Welcome to the January 2007 "Smart Traveler". The newsletter with tips and information to help make your traveling smoother.


What to do when left not holding your bag

Ever get that sinking feeling when the last bag from your flight tumbles onto the carousel and it's still not yours? You've arrived at your destination and your suitcase hasn't.

Keep your cool, and go directly to your carrier's baggage service area, reminding yourself that the agent at the counter didn't lose or mishandle your bag. He or she is there to help you recover it.

Have a copy of your airline itinerary, your baggage claim check, and an accurate description of your bag and its contents. For starters, the agent will ask you for that information. The agent then sends out the equivalent of an all-points-bulletin to match up your missing bag with a bag found at another destination.

Every day the same scene plays out at airport carousels around the world. In the U.S., according to December's Department of Transportation figures, 7.51 bags per 1,000 passengers were mishandled by domestic carriers in October. The rate is based on the total number of reports each of 20 carriers received from passengers whose bags were not only delayed, but lost, damaged or pilfered. To put the number in perspective, the carriers boarded 51,030,572 passengers in October and received 363,159 baggage reports. In October 2005, DOT reported 4.96 bags mishandled per 1,000 passengers.

And the new carry-on rules have resulted in more checked bags--and more bags to lose.

Bags go astray for a variety of reasons:

- It takes time to move a bag from one airline to another at a big airport, and if the connection is tight, the bag may not make your flight.

- Bags are mistagged or delivered to the wrong pier for boarding.

- Bags are placed on the wrong cart and sent to the wrong airport

"There is no foolproof method to keep bags from going astray," said David Castelveter, spokesman for the Air Transport Association, an industry trade group. "Airlines operate in an environment where we're dealing with a very antiquated air traffic control system. A storm in Chicago can cause mass delays at O'Hare International Airport." Delays, he said, translate into missed connections and that translates into bags that don't make it to the connecting flight. There's no way the carriers can offer with absolute assurance that every bag is going to make it to its destination.

But the vast majority of passengers' "missing" bags are reunited with their owners. Take American Airlines, for example. "In 2005, we carried 125 million bags and only 1.5 million of those were delayed, and all but 8,932, which were truly lost, were returned to their owner within five days," American said.

All airlines trace "missing" bags in much the same way. When a passenger checks in for a flight, a computer spits out a boarding pass as well as bar-coded baggage tags that carry the person's name, destination and other flight data. The tag, with an adhesive backing, is firmly fastened to the bag's handle and the passenger gets a baggage claim check. At that point, passengers need to make sure their bag is tagged to the right destination.

Depending on the airport, the bag may be screened for explosives by the Transportation Security Administration before it is placed on the conveyor belt, which carries it to a baggage sorting area. Or it may be screened behind the scenes. Or both. If a TSA inspector sees something suspect as the bag is X-rayed, he may order a manual search, which can further delay it from getting to the plane. As many as six people, including the passenger, can have a hand on a bag until it is loaded on the plane.

To help it do a better job of tracing bags, American Airlines said it is testing a new bar-code-driven system called Bag Finder. Instead of operating within the airline's computer reservations system, Bag Finder technology gives the baggage agent more computerized options to describe, track and deliver the stray bag to its owner.

United Airlines said its bar-coded baggage tagging system allows it to track a bag wherever it is. "We know when it goes on the plane," said a United spokeswoman, because the baggage handler scans it with a hand-held device as he puts it on the plane.

After a United passenger reports a missing bag to baggage services, the passenger can track his bag's status on www.united.com by entering his name and the baggage claim check number or the baggage report number.

ATA, American and United urge you to be proactive in keeping your bags from going astray:

- Make sure you have a secure moisture-proof identification tag on the outside of your bag. Information should include your name, address and phone number, even an e-mail address. For security reasons, you may want to have only your last name visible, with the other information on the reverse side.

- Place a copy of your itinerary and a business card inside your luggage.

- Arrive at the airport a half hour earlier than the airline tells you to. Your bag will have more time to get to the plane. You're going to be more comfortable and less stressed sipping coffee at the gate than fretting in traffic or standing in a slow-moving security line.

And, if you have a cell phone that has a camera feature, take a photo of your luggage so you can do a show-and-tell.

