Instead of palm trees and sand, your perfect vacation includes conquering mountains of fresh white powder and spending hours in the cold winter sun. While the winter weather can present a multitude of different outdoor activities, it can also present different challenges to making your travel plans.
First, how do you plan to travel to your destination? If you are flying, then organizing a group may come with some benefits for you, so let’s start there. A group, by simplest definition, means you have multiple people who want to travel together on the same flights. In the airline world, the airlines consider a group as a reservation with 10 or more traveling together. With that threshold met, the airlines will give your travelers special consideration when you request a group. Booking as a group means you can plan your departure and arrival logistics with ease, as you will all depart and arrive to your destination together. In addition to the logistical benefits, you usually guarantee the same price for everyone.
To start the process, you can generally request group space up to 11 months in advance of today’s date. It is up to you on how to approach this. You can do your homework and research every airline that flies the route. You then need to find the airline contacts, make the calls, get the quotes and ask the questions (assuming you know what to ask them). Chances are every time you call, you’ll speak to a different representative and the service level is inconsistent at best. If you work with a travel agent, you may work with them throughout the entire planning process. They may have stronger purchasing power, have more knowledge of the players in the market or can more effectively negotiate the airfare on your behalf. They can also assist with finding hotels, ground transport and other key components of your trip.
Once group airfare is confirmed, you may be asked to pay a deposit to continue holding space. At this point, you have not provided anything to your agency or airline, other than a commitment that you will use the space down the road. Deposits can range from $50 to up to $200 per seat, depending on the season and destination, and you may be asked to pay this deposit within a few days, up to 30 days from date of confirmation.
Further along, you will approach what airlines call the ‘utilization’ date. Simply put, this is the last day you can cancel or reduce space, without fear of being penalized. This is usually 90-100 days before departure. While you may have been holding space for some time, you still haven’t provided any passenger names to the airline, giving you plenty of opportunity to keep recruiting group participants.
Once the utilization date has passed, you might be wondering what happens next. First, a good thing to know about being within the utilization date, is that while you have entered a penalty period for reductions and cancellations, the airlines usually build in some flexibility in filling up your group reservation. Many airlines will still allow an additional 10-20% reduction in the space held, without any penalty. For example, you hold 25 seats. At 90 days out, you make the decision to reduce to 15 seats. Ten of the seats are canceled without any fees. You must now utilize 90% of those remaining 15 seats held by the time the names and balance are due at 35 days before departure. Another way to think of this is whatever number of seats you hold, you have a cushion of 10-20% of those seats that can remain unfilled by the time passenger names and the balance need to be submitted. In this example, if we held 15 seats, you still only need to utilize 14 of those 15 seats (hence, why the airlines call this your “utilization” period). It can be confusing so consult your travel agent about the best course of action at these key dates.
As you have continued to hold on to your reservation and make adjustments, you still have not submitted any passenger names yet, nor have you paid the balance. Again this gives you the flexibility for people to sign up, or drop from, your group without too much worry about penalty. Once you approach 35-45 days before departure, it is time to finalize the group, and tickets will be issued. You need to work with your agent, or the airline, to submit all passenger names, dates of birth, and passenger gender, as well as steps make your final payment of the balance. Submitting passenger information is an extremely important step; you want to double and triple check to make sure the names are as they appear on passenger identification. Ask the agent in advance as to what the policy is regarding name corrections or complete name changes. Every airline has a different policy and associated fee for changes or corrections so make sure you know this in advance.
At 30 days out, the airline or agency will issue tickets. Most tickets today are issued as electronic tickets, where you simply show up at the airport with your identification and have boarding passes issued. When tickets are issued, you should receive some sort of recap or confirmation of the ticketed passenger names and ticket numbers. Your travel agent or airline representative should also continue to work with you to iron out any last minute questions prior to travel.
This is probably the most confusing part of the group booking process. Everyone wants discounted airfare, but what does this mean? First, using meta-search sites like Kayak.com is a good reference point, but that’s about all. You might find airlines you have never heard of before, or can explore flight times and durations to make you a more educated consumer. Do not expect that your group of 50 will find the same price available to book for everyone.
An airfare you find on any travel site is for an individual, instant purchase, ticket. They are the most discounted rate off the full economy fare. That is the carrot to incent you to buy. Those extreme discounts may be limited in quantity, nonrefundable, come with strict rules, and are not transferable in the event the passenger cancels. Within economy class, there are over twenty varying levels of price and restrictions, and as you may expect, the lower the airfare, the higher level of restriction placed upon it.
