Allen On Travel

A 30 year veteran of world travel (but knows nil about Orlando-area attractions), Will Allen III writes about his weekly odysseys by air on business and how the airlines rob him--and you--of time, the most precious commodity on earth. Time: It's all we have, and the airlines routinely take it from us. This blog challenges the airlines to keep their basic promises.

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Location: Raleigh, North Carolina, United States

Born 1948 in Kinston, NC and raised there in beautiful eastern North Carolina, I now live in Raleigh and commute around the country and the world.

Thursday, January 31, 2008

The Chaos of Booking

January 31st already? It's hard to believe one-twelfth of the year is already over. As the leap year long month of February beckons tomorrow, so does my monthlong sojourn working in London. I won't be home again until March 1st, which seems distant at the moment.

Getting ready for this trip was not as easy as I had imagined. Originally intending to fly directly to London via American's daily nonstop 777 from Raleigh/Durham, I dug around the website back in late December and early this month looking for a decent business class fare.

There were no reasonable fares to be found, however. I don't know about other folks, but "reasonable" to me means something along the lines of $3,500 or so round trip. And I think that's stretching the meaning of "reasonable," especially given the very uncomfortable new AA business class seats (about which I wrote a blog entry in November or December).

Cheapest business seats I could find on the RDU/LGW nonstop were nudging up towards $7,000 with all taxes added, almost twice what I was mentally budgeting. Time to cash in some miles for an upgrade, I thought.

Though I will lose my American Airlines Executive Platinum status at the end of February, it's still intact for the moment, and so I next phoned AA direct to see about using miles to upgrade from one of the hefty coach fares that allow it. I had forgotten that mileage upgrades on AA now cost 50,000 miles PLUS a $600 co-payment EACH WAY, but I was soon set straight on that matter by a nice AA telephone rez agent.

Gulping hard to think that I would have to spend 100,000 hard-earned AAdvantage miles plus another $1,200 ON TOP OF a coach fare nearing $1,500 round trip, I tepidly agreed to do it.

$2,700 plus 100,000 AAdvantage miles. Goodness, I thought!

But I didn't have to spend that much after all, since there were no upgrades to business class available on the nonstop flight returning on March 1st even at those extravagant prices. Not even for Executive Platinums? I asked. Nope, came the reply, the entire business cabin is already sold out.

Holy mackerel! AA is sure popular these days.

So I did some snooping around the usual portals looking for bargains through connecting cities, like Chicago and JFK. I widened my search to include not just AA, but Continental, Delta, and a few others. And I did find some relative bargains out of JFK on several legacy carriers at around $3,600 round trip, which were apparently matching MaxJet (now defunct), EOS, and SilverJet.

But I would still have to purchase a separate RDU/JFK ticket to get those fares. As soon as I tried RDU/LON (Gatwick or Heathrow), the business fares would go through the ceiling. Splitting the tickets brought them down again.

On AA there were no reasonable fares out of JFK to LHR, however. Cheaper fares on AA were only offered to STN (Stansted), obviously in an attempt to compete with EOS Airlines.

Having wasted a good deal of time now looking for a decent fare, I did what I should have done in the first place: I called Steve Crandell, owner of Discount Travel in Jacksonville, Florida. Steve's an expert at locating cheaper business and first class seats on international flights (and domestic ones, too).

No joy was to be had through him, either, even though Steve did his usual bang-up job researching every airline and every gateway. Seems the U.S. legacy carriers have wised up and priced their premium cabins through the roof because they can. They must be getting the traffic, despite what appears to me to be a surfeit of capacity in a traditionally low-travel season.

After considering several foreign carriers, I settled on EOS Airlines, with a connection to JFK on AA. All in, including all taxes, travel agency fees, and both EOS and AA tickets, I paid $3,493 round trip. I am looking forward to trying EOS, which I have avoided until now only because I was always able to find a decent fare on a traditional carrier like AA which had the benefit of boosting my mileage and thus retaining my precious elite status (God knows, the FF miles alone are worth less and less every day).

This marks another big step away from my decades of loyalty to AA, Delta, CO, and NW. Last year I took my family to Africa and used Emirates from London, another diversion of money and miles from the majors. Gradually I am weaning myself off the FF loyalty programs that have held me in a fever since 1981, and I am not worried about it.

In fact I can hardly wait to try EOS Airlines!

Chances are good that I will be going to and from London regularly starting in March. And I doubt I will now be using one of the U. S. airlines to do it.

On the matter of booking a London hotel for my 25 nights of residency, I will be briefer. Since I was told by my client that the London hotel market is softening and that deals are to be found in the dead of winter, I expected to be offered reasonable accommodation prices and maybe even a sweetener or two (Concierge upgrade, free Internet, that sort of thing).

Didn't happen. The same booking chaos gripped me for two weeks trying to find that rarest of deals: a good hotel in central London for under £200/night.

Our client is a giant conglomerate that spans the globe and has posh offices close to Paddington. Thus I first used their Hilton discount number, which they graciously gave me, to attempt booking at the very nice Hilton London Paddington, which is within walking distance. The cheapest corporate rate at that Hilton property under the client's discount scheme is £179, and that rate includes nothing except room + all taxes. For instance, Internet is an extra £15/day ($30).

When contacting Hilton, however, I was informed that the Hilton London Paddington had reached an occupancy level that would not allow me to use the client's discount rate, and that the only rooms available there were £299/night ($600). Plus Internet, plus meals, plus everything else, of course. Oh, and no rooms at all were available for some of the nights I needed.

Feeling like a boxer who had just taken a stunning blow to the head, I asked about the other London Hilton properties. All were £155 a night or higher, and the cheapest so distant that I dithered about booking.

