New Orleans – Flight Award Strategies

There are many reasons to visit New Orleans, LA (NOLA) however airfare can be challenging at times. This post examines the routes and alternative options that may help you find that difficult to find flight.

Overview

This series started when a friend unexpectedly told me she’d booked tickets to visit us at Mardi Gras about 8 months in advance and had a great deal. With that, it struck me that there are so many reasons to visit New Orleans and yet it can also be challenging at times, that a local taking a deep dive into the topic could be useful. This post will go out first since it’s the most practical if you’ve already decided a visit to New Orleans and/or southeast Louisiana is in your future.

Routes

RED = Delta only.
PEACH = American Only (MSY-MIA).
DARK GREEN = Star Alliance Only.
CYAN = Southwest Only.
BLUE = JetBlue Only.
BLACK = Multiple carriers.

The New Orleans Louis Armstrong International Airport (MSY) site has a fair number of resources, including this route-map (as of May 2011). All in all, it’s a reasonably well served airport given that it’s not a terribly large market. Consider picking a window seat! As you approach MSY, you might get a chance to take in Lake Pontchartrain and the causeway over it, considered the longest continuous bridge over water in the world at nearly 24 miles long. From other approaches, you may get a chance to see how the Mississippi curves through the crescent city, or the bayou’s that surround it. Pay attention to the straight lines separating the swamp from the city in some locations, a product of the engineering to recover usable land. Sunrise or sunset over the gulf can be quite stunning if you’re on the right route and appropriate side of the plane.

SkyTeam / Delta

Without sitting and counting flights, I’m pretty sure that Delta is the largest operator out of New Orleans. Between that and the fact that they offer the only non-stop to Minneapolis and the only club (see below) at the airport, it’s hard for me to give me domestic loyalty to anyone else.

Delta offers routes from New Orleans to Los Angeles, Salt Lake City, New York LGA, Detroit, Minneapolis, Cincinnati, and Atlanta. ATL has, by far, the highest frequency which is no surprise.

For upgrades, the LAX route is challenging as there is a lot of film activity between here and there and, well, they pay for the seats up front. ATL can be very challenging during peak business travel but the frequencies are so high that outside of peak, you can do ok. I can’t speak to the Detroit route but as Delta’s big Asian hub, I’d expect it to be a bit tougher. Upgrades to MSP, LGA, and SLC seem pretty good. MEM and CVG offer limited service in case of mis-connects and have had 50 seat regional planes on their routes so I’ve avoided those, though Delta’s steadily been shifting to larger regional jets with first class cabins.

Companion Tickets

Delta’s Companion Tickets, issued on each anniversary of a Delta Amex, do not have black out dates. With 6 months to go, I was able to find MSP-…-MSY routes using a companion ticket (the $0 + taxes variant from the Amex Delta Platinum) for Mardi Gras weekend at $400 total for 2 people. Given the high demand weekend, that’s pretty good considering how much people complain about the Delta companion tickets.

OneWorld / AA

As I write this, American serves New Orleans from Dallas with 5 flights / day (MD-80), with Miami (737) and Chicago O’Hare (CRJ700) each having 3 / day. All the equipment they use on this route offers a first class cabin

Citi Reduced Mileage Awards seem to come up with some frequency, especially to Gulf Port / Biloxi (see alternate airports below). Of course, don’t forget that you can also use BA miles on AA saver level flights which can present significant savings. Given that I don’t often fly AA domestically, I don’t have a lot more to add.

Companion Tickets

I have an AA Citi companion ticket and it appears that in 2012, it blacked out the Friday-Monday before Mardi (=Tuesday) Gras. The terms don’t state the 2013 black out dates but I’m guessing that it’ll follow Mardi Gras. AA’s black out dates to not appear to target Jazzfest weekend.

Star Alliance

United provides service from San Francisco, Los Angeles, Denver, Chicago O’Hare, Houston, New York Newark, and Washington Dulles. Houston has particularly high frequency.

US Airways has routes from Charlotte, Philadelphia, Washington Reagan.

Air Canada runs a single daily route from Toronto on a CRJ 705. I have no idea how customs works on this route since New Orleans is just barely an international airport. That said, I’m going to have to remember this. It could be quite a useful connection on a star alliance award one day.

Others

Airtran flies about 4 times a day to their hub in Atlanta. In my limited experience, Awards tend to be limited in the 2 week to 3 month range but open up at the last minute.

Frontier provides very limited service to New Orleans from Kansas City and Denver, with routes changing seasonally and from 0 to 1 flight per day.

Southwest runs a pretty good size operation in concourse B, with non-stops to Houston Hobby, Dallas, Phoenix, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Kansas City, St. Louis, Nashville, Baltimore, Chicago Midway, Milwaukee, Birmingham, Orlando, Tampa Bay, and Fort Lauderdale (Miami area). Notably, Southwest does not black out (old RR 1.0) “standard awards” during Mardi Gras and I can see reasonable availability as I write this 6 months in advance.