Back to your group: An airline wants to operate their flight profitably. No matter the best intentions for which you plan to travel, the airline has one end goal, to make a profit. The more seats you take up, the more seats that are taken from all levels of fixed seat inventory, including those more expensive levels. You could take the risk to try to outsmart the reservation system. On that group of 50, you might get 5 or 10 at the same rate and itinerary and then the availability changes rapidly. All of the sudden, you end up paying a lot more for your tickets and struggle to match itineraries.
When you request a group fare, the airline will give you a price that might be similar to that individual ticket, but it may be higher too. This is a trade-off to get many of those benefits as outlined previously. You are getting the flexibility to only pay a deposit, reduce down with no penalty, and not provide names or the balance until 35 days before departure. Finally, you are guaranteeing that price is the same, and the itinerary is the same, for everyone in the group. If you are traveling in low season, the airline might through in a benefit of one free ticket, per specified ratio of ticketed passengers. If it is a high demand seasonal route, they will want to maximize their potential and not sell the flight at a loss.
Again, using a travel agent to negotiate a group airfare may be to your benefit. They may have stronger purchasing power and specialized contract fares, or their expertise might land you better flight times and a more educated process.
Special Considerations for Winter Activities
There are some additional things to think about when planning winter travel. Airports in resort areas may be smaller, have variable schedules, or the airlines may run smaller equipment. Because there is so much demand for a short season, and limited supply, it will lead to a higher fare. If you were going to Vail or Aspen, it might make more sense for a group to think about Denver and then making the drive. The planes are larger and can handle excess and oversized baggage, and the flights will be more frequent. A higher frequency of flights mean there are more seats to fill, and more competition to fill them. If there is bad weather, there may be more opportunity for the group to be rebooked. Also be sure to investigate the transportation options upon arrival; can you get a direct airport shuttle service to a hotel, or do you need to rent a van or motorcoach? How long is that drive, and is the drive safe in bad weather?
In addition, you should think about what it would cost to rent equipment on site, versus paying excess and oversized bag fees and worrying about potential damage to your prized belongings. Every airline will post their excess and oversized fees on their website, so start there to get an idea of potential costs. Keep in mind that if you are booking a group far in advance, these fees may change before group tickets are issued. While both an airline and agency will certainly try to guide you through the process, they are legally not required to do anything more than disclose the standard baggage fees as part of the up-front ticket costs. If you have a larger group, you may be able to request assistance in advance by providing a manifest of equipment that includes quantity, weight, and dimensions. Be sure to ask your travel agent or airline representative if this is possible.
Airlines will usually also make blanket statements about what they will or will not be liable for in case of damage to your equipment. It’s certainly not their intention to damage your belongings, but there is also reality that fragile equipment can break in transit. American Airlines, for example, puts specific statements on their website about use of hard-sided cases versus soft sided, and when damage is visible (or not). If you purchased travel insurance, make sure the baggage delay/damage language covers specialty equipment, not just standard baggage. Along that same line: You are planning to travel in the winter. Flight delays and cancellations can happen, so travel insurance that covers for trip delay and interruption is always recommended!
US Department of Transportation regulations implemented in 2012 require disclosure of the base fare, all taxes and surcharges, and baggage fees at the time of your airfare quote. They do not require airlines or travel agencies to disclose ancillary fees such as excess baggage, on board meals, or airport check-in fees. If you are working directly with the airline, be sure to double check if they charge a ‘ticketing’ fee on top of the contracted group airfare. Some airlines do not charge this, but many airlines charge anywhere from $25-$60 additional, per ticket, to issue your e-tickets.
It is also important to understand if there is a fuel surcharge associated with your ticket price. When it comes to groups, many airlines will guarantee the base fare only, but they do reserve the right to increase their fuel surcharges. If your group tickets have not been issued, you may be required to pay the additional surcharges. The airlines also reserve the right to implement new, or increase existing, ancillary fees. Finally, if you are flying to a foreign destination, new taxes may be imposed, or rates of exchange may change. If nothing else, you should include some contingency plans in your budget for unforeseen expenses.
Winter travel and group travel both come with their own set of rewards and challenges. The same snow you love on the slopes may be the same snow that causes headaches at the airport. If you are the group leader, understand the terms and conditions of what you are booking, be creative with potential problems you are presented with, and be confident to justify those decisions to those who think they can do it better. It is relatively easy to book your family on a vacation, but many people do not understand the complexities of group bookings. Being able to guarantee the same flight and same price for everyone, well in advance, simply puts that part of your travel planning at ease. Be sure to talk to your travel agent for their professional opinions, and get out there and enjoy the cold winter sun!
−By Eric Howard
Eric Howard is Director of Travel Services at StudentUniverse and has been with StudentUniverse since 2005. He is a graduate of the University of Massachusetts-Isenberg School of Management, with a concentration in tourism management.