   
No-frills Airfares?

First, JetBlue CEO David Neeleman told Reuters that it is considering charging fliers up to $5 for fluffier blankets and pillows.

A few days later, the Associated Press reported that United Airlines is thinking about launching something called the "bare fare concept", where it would sell tickets that offer customers the bare minimum in air transportation. It would not include in the price the ability to check bags or earn frequent flier miles, or get assigned seats. Those "perks'' would all cost extra.

Under this bargain basement pricing scheme, passengers would buy a basic promotional fare and then have the option to pay for seat assignments, baggage check or miles. United is apparently also thinking about selling fares that could be changed, selling premier frequent flier status for one day at a time and selling one-day passes for the airline's Red Carpet Club.

Now, on the surface, this makes the airlines look incredibly cheap and cynical. But on closer examination, it has a certain attraction. A la carte pricing would sure simplify the current fare anarchy that most travelers have to go through to arrive at a fare they think is decent for what they're getting. The idea of paying a set rate, then buying a few additional amenities, also at set rates, would seem to add transparency to the current chaotic system.

A la carte pricing is always welcome at expensive restaurants. And if a la carte can work for cable TV, why not airfares?



10 Tips to Make Your First Business Trip a Success

Congratulations! You finally landed that new job. You've been promoted out of your cubicle and you're heading out for the friendly skies. Now, you're an official business traveler. While you may be dreaming of free frequent flier vacations to Hawaii, here are ten key tips that every beginning business traveler must know to make your first trip a success.

1. Don't waste your company's money and time on unnecessary trips because you want to rack up frequent flyer miles. The important part of "business travel" is business, not travel. Your company is spending megabucks to send you on the road to increase their profits, not to broaden your horizons. You will be judged on how you handle your business travel.

2. Thoroughly review and understand your company's travel policy before you leave on your first trip. Read it and keep it with you. You should know what expenses are covered, and what you are expected to pick up on your own.

3. If something isn't clear, ask your boss to clarify it before you head out. Don't assume that because your colleague down the hall always flies business class, that you can also. Understand the restrictions on airlines, hotels, car rentals, meals, phone calls, laundry, minibars and all other expenses.

4. Meet - or at least phone - the people who staff your corporate travel department. These individuals usually book your flights, hotels and car rentals - and make the changes when you encounter delays and problems. Ask them to explain what they can do for you when something goes wrong - because something always goes wrong on a business trip. You better get used to that fact now.

5. How's your credit? Are you maxed out? Unless your company provides a company credit card, you may be expected to pay for all of your expenses up front, and then file for reimbursement. Can your credit limit handle a 4-day trip to New York or London? Get this straight before you leave, or you may be very embarrassed taking your best client to dinner.

6. Understand how to get cash advances and the documentation you will need to turn in when you get back. Some companies are really picky about cash. Don't get stuck.

7. Introduce yourself to the people in accounting who will process your expense reports. They can be your best friends. Ask them what they need, how they like to receive information - then follow their advice. If you are spending thousands of dollars a year in travel expenses, you'll need a friend in accounting to get speedy reimbursement. It's no accident that arrogant executives often have problems and delays with expense checks.

8. Don't brag about your trips to non-travelers in your office. Play it cool, don't create travel envy. Remember when you were stuck in a cubicle all day and your colleague insisted on detailing every minute of his "tough" trip to San Francisco?

9. Buy a decent piece of luggage that can be used for carry-on. Don't go crazy spending a significant sum - travel is very hard on suitcases and even the high-end models wear out. You may also find that after you travel a bit, your luggage preferences will change. Don't get stuck with trophy luggage.

10. Understand your corporate travel culture. These are the unwritten rules that supplement the official travel policies. When traveling with others, does everyone sit together on planes? Or sit apart? Eat breakfast together? Or grab coffee at the buffet? Do they come into the office on time the next day, even after a flight that arrives at 3 AM? These business travel styles vary wildly from company to company, and even within departments. Of course, business travel is also fun. Just be sure to cover all these basics before you leave.


Missing a flight can be costlier than you think

While airlines often run late without compensating passengers, many carriers make customers pay up when they show up late. Missing a flight can cost hundreds of dollars, especially these days when empty seats are as rare as in-flight meals.

