Question: My daughter is expecting a baby around Thanksgiving, and I need to buy a ticket from Los Angeles to New York's JFK. Her due date is Nov. 19 (Thanksgiving is Nov. 26), and I would like to buy a one-way refundable ticket in case she delivers earlier or later than the 19th. Any suggestions on how to get the best ticket for such a special occasion during one of the most traveled holiday times?
Answer: The good news: The sharpest minds in airline ticketing offered excellent suggestions. The bad news: They're the best of a bunch of not-so-hot options.
The issue, of course, is airline change fees, which generally run about $200.
But then there's Southwest, which is solution No. 1.
George Hobica, founder of Airfarewatchdog, which specializes in low fares, suggested flying from LAX to New York's LaGuardia on Southwest, which doesn't charge a change fee. But, he notes, if there's a price difference between the original fare and the new fare, the flier will pay that difference.
At Thanksgiving, you will pay a premium just as you do at Christmas. And you don't have a lot of wiggle room, either. Although load factors dropped last year in November — that is, planes were not quite as full as in the peak month of July — those numbers aren't broken down by days, and we know from strong anecdotal evidence that going to Grandma's for Thanksgiving can be tricky and costly.
Even more so for a grandma headed for a blessed but not-bound-by-the-calendar event. Here's solution No. 2 from Warren Chang, vice president of Fly.com: a round-trip refundable ticket on JetBlue, which gives you options if the baby is early or late.
That's because "refundable fares come with unlimited no-fee changes and the ability to cancel for a full refund up until the time of departure," a JetBlue spokesman said in an email (although you would have to pay any increase in fare).
The lowest price for a refundable fare that we found last week was $832 for a Nov. 23 departure and a two-week stay (and that may not be available by the time you read this).
Solution 3 won't cost much at all: Rick Seaney, founder of FareCompare, suggested using frequent-flier miles, not always easy at peak travel times but easier on some airlines than others. (A U.S. News & World Report study last week cited Alaska, American, Southwest, JetBlue and Hawaiian as among the best awards programs, including "free flight options," but again, peak times mean lower availability, and you may pay taxes and fees.) You'll also sometimes pay a "restocking" fee to put the points back if you don't use them.
None of these solutions is inexpensive, because, as Seaney said, "You're looking to get a better bad deal."
Some fare sites allow you to lock in the cost of your ticket, but that doesn't negate the problem with change fees. Domestic airlines made $764 million on change fees, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, and that, my friends, was just in the first quarter of 2015. Last year they made almost $3 billion in change fees, BTS reported.
We understand the need to protect inventory (seats) that is perishable, but anyone who is not a business traveler and who must deal with the vagaries of life — birth, death, unsettled dates for bridal showers — is held financially captive.
The most sensible idea I've heard about change fees is from George Hoffer, an economics professor at University of Richmond in Virginia: Use a sliding scale. If you must cancel 60 days out, make that penalty significantly less than if you have to cancel 60 hours out.
It makes so much sense it will never happen. Why would airlines, now making money after so many years of not, get off the change-fee gravy train?
They're not. Which means that the granny-to-be needs to have a serious chat with her daughter about moving back to L.A. for the next child. Given the way change fees and costs for refundable fares are going, a cross-country move could be considerably less expensive.