6 Answers to Common Travel Questions

Six tips that will help you become a travel pro.

Jan. 6, 2012 — -- Did you hear about the woman who had a ticket on a flight out of San Francisco International but instead of boarding her plane, she wandered the airport - for eight days because she didn't have the money to pay the checked-bag fee?

Astonishing story, but what really got me was she had no idea that free checked-bags are no longer the norm.

So I started thinking about what else "infrequent fliers" might not know. I'm talking about folks who save up for a nice vacation every year or so, or maybe fly for business but their company handles all the arrangements, so they're out of the loop.

Take a look at the following Q&A for the infrequent flier. I'm betting some of you seasoned travelers will learn a thing or two as well.

For more travel news and insights, view Rick's blog at farecompare.com

Q. So there is no such thing as a free checked-bag, right?

A. Wrong. Southwest still gives you two free-checked bags, while JetBlue gives you one. But this is not written in stone so check when you book; you never know when an airline will change a policy and you should know that carriers can and do change fee prices all the time.

Another way to avoid bag fees: become an elite-miles member flier, or use an airline-branded card that gives you checked-bags for free. Plus carry-on bags are still free on all airlines with the exception of Spirit, and that airline's carry-on fee can actually cost you more than a checked-bag.

Q. Can I still get an aisle or window seat for free in coach?

A. Maybe. More and more airlines are setting aside front-of-the-cabin seating, exit rows and even random aisle and window seats for elite-miles members or those willing to pay for better seats (and these days, "better" is considered anything outside of a middle seat).

Case in point involves a "non-elite" colleague of mine who recently booked four flights on American Airlines. On one of those flights, she was given a choice of an aisle seat in the last row or middle seats; for the other three flights, she was told to "see the gate agent for seat assignment" when she got to the airport. She wound up paying an extra $72 for the airline's Preferred Seating in order to get aisle seating on those three flights.

It's not just American; United has its Economy Plus program, Delta has Economy Comfort and so on. Sure, you might find the kind of seat you want without paying extra, although it might not be in the greatest location, but, sometimes you won't. By the way, even discounter Southwest charges for a better seat, with its $10 EarlyBird boarding fee.

To get the best choice of seating, always remember to check in for your flight at the earliest opportunity, meaning 23 hours, 59 minutes and 59 seconds before your flight departs.

Q. I made a reservation months ago for a flight I can't take now. How do I get my refund?

A. What refund? Unless you specifically purchased the more expensive refundable tickets, you are out of luck. Yes, you might be able to still use the tickets later in the year, but you will have to pay the "change fee," which can cost as much as $150, plus the difference in the cost of the tickets if they are more expensive during the period you can fly.

If your reason for not being able to fly is serious enough -- say, a death in the family -- try contacting your airline to see if you can work something out, but do not count on this. But sometimes the equivalent of a doctor's excuse plus a human being on the phone or at the airline desk might get you a refund in some cases. At least with Southwest, you don't have that pesky change fee but hang on to your ticket number because you'll have to fly them within the next 12 months.

Q. My flight was cancelled because of bad weather. How much will the airline give me for a hotel and food?

A. I get so many questions about this, and I'm sorry to say the airlines are not obligated to give you anything in the way of meals or lodging because bad weather is considered a force majeure (greater force) event.

Look in your airline's contract of carriage and you'll see that force majeure actually covers a whole bunch of possibilities. On American's website, for example, it includes "meteorological conditions, acts of God, riots, civil commotion, embargoes, wars, labor disputes."

It also mentions, "any fact not reasonably foreseen, anticipated or predicted by American." Now that's what I call an all-inclusive clause.

You might remember the big brouhaha for fliers in Europe during the Icelandic volcanic eruptions; many European airlines caved and put up folks whose flights were stranded but that was an unusual case and in the United States, yes, you are pretty much on your own when mother nature calls (or roars).

Q. I'm going to Europe. I'll fly to New York on one airline, then take another airline to London. I left a two-hour window at JFK to make my Heathrow flight. I'll be OK, right?

A. I recently got a very sad letter from a flier involved in a similar scenario, except she was taking a whole series of interconnecting flights from London, and because her initial flight to New York was late, the whole itinerary fell apart like a house of cards.

The main point to remember is leaving yourself just two hours to make an international flight might not be enough. You cannot predict delays, whether it's weather or mechanical problems.

Also, airline-mandated arrival times for flights vary. Delta says passengers flying to international destinations must get to the airport three hours ahead of time, and if you're not checked-in at least 60 minutes before departure - with or without baggage - you might not be allowed on the plane. And that'll cost you an "international change fee" of $250.

Q. At least I know there's no more free food on the airlines, so I'll make sure I have a $10 in my wallet to buy a sandwich.

A. You're right about no free food, but that $10 won't buy you a sandwich. These days, U.S. airlines accept credit cards only.

Related links:

Woman Stuck in San Francisco Airport for 8 Days

AA Contract/Carriage

Delta Requirements

Premium Economy Offers More Legroom

This work is the opinion of the columnist and does not reflect the opinion of ABC News.

Rick Seaney is one of the country's leading experts on airfare, giving interviews and analysis to news organizations that include ABC News, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Reuters, the Associated Press and Bloomberg. His website, FareCompare.com, offers consumers free, new-generation software, combined with expert insider tips to find the best airline ticket deals.