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Coming and Going: United's New Fees


(Patrick L. Pyszka)
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Sunday, February 10, 2008; Page P05

UPRIGHT AND LOCKED

United's New Fees

United Airlines says its new policy of charging passengers with nonrefundable economy tickets $25 each way to check a second bag is for the benefit of the consumer . The policy "enables us to continue offering customers competitive fares," United's John Tague wrote last week when announcing the policy.

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Consumer advocates are skeptical. "It's one more piece of evidence that the big legacy airlines don't, forgive my expression, give a damn about the consumer, only about the business traveler," said Ed Perkins, contributing editor to SmarterTravel.com. "The message is that the leisure traveler can come along for the ride, if there is room ."

The new policy, which applies to tickets bought on or after Feb. 4 for travel on or after May 5, applies to flights to the 50 states, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Canada. United also hiked the fee for any bag weighing more than 50 pounds from $50 to $100 on those flights. And if you want to bring a third or fourth bag, you'll pay $100 per piece (previously $85). The policy also raises fees from $85 to $100 for oversize items , such as surfboards and bicycles. Car seats, strollers and wheelchairs are exempt and will remain free to check. Also, you'll now have to check luggage at least 45 minutes before flight time (up from 30 minutes) at 23 airports, including Washington Dulles.

Frequent fliers are exempt from the $25 fee if they have at least premier status (at least 25,000 miles flown in the past year) with United or another Star Alliance program, as long as the two bags weigh no more than 50 pounds each. Members of the super-elite mileage crowd (generally, 50,000 or more miles per year) get three free bags that can weigh up to 70 pounds each. United expects the changes to generate $100 million annually.

Matching fares and policies is a time-honored airline tradition; other carriers no doubt are watching to see how this plays with consumers.

DEAL WATCH

Free Rooms, Maybe

A British Airways deal offered now and again, and as recently as last month, can be good: A free night's hotel room for two in London with the purchase of a round-trip ticket . Two nights for two tickets. But it's a deal only when it works .

It didn't work for Lawrence Levener of Bethesda. When he was in the process of buying two tickets online last month, no mention of hotels came up, so he called the airline. Don't worry, he was told, the link for picking hotels will come up once you pay. So he paid. No link. (When the Travel section vetted this sale we had no trouble, but you do have to follow instructions carefully.)

He immediately called the airline, and after 2 1/2 hours on the phone was told there were no free rooms available . He wanted his money back. No refunds , he was told.

"Like any other sale, when the inventory is sold, the customer . . . must look for alternative dates," BA spokesman John Lampl explained to CoGo last week. Difference is, of course, that normally you know about availability before you pay , and if you can't get what you want, you don't buy.

At any rate, after CoGo's query, Lampl said Levener would get his free rooms. He added that rooms are "pretty much always available."

By coincidence, soon after talking to Lampl last week, CoGo heard from Maria Nuzzolillo of Great Falls. In January 2007 she paid BA $1,170.56 for two tickets and two hotel nights. After paying, she found that rooms were unavailable. She, too, called BA immediately but got a different answer: She was promised a refund, minus a $20 service charge .

CoGo thinks it cheeky to charge a customer $20 for the privilege of trying to buy something you don't have. But it got worse. Last February the airline refunded $489 to Nuzzolillo's credit card. She's been fighting ever since for an explanation and for the remaining $661.56 , even enlisting her credit card company, to no avail. Last week Lampl promised CoGo by e-mail that the fare would be returned; no explanation on what happened.

COOL STUFF

Ice Art in Chicago

Catch a unique outdoor "ice painting" exhibition and free special events in Chicago , plus get a deal on lodging through February.

At Chicago's downtown Millennium Park , artist Gordon Halloran has created two pieces of ice art. One is an abstract work embedded in the ice rink . The other, composed of chunks of colored ice arranged in a mosaic style, is 95 feet long and 12 feet high .

During the outdoor exhibit, the city is hosting free art projects for kids, dances and cultural exhibitions. The Sheraton Chicago Hotel and Towers ( http://www.sheratonchicago.com, 312-464-1000) is offering ice package rates of $139 ; the price is $159 at the Westin Chicago River North ( http://www.westinchicago.com, 312-744-1900). Prices in both cases include valet parking and hot drinks.

BARGAIN OF THE WEEK

Book a premium economy seat to London on British Airways and save $250. The round-trip ticket, after savings, from Washington Dulles or BWI starts at $914 plus $250 taxes. Deal is good for travel through May 25; book by March 3. World Traveller Plus extras include seven inches more legroom and a wider seat. You must register and purchase at www.ba.com to receive the discount.

Reporting: Carol Sottili, Cindy Loose

Help feed CoGo. Send travel news, road reports and juicy tattles to:cogo@washpost.com. By fax: 202-912-3609. By mail: CoGo, Washington Post Travel Section, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071.


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