Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Looking at the Bright Side

It is easy to conclude that everything is doom and gloom in the airline and travel industry. Certainly, most airlines in this country are tripping over themselves to disintegrate into an orgy customer hatred and mismanagement.

So this morning, I am going to try to find some good news.

1. Southwest Airlines is doing great by advertising it lack of fees. What was once considered a no frills carrier, is now considered nothing short of a premium service. Two free checked bags, free drinks, and no change fees! Rather than operate a hub and spoke system, they offer a variety of non-stop flights from dozens of cities, kind of like a mesh. I haven't flown them yet, but I hope to do so very soon, now that they have offered massive new service from Denver. Sadly for my Atlanta friends and family, they have yet to serve Dead Mayors International. You would have to drive to Birmingham, Alabama to catch one of their flights.

2. Another good option for both myself and my Atlanta based friends is Airtran. Airtran has gone somewhat light on the fees, and is still succeeding economically. More importantly, I found that they operate newer aircraft, on time, and with decent customer service. These days, that is very hard to find. I also do like that you can pay $20 extra for an exit seat. In my opinion, it is worth it to pay a small fee for a few extra inches of leg room, rather than twice as much for a first class seat. Really, there is only about ten inches from the front of your seat to the back of the next, so adding four more inches feels like having a %40 larger seat, for maybe a %10 greater fare.

3. The Starwood Amex is still a great rewards card. Like most cards you earn a point per dollar, however you can stay at Westins and Sheratons for as little as 3000 points a night. The best part is that the reward availability is guaranteed. That means that if they have a room for sale, then they will allow you to redeem points for a free night. Think about how much value the 25,000 airline miles you earned on your credit card has these days. Perhaps they might be good for a "free" trip to Buffalo (not including fees) if you are willing to travel on odd Tuesdays in February. Most available domestic awards now cost 50,000 points. That same 25,000 earned on the Starwood Amex will easily find you up to 6-8 nights in a Sheraton hotel, even on a busy holiday week. Westins are typically 7-10,000 points. If you do the math, it is usually better to pay for your flight, and stay in a nice hotel for a week for free.

Better yet, you can also use the Starwood Amex points to redeem miles on dozens of airlines at great rates. For example, when you redeem on Delta, you get a 5000 mile bonus when you redeem 20,000 points. It is essentially a 1-1.25 ratio and there are no fees. You can't beat this.

4. The major international airlines in the United States are not worthy of your business, to be kind, however, most foreign carriers are actually quite nice. Lufthansa and British Airways are showing solid profits and treating their customers well. When flying internationally on foreign and a domestic carrier back to back, difference is something like comparing a Motel Six to the Ritz Carlton. Even when the rooms are the same size, it is an entirely different experience.

5. The Future: Perhaps a downturn in air travel will create a glut of hotel rooms and drive prices down. Maybe the dollar will rebound a bit and take pressure off of oil prices. Hopefully United or US Airways will go out of business forever and Southwest will expand more rapidly.

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