My Rant Against Air Travel

I typically don’t travel far for my vacations. Why should I?

I am one of the lucky ones. I live in the San Francisco Bay area. It is one of the most naturally beautiful locations on earth. For gorgeous views and superb outdoor activities combined with a great cosmopolitan city, there is no place better. U.S. Travel lists it as the number-one spot for a vacation in America. I’m not surprised. There’s more. Within a few hours drive, there are a variety of equally stunning locales, from Monterey to Yosemite National Park. If for some reason I was constrained to stay within this driving radius for the rest of my life, I would be content.

Still, I periodically feel the lure of visiting distinct and exotic locales. I rarely give into this urge. The main reason is that, aside from being a satisfied stick-in-the-mud, I find traveling abroad to be more and more unpleasant with each passing year. I’m not talking about the time spent at whatever destination I’ve chosen. That remains fine. I’m talking about the hassles you have to endure before you ever set foot on foreign soil. For me, I’m sure the unpleasantness is partly a side effect of having less tolerance for hassles as I get older. But it’s mainly due to the total disregard for customer satisfaction shown by most travel providers, especially airlines.

I assume airlines, at some level, are interested in maintaining their tourist customers. If so, you’d be hard-pressed to find evidence of this. It’s no wonder airlines keep declaring bankruptcy.

Case in point: My wife and I recently started planning a trip to Paris we hope to take this spring. Just booking a flight turned out to be so infuriating that I almost decided it wasn’t worth the bother.

We first tried getting tickets several months ago, hoping to get seats before things started to get busy. No such luck. We couldn’t book more than six months in advance. So we had to wait. When our departure date was about five and half months away, we tried again. More bad news. The desirable flights were already almost full.

But almost doesn’t count, as they say. So we pressed forward, under the pressure of knowing that any delay could spell doom for getting a good deal. Dealing with AAA Travel, we eventually found a flight we liked at an acceptable price. We did hesitate one day before paying for the tickets — just to be certain this was what we truly wanted. Big mistake! Huge! By the next day, the flight had gone up $100/ticket for a fuel surcharge. The ticket price jumped yet another $100 because the seat category available the day before had sold out; only more expensive seats were left. Understand that these more expensive seats were still in the cheapest economy class. It’s just that the airline charged more for the remaining seats because the plane had less seats left. Lastly, it turned out that our agent had made a mistake in her initial pre-booking; she had put in the wrong departure date. Luckily, I caught this before buying the tickets. However, when she entered the correct date, the cost of the flight that day was (you guessed it!) a further $100 increase. So, within 24 hours of selecting a flight, the cost of a ticket increased over $300 from the initial quote.

Is there any other purchase where prices fluctuate like this? I can think of some cases where the price of a product may go up (or down) significantly on a given day. But that would typically happen only one or two times a year. With the airlines, these price fluctuations happen continually, every day of the year, perhaps several times in one day.

Buying an airline ticket amounts to a gamble, not unlike rolling the dice at Vegas or playing the stock market. If you wait, even a day, the price may go up — a lot. You lose. Alternatively, if you buy a ticket today, the price may go down the next day. And if that happens, you can’t cancel and rebook at the lower price. You lose again. This is because, if you have to cancel your reservation for any reason, there is almost always a fee, often a big fee, that you have to pay.

In our case, the cost of canceling our trip was (sit down before reading further!) $400 per ticket. This is true even if you cancel well in advance of the flight and even if the airline rebooks your seats to someone else (probably at a higher price). It’s just an automatic and non-negotiable fee.

The airlines are, by far, the worst offenders here. No other part of a typical trip (hotels, car rentals, restaurants) have anything close to these onerous restrictions on reservations. Even after you succeed in purchasing a ticket, the airlines don’t guarantee you a seat. You could get bumped off a flight at the last minute if they are overbooked — which is legal for them to do.

Added to all of this is the fact that the price you found may not be the best price available for a given seat on a given plane on a given day; the price can vary depending upon whether you deal with the airline directly, a travel service, or any of dozens of websites.

