Why don’t we end the silly rules that make flying a misery?

Anatoliy Lukich / Shutterstock.com
Anatoliy Lukich / Shutterstock.com
When it comes to air travel, there’s a growing rift between informed and uninformed passengers.

I see it every day. A reader contacts me asking for help with a refund on a nonrefundable airline ticket or to change the name on an unchangeable reservation or to get their expired airline miles unexpired. Common sense tells you it shouldn’t be a problem. But spend a little bit of time studying the rules, and you’d know it is.

Ah, rules. They’re dense, cryptic, wrapped in legalese. But they do not apply to all customers.

A small subset of air travelers has taken the time to obsessively study every restriction, paragraph and clause. They often spend hours figuring out a creative way around those silly roadblocks that are meant to extract more money from customers. They get “free” airline tickets, as they did last week. That doesn’t make these “hackers” better or more deserving of the preferred treatment they get — they’re just better-informed.

Alas, the vast majority of travelers don’t bother to read the fine print, because they have better things to do with their time. And they pay a high price for it, often end up boarding last, being banished to the worst seats, or losing their entire ticket purchase on a technicality.

It’s this chasm between the know-it-alls and the know-nothings that seems to be growing. It’s a knowledge gap.

It shouldn’t exist.

I don’t know jack

The hopelessness of the situation became clear to me during an exchange on a social network following the publication of a story that was deeply critical of airline loyalty programs. So did the solution.

After the article appeared, one of the frequent flier apologists, who took my criticism personally, messaged me. He insisted that loyalty programs were absolutely “free” and that the first-class tickets he’d just scored for his vacation had cost him absolutely nothing. That’s something I should know, he said, given my “vast knowledge of frequent flier programs.”

He was being facetious.

And misguided.

Fact is, you do pay dearly for each award ticket in many ways. Maybe you spend more for your airfare over the long term. Maybe you waste your time collecting miles that don’t even belong to you. Or maybe you fly a less convenient route or just give your valuable personal information to the company. But calling it “free” is stupid. There’s no such thing as “free” — at best, you’re getting a discount.

But at that moment, I also realized that the argumentative reader had made an absolutely valid point.

I do not have a “vast” expert-level knowledge of the often frustrating, consumer-hostile loyalty programs. I’m too busy saving the world from avaricious airlines.

Do I know which airline participates in what alliance? Do I have any idea what the terms and conditions on the latest mileage bonus offer are? Can I find an award ticket for a flight to Hawaii for Christmas? No.

The same is true for the highly complex fare rules governing each airline ticket. Am I aware of the difference between “B” and an “X” fare class? Nah, I’m a little fuzzy on it. Do I even know where to find the fare rules? Often, I don’t.

Don’t get me wrong — ignorance is not bliss. Knowing some this stuff can help you have a smoother flight. If I had a job that required me to spend several days a week flying, you bet I’d take the time to learn the rules, too.

But should it be necessary?

Should we really have to deal with these super-complex rules that the airline industry throws in our way? I mean, look at the contracts on other modes of transportation, like buses or trains. By comparison they’re fairly straightforward. So are their loyalty programs; you travel a lot and you get a few reasonable perks. How often do you hear about someone “gaming” Amtrak’s loyalty program or demanding BoltBus honor a mistake fare?

Plain English, please

The fix is pretty simple. It is equal parts reform and disclosure. Like a vast majority of air travelers, I don’t have the time to memorize who participates in what codesharing alliance. Like most travelers, I don’t even have the time to look up the rules on my ticket to see when and where my ticket can be used, changed or refunded. I only do it when I’m in trouble and I need to make a change or ask for a refund.

I’m bothered by the rise of a group of hobbyists who memorize every rule and regulation and who behave as if the passengers who don’t do the same deserve to be treated worse than stowaways on a cargo ship. They’re wrong. We, the majority of air travelers, shouldn’t have to become trivia experts in order to fly with dignity.

So here’s my proposed fix. Airlines can start by streamlining the rules and regulations so they’re understandable and accessible by their customers. Southwest Airlines does a nice job of this, generally speaking. Airline contracts of carriage should be written in plain English, not legalese gobbledegook. My position on codesharing alliances? End them, please.

The second solution? Disclosure. Simply checking a little box that says you’ve read and acknowledged the fare rules isn’t enough. Show them to us in a way we can understand, and if you can’t, find a translator and get busy. Give the lawyers a day off.

Customers deserve ticket terms that are simple and reasonable. They deserve program rules that are understandable. Even the summaries at the top of the tickets that say “NO CHNG/NONREF” is a little cryptic. I mean, who writes this stuff?

We shouldn’t have to absorb pages of complex information in order to fly with a little class.

Of course, the “haves,” who spend their waking hours studying this useless information as if it is sacred scripture like the system the way it is, because it rewards them and makes them feel special. Many airlines want to keep it this way too because it extracts more money from most of their customers, better known as the “have-nots.”

But these ridiculous rules are making most of us miserable and rewarding the wrong people.

It’s time to end them.

Are airline rules too complicated?

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at chris@elliott.org. Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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  • polexia_rogue

    if someone needs a refund on a non refundable ticket they SAY they did not understand. but in reality they hope you will get the airline to bend the rules.

    as someone who buys non refundable tickets all the time- i know non refundable when i see it.

    grant it i have also done stupid things in my life because i was not paying attention. Does that mean the world needs to change so i will never ever make a mistake when i am too tired to pay attention?
    no, that would be stupid.

    that would be like if a light bulb that came with a warning “do not eat.”

    we will all make mistakes. and when we do, we should own up to our mistakes. – end of story.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    Are loyalty programs free? Depends. Does someone spend more money, or fly a less direct route? Maybe. To be persuasive, one would need to present some quantifiable data.. Bald assertions one way or the other only persuade the already convinced.

