As founder of Airfarewatchdog.com, George Hobica has made a career of sniffing out cheap fares and then spreading the word. Based in New York, Hobica is also an astute analyst of the industry and its trends. He was in Minneapolis last week and shared his wisdom on the current chaotic state of the nation's unfriendly skies.
Q For a while now, you've been down on airline-affiliated credit cards that accumulate frequent-flier miles. Now Northwest has joined American in charging a fee for cashing frequent-flier miles [$25 for domestic, $50 for transatlantic and $100 for flights to Asia]. Does striving for more frequent-flier miles still make sense?
A No, especially not with the addition of fees to cash out miles. Listen, you're already paying $70 or $80 a year for the card, then you're paying fees to check your bag and fees to cash the miles, and another fee to talk to an agent, and more if you change your plans. You might be paying $250 for that "free" ticket. I do a comparison on my website with cash-back cards from American Express and Chase. It shows what you get if you spend $25,000 on an airline card vs. one of those cash-back cards. It's reasonable that you could get back $700 to $800 in cash -- which you can use to buy a couple of domestic tickets and you won't have to deal with capacity controls. Cash doesn't expire. Cash doesn't go bankrupt. And there are no fees for these cards.
Q Are there any cheap fares out there at this point?
A Low fares are still there, but not for peak travel periods. [Hobica interrupted himself to search for sample fares on his laptop.] Look at this, New York to St. Maarten, $290 round-trip. Salt Lake to Atlanta, $207. Washington to London, $642, in July. That's amazing. I tell people they've got to do a flexible date search and then be flexible. Cheaptickets, Orbitz and Travelocity all allow you to do a flexible search over a long period of time. I'm not the kind of traveler who says, 'I've got to go to London this particular week.' I look at the fares over time and say, 'That's the week I'm going to London.' If you're flexible, there are astounding deals out there.
Q So you're not a fan of kayak.com [one of the other major airfare search sites]?
A No. Their flexible search option only offers three days on departure and return. That's not enough time to really get a sense of what your options are.
Q I've had quite a few readers and friends complain about airlines changing their tickets after the fact -- adding legs, or dropping the route completely. It's a chaotic time in the industry. Are you noticing any patterns consumers should be aware of?
A It's a crazy, crazy world out there. I had a reader write to me that if you look on the United Airlines site, you can still book flights from Denver into Fort Lauderdale, Fla., in September, even though the airline has announced it's discontinuing service to Fort Lauderdale at the beginning of September. Let's take a look. [Hobica searches for UA flights from Denver to Fort Lauderdale in September and finds them, then finds the airline's announcement of discontinued service.] The problem is, you could book that, they may well take your credit card number and money, and it will only be later, at a very inconvenient time, that you discover the flight doesn't exist.
Q That's scary. What should consumers do?
A Pay close attention to what's happening, doublecheck with airlines that the flights are continuing. With so many routes being dropped, it's a real concern.
Q What does the future of air travel look like to you?
A It all depends on oil. If we really have hit 'peak oil,' we'll see some anticompetitive barriers disappear, including letting foreign carriers buy U.S. airlines. We'll see more mergers, fewer, bigger airlines. All the Midwests, Frontiers, Alaskans will disappear. If oil prices drop back to what they were, we'll go back to the same crazy situation where there'll be someone else starting up a JetBlue. There's always someone out there who thinks they can start an airline.
Q Any parting words of advice?
A If you're planning a vacation in February 2009 -- or any kind of peak travel time -- buy your tickets now. Don't bother waiting for sale fares. Fares are only going up from here.
Chris Welsch • 612-673-7113