For the last few hours, I’ve been wincing, nodding, smiling, cringing, chortling and arguing out loud at my computer monitor, which can only mean only one thing: I’m perusing reader comments.
Three recent columns elicited some questions and plenty of disappointment: one on a new site, Hopper, that provides vast amounts of data on airfares; another on the government’s Global Entry and other services that save you time in the airport; and a third on my quest for inexpensive carry-on bags.
A selection of comments (and some answers to those questions) is below. I’ve left out the (very) few people who completely agree with me, highlighting those that raise important counterpoints, even if they think I am “ruining America.”
Global Entry and Company: Worth the Price? (April 24)
My article on the Global Entry program, which allows users to skip immigration lines and (often) qualifies them for shorter T.S.A. PreCheck lines at check in, concluded that for many travelers, the $100 fee might not be worth it.
Readers seemed in agreement … with one another … that I was wrong. They told almost universally positive tales of time saved. Here’s one from Frank S of Palo Alto, Calif., whose comment I selected from the bunch only because he addressed me as “Dude”:
“Dude, I travel nearly every week, most of the time internationally. I never check bags. Global Entry and T.S.A. Pre have never failed to work well. Travel would be a lot more painful without them.”
Not a single person sympathized with my sob story about having Global Entry revoked and not getting a peep from the government as to why. At least Elaine in Charlotte, N.C., agreed with me on the program’s poor customer service: “Any idea how to get a duplicate Global Entry card sent to me? It has been two months since I was approved and no card. Getting a hold of the Global Entry office is impossible.”
Good news for her: No card is required unless you are crossing by land from Canada or Mexico. Your fingerprints are all you need.
Crunching the Numbers to Find the Best Airfare (May 4)
Dan H. of New York wrote: “This article doesn’t address how far in advance you should buy a plane ticket to get the best price. I’ve heard all sorts of theories with some indicating that two months ahead is optimal. Any thoughts/statistics on that?”
He’s right: Hopper’s site doesn’t directly address this. Many other sites have, though, including a recent study by CheapAir.com. Using data from 4 million trips in 2013, the researchers found that the ideal time to buy, on average, is 54 days in advance (and definitely, don’t wait until the last two weeks). That’s pretty close to two months and fairly similar to what other studies have shown.
The problem is, of course, that “54 days” is an average, and it’s possible that for a particular desired route — say, Anchorage to Bucharest — the story is completely different. Since Hopper’s strength is giving specific data for specific routes, let’s hope they hop on Dan’s idea.
Meanwhile, several readers thought that devoting lots of time to saving small amounts of money was either not worth it or missed the full picture.
“There are some people who are so obsessed with getting the cheapest flight that they’ll spend more for an extra hotel night, parking or a rental car than they saved on the flight,” wrote Matt of Washington, D.C. “If cost is an object, one’s focus should be on the complete cost of the trip rather than focus on airfare alone.”
“FWIW, I’d rather spend a couple hours daydreaming about my trip than trolling the Internet to save $56,” wrote Gene 99 of Lido Beach, N.Y.
FWIW (for what it’s worth), both have good points that I’ve touched on in the past. But I do think Gene, and others should take 30 minutes to get to know Hopper’s tools. Once he does, running one of their reports and plucking out a few lessons for his specific needs would take just a couple of minutes, allowing him to return promptly to his reverie.
The hidden costs Matt brings up should also include those annoying fees that vary by airline — a point also noted by Paul from Boston: “If I was traveling in my underwear with a packet of peanuts as business luggage I would be O.K. I guess.” Kayak has a good summary of fees here.
A few readers added that they don’t have much flexibility about what days they travel: “Not helpful because my vacation days are fixed months in advance,” wrote chicken lover from Massachusetts.
Others noted that cheaper midweek departures aren’t an option for those who wanted to maximize five vacation days by including two weekends. True enough, if that’s your situation — although sometimes savings are substantial enough to warrant losing a day on the beach, as I found out when evaluating spring break airfare options.
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Hunting for the Best Carry-On Bag (April 16)
My quest to find the ideal frugal carry-on bag raised tons of comments and complaints, including questioning my very definitions of “ideal,” “frugal,” and “carry-on.”
I was pilloried, for example, for spending $150 and calling that a bargain.
“My carry-on bag costs $30 from an Asian luggage store, of which there are many in NYC,” wrote Nigel from New York. “People are wasting their money spending more than $50 for a bag. They are all the same, unless you spend hundreds of dollars and then your bag may get stolen, which you do not have to worry about with a $30 bag.”
I’ll add that those not in New York can find the cheap bags Nigel references in department stores. But I don’t agree that “they are all the same,” since I’ve bought these bags before and they have a tendency to fall apart (though I do abuse my bags more than most).
The smarter move, however, was by those like Footprint in New York City, who sought out used luggage: “Needing a new carry-on a year ago, I stopped in at a church thrift store and walked out with an American Tourister in mint condition for $15.”
Similarly, Stephen Wood of Chevy Chase, Md., noted he had had a lot of luck at the Salvation Army and Goodwill.
I also heard it from those who criticized the weight of the bag I chose — seven pounds — noting that it was too high a baseline, given that some airlines impose total weight limits of 15 pounds or so. Here’s SF in SF from (you guessed it) San Francisco: “Sheesh, that’s absurd. You’ve just thrown away 45 percent of your available transport from the outset.”
Alison Tait of Sydney also noted the 15-pound limit, saying the choice of a seven-pound bag was “seriously not clever”: “My favorite weighs a mere 1.5 lbs. Its measurements are the maximum size allowable on international flights (why sweat about being inches too large?). It has wheels. I can take sufficient for a three-night break in a carry-on bag — in our part of the world that equals super cheap flights.”
Excellent points and I’ll admit I only rarely travel the airlines — Emirates, Air Asia, Air New Zealand, among others — that have such strict limits. Most American carriers are more lenient. For now.
Others objected that wheels add unnecessary weight and inconvenience. “Ditch the wheels,” wrote Carmela of Maryland. “They are heavy, get in the way, reduce the space in your bag and are pretty dysfunctional over rough ground.” No point in my complaining about my aching neck and back, either: “I travel with a Red Oxx bag and even though I am an old lady, I can lug it everywhere with no problem,” she said.
And then I was nailed for crowing about how I wanted a bag that met size restrictions, then buying one that was slightly over for some airlines. Here’s Allan of Vermont: “I am curious as to why you felt it was O.K. to consistently break the carry-on size rules? You seem to have no idea how much your approach inconveniences the rest of us who have to put up with you. It is not the ‘big things’ that are ruining America. It’s all the simple ‘me-first, it is O.K. if you can get away with it’ attitudes and basic bad manners of people such as yourself.”
If Allan is referring to how I used to sneak my old 25-inch bag aboard in the past, I agree and apologize. My new bag, however, exceeds the American standards only by a half-inch in height, which, if I don’t stuff it to the brim, is not an issue. It is too big for a few carriers like Lufthansa, Aer Lingus, and Swiss International — so it would be more accurate to say I am ruining Europe.