Travel advice from the airfare watchdog

A passenger stands in front of a giant board displaying departure flights.

These days, with money so tight my trip planning process always starts with a hunt for a deal. I'll bet you have your favorite websites to check first for flight specials. George Hobica hopes one of them is AirfareWatchdog.com. He founded that site 15 years ago to help connect travelers on a budget with the best airline buys. George joins us to talk travel deals and answer some of your trip planning questions.

Is it easier or harder to get an amazing discount on a flight now compared to 15 years ago?

"The reason we started AifareWatchdog was because it was easier to find fares if you knew where to look. What happened was when there were more airlines, there was more competition. We would see many unadvertised airfare wars, where some fares would go down to $88 roundtrip coast to coast. Delta would attack Northwest, Northwest would attack Delta. Of course, now they are the same airline, so that doesn't happen so much," says Hobica. "We also saw a lot of fat finger fares. Those are $0.20 [fares] that the airlines put into their system by accident and they used to honor them. Since then they've reprogrammed their computer systems to catch those mistakes, so we don't see them anymore."

Many Marketplace Money listeners wrote to us with their questions about travel-related quandries:

  • Lorene from Palmer, Alaska, is looking for help on where to find special flight deals and when to buy. She hasn't visited her parents in two years because of the price of plane tickets. Because she lives in Alaska, there aren't many great inexpensive places to fly to. Plus, she has children in school so she is limited on when she can fly. What can she do?
  • Emerson from Durham, N.C., also posted a question to our Facebook page. He wants to know: Is travel insurance a good idea?
  • Jan from Racine, Wis., shares her story about why you should be wary about travel award miles. She wants to know what people should be on the look out for when pricing a flight so that exorbitant charges don't throw them for a loop.

Click play on the audio player above to listen to Hobica's advice.

Plus, knowing your rights as an airline consumer could save you major cash.  Here's what Hobica says you should be aware of:

Consumer fly rights

 1. If you’re bumped from a flight, never accept a travel voucher. You’re entitled to a cash payment on the spot of up to $1200 depending on the length of the delay.

 2. Even if your luggage is merely delayed rather than permanently lost, you’re entitled to monetary compensation—not just a few bucks for a toothbrush. Maximum compensation on a domestic itinerary is $3,300; on an international one, approximately $1500.

 3. You have the right to book an airfare and put it on hold at the same price for 24 hours, without payment.

 4. If you’re flying from or within the European Union, you have additional rights in the case of delay or cancellation, including hotel, meals, and monetary compensation, if the problem was within the “reasonable control” of the airline.

 5. If your flight is severely delayed or cancelled, most airlines will allow you to request a full refund, even on a non-refundable fare, if you choose not to fly.

 6. However, airline schedules are not guaranteed and if the new schedule doesn’t suit you your only recourse is to request a refund.

 7. Some airlines, according to their contracts of carriage, will (at their discretion) re-route you on another airline in the event of a cancellation. For example, Rule 24 in United’s contract states “[United will] reroute Passengers over the lines of one or more carriers in the same class of service when a Change in Schedule results in the cancellation of all UA service between two cities.” Alaska Airlines has a similar rule, and it never hurts to ask to be rerouted on another carrier even if there’s nothing stated in the airline’s contract.


You had so many travel-related questions that couldn't make the air that we got George Hobica to answer a few of them.

Question from Joseph: I am planning our family vacation in Europe in the first 2 weeks of August. We'd like to see Rome, Venice, Florence, Switzerland/Lucern, Paris and London. We have never been to Europe. What type of trip (escorted tour, guided tour or independent tour) do you suggest? Do you have suggestions on which web site or tour companies?

Answer: I would say first that two weeks isn't enough time to enjoy all those cities, and I doubt that you'd find a guided two-week tour that covered them all. You'd probably need at least three days -- including travel time -- in each city, and I'd probably save Switzerland for another visit. You could conceivably do the Italian cities you mentioned plus Paris and London in 15 days. If you're not an experienced traveler to these countries, you might want to consider consulting a travel agent. Ask friends, neighbors and work mates for suggestions. You could also join a guided tour for part of your trip and see the other cities on your own. For example, Go Ahead Tours is offering an 11-day tour of Paris, London and Rome and then at the end you could visit Venice and/or Florence independently. Tours can be pricey, however. That Go Ahead tour costs $3,700 with airfare from New York CIty, based on double occupancy. A great site to get ideas of where to stay and what to do is the aptly named TripAdvisor.com. And you might save money by renting short-term apartments in each city using sites like FlipKey.com or AirBnB.com, especially if there are four or more in your group. Just be careful when booking on those sites because there are scam artists (https://www.airbnb.com/help/question/199) exploiting visitors. 

Question from Sandi: You just had a great show on travel. You covered kids, insurance and even pets. But what about the solo traveler and those crippling single supplements? I have found just one company -- GAP Adventures -- that doesn't penalize the solo traveler with these fees (which can be substantial). Can you help us out with some research on other companies that welcome (instead of penalize) us?

Answer: As more and more travelers fly solo, single supplements are a growing problem. A great article offering some solutions is this New York Times piece on the topic. I've inspected the Norwegian Cruise Lines cabins mentioned in the article, and I think they're a great solution to this problem. The article mentions Grand Circle Cruise Line, but Grand Circle also offers land tours (http://www.gct.com/Find-Trips/River-Cruises/Leader-in-Solo-Friendly-Travel-Guaranteed.aspx) with very low or non-existent single supplements on many departures. 

Question from Becky: When traveling with my brother's family we got stuck in Denver. My brother stood in a long line at customer service for Frontier who immediately turned him away saying, "You bought your ticket through a third party, we can't help you." This was close to midnight, customer service would not even hear the issue. We have to cobble together different airlines because we fly into tiny airports in southern Colorado so we do use Travelocity, Expedia or whatever -- which they were calling the third party. So how to cobble together airlines without using a third party so that we are not turned down when the trip goes awry -- particularly late at night? Do travel agents still exist?

Answer: You're correct that sites like Expedia and Travelocity are useful for "cobbling together" itineraries that combine flights on more than one airline to find the best fares and schedules. But those sites are indeed travel agencies. Not "bricks and mortar" travel agencies, but online travel agencies (OTAs) with 800 numbers and customer service agents. You should have or could have called them for help rather than going through Frontier. Frontier has been very aggressive in pushing consumers to buy on their own FlyFrontier.com website (by offering more frequent flyer miles, avoiding carry on bag fees, and allowing advance seat selection, among other things), and perhaps this unhelpful response was just another manifestation of this policy. In any case, at midnight in Denver there was probably little chance to be put on another flight. Depending on the cause of the problem, travel insurance might have helped defray the costs of a hotel room, meals and other expenses, but probably Frontier was under no obligation to defray those costs since there's no regulation or law requiring them to do so. 

About the author

In more than 20 years in public radio, Barbara Bogaev has served as the longtime guest host of NPR’s flagship program Fresh Air with Terry Gross, as well as host of APM’s news and culture magazine, Weekend America and the weekly national documentary series, Soundprint.

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