Air France offered us an upgrade — then it didn’t

To the back of the plane with you! / Photo by Pat Card - Flickr
Brian Lee and Alisha Singh were looking forward to their Air France flight the same way all of us used to anticipate flying, and a few of us still do.

They were traveling from New York to Paris on an Air France Airbus A380, the famous double-decker superjumbo, and in premium economy class. “We were very excited,” he says.
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Are airlines moving the loyalty program goalposts?

Who moved my post? / Photo by rbrw - Flickr
Every week or so I get a complaint about the elusive nature of loyalty programs.

They follow a formula: Someone has given all of their business to a particular airline, but when they try to redeem their miles for a “free” ticket or an upgrade, they find it costs a lot more than they expected.
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Can this trip be saved? A bait-and-switch offer on a cruise upgrade — or not?

Like a lot of other travelers, Tom Brollini was just looking for a bargain when he clicked on the Cruises Only website a few weeks ago.

And he thought he’d found one. The site offered several booking bonuses, including a one-category cabin upgrade.

“When I clicked on the price category, a popup said, “Book a category 8A cabin and get an 8K upgrade,” he remembers. ” When I proceeded to book the cabin, guess what? No upgrade.”
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“Your advice worked!”

When Barbara Baksa changed her United Airlines tickets, she assumed the upgrade to Economy Plus would transfer to the next flight. Wrong.

“I went round and round with the reservation agent, his supervisor, another customer service representative I was transferred to, and finally that representative’s supervisor,” she says. “I know, I know — I’ve read your column enough to know better than to bother with a phone call but I was really hoping to resolve the matter quickly.”

The representatives she spoke with were sympathetic, but unable to help. They said her only option was to request a refund of the original upgrade fee through United’s site. Her request was denied.

So now what?
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Four secrets for upgrading your next vacation

Think this is bad?

It could get worse. Much worse.

Travel is still at the beginning of its long descent into mediocrity. Airlines seem to invent new surcharges and passenger-hostile rules every week. Hotels aren’t far behind. Just the mention of the word “customer service” in the back office can be enough to evoke cackles of disdain from the underpaid employees. Worse, there are virtually no consumer protections against any of the inevitable abuses.

But you don’t have to go along for the ride. Sure, the latest customer surveys suggest customer satisfaction scores have plummeted to their lowest levels in years. (How bad is it? In one notable case, the industry celebrated a customer-approval grade of C-.) And if you read this column, you can try to count the many times the travel industry has let its customers down.

What, you’ve lost count? Me too.

“They have little regard for the customer,” says Ed Smith, a retired minister from Lenoir City, Tenn. “We used to be considered guests, but now — especially on the airlines — we are considered a necessary evil.”

There is hope, though.
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Children in first class? 3 suggestions for the kids ‘up front’

The most embarrassing moment of my life? That’s easy.

Our son, Aren, had just turned one and we were flying from New York to London on an airline whose name I’ve promised never to mention.

We’d managed to score an upgrade — seats 1A and 1B — and to ensure Aren had a pleasant trip, we offered him a nip of Benadryl. Most kids fall asleep when they’re given an antihistamine.

Not mine.

The medication had the exact opposite effect: Aren turned hyper, tearing down the aisle of the first class cabin, shrieking and bumping other passengers. He woke up the person sitting next to us and drooled on the passenger behind us.

All of which bring me to this week’s topic: Kids in first class. Should we or shouldn’t we? And if so, when?

Allow me to state my completely unbiased opinion right up front. No. We should not. At least not mine. I downgraded myself on the flight home, that’s how badly I felt for the other London-bound passengers that day.

What was I thinking, trying to bring a toddler into first class?

I’m not alone.

· An overwhelming majority of air travelers to a recent survey by Skytrax — 9 in 10 respondents — said families with children should be seated in a separate section on flights, presumably not in first class.

· Another poll by corporate travel agency Carlson Wagonlit found that business travelers, who are most frequently found in the business- and first-class cabins, believe crying babies are the second-most annoying aspect of air travel. The first? Air travelers who carry too much luggage on board.

· Several years ago, a United Airlines flight attendant just came out and said it: no children in first class. A passenger disagreed, sued the airline — and lost.

Last week in this column, we argued about whether kids belong on planes, and resolved that although many of us would like to keep the little ones from flying, it’s just not practical. This week, as promised, we’re having a more nuanced and civil discussion about children in the good seats.

Well, sort of. I asked some of my readers for their opinions of kids in first and got an earful.

“No, no, no, no, no,” says Mona Palmer, an administrative assistant from Friendswood, Tex. “First class tickets are too expensive to have the investment destroyed by an unruly kid whose parents think they’ve paid for the privilege of ignoring their kids’ rotten behavior.”

The other side of this argument is equally vehement.