    For example, I travel to Los Angeles often mostly on weekends and I rent from Hertz exclusively. Why? I’m a big guy. I require a premium car to be comfortable. By renting from Hertz, I am entitled to upgrades allowing me to pay for a full sized car, (avg $25 per weekend day), and receiving a premium car (avg $80 per weekend day). So even if on my next trip, say Budget has a full sized car for less than Hertz, it does me no good as the premium car that I require will certainly cost than the $25 that Hertz charges.

    If my analysis is off, I am always open to reevaluate my position.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    I agree that consumer contracts should be written in plain English. The problem is, when you forego the precision of legal gobblygook, it creates ambiguities which will be exploited. I’m dealing with a litigation matter right now where the former attorney failed to include the requisite precision, and that ambiguity is likely to cost the client tens of thousands.

    The arrogance of elite level members: I think you have it backwards. A nice guy who becomes elite is still a nice guy. An a-hole who becomes elite is still an a-hole. I was at Hertz when this jerk went postal because they gave him the wrong car. Last time, I was at Hertz, this lady went ballistic because they gave away the car that was reserved for her. She wanted to call the police. Really lady, the police?. Does anyone believe that these are nice people in real life?

  • California_Dave

    Some of the rules and policies are so absurd that their own employees can’t figure them out. For United Airlines, there is First/Global First, Business/Business First depending on the airplane, origin and destination. Then try and figure who has access to each type of lounge (United Lounge, GlobalFirst Lounge, United Arrival lounge, Star Alliance
    Lounge, Partner Lounge) based on FF category and fare type… no wonder customers get fed up and angry and
    employees get fed up and angry. Even Southwest has fallen victim to more complexity in their FF program. Used to be 1 point for each leg, earn x points and we send you a certificate for a free flight on any plane to/from any city.

  • MarkieA

    Chris, I certainly agree with your sentiments in this post. We shouldn’t have to become lawyers in order to read and understand our airline contract. We shouldn’t have to worry about code-sharing issues when we purchase a multi-stage itinerary. We shouldn’t have to take two dozen photos of our rental car before and after our rental. So I certainly agree that the airlines SHOULD get rid of the fuzzly legalese and become fully disclosed in their contract language. However, I don’t see a reason why they would do that. It obviously benefits them to do exactly what they’re doing; else they wold change. They have no impetus to change. There are really only two ways that I can think of to bring about these changes; Government intervention or mass consumer revolt. I don’t want the first and I can’t see the second happening.

  • Maxwell_Daemon

    Hey, the airlines have to make money, that’s what Capitalism is all about. I never learned in school that it should come with morals. Money doesn’t, so why should Capitalism.

    Besides training everyone to be a lawyer, just think of all those law school that will benefit from the fees.

    People make fat finger mistakes, so they should pay, after all it’s not the airlines fault. When airlines do it, they shouldn’t have to pay (United being a surprising exception last week); they’d loose money. Can’t have that under Capitalism.

  • John Baker

    Chris … You want plain language? What is more plain than non-refundable? Yet, you have people ask you to help get a refund for a non-refundable ticket or hotel reservation. Based on that alone, I don’t think making T&Cs any simpler will help. Some people just won’t take responsibility for making a non-refundable purchase.

    On loyalty programs, they are a good deal as long as they don’t effect your purchasing decisions. Once they do, you’re doing exactly what the business wants you to do. Simply gathering points for staying at place X is a good thing. Paying an extra $M to stay at place X instead of Y to get the points (or flying X instead of Y) is what turns it into a bad deal. (Full disclosure – I’m one of the elites that Chris loves to hate).

  • BillCCC

    I agree that the rules are very complex. In opinion the rules are written in this way to make it more difficult for passengers to completely understand the restrictions but also to make sure that if a case of litigation the rules are written in way to be understood by the court.

    Why do you brand people that disagree with you as ‘apologists’? Is this a code word for ignorant or stupid?

  • John Baker

    Sorry @carverclarkfarrow:disqus I’ve seen way to many entitled elites to think that its solely personality based. Sometimes, I think some of these people have fits because they are enabled by the businesses repeatedly because of the business they bring. The exceptions suddenly become expected all the time.

    Some elites earn the entitled label for all of us since they overtly act entitled and announce to the world they’re an elite. I have yet to see someone act entitled and announce they aren’t an elite (although some don’t say they are one either).

  • BubbeJ

    Can we go back to F Y and X fares please? You knew if you paid for first or coach you could take that ticket to any airline. If you bought excursion you knew it was nonrefundable. We need to simplify.

  • MarkieA

    Actually, capitalism fully embraces the concept of a business losing money. If they deserve to.

  • Extramail

    The rules are absolutely too convoluted – and I’ve been a member of Delta’s frequent fly program virtually since its inception because Atlanta has been my hub airport for over 25 years. I check the box every time that I have read and understand the rules on every single website that requires it for me to continue on the website and I have never read more than the words, “yes, I understand.” I don’t try to “game” the system. I “earn” my miles because my job requires that I travel; I use my frequent flyer miles for a free ticket for my spouse so he can travel with me when I go on a business trip to a city that is interesting or when I have to attend a convention. I keep it simple – why can’t the airlines do the same?

  • Extramail

    Couldn’t agree more.

  • Frank McWindows

    To be fair… I belong to Amtrak’s loyalty program, I’ve made six or seven round trips in the last year, and I’ve yet to earn a *single* mile for my trips. If you don’t buy your ticket through them, they make it difficult to earn miles (you have to send in your ticket stubs, but only after a certain time period has elapsed… in my case long enough to misplace the tickets or forget.)

