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COVID-19 Could Impact Your Points and Frequent-Flyer Terms—for the Better

If you’re avoiding booking flights for the foreseeable future due to COVID-19, you might be wondering what’s going to happen to your frequent flyer status and/or airline points in the meantime.

For many frequent flyers and business travelers, the most important benefits of frequent-flyer membership are through special “elite” status: The prime benefits are no-cost upgrades to available premium seats via various priority lists, as well as preferential treatment on relaxed baggage restrictions, better boarding group, fewer or no seat-assignment fees, and faster ways to earn more miles/points.

Those upgrades are a powerful loyalty attractor. Elite members go to great lengths to retain or upgrade their status level, and the schedule reductions and travel restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic have seriously thwarted their ability to retain and improve status. The same goes for hotel chains with loyal members.

Recognizing this problem, and wishing to retain loyalty of their best customers, many airlines and hotels have started to ease status requirements for the duration of the epidemic. They’ve also extended validity of some important elite-status benefits. And some airlines have even eased restrictions on use of miles for ordinary, non-elite flyers.

Airlines Changing Points Terms Due to COVID-19

Several airlines have already announced their changes; others are sure to follow. The changes listed below are effective as of April 20. They’re moving targets: Look for further, rolling, extensions, especially those scheduled to end this month or next. Further down are the hotel chains offering points or elite-status term changes.

Alaska Airlines

Elite flyers can retain their current status on Alaska through at least December 31, 2021.  Companion certificates earned through the line’s credit card slated to expire in 2020 are extended: Apply certificates by December 2020 for travel through November 6, 2021. Status-earning miles acquired between January 1 and Apr 30, 2020, will roll over to 2021. You can find more information here.

Air Canada

Elite flyers on Air Canada retain their current status through December 31, 2021. Frequent flyers will not have to pay a fee to redeposit miles used to book award flights, through at least April 30. Accrued miles will not expire through May 14. You can find more information here.

American

Elite flyers whose status expires on January 1, 2020, will retain their current status through January 2022. Upgrade certificates slated to expire on January 31, 2021, are extended to July 31, 2021. You can find more information here.

Delta

Elite flyers with Delta retain their current status through January 31, 2022. Status-earning miles acquired in 2020 will roll over to 2021. Sky Club memberships set to expire March 31 or later are extended for six months. You can find more information here.

Upgrade certificates and vouchers scheduled to expire March 1 through June 30 are extended until December 31, 2020. Certificates and vouchers expiring after June 30 are extended for six months.

Hawaiian

Hawaiian “will not be expiring any miles from March 1, 2020 through December 31, 2020. Members with miles set to expire within this time period will retain their full mileage balance. [Prior] standard expiration policy will resume on January 1, 2021.” You can find more information here.

Southwest

A-List and A-List Preferred flyers with elite status through December 21 will have status extended through December 31, 2021. Companion passes earned through December 31, 2020 will be extended through June 30, 2021. You can find more information here.

United Airlines

Elite flyers on United retain their current status through January 31, 2022. United has lowered mileage and spend requirements for the 2021 status year to earn various status levels by 50 percent.. Frequent flyers will not have to pay a fee to redeposit miles used to book award flights, through at least May 31. You can find more information here.

Expiration dates on several annual-pay programs, such as Wi-Fi, checked, bags, United Club membership, and seating in Economy Plus are extended by six months. Electronic travel certificates are now valid for 23 months.

WestJet

WestJet has upgraded or extended members who were on track to attain status in March through May, and it will “continue to look after” other travelers whose elite status might be affected by coronavirus changes. WestJet is also extending the validity of various vouchers and certificates, by varying periods—check the website for details. You can find more information here.

Other North American Lines

Clearly, the other big airlines with robust elite-status programs—specifically, American and Hawaiian—are likely to announce similar policies, within weeks if not days. On other U.S. and Canadian lines, status is a lot less important, but you can expect some relaxation of various frequent flyer rules from those lines fairly soon, as well.

Foreign Lines

Big foreign lines, too, are easing rules and extending status. Lines that have extended status for a year include LATAM, Qantas, Qatar, and Virgin Australia; Virgin Atlantic has extended status six months. Air France/KLM, Cathay Pacific, Emirates, and Etihad are adding miles to accounts or lowering status requirements. Many of these lines are also extending validity of various upgrades and companion certificates—check their respective websites for more information.

Bonus: Amtrak

Even Amtrak is relaxing some rules. Upgrade, companion, and various other certificates earned through the Guest Rewards program due to expire are extended through September 25, 2020. And earned points expiration dates are also extended to that date.

Hotels Changing Points Terms Due to COVID-19

The giant hotel chains operate frequent-stay programs that offer substantial elite-level benefits such as room upgrades, free meals, and early check-in/late check-out, along with the room awards available to ordinary members. They, too, are reacting to the fact that members can’t earn credit as quickly as they can during normal periods. In fact, their extensions are generally more generous than those of the airlines.

Accor

Accor has added bonus points to member account that reduce the points required to qualify or requalify for elite levels. You can find more information here.

Best Western

Current member status levels are extended through January 31, 2022. You can find more information here.

Hilton

Current member status levels for 2019 scheduled to end on March 31, 2020, are extended through March 31, 2021. Members with 2020 status is extended to March 31, 2022. Accrued points due to expire in 2020 will remain valid through December 31, 2020. Accrued Weekend Night rewards are extended through August 31, 2021. You can find more information here.

Hyatt

Elite status levels as of March 31 are extended through February 28, 2022. Unused awards with expiration dates between March 1, 2020 and December 31, 2020 are extended to December 31, 2021. Accrued points due to expire in 2020 will remain valid through December 31, 2020. You can find more information here.

IHG

Qualifying points required to reach the several elite levels are reduced by at least 25 percent , through 2021. Points due to expire between April 1 and December 31 will remain valid through December 31, 2020. Award night certificates due to expire between March 1 and December 31 will remain valid until December 31, 2020, and certificates issued in 202 will have an 18-month validity period. You can find more information here.

Marriott

Current elite status is extended through February, 2022. Expiration dates for accrued points are extended to February, 2021. Active award night awards expiring in 2020 are extended to January 31, 2021. You can find more information here.

Radisson

Current elite status is extended through February, 2022. Certificates and scheduled to expire through July 31, 2020, will remain valid through June 30, 2021. Point expiration is extended by six months. You can find more information here.

Wyndham

Wyndham says it is “pausing the expiration of any Wyndham Rewards points until September 30, 2020 and [has] extended current Wyndham Rewards Member Levels (status) for all members globally through the end of 2021.” You can find more information here.

More from SmarterTravel:

Consumer advocate Ed Perkins has been writing about travel for more than three decades. The founding editor of the Consumer Reports Travel Letter, he continues to inform travelers and fight consumer abuse every day at SmarterTravel.

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Non-Emergency Passport Applications Have Halted

Were you planning to apply for, or renew, a passport this spring? With the rolling governmental measures in place due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to do so. The State Department is limiting in-person service at passport offices to emergencies in which travelers need a passport for an international trip within 72 hours because of a “qualified life-or-death emergency.” And mail-in renewals are being discouraged due to “significant delays.”

The State Department defines that emergency in-person service as only for “serious illnesses, injuries, or deaths in your immediate family (e.g., parent, child, spouse, sibling, aunt, uncle, etc.).” A more complete list is available on the State Department’s website.

However, if you have travel plans on the far horizon (or hope to) you can still apply for renewal by mail, with some caveats. Expedited service is not available, and the State Department notes that you can “expect significant delays.” It’s unclear how long that delay will be, and it’s worth noting that for a renewal you’ll need to mail in your current passport with the renewal application. The department urges travelers to “please consider waiting to apply until we resume normal operations.”

Even if you qualify for emergency in-person service, options are currently very limited: The State Department says that passport offices in Atlanta, Connecticut, New Orleans, New York, and San Juan (Puerto Rico) are among those completely closed until further notice. And many of the other acceptance facilities, such as court clerks and post offices, are either closed or no longer accepting in-person passport applications.

At any in-person facility you will need an appointment, which you can make through the National Passport Information Center here, or by calling your local court or post office. For that appointment, you’ll need a completed application, supporting documents, proof of the life-or-death emergency, and proof of international travel specific to the emergency.

If you have an application in process, the State Department will continue to process it, but you can expect those undefined delays. Check the State Department’s website for details and application tracking.