In case you’re wondering, I did consider getting tickets on the web, rather than go with AAA — although it was hard to determine if this was worth the effort. For starters, you first have to figure out where to search (as a recent New York Times article covers, there are a myriad of choices). Next, you discover that the variation in prices on the web for different flights is enormous; for our trip, there was a range of over $1200 (all for economy class seats). Prices varied as a function of the particular airline, the number of stops, the length of the layover(s), the time of departure, as well as for no apparent reason at all.

Given my ignorance of international travel, intelligently deciding on the trade-offs was almost impossible. Which is better, flying Icelandic Air with a 2 hour layover in Reykjavik — or saving $150 by flying TAP Portugal with a 5 hour layover in Lisbon? Or skipping layovers altogether and going for a non-stop? I don’t know. And this assumes I could figure out who is actually flying a given plane. Air France had several flights listed as “operated by Delta.” I learned this meant that Delta was actually the carrier, not Air France. The name of the airline attached to the flight number is irrelevant.

I needed time to sort all of this out. But the airlines don’t give you time. By the time I figured out what flight I wanted, all the available flights and prices would have changed. And I would have to start all over again. This was not a road I wanted to travel down. In the end, I probably could have saved money by booking the tickets myself. But it would have been for a different less desirable flight. I decided it wasn’t worth it and stuck with AAA.

There were other options I did not consider: going with an airline + hotel package, or one of those group packages that include guided tours and meals. Throwing these into the mix would have made a decision even more overwhelming. For better or worse, we decided to go “a la carte.”

One last insult. I earlier mentioned the $400 cancellation fee. It turns out that AAA offers insurance to “protect” you in case you need to cancel. One such insurance allows you to cancel for any reason (not just for health-related reasons). In our case, the cost of this insurance was $248/per person. If we did wind up canceling for any non-medical reason, it costs us even more — as we only get back 80% of the cost of the ticket. Given our ticket price, this meant that canceling our trip with insurance would cost us more money than canceling our trip without insurance! I’m not joking. Is anyone stupid enough to fall for this scam?

This is hardly the end of the story. We still have accommodations and other advance reservations to book — as well as deciding on a pre-trip package for mobile phone usage. And then there’s the great “joy” of the travel day itself — with security lines, luggage fees, long flights with cramped seating and minimal food.

Some people may find true joy in planning their trip. There was a time I might have as well. Not anymore. Not with the way things work today.

I still enjoy being on the trip, of course. And Paris awaits us as our reward for putting up with all the pre-trip hassles. I’m looking forward to it. There’s an old saying that the “journey is the reward.” When it comes to travel abroad, this saying is a complete fiction.

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2 Responses to My Rant Against Air Travel

  1. gbjerry says:

    The more I read your stuff, Ted, the more I enjoy it. Regarding air travel: I have resigned myself not to play their game again. I have a pilot’s license. I used to look forward to flying commercial. Anymore I feel like a piece of baggage which has no input as to how it is treated. I am tired of being jerked around and cramped. Your piece is spot on, my friend. I love Sam Shepard’s comment (he does not fly) when Barbara Walters asked him, “What if you had to be in LA tomorrow?”, and he replied, “I’d never have to be in LA tomorrow”. My next trip is on Amtrak. I’ll let you know how that is. Meanwhile, keep the pressure on.

  2. JohnO says:

    Very nicely put, Ted.

    I’m a pilot (single engine) and a flight instructor. I have many airline pilot friends, and am somewhat familiar with the ins and outs of the industry.

    Even with all that, the magic of airline pricing eludes me. It feels like 3-Card Monte.

    Also, as you may have noticed, the plethora of Internet travel sites are much weaker for international travel – especially travel that crosses multiple airlines in multiple countries.

    Personally, I consider non-stop flights worth quite a bit of money. Every take-off and landing is another opportunity for weather delays. It is another opportunity for equipment (aircraft) problems. It is another opportunity for bags to be lost (if you are checking bags). It is especially frustrating to have these issues at an airport where English is not the preferred language. If I can’t get a non-stop, and I’m flying internationally, I’ll do what I can to choose a transfer point in the US.

    Where possible, I fly myself, or if under a few hours, drive.

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