“Give me a break,” says Jennifer Thomas, who describes herself as the owner of a public relations firm and mom. “These questions about kids and flying are frankly disrespectful. Let’s see, kids in first class or terrorists allowed to fly on planes? Or how about just plain rude adults who take to the friendly skies? I would take a child any day over previously mentioned. Why not ask questions about those two audiences?”

Kids! Kids! Can’t we just get along?

Instead of spending the rest of this story fighting (as entertaining as that might be to some of you, dear readers) let’s instead focus on three solutions to this problem.

No children in first class
One of the most persuasive arguments for limiting first class to adults is that the premium cabin is essentially an adult product. Which is to say, it’s difficult for a youngster to appreciate a wine list or a gourmet meal. It’s just no place for kids. Plus, it’s pricey — even if you’re using miles to upgrade. Rosanne Skopp, a grandmother who says she “really loves kids,” puts it this way: “If I’m going to be sitting next to a screaming baby, at least let me feel good that I haven’t paid for a first class ticket, only to be tortured.” No airline that I’m aware of has banned children from first class or business class, but it wouldn’t be accurate to say any of them have opened their arms wide to their junior passengers, either. Like a five-star restaurant or a luxury resort, the first class cabin is not particularly welcoming to young fliers. Or, for that matter, their parents.

Age limit for premium seats
Here’s another suggestion: If we can’t ban minors, then let’s at least prevent the littlest passengers from sitting “up front.” Babies and toddlers are too disruptive to the other passengers, who are paying a premium for their seats. “No one under 12 should be in first class,” says Richard French, an anesthesiologist from Christchurch, New Zealand, who by way of full disclosure, is himself a father. “I pick that age because kids are essentially self-caring by that age and that is the age that airlines start charging an adult fare. It is really depressing when you have treated yourself to a very expensive fare, to have a three-year-old running up and down the aisle.” I can’t argue with that. During my research for this story, I heard whispers that several international airlines had informal age-limit policies for first-class passengers, but they were difficult to confirm.

Let the kids fly
The overwhelming number of travelers I spoke with said kids should be able to fly in first class if their parents could afford to pay the freight. But they were quick to add that they expected the children to behave. “Of course children should be allowed in business- or first class,” says Frank Nowicki, a retiree from Winter Haven, Fla. “As long as the parents have raised their children properly — as far as behavior goes — there should never be a problem on a flight.” Still, Nowicki admits that’s not always possible, and has seen “many occasions” when parents have allowed their offspring to run wild on a flight. “Don’t blame the children,” he says. “Blame the adults for their permissive ways and their lack of parenting skills.” But how do you mandate good parenting on a plane? A multiple-choice quiz? Social references? Even peer pressure —dirty looks and all — isn’t always enough to stop these indulgent parents from boarding a flight, or buying an upgrade for their brood.

I’m afraid this is one of those instances when new rules and regulations, even with the best of intentions, would not end the problem of disruptive kids in first class. This is ultimately a parent’s decision that the entire first-class cabin must live with.

But before buying a premium ticket, here are a few useful questions to answer: Can my child behave like a first-class passenger? If not, do I have the parenting skills to contain a meltdown? Is it really worth the hassle — not to mention the money?

I’ve already answered those questions. My son Aren, who today is a reasonably well-mannered first grader, now has two siblings: a four-year-old brother with a penchant for practical jokes and a slightly hyperactive two-year-old sister. Even if I could, I would never inflict them on another first class passenger. Ever.

But if you think your kids can do better, I have just four words for you: Welcome to first class!

“A prime example of bureaucratic nonsense and inefficiency”

Why can’t airlines make money? No, it’s not high fuel prices (otherwise, most of Europe’s airlines would have gone belly-up long ago). Bad management? Maybe.

Then again, it could just be a lack of common sense.

That’s Chris Sloan’s conclusion, at least when it comes to a legacy carrier like United Airlines. Here’s what happened to him on a recent flight from Washington to Beijing.

When we checked in, we were offered a promotional upgrade to business class for $600. For a 13-hour flight, we were happy to take advantage, and we did.

Sloan hoped to score a similar upgrade on the return flight. For him, paying another $600 was well worth the additional comfort and amenities of United’s business class. But the airline said “no.” The promotion had ended.

I asked how many business class seats were available, and was told more than 20. I asked my hotel concierge to work his magic, and he got the same answer.

When I got to the check-in counter, I asked again — same answer. I finally tried one more time at the gate, and same answer.

Exasperated, I again asked how many business class seats were available less than two hours before the flight, and was again told 20 or more. I made it very clear to them that I would happily pay $600 for one of them. They could not help.

Is United nuts? I mean, here’s an airline that lost $2.7 billion in the last quarter. Why would it turn down money from anyone?

Instead, United insisted that he pay thousands of dollars for an upgrade, preferring to let the 20 seats remain empty and for many of the remaining seats to be filled with passengers who used their miles to upgrade (free). It boggles the mind.