The State Department says these current limitations will remain in effect until “normal operations” resume, which is clearly a very uncertain deadline at this time. If you will need a new or renewed passport in the near future, bookmark the above links for up-to-date information.

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How Hotels and Airlines Are Helping During the Pandemic

I sometimes get so used to bashing travel suppliers—especially airlines—for the many ways they abuse travelers’ rights, that I often overlook the good they do. Especially during this global pandemic, travel suppliers are doing a lot of good.

From providing free hotel stays for health workers to donating huge sums of money, here are some of the ones we’re seeing step up.

Hotels Stepping Up During the Pandemic

Hotels are offering free or low-charge rooms to communities for housing both caregivers and non-COVID patients. Standout individual hotel offers in hard-hit New York City include those from the Four Seasons Hotel, which was the first hotel in New York City to begin providing free stays to healthcare workers responding to the pandemic.

The Plaza Hotel, Room Mate Grace Hotel, Palace Hotel, St. Regis Hotel, and Yotel are now counted among the hotels hosting health care workers and non-critical patients free of charge. More broadly, the American Hotel and Lodging Association (AHLA), a major hotel trade association, notes that more than 6,500 hotel properties that are adjacent to medical facilities across the country are offering temporary housing for health care workers, noncritical patients, and/or the homeless:

“To help match and streamline the process, the [AHLA] is working to create a Hotels for Hope database at the federal level with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, as well as at the local level with industry partner state associations. Local, state and federal government officials will be able to search willing properties based on geographic location.”

Very few are doing it for free, but many are doing it at very-discounted rates. Some are providing food or other support to medical communities. Examples include:

  • The Sophy Hyde Park Hotel in Chicago has opened its rooms at no charge to medical staff respondiong to the pandemic at nearby University of Chicago Medical Center.
  • Caesars Entertainment has donated more than 250,000 pounds of food to a variety of food banks and charities, along with gloves, masks, and hand sanitizers.
  • The Beverly Hills Hotel and Hotel Bel-Air have provided hundreds of meals to first responders and medical personnel.
  • The Jupiter Hotel in Portland, Oregon has arranged with Multnomah County to serve as a homeless shelter.

Airlines Doing Good During the Pandemic

Airlines are also doing their part in fighting the pandemic. As befits their status as the generally top-rated U.S. airlines, Delta has offered free transportation to Georgia, Louisiana, and Michigan for medical professionals, and JetBlue has offered free transport for medical personnel and some stranded college students. JetBlue has also donated a million frequent-flyer points to the Red Cross for travel to support its vital work. United is offering free travel to health workers heading to New York. Airlines around the world have removed seats from regular passenger planes, providing added cargo capacity to ship medical supplies where they are needed.

Airlines around the world have also notably intensified their cleaning and disinfecting procedures to keep their fewer operating planes free of the virus. They’re also rightfully ensuring travelers maintain safe physical distances from each other: A few lines, including American, have stopped assigning middle or every-other seat to maintain social distancing.

And keep in mind that the travel industry is taking a big financial hit from the pandemic. Much of what individual suppliers are doing to minimize effect is as much public relations as it is a public benefit. But, in a difficult time, travel companies are clearly stepping up to help the effort. Kudos to them.

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Consumer advocate Ed Perkins has been writing about travel for more than three decades. The founding editor of the Consumer Reports Travel Letter, he continues to inform travelers and fight consumer abuse every day at SmarterTravel.

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Is It Smart to Use Miles During the COVID-19 Pandemic?

The below is a question from a reader that many might be wondering during these turbulent times.

“Is it better to use miles or money when booking a flight during uncertain times? Is it good to use up some miles right now? Thanks for the input.”—JN

Right now, during uncertain times when you might need to cancel, money is less risky. Airlines are waiving future change fees, but they often still charge fees to redeposit miles.

Long-term, however, airlines will continue to devalue miles. So using them sooner, if you find a good rate, is better than sitting on them overall.

Here are some resources on canceling during COVID-19, for airfare and more:

More from SmarterTravel:

Consumer advocate Ed Perkins has been writing about travel for more than three decades. The founding editor of the Consumer Reports Travel Letter, he continues to inform travelers and fight consumer abuse every day at SmarterTravel.

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Flight Price Trackers: 5 Sites That Will Find the Cheapest Airfare for You

Waiting for a really good airfare deal for a specific destination you know you’d like to visit? Your best bet is to subscribe to alerts from a flight price tracker that will tell you when a fare drops or when an especially good deal appears. These types of airfare alerts are not the same as the many general “deal” bulletins you can receive. Instead, they’re keyed to specific travel dates, air routes, and sometimes even airlines—a kind of “set it and forget” for travelers who don’t want to go hunting for the cheapest airfare.

The 5 Best Flight-Price Trackers

Several options generally rise to the top of most evaluations. Here are the top five, in no particular order, plus what makes each one stand out, followed up by some broader flight-tracking options:

KAYAK (part of the Booking.com empire) is a robust flight price tracker. You can tailor the tracking filters as tightly as you want: by destination, class of service, number of stops, and more. As with many online search systems, it does not include Southwest in its fare searches. KAYAK can also track prices of hotels. Both are possible by selecting the “Price Alerts” switch on the left side of the results page once you’ve searched for your specific dates.

Skyscanner, a London-based metasearch system, operates in much the same way as KAYAK. The “Get Price Alerts” button on the search results page enters your trip(s) into the system, and you can manage your account for details. As with KAYAK, this flight price tracker doesn’t include Southwest fares. And although it can search hotels, it does not offer a tracking function for them. Skyscanner’s “Get Price Alerts” option on the left side of the results page allows you to choose from email, Facebook, and Google to easily create an alerts account and start getting emails—all you have to do is enter an email address for them to be forwarded to.

Hopper is a mobile app for both iOS and Android phones. (Note: Hipmunk, often previously cited as one of the outstanding search system with a tracker function and a competitor for Hopper, recently went out of business.)

Airfarewatchdog, SmarterTravel’s sister site, distinguishes itself from the others by including Southwest in its airfare searches. That’s because it uses a combination of online search and searches by real people—airfare analysts—to dig out the best deals. Otherwise, it’s functionally similar to the others, and it also covers hotels as well as airfares.

Yapta, owned by independent software company Coupa, alerts users about price drops on airfare or hotel bookings that could get you a partial refund. It’s “powered by Skyscanner” (so shares most Skyscanner features) and its high ratings are based, in part, on the ability to notify travelers of refunds they might be due following fare cuts. But that’s of more useful to business travelers on flexible tickets than to leisure travelers on nonrefundable ones. (Unlike Skyscanner, it doesn’t track or even list hotels.)

Lastly: Not a website so much as a broader platform built into the internet giant Google, Google Flights provides an outstanding range of choices for tracking flight prices. For any trip of interest you can enter an origin/destination, travel dates, how many tickets you want, class of service, plus screening for the number of stops and other variables to track as many individual flights as you want. notifies you if the fare goes below the value when you first entered the search. It covers most airlines except for Southwest, which does not provide its fares to any metasearch systems. It notifies you by email on as many specific searches as you set it to. Google Flights does not include hotels. As an added bonus, Google Flights will also tell you the cheapest time to fly to a given destination, or the cheapest place to fly in a given time period, if you’re unsure of where and/or when to travel.

For premium fares (premium economy, business, and first class) you can use any ITA Matrix-based sites, which cover all fare classes. Those who want more detailed information on first- and business-class deals, however, can subscribe to several paid sources like First Class Flyer and Notiflyer, starting at $99 per year. Read more about where to find deals on premium airfare here.

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Consumer advocate Ed Perkins has been writing about travel for more than three decades. The founding editor of the Consumer Reports Travel Letter, he continues to inform travelers and fight consumer abuse every day at SmarterTravel.

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The 5 Best Ways to Rack Up Airline Miles without Flying

You don’t have to fly a lot to earn a lot of airline miles or points (let’s just say “miles,” regardless of what each airline calls them). In fact, if you fly mainly on low-fare coach tickets, you can probably earn miles more quickly when you aren’t flying than when you are.

The main way to earn miles without flying is by using a credit card that earns miles as often as you can. Every U.S. airline co-brands at least one such credit card with a major bank. In addition, a few banks issue credit cards that earn miles or points that you can transfer to a handful of participating airlines. And you can also earn miles through shopping portals.

