Archives for January 2014

10 tips on airline baggage fees.

bigstock-Pile-of-various-styles-of-old--16539629The airline industry in the US charged $ 1.7 Billion of baggage fees in the first 6 months of 2012. You can be sure that later figures, when published will be even higher.

How does anybody avoid them? If they can’t be avoided, can they at least be kept sensible? How might they impact our families more than others?

Let’s start with that last question. It is quite possible that in order to accommodate your child’s special needs, you will need to bring extra things that are unique to your situation. We’ll address some of those later on but first should try to give some thoughts that should be useful to everybody.

The first and obvious thing to note is that all of these fees are confusing and that, probably, a tidy part of that very big number above arose out of passengers not understanding the fee structure. Here are some tips:

1. Read your airline’s policy. Do this before packing and allocating your things to the various pieces of luggage. See note about pre-purchasing below.

We have found a site that seems to be pretty good at keeping up to date with the policies of most of the domestic airlines. It is: That said, the fees do keep on changing and it makes sense to check with your airline’s site in addition to this one.

2. Understand that policies are expressed per person. What matters here is that if, say, the first checked bag is free, then for a family of 2 adults and 2 children it gives you a total of 4 bags free.

3. Understand that charges are applied in both directions. Whatever the fee, it will be applied both on the flight out and on the flight home.  It may even be worse. We have heard of at least 1 airline that charges for bags by the segment. If you are unfortunate enough to have connecting flights, that may mean charges for 4 flights, 2 in each direction.

4. Avoid multiple charges. Many, but not all, airlines compound their charges. What? For an oversize, over weight bag, they can charge you their basic bag fee plus the oversize fee plus the over weight limit fee. Yes, it is possible to end up paying over $ 200 for one bag. It is highly likely that 2 bags that are within their limits will cost less than 1 bag that exceeds both.

5. Measure and weigh. Size limits are set in terms of width plus depth plus height. If in doubt, read how to measure on your airline’s website. Weigh before you go. You may have 1 bag that is over the limit and others that are well under. It will certainly pay to distribute the weight evenly and avoid the over limit charge on that 1 bag.

6. Know the rules for Carry-on items. Spirit Airlines were the first to start charging for carry-on bags. They won’t be the last. Even so they distinguish between carry-on bags that need to go in the overhead bins and “personal items” which can go under the seat in front of you. They don’t charge for the latter but both items have size limits.

Most airlines don’t currently charge for carry-on bags but they are still the subject of size limitations and you should know these in advance. If you have something that turns out to be too big, you may have to “gate check” it and that may incur an additional fee.

If you avoid that complication, you should be able to bring 1 carry-on bag plus 1 personal item for each passenger without charge.

7. Look before you book. It may be useful to look at what the airlines’ bag fees are while comparing fares before you book. It is possible to have 2 fares on a route where fare A is only cheaper if you don’t check a bag and where fare B, which looked higher, actually turns out to be better if you are checking bags. Additionally, some fees are lower if you pay for them at the time of booking than they are if you pay at a later stage.

Now what about the special considerations for families traveling with autism?

8. Consider other factors when booking. Don’t get totally hung up on bag fees. Do remember that there are other factors than bag fees, or even total price, to consider when booking flights. You need to look carefully at routing and timing in order to find flights that best suit your child’s needs. Take a look back at our posting Which Flight ? Which Seat ?

9. Take special care about carry-on versus personal item. Again remember that the limits are per person. If you are a family of 5, that will give you 5 personal items, for any airline plus 5 carry-ons with those that allow these free.

Your special considerations should take account of what needs to be in the personal item. When the airplane is taxiing, taking off and landing you cannot access whatever is in the overhead bins. Have one or more of the personal items contain things like the iPad and other non-electronic games/pastimes are needed. Also make sure that any medications that you need are easily accessible.

10. Figure if shipping ahead is a better option. We have advised some parents to take familiar pillows and other items of bedding from home so that you have familiar feeling and smelling items for children who may have sleeping issues. Weight isn’t the problem here so much as bulk. Oversize is your constraint. It may make sense to ship these items ahead via UPS or similar if they would cause problems with regular sized luggage. If, however, you can get them get them into your bags without exceeding the limits, they do make good soft insulation for breakable items.

