Pitfalls of booking air online

By Judy Serie Nagy
This item appears on page 12 of the November 2018 issue.

I am a volunteer advocate for author Chris Elliott's travel help forums, a service of the nonprofit organization Elliott Advocacy (www.elliott.org/category/the-troubleshooter), and I have learned more in the last three years than I ever could have imagined.

I have never worked for an airline or hotel and have no connections to any of them whatsoever, but I travel often and have come to understand pretty much how things are today, especially with flying. I find the whole process fascinating and consider it a game, a game I want to win on every trip!

I'd like to make my fellow ITN readers aware of some airline issues we've seen week in and week out on the forum and pass along some personal advice.

Travel has changed dramatically over the past few years, especially flying. Everyone takes the Internet for granted, but purchasing online is the epitome of "garbage in, garbage out." Tickets are usually booked exactly the way you input the information, and problems can result from misspellings, using nicknames, having first and middle names run together or inputting wrong dates or times (the 24-hour clock is a bugaboo to some).

Back in the "good ol' days," an airline would work with you to solve issues. Today, they seem to use every possible tactic to charge you more money to fix errors. Whenever you need help with a booking, some airlines say 'We can't' when what they really mean is 'We won't.' It's a time-consuming and, often, expensive process to correct anything on a ticket, unless you catch an error within 24 hours of booking.

Most people don't realize that using an online booking service (Expedia.com, Travelocity, etc.) means the agency owns your ticket. If you have issues, the airline won't deal with you; you must go through the online service. Even when time is of the essence, it can be difficult to reach anyone by phone, and hold times often can be measured in hours.

Using a good travel agent (NOT an online booking service) may help avoid pitfalls, but few people even know a travel agent today, much less realize they need one.

Aside from reserving a car and perhaps the first night's hotel, some people enjoy being spontaneous while traveling. I remember those days fondly, but today I'm more comfortable getting all the details in place before I leave home.

When it comes to booking air, I follow these principles:

1. Reviewing information on the airline's website, I mentally answer all of the questions and pick the flights I want. I carefully make notes of every detail. Then I shut it down.

2. The next day, I review it all again, double-checking my calendar, my notes and anything else that will affect the date and time I fly. Then I shut it down.

3. The third day, after another complete review, I book the tickets.

4. When the confirmation is emailed to me, I read every word of it. If I receive any communication from the airline, I read it immediately.

5. I make a note on my calendar to check the reservation in two weeks. After that, I check it every month, including my seat assignments. The month before the flight, I check my res every week. The week before my trip, I look at that res every single day.

I assume my arrangements will get changed by the airline somehow, and I want to be ready to correct any erroneous changes long before I'm ready to leave for the airport.

I know that an airline's "legal" connection time can be far too short to actually get through the airport from one flight to the next on time, so I pay close attention to any schedule changes. Schedule changes often mean aircraft changes, which can also affect seat assignments.

Generally, in the case of an unforeseen problem such as illness or your inability to get to the airport on time, most US-based airlines will cancel your ticket and issue you a credit toward a future flight, less a change/cancel fee. That credit is usually good for one year from the time of the original ticketing.

Change/cancellation fees are exorbitant, and it's extremely difficult to get them waived, even if you have status at the airline. If you don't cancel your flight BEFORE takeoff, your ticket becomes worthless and you'll pay a very high "walk-up" fare to rebook your trip at the last minute. If you miss your outbound flight, any subsequent flight legs on your entire ticket will probably be canceled.

The costs resulting from these passenger-service issues are now expected to be covered through travel insurance. It's a great concept but one that a vast majority of the traveling public doesn't understand. Airlines used to take care of their passengers, and their agents were empowered to solve problems. Those days are pretty much over.

An airline's agents now must follow procedures. Whether on the phone or in person, agents don't have a great deal of time to devote to your problem, and the information they give you may or may not be correct. Phone reps are often timed to be sure they're taking care of issues quickly.

Agents at the airport have many more duties than they used to — a result of understaffing. Pressure is now on them, as well as on each plane's cabin crew, to get people checked in, get them boarded and get the plane into the air on time.

As for problems we at the forum have seen travelers describe, I could go on and on about low-budget airlines, online booking services with "cheap" in their name, travelers counting on "someone else" to know what documentation is required, not getting to the airport early enough…. The list of travel issues is seemingly endless.

I wish travel agents would get together to launch a national educational campaign to remind travelers that the Internet is NOT always their friend and that travel agents are alive and well, eager to help them.

San Jose, CA