Airline Miles Credit Cards

All main U.S. airlines co-brand at least one credit card that earns miles in that airline’s program. The usual formula for such cards is one mile for each dollar you charge to the card, but most airline cards offer extra credit—two to five miles—per dollar charged on the sponsoring airline. Some cards also offer extra credit for other travel-related charges. The frequent flyer blogosphere values miles at somewhere around 1.5 cents each, based on the value of air travel that the miles can buy. And air tickets are by far the best way to “spend” miles; the cash value or value toward other uses is usually somewhere around a half cent each. 

In addition to miles, most airline cards offer other benefits, ranging from free checked bags and companion tickets on the base level cards to lounge membership, dollar credits, elite status, and other valuable extras on top-level cards. These days, most airline cards offer big one-time mileage sign-up bonuses of up to 100,000 miles, provided you charge a lot to the card in the first few months you have it. And almost all travel-related cards now charge no foreign transaction fee.

Below I list each airline’s least-expensive card that provides at least standard mileage credit, along with links to either the travel credit card sites or Airfarewatchdog (SmarterTravel’s sister site) comparisons of them. The Delta and United premium cards, at annual fees of $450 to $550, offer higher mileage earnings and a bunch of other credits and features, and most notably unlimited lounge access.

Mile-Transfer Credit Cards

AmEx, Capital One, and Chase each issue at least one credit card that earns miles or points you can transfer to some airline programs and combine with the miles you earn by flying and through the airline’s credit card:

  • AmEx Green, Gold, and Platinum cards earn “Membership Rewards” at the base rate of one point per dollar charged for most purchases, with bonus points up to five per dollar on airfares charged directly through the airline or AmEx and up to four per dollar on other travel, dining, and supermarket charges. You can transfer AmEx points to Air Canada, Delta, Hawaiian, Aeromexico, Air France/KLM, Alitalia, ANA, Avianca, British  Airways, Emirates, Etihad, Iberia, Qantas, Singapore, and Virgin Atlantic at the rate of 1000 points to 1000 miles or points; to JetBlue at the rate of 1,000 points to 800 points; and to El Al at 1000 points to 20 points. The premium-level cards charge hefty annual fees–$250 for gold and $550 for Platinum—and offer lots of extras.
  • Capital One Venture Rewards Visa earns two points per dollar on all charges and transfers points to Air Canada, Avianca, Etihad, and Singapore at the rate of 1000 points to 1100-1200 points/mile and to Aeromexico, Air France/KLM, Alitalia, Cathay Pacific, Emirates, EVA, Hainan, JetBlue, Qatar, and Singapore at the rate of 1000 points to 750 points/miles.
  • Chase Sapphire Preferred and Chase Sapphire Reserve Visa cards offer two and three points per dollar charged, respectively, on many purchases, and you can transfer points to JetBlue, Southwest, United, Aer Lingus, Air France/KLM, British Airways, Singapore, and Virgin Atlantic at a rate of 1,000:1,000.

Travel Partners

All posted airlines have established partnerships with a handful of travel-industry partners, most notably hotel chains and rental car companies. Mileage earning is usually modest, but certainly worth getting when you use one of the partners.

Airline Shopping Portals

Most listed airlines operate shopping portals with links to prominent—and usually nationwide—retailers that offer extra airline miles on purchases at various rates, usually at least two per dollar and sometimes as high as 10 per dollar. You do not have to use the airlines’ own cards to use these portals, although you get the airline cards’ credit along with the portals’ when you do.

Bank Travel Cards

Several large banks issue cards that earn points or maybe even so-called “miles” you can use to buy tickets. These miles have nothing to do with airline miles; they’re simply credits that you can use to buy tickets. The points have a fixed cash value and you pay the equivalent cash value toward whatever fare you want to buy. The programs are simply a subset of conventional cash-back cards, but a few add a twist: If you use bank points to buy tickets or other travel services through the bank’s system, you get a higher cash value than you get on other purchases or on a cash credit.

Among the top options: Chase Sapphire cards earn two points per dollar charged on travel and dining, along with a 25 percent premium when you use points to buy travel services through Chase’s own agency. The Black Card by Mastercard values each point at 1.5 cents cash or two cents when used to buy air tickets.

Best Earning Options for Each Airline

You can earn airline credit through each airline’s credit card. All airline cards earn at least two miles per dollar charged with the sponsoring airline and earn obe mile per dollar on most other charges. In many cases, one of the mileage-transfer cards earns more than the airline’s own card, on airfares and on some other purchase categories. Here’s where you can do better than one mile or point per dollar in each airline’s program:

Alaska: The Alaska Visa gets three miles per dollar for Alaska charges

Transfer cards: AmEx Platinum, five points per dollar on all airfares; AmEx Gold, three points per dollar on all airfares and four points per dollar on dining and at supermarkets. Shopping portal: Mileage Plan Shopping

Allegiant: Allegiant World Mastercard gets three points per dollar for Allegiant charges, two points per dollar on dining charges

American: AAdvantage MileUp gets two miles per dollar on American charges and at supermarkets. Shopping portal: AAdvantage eShopping

Delta: Delta SkyMiles AmEx gets two miles per dollar on Delta charges and on dining. Delta SkyMiles Reserve AmEx, three miles per dollar on Delta charges

Transfer cards: AmEx Platinum, five points per dollar on all airfares; AmEx Gold, three points per dollar on all airfares and four points per dollar on dining and at supermarkets. Shopping portal: SkyMiles Shopping

Frontier: Frontier Mastercard gets five points per dollar on Frontier chares, three points per dollar on dining.

Hawaiian: Hawaiian Mastercard gets three miles per dollar on Hawaiian charges, two points per dollar on dining, at supermarkets, and on gasoline and oil.

Transfer cards: AmEx Platinum, five points per dollar on all airfares; AmEx Gold, three points per dollar on all airfares and four points per dollar on dining and at supermarkets. Shopping portal: HawaiianMiles Marketplace

JetBlue: JetBlue Plus Mastercard earns 6 points per dollar on JetBlue charges; two points per dollar on dining and supermarkets.

Transfer cards: Chase Sapphire Preferred two points per dollar on any travel service  and dining; Chase Sapphire Reserve three points per dollar on any travel service and dining. Shopping portal: TrueBlue Shopping

Southwest: Southwest Rapid Rewards Plus gets two points per dollar on Southwest charges.

 Transfer cards: Chase Sapphire Preferred two points per dollar on any travel service and dining; Chase Sapphire Reserve three points per dollar on any travel service and dining. Shopping portal: Rapid Rewards Shopping.

Spirit: World Mastercard gets two points per dollar on all charges.

Sun Country:  Visa Signature earns three points per dollar on Sun Country charges, two points per dollar on supermarket and gas/oil charges.

United: Explorer Visa gets two miles per dollar on United charges. Club Visa two miles per dollar on United charges and 1.5 miles per dollar on all other charges.

Transfer cards: Chase Sapphire Preferred two points per dollar on any travel service and dining; Chase Sapphire Reserve three points per dollar on any travel service and dining. Shopping portal: MileagePlus Shopping.

Best Earnings for Other Charges

Another way to look at the data is to see which card(s) offer the highest earnings for charges in each of several important purchase categories:

Airfares: AmEx Platinum, five points per dollar; Chase Sapphire Reserve, three points per dollar

Hotels: Chase Sapphire Reserve, three points per dollar, and Chase Sapphire Preferred, two points per dollar. AmEx Platinum offers five points per dollar charged, but only on prepaid hotels booked through AmEx—really, not much of a deal. And if you charge a lot to hotels, you may be better off with a hotel card.

Rental Cars: Chase Sapphire Reserve gets three points per dollar, and Chase Sapphire Preferred gets two points per dollar charged.

Dining: AmEx Gold and Chase Sapphire Reserve, three points per dollar charged

Supermarkets/groceries: AmEx Gold, four points per dollar charged.

Gas and oil: Capital One, two points per dollar charged.

Overall spend: United Club is the only airline card that offers 1.5 points for every dollar charged. Capital One offers two points for every dollar charged, but you get full value only if you use the points to buy travel services through the bank’s agency.

The Take-Away

My fundamental conclusion about airline miles hasn’t changed much over the last decade or two:

  • If your aim is to fly in a premium cabin, airline miles are usually the best—and often the only—way to avoid astronomical posted fares. Try to vacuum up as many genuine airline miles as you can.
  • But if your primary objective is a “free” flight in coach/economy/the “main cabin,” you’re usually better off with a credit card that gives you as much as a two cent cash-value return on each dollar you spend, which you use to buy a ticket through the bank’s agency.
  • Whatever your travel style preference, put as much spending as possible on a credit card that earns the kind of mileage you want.
  • If you fly a lot on one or two airlines, one of those lines’ credit cards is probably a good bet, both for the earning and the many extras you get.
  • Don’t ignore those pricey premium cards. The extras you get with AmEx Platinum, American AAdvantage Platinum Select, Delta Skymiles Reserve, and United Club Visa can go a long way to offset the $450 to $550 annual fees: lounge access, credits for Global entry and some airline fees, status, and such.

