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 26, 2012

Ouch!  What Happened To Airfares?

I guess I haven't been paying attention recently to the price of air travel.  Fares seems to have skyrocketed, or at least my experience booking three recent itineraries point to that.

Example one:  Back in November I bought a ticket to fly in early December on AA from Raleigh to Madison, Wisconsin for just over $300 round trip.  Then my son had an emergency appendectomy the night before I was supposed to travel, and I had to cancel that trip.  AA was kind enough to issue me a travel voucher for the full amount due to the medical issue (it was a nonrefundable fare, of course, as virtually all are these days), but when I re-booked the itinerary 6 weeks in advance for travel in January, the fare was $462 round trip, a 50% increase.  

I thought maybe it was a fluke for the days I chose to fly, but shopping around on different days and weeks, I couldn't find anything better.

Pardon me, but paying almost $500 for a nonrefundable ticket to fly to Madison from Raleigh and back is excessive.  I mean, who wants to fly to Madison?  UW is a fine university, but aside from a few cool student hang-outs and some decent places to hear live music, Madison leaves a lot to be desired.  Especially in the winter, when temps are frequently subzero and the snow flies abundantly.   (My excuse: I have dear friends there.)

Example two:  Every year for 20 years my family flies Raleigh to Billings, Montana in June, July, or August to spend a week with my wife's parents, who have a rustic cabin in the Beartooth Mountains north of Yellowstone.  Air fares are always a bit high because there are no low cost carriers like Southwest yet serving Montana with enough capacity to drive down prices.  Usually we could find a fare on Delta or Northwest for about $450 round trip per person.  

Last summer (post DL/NW merger) we noticed fares had risen to just over $500, so I steeled myself when booking for this coming summer.  I was unprepared, however, for ticket prices that started at $622 (lowest price).  No matter what date I tried, tickets were $600 or higher.  I think a 20% increase in one year is extraordinary, especially considering the Fed reports there is little inflation.

Third example:  In December, at the height of high season, my family flew to St. Thomas en route to Maho Bay Camps in the St. John National Park.  I bought the tickets last summer for under $500 each.  We enjoyed the experience so much that we decided to return this June in the low season when practically no one visits the U. S. Virgin Islands.  Maho Bay accommodation prices, for example, are at that time half what they are in December.

Apparently no one told the airlines, though, that it's the LOW season.  When I checked air fares, they were $650-700 minimum between Raleigh and St. Thomas in mid-June.  It's possible to beat the system by buying two separate tickets, one Raleigh to JFK, and a second one JFK/STT, and pay $500 total.  But it's risky because if you miss the illegal connection, you lose your money.  

I decided instead to spend 200,000 Delta frequent flyer miles for 4 award travel tickets to St. Thomas in order to save $2700.  Seems like a lot of miles, though, to relinquish for such a short distance.  200,000 FF miles used to buy two first class tickets to Europe (first class, mind you, not business class).

Thinking maybe my experiences were anomalies, I asked around in the travel game to understand why the cost of flying to St. Thomas in June would be higher than in December, and why flying to Madison in midwinter is so expensive, and why flying to Billings has risen 20% in one year.  One professional travel planner's answer: "Because they are AIR FARES, and with less competition these days, the airlines can charge what they want."  

That reference was to the current AA bankruptcy (leaving it, for now at least, a weak competitor), the United/Continental merger, and the Delta/Northwest merger, all events which, he maintains, have diminished competition in many markets, allowing airlines to raise fares more indiscriminately than they've been able to get away with in the past. 

He said other factors have contributed, too, to the airlines' ability to raise fares.  There are still many airplanes parked due to the recession, and that means fewer frequencies even in city-pair markets with less competition.  Demand for flying has crept up faster than airlines have brought planes and crews back in service.  And steadily rising jet fuel prices (no inflation?) has been a good marketing tool to the public to justify higher fares.

Apparently higher fares aren't sticking in every burg and crop-dusting station, but they are working in a lot of places where frequencies are few and where Southwest doesn't fly.  Too bad for me, for instance, that Southwest doesn't serve Madison, Billings, or St. Thomas.  Presumably, that's one reason why Delta just announced record quarterly profits.

The upward trend of fares is not limited to domestic flying.  Twice in the past year I bought tickets Raleigh to Johannesburg, South Africa.  The fares were around $1400 round trip both times.  Checking fares RDU/JNB for June, the best I could find was $1800, 29% more.  I can only hope for a sale before summer.

But even at $1800, it's one-third the cost per mile to fly to Johannesburg (8,807 miles each way, or $0.10/mile) than paying $500 to Madison (753 miles each way, or $0.33/mile).  

