Some good, some bad
When we flip the calendar to January in a little less than a month, it’s important to know what might be changing for travel in 2017. Keep an eye out for the following trends that may affect the way you fly.
1. Airline fares, they are a-changin’
When you book an airline ticket in the coming year, watch out—not all economy class fares are created equal. Sure, you know that when you fly Allegiant or Spirit there are restrictions on carry-ons and seat assignments that might be startling. But those sneaky fees are growing elsewhere.
United is now following Delta’s lead when it recently announced new Basic Economy fares. The fares replace what are currently the airline’s lowest fares in the market, which often compete with low-fare competitors. Several restrictions come with that price match.
On United, Basic Economy fares do not permit advance seat selection, the ability to change the seat assigned at check-in (families will not want to book this fare because they can’t always sit together), flight changes, upgrades to Economy Plus, or a carry-on bag except for a purse or briefcase.
Delta is similarly restrictive about not allowing the option to upgrade to a premium economy seat, but it does allow traditional carry-on bags on board. United will not allow elite qualifying miles for those wanting Premier status (Delta does), but it will permit earning miles based upon the cost of the ticket. Luckily, everyone receives the same standard of service once seated like complimentary soft drinks and a snack (although you may be enjoying it in a middle seat).
American plans to introduce similar “basic economy” fares in early 2017 although details on what it will allow (or not allow) are yet to be announced. Perhaps it is waiting to see how people respond to its competitors’ offerings. Airlines spin these changes as lower fares, but in reality, the goal is to get people used to buying a higher fare to choose a seat or carry on a bag.
2. Bye-bye, free upgrades for elite members
Not only are basic economy fares gripping more cash out of the wallets of people who actually want seat assignments and elite miles, but airlines have become smarter about upselling to first class, too. It’s nice to have the option to upgrade, even if you have to pay a discounted rate—but that is coming at the expense of loyalty program members who were once promised a fighting chance of scoring them for free thanks to their allegiance to one carrier.
Of course, airlines are a business and should look for ways to maximize profits, but travelers should know that the benefits of working toward elite status are not as rich as years past. Delta elites are increasingly finding themselves “upgraded” to middle seats—a quirk of the airline’s requirement that people have to be upgraded to domestic premium economy seats (they used to be free for top elites). You can opt out of getting the premium economy “upgrade” by adjusting your profile online or calling Delta directly.
Even Delta’s top status Diamond Medallion fliers (for those who fly 125,000 miles a year) are seeing fewer upgrades than before since the airline has shrunken first-class cabins and become more competitive in selling first class at a discount. It seems premium economy (and sometimes a middle seat) is the new perk for being loyal in 2017.
3. It’s time to go rogue
Airlines have cannibalized many of the benefits that distinguished them from low-fare carriers. As we mentioned above, upgrades to first class or even premium economy are getting tougher, and the variety of restrictive fares on airlines are getting too complicated. Frequent flier miles are harder to redeem or require more to redeem for an award, and airlines are becoming less transparent about how much an award actually costs.
Perhaps airlines like Southwest with free checked bags and open seating should be the new focus of frequent travelers. Flight changes are less restrictive, and its most frequent fliers are eligible for an annual companion pass to fly anywhere around the network free of charge. That seems to be the most valuable elite perk worth going for in the coming year, at least for domestic travel.
4. My award flight costs how much?!
Delta pioneered the move to tying award redemptions to actual fares, which has been hinted at by other legacy carriers, including United, at their investment day functions.
This means award charts are no longer the traditional guide for fliers in determining how many miles it takes to redeem an award. In fact, Delta completely deleted its award chart last year, angering frequent fliers who no longer had a guide to know how many miles to save for a trip. The airline’s response: Whatever the website prices out is the cost. Never mind that airline websites are clunky and do not showcase all airline partners. Delta.com is also known for sorting award results oddly, often with cheaper options on the bottom of the page, or even two or three pages into the search results.
Most airlines do have award charts, and although Delta deleted its from the website, there are still general guidelines worth following. It never makes sense to redeem 400,000 miles for a business-class flight somewhere—even though some unassuming customers will pay it.
5. Better airport dining
It’s not all doom and gloom. Prices are getting cheaper on some routes, and the inflight products are improving with American, Delta, and United reintroducing free snacks in economy class.
Even before you step on the plane, there is a renaissance happening in airports across the country thanks to companies like OTG that are revolutionizing the way airport dining functions. Who would have thought a chef in an airport restaurant would go foraging for fresh vegetables in the woods and scour local farmers’ markets to stock the shelves? But that is happening in many terminals, including Houston Bush Intercontinental, Newark, New York JFK and LaGuardia, and Philadelphia, where everything from raw oyster bars to artisan cheese plates are filling the menus.
Travel is such a privilege, but those who are strategic in their travel planning will surely have a better experience no matter where they go.