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Travel is inherently stressful and can be complicated. While consumers can make a lot of different mistakes, airline and other travel employees are humans too, and they royally mess up your travel plans. To help you avoid some common pitfalls and perils, TPG contributor Jason Steele breaks down some of the most common airline mistakes and some measures that you can take to try avoid being a victim.
1. Airline tickets the wrong date: This can happen when telephone connections aren’t very clear, as well as when agents make a typo, which happens a lot, and means you can end up paying a ton of extra change fees and any fare difference between the flight booked for you and the one you want to take – or even having to cancel your plans altogether. In fact, TPG Managing Editor Eric made a reservation over the phone with American a couple months ago and the agent input the wrong date, which Eric didn’t see until a week before his flight! Luckily he was able to call the airline back and enlist the help of a friendly agent to change the reservation without incurring any additional fees.
How to avoid this issue: Pilots must read back all the instructions from air traffic control, and I apply this technique to my interactions with airline agents. In order to catch all errors from myself or the airlines, I double-check all of the dates, times, and flight numbers of every reservation I make as soon as I receive confirmation. If you catch an error within 24 hours of booking, the airline should be able to issue you a refund at no charge so you can correct the problem.
2. Airline misspells your name: Trust me, no matter how simple your name is, it can be misspelled. And while the TSA will accept minor misspellings, some airlines and countries require that the name on your ticket exactly matches the name on your passport. Otherwise, you’re a no-go.
How to avoid this issue: Again, double-check any reservation you make, both before and after ticketing, and when booking over the phone, ask the agent to read back the spelling of your name. Above all, be sure the name on your reservation matches the name on your form of identification.
3. Airline schedule changes without informing you: On a flight home from college, I was told that the airline had changed my flight’s schedule months earlier, but never notified me. Later, I realized how common this can be. In fact, I have flown United on many occasions, yet to this day they have never informed me of a schedule change. I have double and triple checked that my contact information in my profile is correct, but their schedule change notifications have never reached me. If you’ve encountered the same situation, you’ve found out that you can spend hours and hours waiting at the airport, or worse, missing your flight.
How to avoid this issue: Double-check all your future reservations with some regularity. It is a pain, but I try to look up all my future reservations every month to spot schedule changes, especially with United. Doing this allows me to make any necessary changes in my flights at the earliest opportunity, when there are the most options remaining. As a side benefit, you can also take advantage of schedule changes to choose other flights that you prefer.
4. Lost seat due to equipment change: When airlines change their schedules, they can switch your flight to a smaller aircraft or one with a different seating configuration, so while you thought you were getting a window seat across the Pacific – you could end up getting stuck in the middle between strangers.
How to avoid this issue: Part of reconfirming your reservation is double-checking your seat assignments. If you lost your seat, you are better off picking a new one earlier rather than later, and if you explain what happened nicely to the reservations agent, they should be willing to help you out.
5. Airline staff misinterprets entry visa requirements: Airline staff will attempt to enforce visa requirements before you board your first leg of any international itinerary, and they can be extremely strict as countries will impose fines on carriers who transport passengers ineligible for entry. This means that the contract agent in Goodland, Kansas, will attempt to determine if your Serbian passport will be accepted in transit in China and Thailand as well as at your final destination in Laos. Needless to say, they often get it wrong. For instance, there have been threads on Flyertalk describing passengers that were nearly denied boarding to China for a stopover of less than 72 hours, which is permitted in some circumstances without a visa.
How to avoid this issue: Printing out the entry requirements can’t hurt, but the airline staff uses their own system to determine visa requirements. If your agent isn’t looking at the right information, ask him or her to call their company’s headquarters for a second opinion.
For example, my wife was threatened by a gate agent with being denied boarding on our last trip to Brazil, even though she holds a passport from a country that did not require a visa. Thankfully, the agent contacted his airline’s international desk, which instructed him how to properly determine her entry requirements. It never hurts to have your own documentation as back up, though.
6. Lost luggage: If you travel enough, eventually your luggage will get misdirected, but there are a few steps you can take to minimize the possibility and recover from it when it happens.
How to avoid this issue: First, make sure your luggage is tagged correctly. That means removing your old tracking tags and examining the new one. For example, my father once had his luggage tagged to our stopover point in London, rather than our final destination, but we failed to catch it. In addition, have at least two forms of identification on the outside of the bag, and one on the inside, so if it does get lost, it’s easy for an airline representative to identify you and get your stuff back to you as quickly as possible.