  • jerryatric

    Unbelievable! If one makes a mistake – pay for it. BUT the airline codes & schedules are currently a passenger’s nightmare. To add to this, the rules are constantly changing! Who can possibly spend the time & effort of reading all the classes & costs written in “legalize” ?
    Time to make things simpler & clear, but with the airline lobbyists this will never happen. They will continue to obfuscate & fudge the rules.

  • Lindabator

    Actually, the legaleeze is there for a reason, and is the EXACT same language from legacy carrier to legacy carrier – and this is due to the FAA requirements they fall under.

  • Lindabator

    Becuse everyone wants it for FREE – and the old regulated way certainly was not.

  • Michael__K

    To be persuasive, one would need to present some quantifiable data.

    The most relevant data would be a closely held secret of each airline (and you could bet they do their own research and believe those progams are good for profits).

    But there’s probably something we can learn from other industries — for example from JC Penny’s recent pricing strategy debacle.

    [See “JC Penney Reintroduces Fake Prices (and Lots of Coupons Too, Of Course)”]

    No doubt there are consumers who behave strictly rationally. But the JC Penny example illustrates that there are plenty of consumers who get a thrill from “playing the game” and who value discounts and freebies beyond their actual dollar value.

  • http://mytimetotravel.wordpress.com/ mytimetotravel

    What is complicated about “non-refundable”, “non-changeable” and
    “expired”? Seem pretty simple to me – unless someone wants to game the
    system by getting round the rules.

    And I am going to say one more time that my RTW business class award tickets ARE free. I do not pay an annual fee for my affinity credit card, which is how I earn the miles, and when I do buy airline tickets I buy based on price, convenience and comfort, NOT on whether I will get miles in the one program I actually use. Whether the award programs are a good deal depends on how you use them, there is not a “one size fits all” answer. Certainly they can be a bad deal, but for me the AA program has been just great.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    That is of course a logical fallacy, specifically known as correlation does not equal causation. How do you know that these people weren’t jerks before they had status?

    The difficulty is that, if you book your travel in part based upon the travel providers promises, then when the travel provider fails to deliver then it can you real dollars and cents if you don’t stand up for yourself, which depending on your communication style, can come across as entitled.

    That happened to me at the Hertz in Irvine and Detroit. My upgrade was guaranteed. I paid $250 to increase my status from upgrade if available to guaranteed upgrade. They were tight on cars so the station manager didn’t provide my guaranteed upgrade, claiming the upgrade was based on availability. In both cases, I politely but firmly requested (demanded?)that they double check the rules. I didn’t wish to come across as entitled, but I had three choices. 1) pretend to be a contortionist and squeeze into a too small car; 2) pay hundreds of dollars extra to get what I was already contractually entitled to, or 3) press the issue.

    Which would you do :-)

  • Asiansm Dan

    Premium Class and Full fare Refundable PAPER tickets were easy to walk to any airlines, but with the Electronic Tickets, it doesn’t work well as before.
    Before Year 2000, I usually take my Y full fare, paid by my employer, to any airlines and get upgrade right away when my original ticketing flight First Class is full. 99% I was upgraded with the original carrier but sometimes the flight was full, rare before Year 2000, now every flight is full.

  • emanon256

    Agreed. Up until this year I averaged 125,000 miles a year and I saw, and hated, the entitled a-hole elites. Though I saw just as many A-hole non-elites too. When I have experienced issues, I have even had some other elites tell me I need to “Throw around my status” and I simply refuse to do it. I may vent about it to others later, but I refuse to treat an airline employee with disrespect or try to get something I am not entitled to, just because of my status. However, if I am supposed to receive something based on a published rule, and they refuse to provide it, I will complain, however I always to do to so politely.

  • emanon256

    Don’t forget the Business lounge, that one is in there too. At least on the UA side, this was very simple before the merger. Now that they made up a bunch of new policies, and are trying to also keep both companies policies separate if you are flying on Continental Metal v. United Metal, I am completely lost as well. They also added CO cabins, an UA metal recently making it even worse.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    Nonrefundable is very very gray from a contractual point. Suppose the carrier is unable to perform, can I get my money back? Suppose I buy a first class ticket and they cannot accommodate me in first class due to equipment change? Suppose I pay a premium to fly on a plane with lie flat seats and due to an equipment change it has regular seats. Suppose the plane is delayed? etc.

    That’s why contracts are written with much verbiage. Its to cover numerous situations that may arise.

  • Carver Clark Farrow


  • emanon256

    I am sorry I am one of your “haves” Chris. However I want you to know that I don’t actually spend my waking hours reading the rules. Like you, I look at them when a problem occurs and then deal with it. More often then for my own use, I look at them after reading one of your stores just to see what they say. I have never once tried to game the system, or tried to use my knowledge to get free things. And I hate the entitled-me me me elites as much as you. If I am in an unfortunate situation where the rules don’t benefit me, I accept my fate.

    Where I disagree with you, is on the non-refundable no-change. That I really do believe is very clearly disclosed, at least in my experience. Any time I have bought airfare on every airline I have purchased airfare on, as well as from hotels, they always disclose what is refundable and non-refundable. As far as name changes, I’ll cut you some slack. They say “No Changes” not don’t all specify that it includes names.

  • bodega3

    No, the rules are not constantly changing. The rules can vary per fare and that has been the case for decades. What has changed is that the buying public can get airline tickets now online and don’t want to spend the time reading the rules. Every fare has rules and they are written in a format that all carriers follow, all over the world. Now you may not like some of the rules, but they are there for you to read BEFORE you purchase them.

  • bodega3

    Rules use to be simpler, but that was before passengers started to abuse what they had. Over the weekend I read that Southwest is no longer going to let passengers keep their fare for future use if they are unable to travel if they don’t let the carrier know up to, I think, two hours prior to departure. Running a business these days is not easy when everyone wants it their way without concern about how it affects the business and their operations.

