Refresher course for infrequent fliers

July 21, 1996|By Barbara Shea | Barbara Shea,NEWSDAY

With the summer vacation season now off and running, here's a brief refresher for travelers who haven't flown in a while but plan to spend part of their vacation aloft.

One of the first things you're likely to notice on flights lasting less than two or three hours -- which includes most jaunts within the continental United States -- is the absence of a hearty meal. Some travelers view this as a positive trend, given the dubious reputation of airline entrees. But carriers haven't resorted to peanuts and chips just because of their universal popularity. Since coast-to-coast itineraries now often entail a zigzag route with one or two stopovers and maybe a change of planes, there's simply not time to serve more than a quick drink and snack.

This, of course, is also cost-effective for the airlines. But it shifts an expense to passengers -- who have to quell their hunger in pricey airport restaurants between planes. With layover time also being tightened, however, sometimes there's not even time to ++ do that. Advice: If you face a day of hub-hopping, pack your own favorite emergency rations -- just as you would for a family car trip.

While chatting with in-flight seatmates, you might discover some who paid considerably less than you did for the flight. Grill these smart travelers about the source of the bargain. It could be a tried-and-true agent, a trusted consolidator or the World Wide Web. Airlines increasingly have been experimenting with Internet auctions as a means of unloading last-minute seats at huge savings. Advice: When traveling, don't be afraid to talk to strangers; they're often brimming with budget tips.

If your plans change after you've bought tickets, you probably won't be able to get a refund. That's true with most discounted airfares -- the rates paid by virtually everyone except business tycoons and rock stars. Previously, you could present a note from a doctor or judge saying you can't take a planned trip. But airlines had to police which passengers were truly scheduled for bypass surgery and which simply wanted to cancel their flight to Florida because they'd met someone with a beach house in the Hamptons. Carriers now rarely accept excuses but usually let you rebook for a later date (for a fee of $35 or $50). Advice: If your plans could be affected by a sick child or a crisis at work, consider buying trip-cancellation insurance.

Suppose the reason you don't get on the plane is that the airline was overbooked? Involuntary bumping is rare, because carriers usually manage to bribe enough volunteers to wait for a later flight. Failing that, any airline departing from a U.S. airport must compensate involuntary bumpees who won't reach their destination within an hour of the original scheduled time. You must be given up to $200 if you'll arrive within two hours of the time (four hours internationally), up to $400 if the delay is longer. Bumpees must also be given a seat on the next plane there, even if it's via a competing airline. You also get to keep your original ticket for future use. Note that these government rulesapply only to oversold flights, not those canceled or delayed. Advice: Always get to the airport a half-hour earlier than the airline recommends.

Pub Date: 7/21/96

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