11. Call your travel agent for help. We don’t know of any travel agent that will come and pack for you. Even we can’t offer that! Your travel agent should, however, be prepared to check policies for you in advance and give you some assistance with planning. By the way, we do appreciate that this is tip number 11 when we promised 10 but just consider this “going the extra mile”. We always do.

2 Calls that will make things easier at the airport.

bigstock-Dog-On-The-Phone-44086108For many of our families one of their biggest concerns when taking a vacation is getting through the airport. Who can blame them? For travelers without special needs, there is nothing likeable about the crowds, the long lines and the waiting. Those things are all, potentially, much worse when traveling with a child on the spectrum.

Fortunately there are 2 calls that you can make ahead of time that will help with these issues. Actually, in the right circumstances, it is possible to do this all with a single call.

A Single Call.

The other 2 calls are still needed but, if you booked through a travel agent, ask him/her to make them on your behalf. (In fact we do this for every client who books with us without having to wait for the client to suggest it!)

Even if your travel agent doesn’t have any experience in working with autism, you can still make just the 1 call. The only difference is that you’ll need to explain to your agent who to call and why. So here is the who and the why.

Two calls. First, your airline.

Airlines vary. Some airlines have special phone numbers that are assigned for Special Needs traveler assistance. For some you just call the main number and, of course, there are some that don’t even put a phone number on their website. Not even on the Contact Us page! If you have one in that last category, you can try for the number.

In any event, you will need to tell the airline which passenger has autism and ask them to note it into the record. It will pay to add an explanation that your child doesn’t do well with crowds or lines or waiting or any combination of these. Keep that description short so that other airline staff can quickly read the information when needed. See below about staff reading computer displays.

Some operate 2 or more cabin classes. Some offer only 1 cabin class but pre-assign seats. Others have a single cabin and no pre-assigned seating. One part of what you are asking for will vary accordingly.

If you are flying in a multi-cabin aircraft, ask for permission to check in at the business class or first class desk at the airport. The lines are much shorter than for coach class. If they tell you that this is OK, ask them to note that in the record also. Of course not every airline will do this and even the one that has done it before may not do it the next time but it’s always worth asking.

Your second request is going to be to ask them that they note the record to the effect that you are eligible for priority boarding. With pre-assigned seats, airlines generally permit people with special needs to board even ahead of the priority customers (business class, frequent flyers etc).  Since autism isn’t a mobility issue, they will probably have you board immediately after people in wheelchairs. Without pre-assign seats this is even more important. They just have priority boarding and then everybody else.

As a further word on this; even though you’ve asked for things to be noted in the record, you need to know that the full record probably isn’t immediately visible to the staff member in front of you. It is, however, something they will be able to see, if you ask them to look for it. Try going to the gate agent (which you should do as soon as you can) and explaining that you are traveling with somebody with ASD and that you have been told that you are eligible for priority boarding. They’ll possibly just take your word for it. If they don’t that is the time to politely ask them to look at the record since it has already been noted.

Two calls. Second, TSA.

The Transport Security Administration (TSA) frequently gets bad press because they’ve been inconsiderate or just plain nasty with somebody. That is such a pity! Overall, they’re pretty decent with people that are decent to them but, more than that, they can be positively wonderful with our families. You need to call them and ask for their help!

You need to call the TSA Cares Hotline on 1-855-787-2227, Option 2.

They will ask you for your name and phone number. Once you’ve done that, explain to them that one or more of your passengers has autism and that you would like to arrange for a Passenger Support Specialist (PSS) in order to assist with screening. They will arrange for somebody in that role to contact you and make arrangements to meet you at the airport and assist you through the process.

Both the person that you speak to on the phone and your PSS can explain the process and help you with permitted “work-arounds” for things that might otherwise give you problems. Make no mistake, everybody has to go through screening but your PSS is dedicated to making it as easy as possible for your special passenger. Be sure to give them your cell # so that a PSS at your destination can contact you about the return flight, if that is a domestic flight.

We cannot stress enough, how great some of these Specialists have been for our clients. Perhaps we can best illustrate with a family at JFK Terminal 4 (it’s a doozy). Their PSS met them at the door and it took just 15 minutes from curbside to the far side of security – in the middle of a holiday weekend!