  • bodega3


  • John Baker

    See I see it as the “nature vs nurture” argument instead of correlation vs causation. Some elites act entitled because the airline has enabled them and “taught” them to be that way (nurture). If it was purely nature, as you state, then some non-elites would also show the entitled behaviors. While this may occur, I haven’t personally seen it and have seen the entitled elite. Based solely on the population, you would expect the opposite (the number of non-elites greatly exceeds elites).

  • John Baker

    @emanon256:disqus couldn’t agree with you more.

  • bodega3

    No we can’t go back, because passengers have changed. They have taken advantage of the airlines and I have heard it and seen it over the years of selling airline tickets. Look at the recent changes with Southwest. Passengers have had a good thing going with that carrier, but they have abused it and the carrier is responding with the removal of some of their lenient rules.

  • bodega3

    I suggest that those who don’t like how the carriers do things, start up their own airline. I bet the view is different on the other side and it wouldn’t be so easy as all seem to think it should be!

  • jerryatric

    There are such a variety of fares per flight now it’s ridiculous! Check out the extra charges for seating- extra for 2″ wider seat, up front, sit together, at back, on aisle there is no end to it. And that’s just 1 part of it.
    Flying used to be a pleasure, now a real nightmare from airline staff to your vaunted TSA!
    Your just another airline apologist. Poor service, rude staff & companies looking only at their bottom line without regard to staff or clients.

  • Jeanne_in_NE

    Why’d this get down voted? I thought it was a rational response with a pertinent example of the point being made?

  • Trudi

    I’ve tried to stick with only one airline and one car rental company. I have loyalty memberships with both. I pay for those memberships through purchases, affliliations, and dues. In the last 5 years this has worked for me to make my travel less confusing, I get some nice perks, some ‘free’ time (that I know I paid for), and generally I’m happy with this choice. I don’t expect to be treated like an elitist, but I do expect to be less confused. I also expect it to all come crashing down one day because no way do I believe major corporations really give a darn if I’m happy with their service or not. Content: basically; pie-eyed-optomist: no way.

  • Lindabator

    AMEN! :)

  • MarkKelling

    Have not seen that warning on light bulbs – yet.
    But I have seen this notice on several prepackaged frozen food items: ” Do not eat packaging materials.”

  • bodega3

    I am not an apologist, I am one who sells tickets and has a better understanding of how things work behind the online page you are looking at for an airline ticket.
    FYI, there have been a variety of fares for decades. This isn’t anything new. What is new is the online shopper who doesn’t know what they are doing and won’t pay attention.
    I certainly agree that flying use to be more of a pleasure than it is now. But I also know that the passenger has changed to cause the carriers to change.

  • MarkKelling

    Most of the elites I have seen acting entitled are those who finally, after years of trying, have done enough busines with the company in a single year to get the minimal elite status. And they want everyone to know it. Of course there are also those who are just jerks and they would be jerks anyway.
    Most of us who have been elite level travelers for multiple years are just happy when we do get that ever more elusive perk. We are just too worn out from all of the traveling to be jerks about our status and would be happy to give up our elite level just to be able to sleep in our own beds more than one night a week.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    I agree. But that’s not what the issue is. The continuing assertion is that loyalty programs are always bad for whomever foots the bill. That the participants are dupes, blind, (insert favorite pejorative)

    I presented a fairly simple example of how it benefits me. Why should I accept Chris’s position unless and until numbers are presented to show me I’m incorrect?

  • John Keahey

    Love it, Chris. Those of us who disagree with you and your choir are “apologists”. If we like our FF program, you imply we’re “stupid.” And, based on another of your posts, you love it when 80 percent of responders to a poll disagree with you. What I think you love: generating hits to show your advertisers.


    I am very good at airline rules. Few get by me that I do not understand. And I am a member of one airline’s frequent flyer program. I fly nearly 100,000 miles each year and live in a “hub city”. Yes I spend more than I need to in order to be on a non-stop flight as I am absolutely a white-knuckle flyer. And I know that airline rules, award-ticket rules, etc. are very confusing for the average person who is not a frequent flyer, Unless you speak the language, the rules are simply there to confuse.
    If you do not understand pick up the phone and call. Do not purchase until you know what you are buying. That rule applies for any expensive purchase. Travelers should not ignore it simply because they are purchasing an airline ticket.

  • jerryatric

    I WAS right. Another “I know better than you peons”, otherwise known s CUSTOMERS. At least you admit that air travel used to be a pleasant experience. Now every time I travel it’s a real chore.
    In the last 2 trips it was 1 horror experience with rude stupid employees of the airlines. If you like, I will give you 1 such example with United but separately, as it’s a long saga.

  • http://elliott.org Christopher Elliott

    Some of you are connecting too many dots with my “apologist” comment.

    I was calling no one stupid, nor was I implying anyone was stupid.

    An apologist is someone who defends the system we have in place now — absurdly complex airfares, “loyalty” systems that reward a savvy few but punish the masses for their lack of insider knowledge, and general confusion, even among the employee ranks.

    I find it difficult to believe anyone would defend that system. But today is full of surprises!

  • bodega3

    For some of us it isn’t an apology, but an understanding of how it became this way.

  • Guest

    Yes you are right. You know everything about the industry and we bow to you almighty know it all.

  • bodega3

    No, not a know better, but someone who has a better understanding of how this came about.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    Nurture/nature, correlation/causation, same thing looked at from different angles.

    Your statistics are a bit off. It’s not the general population that defines the domain, but the number of opportunities to pull off the DYKWIA routine that’s so annoying. Elites have more opportunities, eg denied upgrades, denied priority, etc.