While admitting that I hit a perfect triple whammy of destinations where air fare increases have been unusually high, it feels like a general trend to me, with fares going up far faster than inflation.  If so, it will put a crimp in our family's ability to travel as much as we'd like, and as as much as we have in the past.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Reflections on St. John, USVI

Two weeks after returning from Maho Bay Camps, St, John (see previous post), our family feels strongly that we want to return.

So strongly, in fact, that we've made reservations for June when the prices are at their lowest!

Yes, it was expensive to eat anywhere on the island, and, yes, the Maho Bay cabins are spartan and require a hike to the common ablution blocks to find a toilet and shower.  But the breathtaking views, the beautiful beaches, and the convenience of being in the ideal location on the island for water activities trump the inconveniences.

Now, however, we cannot find cheap airfares in June, the low season, which seems ironic, since we were able to snag a deal on air at the height of the Christmas holiday period.  Maybe the airlines' yield management systems just haven't yet worked their complex mathematical magic on unsold seat inventory to and from St. Thomas for the summer months.  

Truth is, we can't wait to go back!  St. John's beaches have a special allure. 

If we had rented a fancy St. John "villa" high up on a hilltop, though, rather than primitive Maho Bay Camps, I am not sure we'd have had the same happy experience, nor would we feel the pull to return.  (That said, the villas are preferred by most visitors; in fact, they are extremely popular and often booked up a year in advance.)

Another observation pertains to the waste of an entire day to go anywhere by air (in each direction).  This doesn't have so much to do with St. John as it does with the logistics of flying.  It sounds so simple: "Let's fly down to St. John!"  Or: "Time to book our flights to Montana for this summer."  But almost anywhere you go will burn up an entire day at each end of a trip.

To get to Maho Bay Camps on St. John, for example, we left our house to drive to the RDU airport at 3:45 AM, parked the car in the big deck, and schlepped our luggage and ourselves to the terminal.  Then endured the TSA security screen, grabbed a bagel, visited the airline club, rushed to the gate for our flight to Atlanta, boarded the plane 30-40 minutes ahead of departure, stowed the luggage in the overhead compartments, and waited for the plane to fill. 

Pushed back; taxied; took off; cruised; descended; landed; taxied to gate; deplaned with luggage.  Consulted monitors for connecting gate and flight status; hit the toilets; took the ATL subway to correct terminal; traipsed to gate for flight to St. Thomas; waited. 

Boarded the plane 30-40 minutes ahead of departure, stowed the luggage in the overhead compartments, and waited for the plane to fill.  Pushed back; taxied; took off; cruised; descended; landed; taxied to gate; deplaned with luggage.   

Hit the St. Thomas airport bathrooms.  Asked for directions to taxi stand going to Red Hook where ferries leave for Cruz Bay, St. John; grabbed cheeseburgers and fries for the kids; bought cheap rum in airport duty free shop; located Red Hook taxi; loaded luggage into taxi van; boarded and waited for taxi to fill up.

Left airport and threaded through heavy Charlotte Amalie city traffic; stopped at several resorts en route to Red Hook to drop off customers; because of stops, arrived Red Hook 5 minutes too late for the hourly ferry service; paid taxi driver $60 for 4 people (a 55 minute ride from the airport in a shared taxi).

Bought tickets ($15 for 4 people) for next ferry, due to leave in 55 minutes; found on-site bar at ferry terminal and downed an island cocktail, followed by two beers after discovering beer special was half the price of cocktails; began to enjoy the island atmosphere as reggae music thumped from the jukebox.

Boarded ferry with family and luggage and a beer in a plastic cup; relaxed even more as the ferry churned through heavy swells in the channel between St. Thomas and St. John; arrived Cruz Bay; slowly disembarked ferry; made way off dock to waiting taxi stands; found Mr. Frett who runs Frett's Taxi, the regular shuttle between Cruz Bay and Maho Bay Camps.

Paid Mr. Frett for four passengers plus luggage ($44); boarded open-air body on back on large Ford pickup chassis; waited for taxi to fill up; departed Cruz Bay; stopped at several gorgeous lookouts en route (Caneel Bay, Trunk Bay, Maho Bay); arrived Maho Bay Camps just about 5:00 PM.

Since St. John is on Atlantic Standard Time, one hour later than Eastern Time, the trip door-to-door took 12 hours.  Actual time in the air on our two flights was about 4 fours.  The remaining 8 hours of transit time was all the stuff before, during, and after airplane time.

Twelve hours!  You know, it's just not that far from North Carolina to St. John.

The trip home took just as long. 

Point being, trips involving air almost always involve significant indirect time in addition to the real flight times.  Unavoidable, yes, but what a pity that it's such a waste of time. 

In the old days, before airplanes and automobiles became the standard American means of transit, passenger trains took us from city center to city center, or to and from town centers.  The need and realistic prospects for improved passenger train options in the USA is a subject I want to explore in future posts.