Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Changing Flights w/o Penalty

The other day, I discussed how we were able to use a sudden NYC snowstorm to get back our $1,200 on a non-refundable international flight to Tel Aviv that we had wanted to cancel anyway. It was a bit of a small miracle for us, even though the polar vortex snowstorm probably wreaked havoc on many other travelers that day.

Some people say, "When it rains, it pours," and apparently when it snows, it blizzards!

On that same Saturday that the $1,200 was fully refunded from our cancelled TLV flights, we also received a surprise email from United Airlines. The update told us that they changed the schedule for another reservation we had with them in April.

As you may recall, we had already made plans for the first few months of 2014, and our long Easter Weekend was going to be spent in New Orleans, Louisiana. My mother and I have never been to the Big Easy, and my father had only driven through it on his cross country road trip when he was back in college, so NOLA was going to be a fun new family experience for all of us.

Most importantly, that Sunday along the fabled French Quarter, there were 3 different Easter Parades (2 of which appropriate for toddlers like me, with the other parade being more suitable for what my father calls "Top Bottom Twinkie Bears").

Unfortunately, our return flight home departed New Orleans Airport (MSY) on Sunday at 2:37PM, meaning we'd need to leave our hotel at 12PM. So we'd only be able to see part of the first Easter parade that starts at 10:30AM, and we'd miss the Chris Owen's 1PM Easter Parade and the 3PM Gay Easter Parade. Furthermore, we were connecting in beautiful Cleveland, Ohio (CLE) for about an 1 hr 35 min before getting on our 7:34PM flight back to New York (LGA). Not a horrible itinerary, but we did it to save a few hundred dollars on the flights ($554 direct vs. $371 for 1 connection just on the return).

A Schedule Change We Like
As you can see here, our email from United notified us that our schedule had changed since we booked it:

1. First, our outbound flight was on a different plane that was leaving just 4 minutes earlier than the Friday 7AM we booked. No biggie.

2. On the return portion, we were still departing at Sunday 2:37PM, but apparently on another plane that wasn't quite as fast, because instead of arriving in beautiful Cleveland at 5:59PM, we were landing at 6:09PM. Not a huge deal, unless...

3. The big change was our connecting flight to New York, which now departed beautiful Cleveland at 6:51PM instead of 7:34PM.

So instead of a leisurely hour and a half between flights (with access to the United lounge), we were down to just 42 minutes. Considering that the 6:09PM arrival time tells you when the flight lands (not when it gets to the gate and lets people get off the plane) and that the 6:51PM flight starts boarding 30 minutes before scheduled departure, they were cutting it too close! And that's assuming that our first flight isn't delayed at all.

Sure, if it were just my well-traveled father flying solo, he could easily get off the first plane quickly with his simple carry-on and just walk down to the new gate for his next flight easily within 15-20 minutes. However, as we experienced when connecting in Charlotte last week on our way back from Austin, having both an independent minded 2 year old and checked luggage created more challenges than most traveling families want. So my father planned to call United to see what alternatives were available to us.

Research First
Most reservation agents are happy to help, but will often only look at the simplest option that their computer tells them. My father never takes chances like this, so he took some of the variability out of the equation by researching the alternative flight options before calling. That way, if his call was assigned to a stupid less experienced agent, that would be to his advantage, and not to his detriment.

There were a lot of options available:

1. The simplest choice would be to just put us on the next CLE-EWR flight departing at 7:13PM and arriving into Newark at 8:59PM (though we'd have preferred LGA which is closer/cheaper to get home from).

2. But if we connected in Chicago O'Hare, we'd get a better United airport lounge to rest in and a few more frequent flyer miles for the more circuitous route. In fact, there were 2 Chicago connection options, though the first one was a 60 minute connection, and the second one was on a smaller regional jet instead of a full Airbus 319 aircraft (#champagneproblems). We'd likely opt for the second flight which is scheduled to arrive at LGA at 10:21PM.

3. There was also an option to backtrack and connect in Houston, though it was going to take us to LGA (which we prefer over EWR when coming home). We'd get 500 more frequent flyer miles than connecting in CLE and fly on fully loaded Boeing 737 and Airbus 319 planes, but we'd be on a 1 hr flight followed by a long 3hr 39min flight, getting into LGA at 10:24PM.

4. And finally, the Holy Grail of them all...the non-stop direct flight to Newark. It would only be a simple 3hr 4min flight. No worries about connections to catch, long second flights or checked baggage not making it on the next flight. Plus, it departed at 4PM which would give us extra time at the Sunday parades and still get us home at 8:04PM.

Calling United
My father's plan was to ask if we might have the ability to switch onto the direct flight to Newark, but if rejected, he would think about Option #1 or Option #3. When the agent picked up, she first told my father that 42 minutes was "plenty of time between flights."

My father immediately explained that he would be traveling with a 2 year old and a child car seat. Before he got into the second part of his case (the risk of the checked bags not making the connection), she said she was looking into other CLE-LGA flights.

Realizing she would immediately head towards Option #1, my father then said, "We're actually not tied to connecting through Cleveland. I know there are some other options including Chicago, Houston and also, I see there's a direct flight to Newark at 4PM..." making sure to have his voice trail off as a subtle invitation for her to react and respond to the bait.

She then asked to put him on hold. About a minute later, she came back on the line and said as a "one-time concession," she would put him on the 4PM direct flight to Newark!

While not intentional, we were able to capitalize on a schedule change and use the system to our advantage. We successfully got on the ideal non-stop itinerary we originally wanted, but didn't have to pay $554/person ($1,662 total). That was an aggregate "savings" of about $550. That's a lot of beignets and hurricanes for my parents.

And just for kicks, my father looked up the same non-stop itinerary we now had, and it was pricing at an incredible $682/person, or $2,046 total.

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