    IMHO ;-)

  • MarkKelling

    While I do agree with Chris that frequent traveler programs can be bad for most consumers who have unrealistic expectations, I don’t agree that everyone participating in them are dupes and fools and whatever word you want to choose.

    It is very simple: IF you are a frequent enough traveler to attain the higher levels of eliteness within a travel program, then it will definitely pay you to do so. If you travel once a year to visit the family during winter holidays and again once a year for vacation, being in the frequent travel programs is probably a waste because you will not receive sufficient return on your efforts within a reasonable time frame.

  • MarkKelling

    It’s not that difficult! :-)

    On a 3 class plane flying internationally, it’s Global First, Business and Economy
    On the same plane flying domestically, it is First, Business and Economy.

    On a 2 class plane flying internationally, it is Business First and Economy.
    On a 2 class plane flying domestically, it is First and Economy.

    And I like to fly into the European destinations where UA doesn’t have their own lounge. The Star Alliance and other shared lounges are so far superior to anything UA has it just makes you go “wow!” Just fly into LHR on one of the flights into terminal 4 (the former CO gates). The lounge they use has actual hot meals, a self serve bar with only top shelf items, dozens of computers for you to use, and so on. Why can’t any US based airline offer anything similar?

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    FF programs are like any other investment. Does the ROI make it a good investment for the individual person. It has nothing to do with frequency. It depends 100% on your circumstances. Consider:

    When I first joined Hyatt’s program, it came with complimentary access to the lounge with free continental breakfast and the evening hot buffet. It cost me nothing to join. As a very poor 24 year old sitting for the State Bar Exam, I was thrilled that I saved the cost of breakfast ($4) and dinner ($10). (Yes, I’m dating myself) Did I have status. No. I didn’t stay at another Hyatt for ten years at least. I only stayed there because it was the host hotel for the exam. But it worked well.

    I spent 5 minutes filling out a form. I benefitted $50. It had no further effect on spending.

  • Michael__K

    I didn’t come across where Chris made that continuing assertion (“that loyalty programs are always bad for whomever foots the bill”).

    Of course you might as well enroll to take advantage of “free” perks if you are going to make the same requisite purchases anyway regardless of the loyalty program.

    On average, people are not very self-aware of the influence these programs have on their purchase behavior. Or the time and focus involved. I think that’s Chris’ point here (or at least one of his points). That point may not apply to you, but it probably does apply to a fair number of people who don’t think it applies to them (which is what the JC Penny anecdote illustrates).

  • John Baker

    @jerryatric:disqus Simple question. The last time you flew what was your primary factor in choosing your flight? I’m betting it was the price. If so, you’re also part of the problem because you’re “only looking at [your] bottom line without regard to staff …” or service.

    The fact is that we as Americans got to where we are with airline service because we vote with our wallet. We’ve shown time and again that we only care about the price. We don’t care about service or amenities. When airlines have tried the “high service” route, we bail for Spirit in a heartbeat to save a penny.

    With that in mind, some airlines discovered that there are a few of us that things like seat location, width, pitch & amenities matter. Guess what, they’re going to charge extra for those so they don’t have to change their base fare for those that don’t care.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    I called it continuing because Chris has made that assertion repeatedly in many articles, whether explicit or implicitly. I used the term continuing because its not explicitly stated in this article.

    If the articles point were that, FF programs are not necessarily beneficial to everyone and may be detrimental (which is your point) I wouldn’t have an intellectual problem. I’d probably agree as I discuss it in terms of ROI.

    But assertions without some sort of numerical analysis are meaningless. That’s why the discussion refuses to elevate beyond “he said she said”

  • Daddydo

    1) The fare rules are crazy, but they are here to stay.

    2) AIrline fares are quite simple, but computers cannot tell you the whole story. When you are on iammyownagent.idiot.com, you ask for the lowest fare. It does give you the lowest fare that that site perceives to be lowest, with out showing you the class of service.

    3) Airline classes (this is a wild exaggeration, but says the point)
    PIT LAX 150 seats

    20 people get X seats at 250.00 – no refund
    30 people get n seats at 350.00 – no refund
    60 people get b seats at 500.00 – no refund
    40 people get y seats at 1200.00 – full refund

    there are probable 6 more classes and 6 more prices. Cancel a seat in a low fare and it reverts to the highest fare.

    4) every single airline site has it’s rules posted regarding refundability. If you are too lazy to read the rules, tough luck! Usa a travel agent that does know what the rules. Quit belly aching each time that you need to have an excuse or a special circumstance. Rules need to be rules.

  • Michael__K

    I have not seen the explicit assertion.

    Chris does couch the argument in provocative / needling language sometimes; which I take with a grain of salt (like the polls). Maybe he wouldn’t get as many page hits or comments if he used more circumspect language :)

    I do agree that numerical analysis — or at least general business case studies and research (the “real” numbers are invariably trade secrets) — would lead to a more informed and higher quality discussion.

  • BillCCC

    In the article you did mention a “FF apologist” who said his flight was free and then you went on to say ” But calling it “free” is stupid”. I guess that could set someone off. I have just noticed that in the past while you have started to use the use the term apologist when anyone disagrees with your position on a travel topic. People are either ‘TSA Apologists’ or ‘Car Rental Apologists’ or ‘Frequent Flyer Program Apologists’ or… Why can’t someone just disagree without being labelled?