 

It pays to know your airline's policies because many will give you a break if you know how to ask. Most airlines let you go standby on a later flight, but if that means traveling the next day, some airlines will hit you with change fees and even higher fares — especially if you admit that your tardiness is the result of something in your control (such as oversleeping, for example), as opposed to a traffic jam or a tunnel closure. And if you switch to another airline, your reservation for your return flight may get canceled automatically.

 

With planes flying so full, more travelers are likely to get hit with big ticket-change fees. It can be tough to find a seat on a flight the same day, or within just three hours or the next departure. Airline load factors — the percentage of seats carriers fill — have been at record levels. Some airlines have had busy days when they filled more than 90 percent of their seats. That means most flights are full, and empty seats are found only on off-hour and thinly traveled routes.

 

A recent traveler learned the hard way. Stuck in a traffic jam on June 22, he called American Airlines from his car to say he likely was going to miss his flight from Dallas to Richmond, Va. It was the last flight of the day. He was told that in order to fly the next day, he'd have to pay about $600 to cover a higher fare and change fee. Instead of calling his travel agent to find what his options were, he found a $350 AirTran Airways flight that evening. He told American he was taking a flight on a different airline, and assumed he could use his return ticket on American. But when he arrived at the Richmond airport at the end of his vacation on July 5, American told him that his return reservation had been canceled since he wasn't on the originating flight. A new one-way ticket would cost an additional $490, which he paid. Total cost of the traffic jam: $840.

 

American says it allows customers to go standby for later flights free, or if there is an open seat on another departure that is within three hours of the original flight, customers can pay $25 to confirm a reservation. But if customers show up the next day after missing a flight, American says they will have to buy a new ticket unless they can convince the airline there were mitigating circumstances. "Essentially, they bought a product that has been 'used,' whether they were in the seat or not," said spokesman Tim Wagner.

 

American does give its agents leeway for events that are out of customer's control, such as a flat tire or surprise illness (accompanied by a doctor's note), Wagner says. The airline also checks up on customer stories by using publicly available information, such as traffic and accident reports on local television stations or newspaper Web sites. Other airlines have similar policies on missed flights. Like American, United Airlines will charge a $100 change fee plus fare difference if you can't go standby the same day you miss a flight. Delta Air Lines and Continental Airlines will let you go standby the same day without a charge. After that, they levy a $50 fee plus fare difference. Northwest Airlines says if you end up flying beyond three hours from check-in time, you'll have to pay $50 plus any fare difference. On all, the new ticket would likely be a pricey one-way, walk-up fare. JetBlue Airways will let you standby for the next flight, but if there aren't any seats on that plane, you'll likely have to pay a higher fare and $30 change fee to get a seat.

 

For travelers who have to get somewhere fast even when they miss a flight, discount airlines can be a good option. Last-minute and one-way tickets are more reasonably priced, and seats may be easier to find. Southwest Airlines, for example, doesn't fly as full as most other large carriers.

But there's a catch. If you do hop on another carrier, you have to let your original airline know that you'll still want to use your return ticket, and you may have to fight to keep it. Since one-way fares are often more expensive than round-trip tickets, airlines are leery of travelers who just want to use one half of a cheap round-trip ticket.

 

Every major airline except Southwest and JetBlue say the return portion of the trip would be automatically canceled. Most airlines will make exceptions if you let them know before your original departure time and plead for forbearance.

 

What really infuriates travelers is that airlines typically overbook flights, anticipating some people will miss the flight. In effect, they sell the same seats twice. They often have to pay that back in the form of travel vouchers to entice customers to give up seats on oversold flights. But not when travelers miss the flight. Their seat may well go to a paying customer and the airline hasn't suffered by the no-show. Yet the traveler often has to pay more.

It's not an egalitarian system. When the airline is running late, travelers rarely get compensated for their lost time and customers often have to fight to get airlines to pay for meals and hotel stays if they end up stranded because of long delays and missed connections.

 

In general, if the long delay is the airline's fault, carriers do offer some kind of compensation. But if the airline doesn't consider the problem its own fault — weather delays, for example, or air-traffic jams — then travelers are often on their own.


Remember: Without a travel agent you're on your own


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