I say always? I mean always. And while I’m at it, let me say this really loudly. NEVER USE A DEBIT CARD. You guys, cover your booties. To start with the latter, a debit card has hardly any protections. MAYBE if you encounter loss or theft you might be covered after the first $50, but that’s about it. Chargebacks are much more difficult and can tie up your whole bank account—including your paycheck. DON’T DO IT! Do not EVER rely on a debit card for travel. To be frank, it’s irresponsible and dumb.
You need to be using a credit card that will cover you if you get stranded due to a non-covered event—such as a weather-related delay. Here’s a hint. Airlines will sometimes lie (I know you’re stunned) and tell you the delays are weather related (American Airlines CEO, Doug Parker, actually admitted in an internal meeting that he has found a way to blame pretty much every delay and cancelation on weather. Big thumbs down to Dougie! He relied on a fact: Most passengers would not challenge it. But readers of this blog, of Gary Leff’s blog (where it was first reported) and other blogs, are smart enough to do their research. If someone tells me it’s weather related, I am going to challenge it if I don’t know for a fact it is. One way to find out: check flights from other airlines leaving and arriving at the same time and ask the airlines. But that challenge has to come later. That night, you might find yourself in Tampa or Charlotte or Newark with no flight for two days, no clothes, no extra cash after you spent it all on vacation, and a very tired body. And this is why you need a good credit card. I cannot recommend Chase highly enough. I’ve previously written about the United Explorer Card. You don’t have to be flying on United to use it. I book many AA flights with it simply for the travel protections. The United card is from Chase, my favorite credit card issuer, who also has a host of other cards, including the much lauded Chase Sapphire Preferred and Reserve cards, which come with travel protections. Due to Citi ditching most of its travel benefits, basically, you need a Chase card. They are worth every penny. I, myself, have a few Chase cards, but use the United card as my travel card because that way I have a free checked bag and priority boarding on United if I fly it. I also carry an American credit card for the same reason, so the last thing I want to do is pay a few for another one for separate travel protections.
Be nice. No, really. Something will probably go wrong during travel. Whether it be your flight times changing or being canceled or you do something dumb, like how I overslept and almost missed my flight out of Minneapolis in July. You need customer service agents and hotel clerks and everyone else to help you. Guess what? Most of them have a lot of leeway. If you call or walk in with an angry tone, snapping at them, you will probably be really unhappy with your result. Sometimes I read travel message boards and see people complain that this or that happened–which is the opposite of my own experience in what appears to be the same situation. I always want to ask how they treated the person they were asking for help. One thing I say to American agents, pretty much all the time, is “look, I know about the mechanics’ strike and court battles, and I know you must have a lot of angry customers right now, and you didn’t even cause this, so I don’t want to complain to you.” Sometimes just acknowledging the situation can be helpful. It’s okay to ask for what you need, and even to push a bit if you know you are not being treated well (if it’s for real and not from a false sense of entitlement), but tone and kindness goes a long way in getting resolution. These are still fellow human beings on the other end, just like you and me. We aren’t dealing with the CEOs here, so don’t take it out on them (easier said than done sometimes, I know, but I try to remind myself of this often!).
Those are some of my favorite travel tips,