But more importantly, I have learned to pack as if my luggage will always be lost. That means I carry on everything that I will need at my destination before I can purchase replacements, as well as anything that is not covered by the airline’s lost luggage policy – and it works. My wife and I arrived on a remote island for our honeymoon, but one of our bags didn’t arrive until two days later. We didn’t sweat it as we both had our bathing suits and everything else we needed for our first two days.
7. Excessive lines at check in: We have all seen airlines attempt to check in a three hundred passengers with only two agents, and when each agent seems to stare at their screen for ten minutes before printing a boarding pass and luggage tags, someone is not going to make their flight.
How to avoid this issue: You can always check in as early as the airlines recommend, but it isn’t always practical to show up at the airport three hours before a 45-minute flight. But what you must always do is know when the cut-off time for check in is, this can vary by both airline and airport, and missing this deadline can cause you to miss your flight.
But what if you arrive well before the cutoff, but cannot check in due to airline’s grossly inadequate staffing? First, document the problem. Take a picture of the line and of a clock, in case you miss your flight and need to prove that you arrived on time. Next, try to check in at the curb, which often has a shorter line. As a last resort, have someone in your party approach an agent. Once notified of the approaching cut-off time, the agent should give you priority. Otherwise, it may be necessary to speak with a supervisor.
Above all, whenever possible, try to check in online ahead of time. It’s not always possible with international travel or if you need to check bags, but if you’re just carrying on and flying domestic, check in early, choose your seats and head straight through security.
8. Electronic ticketing issues. Regular readers remember TPG’s Surreal Experience Redeeming United Miles on Swiss Airlines. Although the details are still unclear, United issued an award ticket on Swiss that Swiss then said was unable to honor… when TPG was already at the airport trying to check in for his flight! I recently had a similar situation where British Airways issued me a lap child ticket for LAN that LAN could not accept.
How to avoid this issue: This is a really scary problem because there is little that passengers can do to avoid it except show up and hope that it hasn’t happened to them. Travelers can be sure to verify the confirmation and ticket numbers with each carrier on their itinerary. Yet TPG and I both took these steps but we each had problems anyway. In my case, the LAN agent was able to reaccommodate us on American, their Oneworld Alliance partner; while TPG was able to make a last-minute booking on British Airways while at the airport. So the best you can do is to verify all of your confirmation and ticket numbers before the day of departure, and arrive at the airport extra early if you have any reason to suspect a problem.
9. Inadequate connection time: There are two types of connection times. There is the minimum connection time that an airline will allow to be ticketed, and there is the actual time it takes passengers to reach their connecting flights, and sometimes, the minimum connection time is totally unrealistic. For example, Delta allows passengers to book connecting flights at their Salt Lake City hub within 25 minutes of each other – but we’ve all be stuck on a plane that’s taken nearly an hour to get to an open gate and get everybody off, so you could be one of those poor, desperate souls biting your nails, stuck on your plane watching the time slip away as your connecting flight departs.
How to avoid this issue: Try not to accept a connection time under an hour on a domestic flight, unless you can afford to miss it. On an international arrival, you should expect at least two hours to clear immigration, customs, and security. It is wise to schedule even more time if the flight you are connecting to is the last or only flight of the day to your destination. But alternatively, a tight connection might be a worthwhile risk if there are several later flights to your destination.
If you are already stuck with a tight connection, you may be entitled to priority service. Ask the flight attendants if they could allow you to deplane first. I have never done so, but I have been on several flights where passengers were requested to remain seated while those with tight connections exited first. And after a recent arrival in Dallas that was delayed, connecting passengers were escorted through immigration first.
10. Involuntary denied boarding (IDB): Airlines oversell flights on the premise that some passengers will not show up. But when they do, they (should) first try to bump volunteers in return for compensation. In the absence of volunteers, airlines will involuntarily deny boarding to passengers – and you don’t want to be among them.
How to avoid this issue: Just like there is an upgrade list, there is an IDB list. Except you don’t want to be first on that list. To avoid being that passenger, check in online well before departure as the last boarding passes issued will be at the top of the IDB list. If your boarding pass does not have a seat assignment, this is a very strong indication that the flight is oversold. In that case, be sure to present yourself to the gate agents as early as possible. If there is a good reason why missing that flight will cause a major disruption to your plans, be sure to let them know since most will work with you to make sure you are on the flight. Also, never arrive at the gate at the last moment, as there are numerous reports of airline staff closing the doors early on oversold flights to avoid paying expensive IDB compensation. Finally, if you are denied boarding involuntarily, familiarize yourself with the rules for compensation, which airlines are required to provide.
Airlines have plenty of ways to screw up your trip, and sometimes there is not much that you can do about it. But by taking every available precaution, you can minimize the possibility of having your trip ruined by airline mistakes.