More from SmarterTravel:

Consumer advocate Ed Perkins has been writing about travel for more than three decades. The founding editor of the Consumer Reports Travel Letter, he continues to inform travelers and fight consumer abuse every day at SmarterTravel.

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Airport Booking Strategy Miles & Points Money

Is Your Travel Credit Card Worth the Annual Fee?

Looking for a new travel credit card can be a roller coaster ride. Often, the sign-up bonus seems good; the earning perks and rewards seem favorable; but then you see the annual fee, and it’s pricey. Annual travel credit card fees can be hundreds of dollars. You might even wonder why there’s an annual fee at all, or maybe you currently hold a credit card that’s changing raising its annual fee and changing its perks, like the Chase Sapphire Reserve recently announced.

Is it worth paying an annual fee for a travel credit card? How much should you pay? Here are the five things to consider.

Will you use the benefits?

Some credit cards come with hefty annual fees in exchange for plenty of good benefits: airline fee waivers, seat upgrades, and airport lounge pass memberships. Are those things that you would normally pay for anyway? If so, you can just stop paying for them individually, pay for a credit card annual fee instead, and earn points or miles in the process.

How much do the benefits cost in comparison?

Before you just automatically jump to the conclusion that the benefits the card offers are worth the annual fee, sit down and do the hard math. Do the benefits offered equal a monetary value that’s equal to or greater than the annual fee? Did you actually use those benefits as much as you think you did over the last year?

While the benefits may seem good at first glance, you want to make sure that your numbers are correct before signing up for the card. You may find that some of those benefits will help offset the annual fee. However, will you be using those benefits enough to justify the cost

What’s your credit score?

 In some cases, you won’t be able to get a credit card that has no annual fee, particularly if you don’t have a great credit score (or even a good credit score, to be honest). If that’s the case, just look for a card with a relatively low annual fee (around $100). Then you can avoid paying an annual fee that’s on the larger side (upwards of $500) and work on building your credit until you do qualify for a no-fee card.

Conversely, if you already have a card with an annual fee and you’re considering getting rid of it, think about your credit score then, too. Will canceling the card hurt your credit score? If it hurts it a great deal, you might just decide that keeping the card and paying the annual fee is worth it. A better option would be to downgrade your current card to a no annual fee if you can longer justify the annual fee, but don’t want to cancel the card outright.

What’s the sign-up bonus?

In addition to looking at the value you’ll get from a credit card’s benefits, also look at the sign-up bonus. You might find that the monetary value of the sign-up bonus is greater than the cost of the annual fee. For example, the Chase Sapphire Preferred has a sign-up bonus of 60,000 points after meeting the required minimum spend, which at its base value is worth $750 in travel … so the sign-up bonus is more than worth the $95 annual fee.

Keep in mind that introductory sign-up bonuses change all the time. So if there’s a card you’ve had your eye on for a while and the sign-up bonus isn’t preferable now, you might be able to wait and get a better deal that makes the card’s annual fee worth it. There are also plenty of credit cards that waive their annual fees during the first year of card membership.

Also, if the bonus comes in the form of miles or points, make sure to look at the monetary value of those miles or points at the time of sign up. The value for these also fluctuates, depending on a brand or loyalty program’s changing policies. Note that some of the miles credit cards offer a bonus when redeeming their points through their online portal, but in many cases you can get more value by transferring them out to an eligible travel partner.

Are you playing the miles and points game?

For many people who play the miles and points game (in other words, racking up as many miles or points as possible in order to gain free travel for your dream vacation), sometimes getting a credit card with an annual fee is worth it. That card allows them to transfer points or miles to another credit card they have in their wallet. Then they might get a better value for those miles or points.

Similarly, they might value the points and miles-earning potential a card offers enough to pay that annual fee. After a little maneuvering of points and miles from account to account, they might find that they’re getting more than the cost of the fee in value.

However, keep in mind, especially for those who aren’t well versed in earning points and miles, this process can be a little convoluted and tricky. If you’re not careful and you don’t put a lot of time into researching the best processes, you could end up not getting your money’s worth.

For non-premium travel cards, the annual fee is often under $100. That means that with just one trip, you can likely get your money’s worth from the annual fee, depending on the card. For instance, some airline cards give you access to an airport lounge and free checked bags, which otherwise would cost over $100. Most hotel cards give you a free night—usually a value over $100.

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Booking Strategy Budget Travel Miles & Points Money

The 11 Best Flight Search Sites for Booking Cheap Airfare

Wondering which website you should be booking your airfare with to get the best deal? You’re not alone. There are seemingly endless options when it comes to choosing the best flight booking site these days.

In addition to the option of booking directly with your airline, there are dozens of flight booking websites, also known as online travel agencies (OTAs), to choose from. The uncomfortable truth is that no one flight search engine can guarantee the best price 100 percent of the time, but using a mix of the right resources can help ensure you’re not overpaying.

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The Best Flight Booking Sites

Here’s a quick rundown of the best flight search sites for booking cheap airfare.

One important thing to remember about booking sites/OTAs is that Southwest fares are not sold on them. Some other airlines have also pulled their fares from some booking sites, but most airlines do make their fares available.

Here’s why these 11 are the best flight booking sites and metasearch options out there, and the best defining feature of each. Since it’s impossible to know which site will provide the best price for your particular trip, you should always compare fares from a few sources before you book.

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Check out SmarterTravel’s roundup of the best in booking sites for 2020. Want more expert tips and vacation inspiration? Subscribe to SmarterTravel on YouTube!

Travelocity

travelocity flights booking screenshot.
Travelocity Flight Booking Website

It should be noted that Expedia owns Travelocity, so this flight booking site basically gives you Expedia price results with a different color scheme and organizational preferences. Travelocity’s homepage is streamlined but doesn’t offer a flexible-dates search. On the results page, bag fees are revealed by clicking a drop-down for each fare, which makes it a little difficult to compare fees (you will likely have to scroll a bit). Travelocity rates each flight itinerary with a score on a scale of 10, which takes into account the duration, type of aircraft, and “quality of amenities” available onboard from “Very Good” to “Satisfactory” to “Fair.” Travelocity charges booking fees for some but not all flights.

Best Feature: The out-of-10 flight rating assigns each itinerary a clear score, so you’re a lot less likely to mistakenly book a long layover or miss out on a better itinerary with Travelocity.

Expedia

expedia flights screenshot.
Expedia Flight Booking Website

As previously mentioned, Expedia is nearly identical to Travelocity, but fares did vary between the two sites on some of my searches. As with Travelocity (and to be fair, a number of other OTAs), Expedia will try to up-sell you on adding a hotel to your itinerary. This can save you money, but be sure to compare prices before you book. On the results page is a “Show flexible dates” option so you can see whether cheaper flights are available if you shift your trip a day or two. Expedia charges variable booking fees (and they are not always the same fees that Travelocity charges). When you select your fare from the list of options, there’s an interstitial step that displays what is and isn’t covered in the fare, including seat selection, cancellations, changes, and baggage rules.

Best Feature: Like its subsidiary Travelocity, Expedia basically double-checks that you understand what sort of fare you’re choosing before you click “select” again. It’s a helpful bit of transparency in today’s cluttered airfare landscape.

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CheapOair

cheapoair screenshot.
CheapOair Flight Booking Website

Much like Travelocity and Expedia, flight search sites CheapOair and OneTravel are versions of the same product, owned by Fareportal Inc. CheapOair charges the same booking fee as OneTravel: from $0 to $35 per ticket. Though the sites are owned by the same company, the fare results are not always identical, so it’s worth checking both. CheapOair shows some “Super Saver Fares” for which you don’t find out the airline you’ll be flying until after you book—which means you also don’t find out what baggage fees apply until after you book. However, the savings might be worth it.

Best Feature: CheapOair prioritizes nonstop prices over itineraries with stops, organized in an easy-to-read chart that’s organized by airline.