  • MarkKelling

    There are a few current examples of similar benefits that I can’t see anyone objecting to:

    1. The IHG program (Holiday Inn group). If you have their credit card you automatically get Platinum level status and one night per year at no additional cost at any of their hotels world wide. I used the free nights the past two years on my European vacations. Saved 200 pounds in London and 300 euro in Paris. These are hotels I probably would have stayed at anyway since they were simple a place to sleep on my way in the journey conveniently located near where I needed to be the next morning. Even without the other less tangible benefits of Platinum level (room upgrades, guaranteed walk in room availability, and so on) this savings is very real and requires nothing of me other than having their credit card.

    2. Marriott Gold level. This is what I use my Mariott points for – I maintain my Gold level even though I have not managed to stay enough nights the past couple years. What does this level get me? No charge internet in my room (normally $20+ daily). Room upgrades. Guaranteed room type and smoking preferences. Arrival drinks/snacks. Concierge level access for the hotel club – hot breakfast and light afternoon snacks and dinner and soft drinks at no additional charge and (depending on local laws) self service top shelf bar. Free long distance phone calls. When I run out of accumulated points so that I don’t have enought to buy gold level, oh well, the run will have been good while it lasted.

  • jerryatric

    Wrong Insider! flying to India & purchased shorter layovers NOT cheapest fares. Stop blaming clients for Airline greed

  • MarkKelling

    Please do provide your example, no matter the length, so we can begin to understand your opinion better.
    You will find that not many here like the TSA or the crazy rules airlines have about most everything. We have accepted them to the point it allows us to travel where and when we need but hope for the day when things do get better.
    Flying always was a difficult experience, at least in my lifetime. But most of my relatives were world travelers back as far as the 1930’s and they swear that things were never like the movies protray them and didn’t always run better than they do now.

  • jerryatric

    Flying for about 50 years. Used to fly, without problems for short hop flights (Mtl to N.Y. & then to H.K. for business.) The H.K part lasted over 20 years.
    Definitely back then flying was a pleasant experience. Knowledgeable, pleasant staff at all levels & then as more competition more aggravation as Airlines looked to shave costs & increase their profits.
    On top of that you get the Insider apologists who claim to know it all. Instead of looking at the customers as P.I A’s see the customers for the people paying their wages. Example I will NEVER fly United again! Period. I am flying to India & contrary to the John Baker’s Know it all attitude, I did not look for cheapest fare but the shortest layover times between flights.

  • Jeanne_in_NE

    No one has piled on Chris Elliott for his sneaking in his dislike of codesharing. Yet. :)

    I had to purchase tickets this weekend for a trip to NYC this upcoming weekend (funeral). Since I live in flyover country, almost every single one of the flights available to me is codeshared. I seriously thought about taking a screenshot of the options available to me. I found it “interesting” that I could fly the same route via US Airways as via United, BUT for $200/ticket less AND I could get United FF miles. The only difference was that US Airways had different flight numbers assigned than those assigned by United.

    Of course, the on-time stats and the layover times were laughable and the only seats outside of First Class were middle seats way in the back. So, I went to another carrier and by the time I upgraded my seats out of middle next to the toilet (where any seats were available) I had added 25% of my original fare. My solution? First Class on a (code shared) regional jet, woo hoo! I’m living the good life now!

    Of course, I did take the time to read that my tickets are NONrefundable, that there’s a $200 change fee per ticket and that I was declining the first option to make my tickets refundable ($535 per ticket) and the second option to “protect” my trip with Allianz Global trip protection for around $43 per ticket. That trip protection has more holes in it than my colander, but I downloaded the PDF in case anyone else wants to read it.

  • John Keahey

    Thanks, BillCCC. Name calling diminishes the argument, no matter how meaningful.

  • California_Dave

    Thanks, Mark. Still confusing to alot of people. Just the term “Business First” makes people think they are allowed into the First Class Lounge at SFO. I’ve been in line with the agents arguing with Global Service Members and themselves about what is and is not a qualifying ticket to gain entry. We had Global First Class tickets, but since they were award tickets, we were told to go to the Regular United Club Lounge instead, in a very condescending way. All we got there was a yogurt and a very ripe banana.

  • BMG4ME

    Try making head or tail of fare rules. Case in point.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    Wanna bet?

    I can hear the naysayers.

    1. The IHG credit must be more expensive than others.
    2. The accumulation of those points were at the expense of cheaper or closer lodging.

    Of course, the naysayers don’t actually know if either is true, but since when are facts important to true believers.

    Personally, I agree with you. When I was platinum, Marriott had a weekend BOGO coupon (Buy One Get One) coupon. My travel habits were such that I generally did Saturday to Monday. Use a BOGO coupon and the hotel lodging price was cut in half. Plus, as a platinum member, I got free breakfast at my preferred hotel, usually in the restaurant.

    Marriott recently discontinued the BOGO program making Marriott hotels less financially attractive to me, so I no longer frequent Marriotts because the Westin across the street is now cheaper

    Simple dollars and cents

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    Us based airlines tend to charge less (or at least they used to) and accordingly have fewer perks. The British Airway lounges at Heathrow were far nicer than the Admirals Club lounges

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    As an experienced professional in the field, of course Bodega and her colleagues have more knowledge than us lay people. That’s a truism in most fields. That’s not arrogance, that’s just common sense.

  • Carver Clark Farrow


  • Carver Clark Farrow

    My first European trip was on American Airlines. I originally bought a ticket to London Then I decided I didn’t really want to go to London. So I burned some miles and took BA to Athens. Couldn’t have done that with the various agreements with AA.

  • Alan Gore

    Complex rules and confusing jargon – these are powerful arguments for bringing back the traditional, flesh-and-blood travel agent. She was the one who could figure it all out and make the trip work for you. TAs were far too pessimistic in assuming that every passenger would immediately start doing it all themselves on websites as soon as the most knowledgeable travelers were able to do so for the simplest of weekend getaways.

