The price you pay for paying less


Travelers, BOLO — be on the lookout — for these potential offenders. They are, as usual, hiding in the small print on conditions of sale of travel products.

Today I want to talk about two on the most-unwanted list: “Basic Economy” airfares and nonrefundable hotel prices. Not that they’re necessarily unwanted — both have their advantages, pricewise. But if they’re not well identified, and all the restrictions and possible financial penalties aren’t disclosed, you may certainly feel like you’ve been victimized.

Basic Economy class is one of the new ways airlines have come up with to deprive flyers of almost anything but a seat and some air. OK, it’s not that drastic, but it is definitely not for the faint of heart. Delta has been offering this “economy lite” product since 2014, and now, as they promised, United and American Airlines are selling these fares on a limited number of routes.

When Delta introduced Basic Economy, the airline said that this no-frills, lowest-price fare was aimed at the low-cost carrier competition — specifically Spirit Airlines, which offered nonstop service on some of Delta’s routes and was siphoning off business. These low fares, usually around $30 less than regular economy, took away several of the features that gave passengers flying coach at least a chance at making the experience tolerable: advance seat selection, early boarding, upgrades, credits if not refunds for unused tickets. The new fare seemed to be successful; and Delta is now offering the fares in more than 500 markets — and not just those where it competes with low-cost carriers. Delta even plans to expand Basic Economy to international flights. The addition of Basic Economy has added $20 million in revenue annually since it began.

Now, American and United have joined the Basic Economy game. American is offering the fare on 10 routes, adding more later this year. United is currently offering the fare only on flights between Minneapolis/St. Paul and any of its seven U.S. hubs, but plans to expand it to the rest of the U.S., Caribbean and short-haul Latin America.

While all three airlines use the same name for this new class, all Basic Economy is not equal. Each airline has its own list of restrictions and they differ in some important ways. Here’s how.

Reserving a seat: Delta and United don’t allow it. You get your seat assignment after check-in or at the gate. American allows you to reserve whatever’s available starting 48 hours before departure, for a fee.

Flying with family, friends, groups: All three warn that you’re not going to be sitting together. You’re going to get the leftovers (i.e., middle seats …). American, however, says its reservations system checks for families traveling with children 13 and under, and attempts to seat each child with an adult; that process applies to Basic Economy passengers with children.

Last to board: All three, however, United and American makes exceptions for elite frequent flyers and those cardholders of qualifying credit cards. Keep your priority or preferred boarding privileges.

No upgrades/preferred seats: All three, even with elite frequent-flyer status, you won’t be eligible for paid or free upgrades.

No same-day flight changes: All three.

Carry-on limits: United and American are limiting carry-on to one personal item — such as a purse, briefcase or laptop bag. If you show up at the gate with a full-sized carry-on bag, not only will you have to check it, but you’ll have to pay the applicable checked bag fee plus a $25 gate handling charge.

People can pretty much stand anything, if the price is right enough. So how good are these rock-bottom fares? Some recent price-checking:

United: Newark Liberty international Airport and Minneapolis/St Paul, roundtrip for $157 in Basic Economy, and $187 in regular coach.

American Airlines: Philadelphia/Miami, $260 vs. $275.

Delta: Newark/LAX, $303 vs. $333.

Is all that deprivation, and being relegated to the lowest caste of flying society, worth the savings? On their websites, the airlines actually ask that question after you’ve picked your Basic Economy flights. A pop-up screen interrupts you, with a reiteration of the deprivations involved, and, in a side-by-side comparison, showing you how all the bad stuff disappears if you go for the Main Cabin fare.

No surprise, really, that about 50 percent of all those people about to buy a basic fare change their minds at this point, and are “buying up” to the regular economy fare, according to Delta President Glen Haunestein.

While the airlines do a good job of showing you that you’re buying a basic economy fare (scaring you with it, actually) the online booking agencies may not be as clear in their display. Some may say “lowest fare,” which may or may not be Basic Economy. You can always tell by the booking code: Delta uses “E,” United uses “N” and American uses “B.”

Clear, yes?

And back on terra firma …

Now, one more fine-print culprit to deal with: Hotel cancellation fees.

They’re not going to sit around and leave lights on for you anymore. No more of this last-minute, call if you’re not coming by 6 business.

The lodging industry is taking a cue form the airlines, and penalizing travelers who don’t stick to their plans.

You can lose big money two ways when you make hotel reservations. First is by booking a room at the best price listed. Look carefully, because that price is often the “nonrefundable” price — and it can be really, really tempting: maybe $50 cheaper than the next best price, a refundable one. But booking this rate means you can’t change a thing, have to pay up front, and they keep all the money, whether you show up or not.

If you’re sure of your plans, go ahead. If you’re not, bite the bullet and go for the refundable fare.

That’s kind of clear. But the booking sites themselves may make it hard to actually understand what type of rate you’re choosing. On hotels.com, for instance, a recent search for hotels in New Orleans had a little pop-up encouraging you — come on, it only takes a minute and you can change your mind. Yeah, they don’t tell you you’ve got only four hours to change your mind.

You have to notice the small “nonrefundable” word somewhere on the ensuing pages. And click on the “cancellation policy” to be informed there is no canceling this reservation.

Even if you can clearly tell you’re buying a refundable fare, check the cancellation policy — it’s not that 24-hour notice window anymore. For a stay on May 1, I would have had to cancel by April 18 — the hotel’s policy, not the online booking site’s.

The red flag for danger when booking hotels is, of course, when they ask for your credit card and mention that the entire price of your stay will be charged immediately.

You may want to zoom in a little on that fine print, too.



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