TripAdvisor Flights

tripadvisor flights screenshot.
Tripadvisor Flight Booking Website

TripAdvisor (SmarterTravel’s parent company) is known for its hotel reviews, and now travelers can apply their ratings to airlines, plus search for airfare on TripAdvisor Flights. On testing this flight booking site it’s clear that TripAdvisor doesn’t always serve up the cheapest fares, but sometimes it did. It always, however, gives you the option to surface Expedia, Travelocity, and other flight booking sites’ results, so you can compare right away with one click. TripAdvisor Flights also has some helpful search options up front, like a checkbox for prioritizing nonstop flights.

Best Feature: TripAdvisor’s flight search tool is unique from others in that it offers review-based FlyScores of airlines alongside their fares, so you’re less likely to book with an obscure, poorly rated airline without realizing.

Skyscanner

skyscanner screenshot.
Skyscanner Flight Booking Website

Skyscanner is a popular metasearch site that works with hundreds of other travel providers to find the best fares. You can specify nonstop-flights-only right from the homepage, and there’s also a handy “everywhere” option if you don’t have a particular destination in mind and want to see what’s available. Search results show the “best” option (based on a combination of price and speed) as well as the fastest and cheapest, and you can filter by airline, alliance, number of stops, and flight times. When you select a result, you’ll see a variety of places to book that particular flight. Skyscanner casts a wide net, so you’ll often see very cheap fares from booking sites you’ve never heard of; to help you figure out how trustworthy they are, Skyscanner shows user star ratings for each.

Best Feature: For flyers concerned about the environmental impact of their travel, Skyscanner has a unique “Greener flights” filter, which shows only itineraries with lower-than-average CO2 emissions based on your search. The site also highlights certain itineraries in your results as a “greener choice.”

OneTravel

onetravel screenshot.
OneTravel Flight Booking Website

OneTravel borrows its interface from Google Flights’ calendar search feature. When you enter your departure and destination airports, the dates field brings up a calendar with prices pre-populated. This is a helpful feature for immediately honing in on the travel dates with the best prices if and when your dates are flexible.

One major drawback: OneTravel charges a steep service fee of up to $35 per ticket. OneTravel also offers different (and in my opinion, sometimes worse) itineraries than most at the top of its results page. Many highlighted itineraries, upon closer inspection, include an extra stop. It’s important to make sure you’re comparing the same exact flights by looking at the flight number, or at least by keeping track of the different options.

Best Feature: The calendar organization that’s hard to find on other flight booking sites is the most ideal format if you’re flexible on travel dates.

Travelzoo

travelzoo screenshot.
TravelZoo

Travelzoo is quite different from the other sites listed here. Instead of booking specific itineraries, you can search broad timelines (this week, next month, this summer, etc.) for deals in your desired destination by either month or season. This makes Travelzoo a good fit for people with a budget and time frame, but no firm idea of when or even where they want to go. The downside is that if you do have specific plans in mind—for example, you need a flight to Omaha in March—Travelzoo is not likely to be helpful.

Best Feature: Travelzoo’s flexibility requirement can afford some great deals you won’t find elsewhere, like cheap business-class flights and multi-city itineraries that will make a dream trip a lot more affordable than you’d think.

Google Flights

google flights screenshot.
Google Flights Website

Google Flights is a powerful, simple metasearch site that comes free of ads and distractions. After you enter your departure and arrival airports, the calendar pre-populates with prices so you can target dates with lower fares (OneTravel uses this tool). Once you have your results, you can track fares on your selected dates and receive updates by email. You can also view fares over various dates using the “Price Graph,” which shows you a bar graph that makes it easy to see when the lowest fares are available.

Best Feature: Instead of putting in a certain city as a destination, you can put in a larger region such as Europe or South Africa. You’ll then see fares to various cities within that region displayed all at once on a map. This can be helpful if you want to go to Europe in April, for example, but don’t have a particular destination in mind.

Kayak

kayak.com screenshot.
Kayak Flight Booking Website

Often imitated and frequently duplicated, Kayak was a game-changer when it launched back in the mid-2000s. And it’s still one of the most powerful metasearch tools available. You can also set up fares alerts to track prices over time. The interface is noisier than Google Flights thanks to a preponderance of ads, but still easy to use. Like Google, it has a flexible search feature that lets you search for good deals to a region like Europe or even simply put in “anywhere.” Another handy feature available on many itineraries: an “Our Advice” box that lets you know whether you should buy now or wait, depending on whether Kayak thinks fares will go up or down over the next seven days.

Best Feature: Its Hacker Fares claim to piece together separate one-way tickets, potentially saving you money compared to similar itineraries, and its wide range of filters, sorting options, and predictive technologies put a lot of tools at travelers’ disposal.

Momondo

momondo screenshot.
Momondo Flight Booking Website

Like Kayak, Momondo is a metasearch site that takes you to other sites to make your purchase. One plus: Momondo surfaces results from Southwest, including flight times and other details from the carrier … but no prices. Only by clicking through to Southwest could I see the fare. Still, it’s nice to have a reminder that Southwest is an unlisted option. Another plus: Momondo searches for fares from a ton of smaller OTAs, which could lead to a deal that other metasearch tools miss.

Best Feature: The mention of Southwest is unique to Momondo. It gets kudos for flagging a reminder to check a competitor for something it doesn’t offer.

Nomad from Kiwi.com

nomad screenshot from kiwi.com.
Kiwi Flight Booking Website

Kiwi.com is an OTA like many others; you book directly on the site (as you would on Expedia) rather than being linked off to a different site (as you would on Kayak or Momondo). But what sets it apart is its Nomad search engine, which lets you find cheap itineraries for multi-destination trips. You enter the starting and ending place of your journey as well as the cities where you want to stop along the way, including how many nights you want to spend in each place. Hit “find routes,” and the site will put together an itinerary that mixes and matches airlines and routes for the lowest possible price. (For example, I was quoted a route involving four flights—New York City to Rome to Moscow to Tokyo and back to New York—for a measly $1,031 round-trip.) You can filter your results to weed out routes with multiple layovers or flights that don’t include checked baggage.

Best Feature: This is by far the easiest tool I’ve used to research around-the-world and multi-stop itineraries.

The takeaway? In determining which of these sites are the best ones for you to compare prices with, it’s helpful to determine which sites meet your trip-booking needs. Do you want to clearly see bag fees up front? Do you want an easy “flexible dates” function, or are your dates firm? If your travel plans are loose, do you want to see prices for multiple destinations? Different flight booking sites have different capabilities.

Once you determine which site is worth your time depending on the trip, compare prices with a few to make sure you’re getting the best deal. And always check the airline’s own site: OTAs are good at displaying fees associated with an individual flight, but it’s trickier to compare fare options (classes like basic economy vs. economy) on that flight.

Lastly, it’s important to remember that this list can be separated into two main types: booking sites (also called OTAs) that you book directly with as a third party, and aggregators otherwise known as metasearch sites that’ll send you to a booking site to make your transaction. The latter are better if you want to use any frequent flyer programs you might belong to and acquire points.

What’s your idea of the best flight booking site? Which ones did we miss? Comment below.

Looking for Our Favorite Footwear for the Season? Check Out Allbirds

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Editor’s note: This story was originally published in 2019. It has been updated to reflect the most current information. Sarah Schlichter contributed to this story.

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10 Secret Amazon Prime Perks You Probably Aren’t Using


Travelers know convenience often comes at a price. And while some services don’t pay for themselves, Amazon Prime and the included Amazon Prime perks can be a worthwhile investment for tech-savvy and entertainment-driven travelers.

Membership now costs $119 annually (or $12.99 monthly); for that price, you get well-known benefits like free two-day shipping, access to exclusive deals, and Prime Video. But the real boon for travelers are the lesser-known Amazon Prime perks that deliver trip-ready extras like entertainment, last-minute delivery, photo storage, and even frequent flyer points. Here’s how to use Amazon Prime perks to become a more prepared and happier traveler.

How to Use Amazon Prime Perks for Travel

Amazon sign in page of website with a finger touching the screen

Want to give it a go? Try the Amazon Prime 30-Day Free Trial.

Already a Prime member? Sign up here to receive a weekly member-benefits newsletter and make the most of your membership.

Prime Reading and Audible

kindle ereader pile books

As an Amazon Prime member, you can read books like The Handmaid’s Tale and the Harry Potter series for free with Prime Reading. The feature offers over a thousand free books and magazines to download on any device with a Prime membership. I think it’s one of the best secret Amazon Prime perks out there, especially for frequent travelers. As a Fire Tablet user, I browse this section before any long flight and download at least one free book for my trip.

