Always do the math

When booking our flights for an upcoming trip to Maui, I had an experience that reminded me of something my father used to say: “Always do the math.”

After comparing fares and schedules, we decided our best option was Hawaiian Airlines (NYSE:HA). Whenever possible, I prefer to fly a carrier that reflects my destination, whether that’s ANA when flying to Japan, Lufthansa to Germany or British Airways to the U.K., so Hawaiian made sense in that regard as well.

Once on Hawaiian’s website, I was offered a regular Coach fare, Coach Plus, or First Class. While I prefer flying first class when possible, it wasn’t in the budget, nor was there a “business class” option but Coach Plus looked intriguing. For an additional $55 per person each way, we’d get the usual coach amenities – complimentary meals, snacks, and soft drinks – no baggage fees for the first two bags, and 25% off interisland flights. Because we are considering a jaunt to the Big Island to see the volcano, I thought it would make sense to purchase Coach Plus fares for an additional $220 over regular coach.

I was wrong.

Hawaiian charges $25 for the first checked bag, and $35 for an additional bag. Since two of us will be traveling, it will cost $50 each way if we each check a bag. Realistically, it’s Hawaii for about a week; we can share a suitcase, bringing the cost down to $50 for the round-trip.

At this point, I would have spent $170 more than I needed to spend over regular Coach. But what about that 25% discount on interisland flights?

Checking into the flights from Maui (OGG) to Hilo Airport (ITO) on the Big Island, I found round trip coach fares of $172 each, or $344 total. Reducing that by 25% would save only $86, meaning I’d have spend $84 more than I needed to spend if we take the side trip. That’s a pretty nice dinner, even at Hawaii prices.

However, another important facet surfaced only after I hit the “purchase tickets” button: to get the 25% discount, one has to have – and use – a HawaiianMiles mileage account. Because we don’t fly Hawaiian often, I wanted our miles credited to our American Airlines AAdvantage accounts, as American is a partner airline with Hawaiian. Accordingly, the 25% discount was not available to us.

When I saw the proviso, I sent the airline’s customer service department a message via its web site, stating that I wanted a refund of the additional $220 because one of the extras I thought I was purchasing would not be available to me. A day later, I received a one-line response: Please contact Hawaiian Airlines Web Support at our toll-free number 1-866-586-9419 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

To my thinking, that is not a useful response, but the airline was helpful in other areas.

Immediately after I sent the message, I called reservations to see if they could help me with my predicament. The gentleman with whom I spoke understood my issue and was very helpful. He cancelled my original reservation and advised me to rebook, selecting a regular coach fare. I did so, and we’re now all set for our trip.

The airline's PR folks did get back to me pretty quickly and said that my concerns about not being advised of the MileagePlan requirement "have been shared with our management team for their review and consideration in future planning."

A couple of lessons here:

First, do the math. If I had looked into the cost of interisland flights, I’d have immediately seen that the 25% discount would not have made up for the extra cost of a Coach Plus ticket, even if I had been a Hawaiian mileage member and able to use it.

Second, don’t give up. If something has gone wrong – and I’ve made other mistakes in booking over the years – call and speak to someone as soon as possible. At one point, the carrier was using a European calendar convention where the first day of the week was Monday and not Sunday, and I didn’t see that until I’d booked the ticket – for the wrong days. In that case, as with Hawaiian, the airline was able to help, even though the ticket was called “nonrefundable.”

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Photos by Carl Dombek
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