Seat 2B By Joe Brancatelli
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What to Consider As You Plan a Summer Vacation
June 23, 2016 -- Summer's here and you haven't planned a holiday yet? No worries. There are plenty of places to go and, more than in recent years, decent prices to be found.
As usual, however, there are always new wrinkles to consider. Here are six things to think about before you hit the road in the next few weeks.
Summer's most hateful hubs
This could be an epically bad summer at the nation's largest hub airports. Combine heavy summer traffic, the TSA meltdown and the petulant refusal of U.S. carriers to pay for a fair share of the security burden and you have a recipe for long lines, blown flight connections and unhappy flyers. And you don't need Nerdwallet's click-bait list of "worst" airports to know what facilities to avoid.
The solution? Always fly nonstop when that option exists. The shekels you might save by connecting isn't worth the potential nightmare of a malfunctioning hub. Another option: If you're within a few hundred miles of an airport with a nonstop flight, drive rather than take the short connecting flight. And if you must connect, try less crowded hubs such as Salt Lake City or Charlotte.
Protect premium class premiums
So you've booked a business or first class ticket and you think you're covered. Nope. Sorry. Increasingly, I hear from travelers who arrive at an airport with a premium class ticket only to be involuntarily downgraded to the coach cabin.
That's bad enough, but here's the insult added to injury: Airlines often refuse to refund the price difference between the premium class accommodation for which you paid and the coach seat to which you have been assigned. The airlines' justification? Their contracts of carriage give them the right to do whatever they want regardless of the ticket you purchased and the class of service for which you paid.
And here's the worst part of it: If an airline stonewalls your attempt to get a refund, appealing to your credit card company may not work. The credit card firms frequently say they can't issue a partial refund unless they know the difference between the price you paid and the cost of the coach seat. And not any coach seat, they say, but the price of a coach seat on the same day you purchased the premium class ticket that the airline refused to honor.
There is a solution — but it takes work, preparation, planning and commitment to protect your investment. Whenever you purchase a premium class seat, make sure you also get a screen grab or print out of the price of a coach class seat on the same flight. If you are then denied your premium class seat and the airline refuses to refund your money, contact your credit card. And when they insist they can only refund if you can show the cost of coach seat, you'll have the proof. If you do it that way, you will get your refund.
Now or (maybe) never to Europe
Plagued by lower-than-they-expected fares and insufficient demand for existing capacity, U.S. carriers are already cutting flights to Europe. So you might as well get there while you can. Coach fares on the familiar carriers are lower than they have been in years and cost-conscious newbies such as Norwegian and Wow of Iceland are flying to a surprising number of cities on both sides of the pond. And while the big airlines have been extremely stingy with business class deals to Europe this summer, look for some flash sales in the next week or two.
Word to the wise: this could be your year for Paris. With terrorist attacks still top of mind, many travelers are avoiding the City of Light this summer. That has led hotel chains such as Marriott and Hyatt to post surprising high-season discounts.
Summer in the city
You don't have to be a fan of John Sebastian and the Lovin' Spoonful to love big American cities in summer. With business travel down in summer, hotel rates fall as the major chains seek to keep their properties full. Even expensive coastal cities such as New York, Boston, San Francisco and Los Angeles will have some eye-opening hotel discounts on select days during the summer. A little sleuthing on the chains' proprietary sites or third-party booking services will yield some interesting deals.
If you're traveling with a family in tow, look especially to extended stay brands such as Homewood Suites, Residence Inn and Hyatt House. They normally cater to business travelers, but they also are perfect for families. Why? They offer multi-room accommodations, complete with full kitchens and living rooms. Free breakfast and evening snacks are standard. And they usually have a nice pool, too.
One obvious warning: Unless you're a politics junkie, avoid Cleveland until after the Republican Party convention (July 18-21) and Philadelphia until after the Democratic Party convention (July 25-28).
Go social with your problems
It's not quite as dramatic as gun-control advocates in Congress using Periscope to circumvent House rules, but social media does work when you have a travel problem. Twitter is especially useful since airlines, hotels and car rental firms have staffs monitoring it around the clock. Especially if you have a problem that needs an on-the-spot solution, start with a tweet — or a direct message — to the travel firm's Twitter account.
Keep cool on Cuba
As I warned earlier in the year, getting to Cuba will be a slow walk and essentially off-limits this summer. The first officially scheduled flight to the embargoed island will come in September from a regional carrier and American Airlines is building its operations. But the Transportation Department has yet to award flight rights to Havana, which is where most travelers want to start. So put Cuba aside until, say, next summer.