Also be sure to check out Amazon’s Audible channels or audiobooks, with discounts for Prime members.

Insider Tip: For Kindle users, a Prime membership grants you access to the Kindle Owners’ Lending Library, where you can borrow one book at a time, along with one pre-released book per month with Amazon First Reads. To learn more about using your Kindle, see 9 Secret Amazon Kindle Tips You Probably Don’t Know About.

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Offline Downloads for Entertainment

woman mobile device airplane seat

One of the best lesser-known Amazon Prime perks perfect for travelers is offline downloading for TV shows and movies. You can even search for this feature on the Amazon Video app. Just go to the Library icon, hit “Refine,” and filter by the “On Device” option. All downloads will go to a download folder on the app, or you can watch directly from the show’s or movie’s page.

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Shipping Benefits: Prime Now

Amazon prime now app on smartphone screen close-up

Yes, most people know free two-day shipping comes with a Prime membership, but did you know about the Amazon Prime perk that offers free same-day delivery? This feature is available in 10,000 cities (you can check availability by zip code here), and it’s perfect for travelers. Whether you’re packing last-minute and need a specific item or you forgot something and need it delivered to your hotel room, Prime Now is a great benefit for travelers. In select areas, Prime Members can get secure in-home, in-garage, and even in-car deliveries with Amazon Key.

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Insider Tip: Did you know that you can earn rewards for future purchases with free, no-rush shipping? If you don’t need your Prime order right away, select No-Rush Shipping and receive a discount or reward for a future purchase. Prime members can also select an Amazon Day, which means you can have all of your orders arrive on a specific day of the week.

Access to Exclusive Products and Deals

Amazon prime day graphic

An Amazon Prime membership grants access to a variety of products and deals that can save you money on travel-related products and clothes. Prime members have early access to Lightning Deals (also called Prime Early-Access Deals), Prime Exclusives, and a whole day or two dedicated to member shopping deals, Prime Day, which is typically in July.

Another one of the lesser-known Amazon Prime perks is a service called Amazon Elements. This Prime-exclusive line is limited right now (only baby wipes and vitamins so far), but the idea behind it—a dedicated store that uses customer feedback and reviews to create better products—has the potential to become an invaluable tool for travelers who only have enough suitcase space for high-performing products.

Amazon is also providing discounts at Whole Foods for Prime members: Get an additional 10 percent off sale items and special deals on select items.

Insider Tip: If you order through Alexa-enabled voice shopping, you get access to even more deals and discounts as a Prime member.

Prime Photos and Drive

With Amazon Prime, you get unlimited photo storage via Amazon Photos, which is perfect for backing up your vacation photos and storing your favorite memories. Photos are easily organized, you can share photos in a “Family Vault,” and you can even order prints directly from Amazon.

Prime members also get 5G of free storage for files, videos, and anything else you want to store on the cloud with Amazon Drive.

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Prime Music and Video

man watching prime video on ipad

With Amazon Prime, you get unlimited, ad-free streaming on Amazon Music. And while Prime Music has over two million songs, Prime members also get a discount with Amazon’s other music streaming service, Amazon Music Unlimited.

Another one of the lesser-known Amazon Prime perks is Prime Video streaming, which grants you access to award-winning original movies and TV shows like Manchester by the Sea and The Man in the High Castle. Amazon also hosts other network TV shows like Mr. Robot and The Sopranos. Prime Video also has a library of popular shows and movies to rent and buy.

Insider Tip: You can add premium network subscriptions to your Prime membership via Amazon Channels. This allows you to watch channels like HBO, STARZ, and Showtime without having a cable or satellite account.

JetBlue Affiliation

JetBlue passengers can earn three TrueBlue points for Amazon purchases made in flight. Just make sure you understand which products are excluded from the offer—this includes things like subscription Kindle products and Amazon Fresh.

Amazon Credit Cards and Points

Amazon prime rewards visa signature card.

Making the most of every dollar you spend is another Amazon Prime perk. Prime members have exclusive access to certain credit cards: The Amazon Prime Store Card and Amazon Prime Rewards Visa Signature Card.

The Visa card gives you five percent back on Amazon and Whole Foods purchases and two percent back at restaurants, gas stations, and drugstores, with no annual fee. You can redeem your points for Amazon purchases, and the card also has travel benefits like no foreign transaction fees, baggage delay insurance, and travel accident insurance.

The Store card lets Prime members receive five percent back on Amazon and Whole Foods purchases, has no annual fee, and gives access to promotional financing.

Some credit card companies let you “Shop With Points” on Amazon, though you won’t get Prime benefits.

Insider Tip: All Prime members can earn two percent rewards on debit spending when you reload an Amazon.com Gift Card Balance with a checking account.

Food Delivery: Prime Pantry and Amazon Fresh

Amazon fresh insulated grocery delivery bags on front porch

Amazon Prime members also receive exclusive access to Prime Pantry. This service allows for convenient delivery for household items like toiletries, delivered straight to your door. Prime members also receive coupons and discounts on hundreds of items through this service.

If you want to schedule a delivery at a vacation rental or to have items waiting upon your return home, check out Amazon’s grocery delivery service, Amazon Fresh.

Discounted Memberships: Student and Family

If you’re ready to join Amazon Prime, look into some of the discounted membership services first to see if you qualify. Right now Amazon offers Amazon Family and Prime Student at discounted rates.

Amazon Family costs $119 per year with a free 30-day trial, but lets you create a household—meaning multiple users—for shared family benefits. Amazon Family also comes with discounted prices FreeTime Unlimited—a subscription service for kids’ entertainment—as well as special discounts on household products and diapers.

Prime Student comes at the discounted rate of $59 per year with a six-month free trial to start and a special student page filtered for college-specific needs.

Want to learn more? See Every Amazon Hack You Need to Know, Whether You’re a Prime Member or Not.

Our Favorite Perks from Amazon Prime

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Editor’s note: SmarterTravel.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com. This story was originally published in 2017. It has been updated to reflect the most current information.

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New Rules for Service Animals on Planes Are (Finally) Taking Shape


The Department of Transportation announced this summer that it will issue new guidelines governing service animals on planes. The agency published a list of enforcement priorities, which offer insight into how it will structure rules around this growing issue.

And a growing issue, it is. Airlines for America (A4A), a trade group representing most of the country’s largest airlines and a major proponent of developing new guidelines, recently noted that the growth in onboard service animals on planes far outpaced the growth in passengers over the past several years.

“In 2017, U.S. airlines saw a nearly 60 percent growth in the number of emotional support animals (ESAs) on flights, which stood in stark contrast to the 3.1 percent growth in the number of passengers,” A4A said in a statement. “In 2018, while that growth ‘slowed’ to 14 percent, it still was significantly higher than the 4.7 percent growth in the number of passengers.”

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According to A4A, “the increase in travelers flying with untrained ESAs also has led to a sharp increase in animal incidents on flights, [including] urination, biting and other injuries by animals that are not qualified as service animals.”

Upcoming Rules for Service Animals on Planes

As “enforcement priorities,” the most recent action from the DOT serves mainly to set the stage for the rule-making process to come. The DOT’s approach is to give airlines discretion to deny service animals based on a series of broad criteria, and to not “take action against an airline for asking users … to provide documentation related to vaccination, training, or behavior so long as … the documentation would assist the airline in making a determination as to whether an animal poses a direct threat to the health or safety of others.”

Some examples of these enforcement priorities:

  • Type of animal: “Priority will be placed on ensuring that the most commonly recognized service animals (dogs, cats and miniature horses) are accepted for transport.  Nevertheless, airlines are still subject to enforcement action if they categorically refuse to transport other species that they are required to transport under the current rule.”
  • In-flight containment: “The Department’s Enforcement Office will consider containment issues for all service animals on a case-by-case basis, with a focus on reasonableness.  In general, tethering and similar means of controlling an animal that are permitted in the Americans with Disabilities Act context would be reasonable in the context of controlling service animals in the aircraft cabin.”
  • Weight: “Under the Department’s disability regulation, airlines may deny transport to a service animal that is too large or too heavy to be accommodated in the cabin.  The Department’s Enforcement Office views a categorical ban on animals over a certain weight limit, regardless of the type of aircraft for the flight, to be inconsistent with the regulation.”
  • Age: The Department’s disability regulation does not address the minimum age of a service animal.  However, all service animals (including ESAs) are expected to be trained to behave in public.  As a general matter, the Department’s Enforcement Office would not view it to be a violation for an airline to prohibit the transport of service animals younger than four months as some airlines have done.