    Meanwhile, the rest of us define a destination as a place to which Southwest flies. And no, WN is not going to turn into another horrible rule-bound legacy carrier so long as there is profit in being a company that still has some humor and caring left.

  • jerryatric

    They know more about the inner workings of their industry, than I will ever care to know. That does not condone the often rude, condescending behaviour we encounter from ticket staff, lounge employees, & others. When I’m paying in excess of $5000 for a ticket I don’t need or expect it.

  • MarkKelling

    Actually I agree that the current UA naming scheme is unnecessarily confusing. And I have never actually been in any of the UA lounges other than the regular ones so maybe they have something more to them over the regular ones than just available showers.

  • bodega3

    Of course it shouldn’t be condoned. It is sad to have a job where you are only looked at as a dollar sign and not as a contributor to the business you work for. After our commission cuts, you are hard pressed to find any ticketing agent liking the airlines way of running things. It shouldn’t be passed on to the passengers, but at the same time, the passengers have changed over the years and their actions can be just as offensive. We have all seen either at the gate or onboard. I don’t know what happened to that airline show but it showed how disgusting passengers can be. You couldn’t pay me to work at an airport or onboard a plane!

  • bodega3

    What is interesting is that the main naysayer here doesn’t belong to any, yet says they are a bunch of hooey. Those who play the game, know better! BTW, we saved over $15 off the best price in town on our last gas fill up with our grocery store card. I am happy and that is all that counts!

  • TonyA_says

    Why didn’t you move to Cathay Pacific? If you fly from NYC to HKG like I do, there isn’t a better choice. Did your employer force you to fly a US carrier? Or were you trying to collect UAMP miles?
    What made you decide to fly United?

  • TonyA_says

    You’re now playing the game. That’s all there is to this folks -it is a game and the rules are not clear. It’s just like a lot of things in life. All games.

  • TonyA_says

    Maybe I need to ask you to intrepret all the fare rules I need to read. I find them very difficult to understand. My airline support people are not that helpful either.

  • jerryatric

    1) I have been retired for 18 years, 2) I used to fly Cathay on business, no points. Vancouver to Hong Kong was for my own company 3) Flew United from Chicago to Vancouver Canada (home) as it was code share with Air Canada, personal, visiting my son in Charlotte,N.C. Vancouver – Toronto, Air Canada, Toronto Charlotte – USAir, Charlotte – Chicago USAIR & you know the rest.

  • Taylor Michie

    You don’t have to be a hobbyist to know how to read. A nonrefundable ticket is just that – nonrefundable. If you want the flexibility of a refundable ticket, then buy a refundable ticket. It’s as simple as that.

    In the customer service business, there are many, many grey areas, but basic ticket restrictions are not one of them. I have no sympathy for people who bought a nonrefundable ticket, knew it was nonrefundable, and then came here to try and seek a resolution that they are not entitled to.

  • TonyA_says

    The system today rewards folks who can go around the rules and use the loopholes to their advantage. It reminds me of our tax laws. It’s foolish to expect anything better from Washington or Wall Street. They are the true bosses of the airlines. So people should get wise and pick a few fruits for themselves. Whether you play the miles game or do smart things to reduce fees is based on your skill level. This is the way the game is played. If you don’t want to play it’s fine too. But if you don’t play then please leave the players alone. Or, you can pay someone to play the game for you.

  • jerryatric

    OK, Your not happy, don’t blame you, but don’t take it out on the passengers.
    I too worked for some huge company & quit & went into business for myself. I hear your problem, I also really feel for any one dealing with some of the boors you have to put up with. BUT not all of us are like that. So just be rude to them & be nice to people like me( an easy going 75 year old, who’s looking for the easiest trip, not the cheapest).

  • bodega3

    I don’t work for the airlines, if that is what you think.

  • TonyA_says

    I can’t speak for Jerry but I believe most people buy primarily on the basis of price. That is why Ryanair is such a large airline. It really is difficult to quantify other variables especially if one does not fly often.
    Nevertheless, I see nothing wrong with buying the lowest fare. If Spirit or Ryanair are totally undesirable, then their seats would be empty. However, the opposite is true. There are a few sites that host venues for airline fare contests. You are not going to believe the crap some passengers are willing to put up with to save money. But it’s their money so I guess their ok with whatever they buy.

  • TonyA_says

    Rules might be difficult to read but their final end product is simple: You lose, Airlines win. So unless you figure out a way to turn the rules towards your favor, you’re always going to end up losing.
    TIP: Your goverment gave you a gift. It is 14 CFR 399.88 Prohibition on post-purchase price increase(s). As long as any point of your ticket touches US soil, that law protects you. There are a lot of lawful tricks you can use to lower your ticket price.The airlines might not like them but they are legal. Start winning and stop whining. Go figure how you can win. It is not that difficult.

  • Jeanne_in_NE

    Gee, didn’t feel like a game when I went from paying $465 a ticket for United flights sold by US Airways to $880 for Delta flights contracted out to their regional jet partners. :)

    I just took what I’ve learned from you and others on this board – look for on-time stats, look for layover times and absolutely do NOT book those flights if you really need to be somewhere at a certain time. By reading this board, I’ve learned why it is that there are no seats available for pre-selection a week out – and what my options are for getting a seat on a flight. The cheapest tickets available can end up costing the most – in time, frustration and anxiety.

    Guess it DOES sound like a game after all that, doesn’t it? Maybe someone should write a book about traveling smart. :-)

  • TonyA_says

    You bet it is a game.

    And for international travel, there’s even a bigger game.

    The number of hits to a one, yes 1, single flyertalk thread is currently 6,712,318 (hits or reads). It has 29,024 replies. The thread started on October 2008.


    These are amazing numbers for a forum thread. So why are people that interested? Go figure.