After investigating other hotel chains, such as the Millennium, I went back to the Hilton once more the next day. But some of the best rates were already gone for the dates I needed. I eventually settled on the Hilton London Metropole on Edgeware Road at £179/night ($360, plus, plus, plus), and when a colleague tried to book in there three days later he was not able to do better than £199.

So what's going on with the airlines going to London and the hotels in London? Why is there such chaos, and how do they get away with such exhorbitant prices? The stock markets are gloomy, and economists say we are in a recession, or nearly there. Too, there are more seats than ever over the Atlantic to London and more hotel rooms than ever in London. Yet the pricing for both air travel and hotel space there seems absurd to me. I've been traveling worldwide for decades, and to the U.K. fairly often, and it feels to me like the steep rises in costs have only really taken hold in the past year or so.

I have no answers. I hope that, like the U. S. housing market, there will be a correction soon in premium cabin air fares and central London hotel rooms. And I hope that, regardless of price, the process of booking either one becomes easier.

Next week, if time permits, I will write a post on public transport options from Stansted (where EOS lands) to central London.


Blogger Finprof said...

You might perhaps have had things better with some AA-specific shopping lessons.

First, the $6000 round trip Business fare RDU-LGW is actually a D fare, which means one can upgrade it to First Class; with the recent fleet upgrade complete, First is now all Flagship Suite seating. Upgrades book into A class, which is often easier to find than C (upgrade to Biz). The $3000-ish Business fares that AA offers ex-RDU are 50-day advance purchase, but cannot be upgraded.

Second, "upgrade from one of the hefty coach fares that allow it" is not the way AA operates either. Even their lowly 'N' fare under $400 roundtrip allows it (albeit plus the stinking co-pay). If there was only a $1500 fare available, that's saying the bookings were indeed pretty heavy.

Third, when in that relatively pricey coach situation, the best AA option is to find the class B fares, which can be upgraded for only 10,000 miles each way and do not suffer the co-pay.

Granted, options 2 and 3 were apparently unavailable, but if you do make use of AA status again sometime, consider investing a bit more in learning the rules as a necessary defense mechanism.

One of those rules is the "soft landing", which says that come March you can only drop one status level. You should be Platinum, which isn't too bad, for a further year even if you flew very little in 2007.

2/01/2008 11:33 AM  
Blogger William A. Allen III said...

Financial Professor,

Thank you so much for not only the excellent substantive advice but for the very kind & gentle way by which you remonstrated me for not knowing the rules. Well done!

I offer no excuse except to admit that I have thrown down my weapons.

I recalled most of what you said once your email refreshed my memory. It was info I had ejected over the course of the past few years.

Truth is, I accumulated a vast storehouse of such knowledge about Delta over decades of flying on them before my loyalties shifted to AA and CO. By the time I shifted to AA, I had grown weary of, even surly at, having to know how to navigate the arcane byways of airline fare rules and exceptions and special cicumstances secreted away in small print and on the back pages of their websites. You very well articulated the ones pertatining to AA in this case, and I hope people will read your comment in addition to my complaint. Your information will benefit everyone.

Speaking only for me, I've reached a point where I'm disgusted having to discover and then archive all such nuances. When I phoned AA (several times) and researched the web for this partiular trip, I received no help or advice such as yours.

On the return I can only take AA at its word that all upgrade options were closed due to the business cabin being fully booked. But who knows? AA agents I speak with are routinely polite and knowledgeable, yet in this case none could help me find a way to stay on their employer's airline.

Had I recalled the specifics embodied in your exposition, perhaps a door would have opened that one of those AA gents did not think to try. But why should I have to do that? Why is the booking process not more transparent?

Yes, your argument to be armed with knowledge is valid, but I am asking why we passengers should have to approach booking that way at all. If the airlines--in this case, AA-- were honest and upfront about those things, they would have my money and EOS would not.

I just don't want the bother of having to keep up with the ever-changing undercurrent of rules. When I book on or through EOS, the fares and rules are simple and straightforward.

Bottom line is my money went to an upstart airline that made it easy.

Having said that, I emphasize again how much I, and presumably all my readers, appreciate the info you shared.

Thanks again very much.


2/01/2008 12:15 PM  
Blogger Roundman said...

Will, you will love Eos, as did I. My only regret is that I did not spring for the 1st class section on the trip to/from Liverpool, because I didn't know it existed.

2/02/2008 6:34 PM  
Blogger TomCayman said...

Will, it is true you have to work out the "tweaks" to get the most out of the frequent flyer systems like those of AA, but one tip is to subscribe to ExpertFlyer ($10 per month) and there you can find the hidden 'C' availability to see if business class upgrades are available at the time of booking (although unless flights are jammed they normally clear prior to check in).

Also, even if RDU/LHR is full, there are so many flights on AA from JFK/LHR you could likely have flown RDU/JFK/LHR rt on a cheap coach fare on AA, paid 50k + $600 to upgrade (round trip, not one way... and as per, so still come in at aroound $1500 rt for a business class flight.

Another option would be Silverjet, which seems very interesting. Seats not 'F' quality like EOS, but sounds like Silverjet has nailed it with the focus on the experience of getting through the airport.

Unfortunately their January sale just ended, but they were offering rt fares at c$1800, which was pretty attractive.

I would love to have tried them, but my next two transatlantics are on AA and BA where in both cases I managed to get good fares and use miles (by booking a bit in advance) to fly in J for $1800 or less....and I do like the BA club with the true lie flat bed a LOT :)

2/08/2008 8:53 PM  
Blogger William A. Allen III said...


Excellent advice for us all! Thanks very much.

2/09/2008 8:34 AM  

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