For its part, A4A released a letter in support of the priorities, saying the DOT’s position is a “good step towards addressing the harm caused by the unconstrained growth of untrained emotional support animals (ESAs) on airplanes,” and calling on the DOT to “protect the legitimate right of passengers with a disability to travel with a service animal and adopt the definition of service animal from the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).” Stay tuned for further updates on this later on in the year.

Readers: Have you flown with an emotional support animal? Have you shared a row with service animals on planes? Comment below.

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This New Rule on E.U. Flight Delays Could Earn You Money


In a win for travelers, a new European Union Court of Justice decision is extending E.U. flight delay compensation requirements to connecting flights on the same reservation, even when the second airline is a different, non-E.U. airline (read: one not subject to E.U. rules). The precedent means that E.U. airlines can be required to pay travelers for extensive air travel delays on other, non-European airlines.

The decision was applied to a case in which travelers were flying from Prague (an E.U. member country) to Bangkok (a non-E.U. country) on connecting flights. Here’s what happened:

  • Tickets, created as a single reservation, were issued for travel on Czech Airlines from Prague to Abu Dhabi, and then on Etihad from Abu Dhabi to Bangkok
  • The flight on Czech Airlines arrived in Abu Dhabi on time
  • The flight on Etihad from Abu Dhabi to Bangkok arrived eight hours late
  • Czech Airlines said it should not be responsible for non-E.U. flight delays caused by another airline, and that Etihad flights from Abu Dhabi did not fall under E.U. regulation

The court ruled against Czech Airlines, holding it responsible for the standard compensation of €600 (about $676) despite the fact that its own flight operated on time and Etihad had caused the non-E.U. flight delay. However, Czech Airlines can sue Etihad for restitution.

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Expanded E.U. Flight Delay Compensation

The E.U. compensation rules apply to all flights within the E.U., flights on all airlines leaving the E.U. for other areas, and flights from other areas into the E.U. operated by E.U.-based airlines. The court held Czech Airlines responsible because it sold the tickets and created the reservations, thereby acting as the carrier for the entire trip. The remedy for the apparent unfairness? Czech Airlines can sue Etihad for the amount paid to the passengers.

This decision is an interesting precedent, and will affect anyone (even non-E.U. citizens) traveling on E.U. reservations. But it’s otherwise not a direct change for most American and Canadian travelers. The ruling extends E.U. flight delay compensation only to travelers on connecting and code-shared flights on airlines not otherwise subject to E.U. compensation requirements, so long as the initial flight is on an airline that is subject to E.U. rules. I suspect that’s a relatively small number of travelers from North America; but at least for those travelers, it is a big deal, and a welcome additional protection.

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In the longer term, consumer protections are still under threat. Major E.U. airlines are strongly opposed to the stiff E.U. protections and are lobbying to ease the rules. And nobody knows what will happen after Brexit to British airlines and flights between North America and the U.K, the most popular transatlantic route. For now, be happy with an extension of benefits. But watch out for attacks on those benefits sure to come.

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Consumer advocate Ed Perkins has been writing about travel for more than three decades. The founding editor of the Consumer Reports Travel Letter, he continues to inform travelers and fight consumer abuse every day at SmarterTravel.

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Citi Cuts Travel Card Benefits Including Car Rental, Trip Insurance


Do you rely on a Citi travel card for perks like insurance and lost baggage protection? You might want to take a look at your card’s newly updated benefits: Citibank is sharply reducing the travel add-ons, dropping a slew of protection benefits on all the cards that previously offered them.

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As of September 22, 2019, buying with most Citi cards will no longer cover car rental insurance, trip cancellation insurance, worldwide accident insurance, delay protection, baggage delay protection, and medical evacuation assistance, along with several other non-travel benefits.

Dropped Citi Travel Card Perks

You can see what’s currently still covered here, and here’s the full list of what’s changing:

  • Worldwide Car Rental Insurance
  • Trip Cancellation & Interruption Protection
  • Worldwide Travel Accident Insurance
  • Trip Delay Protection
  • Baggage Delay Protection
  • Lost Baggage Protection
  • Citi Price Rewind
  • 90 Day Return Protection
  • Roadside Assistance Dispatch Service
  • Travel & Emergency Assistance

These cuts are obvious game-changers for many travelers, who will undoubtedly change their pattern of credit card use in return. Travel experts are speculating that the move is due to the high costs Citi incurred by recently obtaining a lucrative Costo partnership. Maybe so, maybe not, but the reason for the change is really not relevant to travelers: If you no longer get the benefits you need, switch to one of the many cards that still offer them.

The big question is whether any other card issuers will follow Citi’s lead. I’ve often noted that nothing spreads faster in the travel industry than a bad idea; isn’t that how Basic Economy came to be?

There’s no way of predicting how the other giant card issuers might respond—by copying Citi? Or perhaps instead they’ll poach frustrated Citi customers instead. In any event, if you regularly rely on your credit card for rental-car protection and other travel benefits, keep a sharp eye out for possible changes.

Below is Citi’s official statement on the changes.

citibank travel card changes

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Consumer advocate Ed Perkins has been writing about travel for more than three decades. The founding editor of the Consumer Reports Travel Letter, he continues to inform travelers and fight consumer abuse every day at SmarterTravel.

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Airport Booking Strategy Miles & Points Money Passenger Rights

Where to Find Premium Airfare Deals on First Class and Business Class


Most frequent travelers know that to find flash sales and other great deals on economy-class air tickets through alerts, you don’t have to look far: Our sister site AirfareWatchdog, for example, is a leader in the field. Lots of online travel agencies and metasearch systems offer up standard airfare alerts—but finding one that will flag premium airfare deals requires a little bit more insider knowledge, and some cash.

If you’re interested only in evading the cattle car—flying in premium economy, business, or first class—you won’t find any deal alert services that don’t charge a fee. A bunch of free information sources can help you hunt down your own deal, but no premium airfare service is as automatic as Airfarewatchdog.

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Where to Find Premium Airfare Deals

Still, premium deals are available. Airlines offer flash sales and special promotions in premium cabins just as they do in economy. Two years ago, I found (and bought) a round-trip business class ticket to Asia for just $1,500—which was less than half the nominal first-class rate.

One reason for the lack of a simple premium airfare system is that, for many travelers, premium flying is inextricably bound to frequent flyer programs. The best way to get into a front cabin is often by using frequent flyer miles. And for some, the game is to apply for a bunch of credit cards that offer huge initial bonuses if you meet an exorbinantly large monthly charge threshold for the first few months. So the problem of finding outright premium airfare deals isn’t easy, but it’s not insurmountable, either.

First Class Flyer is the gold standard for finding deals on premium airfare, for both performance and membership price. The minimum Silver level costs $97 per year, and gets you a daily bulletin that covers special deals for both cash payments and use of miles. Higher levels of membership cost $197 and $297 per year and add on a bunch of additional information that’s useful, but not essential, if you’re just looking for flash sales.

MightyTravels’ premium option is $7.99 per month (about the same as First Class Flyer) and offers daily bulletins on business class, premium economy and first class deals from your home airport, including unpublished and “mistake” fares, plus access to an online dashboard with deals for most major airports.

A handful of free blogs also cover the full gamut of airfare deals with a minor focus on premium cabin options. TravelSkills posts such deals and offers occasional email alerts. Other free blogs don’t send you bulletins about premium airfare; you have to find their alerts on your own.

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All or most of the free blogs often find the same deals—so you’re probably ok finding one you like and sticking with it. Options include AirfareSpot, Godsavethepoints, No Mas Coach, One Mile at a Time, The Points Guy, and View from the Wing. There’s a lot about credit cards, hotels, and other stuff in them, too, but they do dig out some good premium deals.

FlyerTalk also has an online forum on premium flying. It’s not organized for easy search, but it’s especially good for deals that originate outside of the U.S.

So unless you spring for the First Class Flyer or MightyTravels paid services, you’ll have to do your own digging through blogs and websites. But that’s a lot easier than spending hours on a metasearch engine, yourself. The amount of money you’ll save warrants a bit of extra effort, anyways.

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Consumer advocate Ed Perkins has been writing about travel for more than three decades. The founding editor of the Consumer Reports Travel Letter, he continues to inform travelers and fight consumer abuses every day at SmarterTravel.

