travel

How to choose an airline for your family vacation (and why I am no longer loyal to one)

Frequent fliers know that the days of brand loyalty to one airline are long gone, especially for pleasure travel. Even business travelers have a suite of options for booking corporate travel, as business agencies no longer deal exclusively with one airline. Why is that?

How much does is cost to fly?

Easily 75% of my decision making comes down to cost. If a fare is too high, I won’t consider it. Of course, “too high” is relative for everyone, but let me assure you, I prefer to spend my vacation money on my destination, not on getting there.

In the early days of internet booking Southwest usually had the best fares and routes for domestic travelers. And once baggage fees became a thing Southwest was the clear frontrunner for my family, since we always had to travel with lots of luggage.

Remember when every airline let you check 2 pieces of luggage for free without weight restrictions? Ahh, it’s been a while.

But now that I can travel lighter, and now that multiple discount airlines are competing for passengers, there are several times when Frontier Airlines has gotten my business. But with the bargain airlines come a wave of add-on fees. So let’s talk about the factors that go into this decision.

Discount Airline Add-On Fees

Free bags are nice, but they aren’t everything. You almost need a degree in advance calculus to determine the real cost of flying with a discount air carrier. Fares, taxes, miscellaneous fees, seat selection, early/preferential boarding, and yes, luggage fees. Even carry on baggage can incur a fee on a discount airline.

On a recent flight on Frontier, my seat was $31 for a one-way trip. My one checked bag was $31 per way – the same as me! This bag had a strict size and weight limit. As someone with a diagnosed thyroid disease, I am so glad size and weight restrictions don’t apply to me.

During the purchase process, you are inundated with add-on options.

  • Carry on bags – which often cost more than your checked luggage.
  • Seat selection – if you care to sit next to your loved ones. If you aren’t traveling with young children I suggest forgoing this. We all usually watch movies on our phones or nap anyway.
  • Preferred boarding – on airlines with assigned seats, I will never understand this. If I have an assigned seat, I want to be the last person on the plane.
  • The bundle – pay a certain fee, and you get all the add-ons. But really, for all that, you should have flied with a traditional airline.

I am willing to play the add-on game with a discount airline!

So game on!

I LOVE THIS GAME. It’s my new favorite, and it goes like this.

Discount airline charges $31 per way per guest. I have four members of my family traveling. What is the real cost of this trip? Let’s play.

  • $36 per ticket or $31 if you are a member of the airlines preferred flyer program.
    • Join program, move two spaces ahead.
  • $31 x 4 people = $124 (not bad)
  • $31 per checked bag today. Could be more later or less if they email me a code, but could be more. Take a chance card.
    • Begin questioning how light you can pack, and does your husband need that many socks.
    • Remember, personal bags – those that fit under the seat in front of you are free. Yay, loophole! Move ahead another two spaces.
  • Decide that one checked bag is enough. It’s a short trip. Add $31 to your fare.
  • New total is $175.
  • Seat selection: Do you care if you sit next to your children and husband
    • Children are teenagers + been married for 23 years + 75 minute flight = NO, I am not paying extra to guarantee a seat by these people. Move ahead one space.
  • Early boarding: The airline will give me a seat somewhere on the plane. Why pay to get in that seat earlier? End turn.

Total for one way = $175 for 4 people! But wait…

  • Husband decides he does want extra socks and another pair of shoes. Add another checked bag, but the cost has increased to $36 per bag. Pay it anyway so hubby has the shoes he wants. Move to final payment space.

New total = $211 or $52.75 per person per way. Still a win in my book.

Airline Customer Service

Everyone is happy with their airline… until they aren’t.

I have been happy with almost every carrier, even some of the deep discounters. Good people are good people, and almost every airline has an army of good people working the front lines of customer service.

Service, though, extends beyond the experience at the check in counter or during the flight. Those are important, but what happens when something goes wrong? Lost luggage, canceled flights, canceled connecting flights – That’s when service either is or is not.

When it comes to delayed luggage – the new term for lost luggage – I am sad to say, almost every airline we have flown has lost a bag of ours at one point. I am happy to report that for domestic travel, we have always been reunited with our bag – at the airline’s expense – in under 12 or less, usually far less. When my husband’s suitcase was lost on his way to Copenhagen, it took about 48 hours for the suitcase to get to his hotel. (A well-packed carry on is a lifesaver.)

However, canceled flights, and how the airline deals with them are of vital importance too. Once you are already at your destination, your options become limited to get you back home, especially if home isn’t within driving distance. After all, road trips are great, but you booked a flight for the time saving and so you could avoid traffic.

To avoid canceling flights, airlines will keep delaying them. I guess this is to avoid having to pay for hotels and meals for travelers, but eventually, a canceled flight is a canceled flight. Giving customers the runaround, when they are already frustrated, and just want to go home, leaves a bad taste in their mouths. And if by chance an airline exec is reading this, remember

It only take one bad experience to have customers looking at other airlines for their next trip. Two bad experiences, and you lose them.

Availability of direct flights, and are they offered at times that work for me

When you are traveling, you have a tight schedule to keep. Most of my travel is for pleasure, so my preferences determine what flight times work for me, so I look for departure time that accommodate that preference.

Equally important is a direct flight whenever possible. They are faster and often less expensive. And most importantly, your chances of a flight delay double if you have two flights to catch.

My motto: Direct flights only!

Personal Experience

This is important. You want to feel good about the decisions you make when you select an airline. Flying isn’t cheap – even on discounted airlines. You are making a financial decision, and often it’s a big one.

How well your departure flight goes often sets the tone of your entire vacation. If it goes well, your vacation is off to a great start. When things go wrong, frustration follows.

Whenever I have a good experience with an airline, they are often the first carrier I check for my next vacation. It doesn’t mean I book with them, but they have the first shot at my travel dollars. And with a family like mine, who flies three to six times per year, those travel dollars add up. Personal experience matters.

Why we are no longer loyal to one airline

I used to be loyal to one airline. I won’t name it, but they do let each passenger check two bags for free. I still fly with them, but there are a few reasons why after several years of brand loyalty, I decided to look elsewhere.

  1. They always had the best prices, until they didn’t.
  2. I am not a fan of the select your seat when you board policy. I prefer assigned seats, even if the airline picks it for me.
  3. We’ve had a few service issues (especially when layovers were involved). While everything was eventually resolved-ish, bad experiences take time to get over. We have flown with them since, but we definitely look elsewhere for comparable flights with other airlines before we commit.

How to pick an airline

Play the fare game with discounters. It’s fun. Look at departure times, and find that perfect direct flight.

Most importantly, look for flights several times on different days of the week before committing. Flight prices fluctuate like gas prices. I usually book on Tuesdays and Thursdays, but look at the route you need, and then look again.

Make it a game, and make sure you win that game.

Safe travels, y’all!

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