“People wonder why those airlines are struggling,” said Sloan, who ended up spending 13 hours in economy class. “This is a prime example of the level of bureaucratic nonsense and inefficiency that plagues most of them. Common sense need not apply.”


6 secrets car rental companies don’t want you to know

What’s it like on the other side of the car rental counter? The answer may surprise you. I’ve been corresponding with a former car rental employee, and he’s shared some remarkable insights into the business that might help you make a more informed decision the next time you rent a car.

The first thing you need to understand, he says, is that agency employees aren’t in the customer service business. They’re salespeople.

I’m judged almost solely on a number. It’s determined by the number of times I sell our products per given opportunity.

Every customer who walks up is an opportunity to sell a number of different services. For me, I can sell the damage waiver — that’s the most popular — liability insurance, personal accident and effects coverage, and the pre-pay fuel option.

Upon returning a customer’s vehicle, I can charge a fee if the tank is not filled up to the level it was rented at. For customers who have reservations, I can upgrade them to a better vehicle. That’s six different opportunities to sell to each customer.

As a car rental employee, your goal is to sell “every one of these products to every customer,” he adds. And if he can’t? Then that all-important number by which every car rental employee is judged is lowered.

So even though you may sell, for instance, the liability insurance, you have failed to sell four to five other services and thus your number will be docked. This number is very important because we get paid a commission on it according to a pay scale and the dollar amount we’ve brought in each month and quarter.

There is a floor and ceiling to this pay scale. If your number is below a certain level you aren’t eligible for a commission.

If our numbers remain consistently high, we can be considered for promotion. If our numbers are low, we hear about it from umpteen different managers in e-mails, by phone, and in person.

The numbers game is played at the highest level. Managers are judged based on their location’s cumulative number — an aggregate of all employee numbers — so they’re likely to encourage more aggressive sales strategies.

“I saw all kinds of tactics to increase these numbers,” he says. “Some higher managers turned a blind eye to questionable and unethical methods.”

How does this affect you?

Keep in mind that you’re dealing with overworked, stressed-out employees from the moment you walk up to the counter to the moment you return your vehicle. At one point, this ex-employee was working 12-hour shifts without a break. Also, remember that they see dollar signs the moment you walk through the door. So they will do anything in their power to sell you insurance, a fuel purchase option or an upgrade.

How to get around this racket? Here are six tips from my insider.

1. Always inspect the car you are renting with an employee before signing anything. Car rental offices should have a vehicle inspection form that’s signed by you before the car leaves the lot. This limits the possibility that you’ll get blamed for damage that you didn’t cause. “Unfortunately, from my experience, many customers were blamed for damage they did not cause,” he says. “As a tired and busy employee, the last thing I want to do is walk around the car with you and make notations about the small scratches on the rear bumper. I could care less. But you should be adamant that this is done before you sign for anything.”

2. Off-airport locations are often cheaper than airport locations. The vehicles at airport locations typically cost more because of airport fees, which cover the car rental agency’s rental and transportation costs. “The cost difference can be great,” he says. “You may want to reserve a car at a location nearby the airport. You should see a difference.”

3. Make multiple reservations and play the system. Most reservations can be canceled without penalty. My insider suggests making multiple reservations. “Look at rates online or call in for them,” he says. “If you’re not too picky, make a reservation for one of the small, cheap cars. Make another for a nicer car that you might like to rent. When you show up, use the reservation for the smaller car. Ask the rep how much it costs to upgrade to the nicer car you want to rent. If they rate ends up being less than what you reserved the higher-class car at, then do it. If not, use the other reservation. They have to honor reservation rates.”

4. Negotiate your upgrade. Upgrade rates don’t exist. They’re made up by salespeople. “If you come in with a Ford Focus reservation and were interested in a larger car, I’ll charge an upgrade for you to get into a Ford Escape,” he says. “If you have a Ford Escape reservation and are looking for something more fuel-efficient, I’ll charge you an upgrade to a Ford Focus. This actually happens!” The “fee” is entirely at the salesperson’s discretion, and is entirely negotiable.

5. Timing is everything. The largest expense incurred by a car rental company is depreciation. Basically, these companies are leasing all the cars in their fleet. They’re charged different rates for different types of cars. “It is very important for car rental companies to have as many cars on the road as possible, as any cars that are sitting are not making money, and are actually costing the company money in depreciation fees.” A customer who shows up after a busy holiday weekend can more or less name the price for a rental car. “They should be begging for you to take cars off their lot,” he adds.

6. Complain and you shall receive. Car rental companies often go to great lengths to make customer happy — even when their grievance are not legit. “Like most companies, we want you to use again — and again and again,” says the insider. “Even some of the most ridiculous complaints that I’ve seen have been resolved by one of my managers. They offered a full refund and a free rental to a customer I knew was full of it. But we want you back so much that an occassional hit is fine.”