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Business Travel Miles & Points Money

How to Get Global Entry or TSA PreCheck for Free


Anyone who travels and values their time must have TSA PreCheck. When you are part of this program, you enter a much shorter line at security, and you can leave your shoes, belt and jacket on. You can also leave your liquids and laptops in your bag, and you only have to pass through a plain old metal detector, not some huge scanning device. And if you are part of the Global Entry program, which includes TSA PreCheck, then you could save up to an hour of standing in line every time you return from a foreign country.

[st_content_ad]The biggest downside to Global Entry and TSA PreCheck is the cost. You have to pay a $100 application fee for Global Entry or an $85 application fee for TSA PreCheck. Both are valid for five years, but then you’ll have to pay again to renew them. Thankfully, you can get reimbursed for the expense if you have the right credit card.

Here are several credit cards that offer you up to $100 credit towards either your Global Entry and TSA PreCheck application fee, every four to five years:

Citi® / AAdvantage® Executive World Elite™ Mastercard®

A credit of up to $100 towards the application fee for Global Entry or TSA PreCheck is just one of the numerous benefits of this card. You can also expect to receive 50,000 American Airlines AAdvantage miles after spending $5,000 within three months of account opening.  Other benefits include an Admirals Club lounge membership for the primary account holder and all authorized users. You also get 10,000 Elite Qualifying Miles after spending $40,00 on eligible purchases on the card in a single year. There’s a $450 annual fee for this card.

Mastercard® Gold Card™ and Mastercard® Black Card™

These two cards both offer you a credit of up to $100 towards the application fee for Global Entry or TSA PreCheck, plus many other benefits. The Gold card offers 2% value on airfare and cash back redemptions, while the black card offers 2% for airfare and 1.5% for cash back.  Other benefits include a Priority Pass Select airport lounge membership and free luxury gifts sent to your home. There’s a $995 annual fee for the Gold Card and a $495 fee for the Black card.

The Platinum Card® from American Express

The Platinum card was one of the first to feature a $100 credit towards the application fee for Global Entry or TSA PreCheck, and it now includes an annual air travel fee credit of up to $200 and a $100 a year Saks Fifth Avenue credit (requires enrollment). You also receive a Priority Pass Select airport lounge membership, a Delta SkyClub membership and access to the American Express Centurion lounges. There’s a $550 annual fee for this card (see rates & fees).

United℠ Explorer Card

This is by far the least expensive card on this list that offers you a credit of up to $100 towards the application fee for Global Entry or TSA PreCheck. Other benefits include two United Club lounge passes, and a free checked bag for you and a companion when you purchase your ticket with this card. It has a $95 annual fee, which is waived the first year.

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The 10 Worst Airports for Flight Delays, Ranked


Studies looking at air delays by location to determine the most disrupted, or “worst” airports are starting to form a reliable list of the usual suspects for nightmare hubs. And the latest list of worst airports from AirHelp offers a detailed look at all of them, plus some surprises in the rankings.

Unless driving or Amtrak is a realistic alternative option, however, this information is of use only where there are other, better-performing airports near your destination, or you’re connecting through one of these hubs where there’s a feasible alternative.

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Worst Airports in the U.S. for Flight Delays

Here are the rankings, followed by the details on how each hub made the list of worst airports

  1. Chicago O’Hare: 115,900 disrupted flights last year
  2. Dallas/Fort Worth: 75,600 disrupted flights
  3. Atlanta: 75,400 disrupted flights
  4. Charlotte: 61,700 disrupted flights
  5. Newark: 61,300 disrupted flights
  6. Los Angeles: 60,700 disrupted flights
  7. Denver: 59,100 disrupted flights
  8. San Francisco: 51,500 disrupted flights
  9. New York’s JFK: 50,800 disrupted flights
  10. Boston: 50,100 disrupted flights

Chicago O’Hare

ORD once again enjoys the dubious distinction of being by far the worst airport for delays, with 115,900 disrupted flights last year. Construction probably made things worse last year, but Chicago’s lousy winter weather reliably boosts delays each year. Chicago’s Midway airport is a practical alternative, but mostly if you’re flying Southwest. Milwaukee might work on other airlines: Although it’s 80 miles away, Amtrak stops at the airport, with seven or eight daily trips that get you to/from Union Station in an hour and a quarter. If you’re hubbing on American, Philadelphia is your best alternative; both Charlotte and Dallas/Ft Worth are also on the bad list, but with considerably better scores than O’Hare. If you’re hubbing on United, Houston is your best alternative.

Dallas/Fort Worth

DFW scores a surprising second-worst, at 75,600 disrupted flights. Given its relatively benign climate and four parallel north/south runways, plus two other angled runways, DFW has very few reasons it shouldn’t score better. If the Dallas/Fort Worth area is your destination, consider Love Field, but mainly if you fly Southwest. If you’re hub-seeking on American, check options at Philadelphia.

Atlanta 

ATL, as with Dallas, should do a lot better than it did last year, at 75,400 disruptions. It has five parallel runways, which provide lots of takeoff and landing capacity, and a good climate for flying. If you’re heading for the Atlanta area, Atlanta/Hartsfield is the only game in town. And Delta doesn’t really have any nearby hub alternatives—Detroit and Minneapolis/St. Paul are the main options.

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Charlotte

CLT is the third airport on this list that should have done a lot better than it did in 2018, with 61,700 disrupted flights. It enjoys a reasonably good climate and its three parallel runways should provide lots of capacity. Piedmont Triad airport, about 100 miles away serving Greensboro, High Point, and Winston/Salem might be feasible for a few travelers, but it’s not an ideal alternative. Travelers hubbing in Charlotte on American might consider Philadelphia instead.

Newark

EWR is a perennial worst-airport contender; the main surprise is that, at 61,300 disrupted flights, it’s as low as it is; it’s often number one on those “worst” lists. As with the other two big airports serving the New York City area, it has limited capacity, operates in the nation’s most congested airspace, and suffers lousy winter weather. Travelers heading for New York City have few feasible options, with JFK and La Guardia facing the same problems as Newark. Of the smaller fields, Long Island/MacArthur (ISP) airport is the least-worst alternative, followed by White Plains (HPN) and Stewart Field, but they’re all a long way from town and all have limited service and poor ground links. Where possible, travelers hubbing on United should try to arrange a connection at Washington/Dulles (IAD) instead.

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Los Angeles

LAX is still another big airport that should have done better than its 60,700 disrupted flights. Four parallel runways and a good climate should mean smooth operations. Fortunately, travelers headed for the Los Angeles area have two relatively close alternatives, with Burbank (BUR) the better for most airlines, and Long Beach (LGB) good for JetBlue. Farther out but still potentially useful are Orange County (SNA) and Ontario (ONT). Travelers hubbing on the West Coast have more limited options, with Seattle (SEA) the best for many itineraries.

Denver

DEN adds to the list of underperforming big airports, with 59,100 disrupted flights. Its four parallel north/south runways plus two east/west parallels should let it do better. Even though Denver gets lots of snow, it knows snow well and can usually keep things clear. There’s no real local alternative. Southwest and United hub-seekers might consider Houston (HOU or IAH, respectively); Delta travelers should think Salt Lake City (SLC).

San Francisco

SFO, at 51,500 disrupted flights, suffers from a perennial and incurable capacity problem: Although it has two parallel runway sets, the parallels are too close together to allow simultaneous instrument landings, so when the frequent fog creeps in, capacity is slashed by almost half. Fortunately the Bay Area’s other two airports, Oakland (OAK) and San Jose (SJC) enjoy much better operational records, better weather, and reasonably robust service from major airlines. Potential SFO hub-seekers should look at Seattle and Salt Lake City.

New York JFK

JFK, at 50,800 disrupted flights, is in the same fix as Newark: limited capacity, congested airspace, and poor winter weather. Also like Newark, it often comes out closer to the top of “worst” lists. See Newark entry for destination alternatives. Travelers on Delta and Jet Blue don’t have any East Coast hubs that are substantially better, and travelers connecting to one of the dozens of international lines often have no choice at all.

Boston

BOS is another northeastern airport with the same climate and congestion problems as its New York neighbors, and saw 50,100 disrupted flights last year. Similarly, Boston travelers have limited alternatives, with remote Providence (PVD) and Manchester (MHT) the most likely, especially on Southwest, and over an hour away. Boston is, however, considered to be home to the best airport public transit.

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Consumer advocate Ed Perkins has been writing about travel for more than three decades. The founding editor of the Consumer Reports Travel Letter, he continues to inform travelers and fight consumer abuse every day at SmarterTravel.