  • TonyA_says

    oops, sorry Jeanne.
    My response to you has link to the sensitive site.
    Looks like it got blocked and went to moderation.
    Great way to treat a loyal participant to this forum :)

  • Jeanne_in_NE

    Wow – how could you have written anything offensive to me? You haven’t been channeling Bo Pelini, have you?

    (That’s a Nebraska Cornhuskers joke – the head coach is in trouble for something recorded off the air 2 years ago and just now released.)

  • http://elliott.org Christopher Elliott

    We moderate all comments with links, no matter where they come from. There’s too much link spam out there, unfortunately. Nothing personal.

  • CeeJay

    This argument always frustrates me. We choose based on price because that’s the only information we have. Search engines don’t show seat pitch, friendliness of cabin crew, quality of airsickness bags, or the softness of the seat. Even the aircraft type – I’d pay more to fly on a plane like the 787, which apparently is much quieter, but I don’t know how to find flights on just that plane. None of the things we care about, other than cost, are easy to find out when choosing between the many options out there/.

  • John Baker

    @CeeJay You can find out information about the seats on a site like Seatguru where they list the pitch, recline and width for a given aircraft. The two airlines I fly the most (DL & UA) both list aircraft type as part of their search.

    There’s actually a website (routehappy I think) that I don’t use that supposedly factors all of your concerns plus routing into a happiness rating.

  • Carole Terwilliger Meyers

    Indeed! Right now I am trying to research a about-to-be grandma ticket. What category do I want that will allow me to go early if necessary and stay longer if necessary? I’m so used to aiming for the cheapest fare that I have no idea what my choices are for this unusual need. Can anyone enlighten me?

  • bodega3

    You want a changeable ticket. If you book Southwest, they show you right on the screen you various options. I sell from a GDS and don’t know how OTA do this, but I would think they would ask you if you want a restricted or unrestrictive ticket. You can always call the carrier you see that you like and ask, too. Or use a travel agent to assist you.

  • Mark Cuban

    Don’t mediate stupid.

  • JewelEyed

    I have heard about labels on chainsaws instructing you not to stop the chain with your hand or genitals. So I’m actually shocked they haven’t labeled lightbulbs that way yet.

  • JewelEyed

    I do agree with the lady that the practice of reserving a car is pointless if they refuse to hold it for you and if the rental place still insists on pretending that they’re actually reserving the car you want, the company deserves a tongue lashing. I’ve absolutely never understood this about car rental places, so if anyone would like to explain why they do this and how it’s acceptable, I’d love to understand. However, throwing a tantrum about it is totally inappropriate.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    That’s not exactly what happens. Car companies generally don’t reserve a specific car for you, but rather a car class.

    In the entitled women’s case, as a gold member, they preassign you a car in the morning so in theory you get a better car than whatever happens to be available when you arrive. They did that, but through an error, the car that was placed back into inventory and given to another customer.

    Reserving a car is always a good idea as car companies do run out.

  • duvenstedter

    Didn’t the insurance industry go this route a couple generations ago? Then they got hammered with laws that said they had to knock off nonsense like “party of the first part” and actually write their policies in English. The companies claimed that they had to write them that way, because legalese was the language of the courts, and, otherwise, the policies wouldn’t hold up in court. What do you know, they could write their policies in English, and the policies did hold up in court. They only reason they wrote them in legalese was so the customers wouldn’t know what was in the policies. Sound familiar? May the airlines profit from the example of the insurance companies.

  • duvenstedter

    (I should have posted this comment as a reply to Carver Clark Farrow, who raised the very defense of legalese in contracts that the insurance companies raised a long time ago.)
    Didn’t the insurance industry go this route a couple generations ago? Then they got hammered with laws that said they had to knock off nonsense like “party of the first part” and actually write their policies in English. The companies claimed that they had to write them that way, because legalese was the language of the courts, and, otherwise, the policies wouldn’t hold up in court. What do you know, they could write their policies in English, and the policies did hold up in court. They only reason they wrote them in legalese was so the customers wouldn’t know what was in the policies. Sound familiar? May the airlines profit from the example of the insurance companies.

  • duvenstedter

    (Also posted as a reply to Carver Clark Farrow.)

  • SarahJ89

    While some things should be obvious to most people, I’m really tired of the internet bullies who blame the victim for not having their Ph.D. in the arcana of these (and other) transactions. The fact is, our social contracts have been broken for some time in the US in so many areas–employment, travel, medical care. Blaming people who expect a reasonable level of integrity and clarity inflates the blamers’ egos and helps perpetuate the problem (for which, sadly, I fear there is no solution).

  • SarahJ89

    There’s paying attention on the part of the customer. And there’s deliberate obfuscation on the part of corporations with large legal departments.

  • SarahJ89

    I really don’t think Chris said you are dupes. I believe he was saying that to be successful in using these programs to your advantage requires a level of involvement most people simply cannot pull off for various reasons. And that life simply should be that darned complicated.

  • JewelEyed

    I do understand that it’s not the exact car, I should have been more specific. However, there have been instances I’ve witnessed at least a few times where someone walks up to get the class they asked for and are told “Oh, sorry, we’re all out of those!” It happened to us once, and they told us we were getting a free “upgrade”. By “upgrade”, they meant they were going to provide us with a hideous, awkward to drive gas guzzler rather than the car class we asked for (they gave us a Chevy HHR, ugh). I would like for them, just once, to tell us what is so complicated about giving someone what they paid for without making the inane assumption that people only get a less expensive option because they’re cheap, not because it’s what they really want.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    Previous renter kept the car longer?

    I don’t think it’s an inane assumption. The problem is that in a higher class they’re all kind of cars. Of course they’re going to give you the least desirable car in the higher class. It’s your job to advocate for yourself