JetBlue provides the only JFK route which can be useful for international connections. They also provide service to Boston.

Spirit is expected to begin service from Dallas once daily in January 2013, expanding to twice daily in June 2013.

The Airport

There are currently 3 concourses in use (B, C, and D). They are not connected air-side so once you’re through security, you’re stuck in your concourse. Dining options are pretty limited with a few options landside (most near the C concourse) and limited options in each concourse. There has been talk and some work toward connecting them all air side but no obvious motion right now.

Other projects appear to be slowly renovating the airport, bit by bit, and a new car rental site is under way. In appearance, it feels a bit musty and it’s nice to see work that’s freshening it up a bit. That said, I find that I get in and out well and can’t complain about it functionally.

Wikipedia claims that, at an elevation of 4 ft, New Orleans International is the 2nd lowest lying international airport in the world, behind only Amsterdam.

Lounge

The only airline offering a lounge is Delta in concourse D. Be aware that some Delta flights operate out of concourse C and, again, they aren’t connected air side. The lounge itself is a little small and can get busy at peak hours but was recently renovated and manages to fit in a variety of spaces but none are truly quiet or private. Unfortunately, they don’t stock any local beer. It’d be great if they served a sazerac or incorporated a little local flair.

Alternative Airports

Baton Route (BTR) and Gulfport/Biloxi Mississippi (GPT) are 70-90 miles so well within driving range in a pinch. I’ve occasionally considered booking visitors into these airports during very high demand periods, especially when trying to use award tickets for several people. Don’t forget that Delta allows for open-jaw’s so you may be able to fly in to BTR or GPT but return from MSY or vice versa. Alternatively, you can always mix carriers that offer one-ways (e.g. AA here, Southwest back).

Ground Transportation

Car Rental

All the major rental car companies operate with shuttles to off-site lots currently. The lots are nearby and I’ve not seen issues with shuttle frequencies but we don’t personally rent many cars there since we live here. As mentioned above, there is a new consolidated rental car facility under construction which should provide some improvement soon.

Public Transit

The airport is technically in Kenner, LA within Jefferson Parish and is thus served by Jefferson Transit (JeT). The E-2 route is $2 to/from the Central Business District (CBD) / French Quarter (FQ) of New Orleans however that route only runs about every 30-40 minutes on Monday to Friday between ~6am until 6:52pm. The drop off point in the CBD is safe and anywhere from 2 to 12 blocks from common hotels. It takes approximately 45 minutes.

On weekends (or weekday evenings), service on the E-2 route terminates at the Tulane/Carrolton stop and costs $1.50 one-way. From there, you can purchase a separate fare on a New Orleans Regional Transit (NORTA) bus, likely the 39 route into the CBD which is $1.25. Depending on how tight the connection is, estimate up to 75 minutes point-to-point but probably less. I wouldn’t consider the connection point dangerous during the day but, to be honest, I think most people will likely be uncomfortable. I wouldn’t recommend this option, primarily due to the length time and the concern someone gets on the wrong bus or misses it. Despite recent significant improvements to public transit, the signage at stops remains relatively uninformative and it’d be easy to get confused.

JeT does not currently have its routes and time tables available in Google maps however NORTA does.

Taxi

Taxi service to/from the airport is $33 one-way to anywhere in New Orleans for up to 2 passengers and $14/person for 3 or more (+ tip). All airport taxi’s must accept credit cards and I’ve noticed the complaining from the drivers has subsided after the airport took a hard line. It takes approximately 15 minutes from the airport to the CBD / FQ. When I’m alone, I’ve occasionally asked someone else in the queue that appears alone if they’re heading downtown (almost all are) and if they’d like to split the cab which definitely saves a bit.

Shuttle

Shuttle service is available as well at $20 one-way or $38 round-trip to the CBD / French Quarter. It may sound like a bargain but I prefer the taxi since sharing one makes it the same cost or less. There are many, many hotels and they’re pretty spread out and if your drop off is at the end of the list and/or traffic conspires against you, you can find yourself on the shuttle for a long time. If you do however take the shuttle, pull out google maps and plot out your hotel location. Often the shuttle drives around in loops and you may find yourself just a block or two from your hotel while another passenger gets out, meanwhile you just keep on riding… If you get close and don’t mind rolling your bag a short distance, hop out early. Be sure to tell the driver what you’re doing so he can possibly skip the stop you needed.

Other Posts In This Series

(Coming in time)

New Orleans – Points for Hotels

New Orleans – Mardi Gras (yes, it’s family friendly!)

New Orleans – French Quarter Fest

New Orleans – Jazzfest

New Orleans – Halloween

New Orleans – Regional Activities and Other Events

New Orleans – Some Things That are Worth Knowing

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