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Today TPG Contributor Nick Ewen looks at common ticketing errors, how to avoid them, and how to survive them if they happen to you.
As a travel enthusiast and die-hard soccer fan (still smarting from last week’s dramatic US-Belgium result), I couldn’t help but cringe when I read about the Australian couple who thought they had booked a dream trip to the World Cup in Salvador, Brazil, only to be sent to San Salvador, El Salvador after a travel agent error.
I’m a seasoned traveler, typically on the road for work (or for fun) about 150 nights a year, so I can’t imagine making this mistake myself. However, it got me thinking about common mistakes that arise when booking flights. In this case, the couple eventually made it to their intended destination, and appear to have been compensated for their troubles. Unfortunately, not every such story ends happily. This post will take a closer look at amusing travel snafus as well as more costly mistakes, including some tips on how to avoid them and an overview of what it takes to remedy them.
When I hear or read stories like the one about the Australian couple, a simple question arises that needs answering: who is at fault, the airline or the passenger? As you can imagine, many scenarios aren’t clear cut. It’s important to remember that airlines are in business to make money. If they can pass the blame onto the passenger, they probably will, since correcting such mistakes can be a drag on their bottom line. That puts the burden on us as travelers to be extremely careful when locking in travel plans. As points & miles enthusiasts, we tend towards more complicated itineraries that need to be booked over the phone, adding another layer to an already complex process. Let’s take a closer look at some of the most common errors that occur when booking flights.
Getting your name right should be one of the simplest aspects of booking a flight. Unfortunately, any simple mistake can cause minor headaches (no TSA PreCheck because I left off my middle name!) or major issues when traveling. If you’re traveling domestically, small errors might not derail your plans. The FAQ page at TSA.gov states:
“If the name printed on my boarding pass is different than what appears on my government ID, will I be turned away at security and unable to fly?
Boarding passes may not always display the exact name you provided when booking your travel. The name you provide is used to perform watch list matching before a boarding pass is issued, so small differences should not impact your travel.”
However, anything beyond a simple name swap (first name listed as last name and vice versa) or an errant letter or two could raise red flags in TSA’s Secure Flight program, which attempts to prevent those on various terror watch lists from traveling on domestic or US-bound international flights. At the end of the day, it may come down to the individual airline or TSA employee to identify if “John Smith” can travel when his ID spells his name “Jonathan Smyth.”
Another aspect of this involves legal name changes for marriage, divorce, or other reasons. My wife and I took a honeymoon immediately after we got married, but we made sure to book her flight in her maiden name to avoid any travel issues with her passport. Per the , processing a name change on a passport can take up to 6 weeks. Since we didn’t have our marriage license until a few days before departure, we chose to wait until after we returned to change her name.
Another common mistake is booking a flight for the wrong dates. When booking flights over the phone, any attempt at reconciliation can quickly devolve into a “he said, she said” argument. You may swear six ways to Sunday that you said September thirteenth, but the phone agent may hear September thirtieth. This can also happen with online booking. Consider, for example, what happens on AA.com when trying to book a flight for this coming February: if you aren’t paying close attention, you may miss that the calendar jumps from showing January and February when choosing the outbound flight to showing February and March when choosing the return flight. Thus, your weekend trip to New York becomes more than a month long!
Another aspect of the date mistake phenomenon involves different formats. While most American-based airlines use the Month/Day/Year format, most international carriers put the day first. Fortunately, pretty much all airline websites have made it much harder to make this mistake. Virgin Atlantic and Lufthansa, for example, won’t even allow travelers to type in their desired travel dates manually, making them instead select from a calendar. British Airways, on the other hand, does give you the option to manually input the departure and return dates. However, the format depends on the “home country” you select when you navigate to their website. Typing in “01/02/15” and “01/04/15” on the UK site gives you a trip from February 1 through April 1; the same dates on the US site yields a trip from January 2 through January 4.
This error is more of a gray area when it comes to responsibility, especially with phone bookings. Whether we like it or not, there are many airports with the same (or similar) names, as the Australian couple mentioned above found out with their Salvador, Brazil/San Salvador, El Salvador gaff. Here are some other ones, including links to articles where mistakes have occurred:
– Columbus, Georgia; Columbus, Ohio; and Columbus, Mississippi
– Manchester, New Hampshire and Manchester, England
– Portland, Maine and Portland, Oregon
– Charleston, South Carolina and Charleston, West Virginia
– Columbia, South Carolina and Columbia, Missouri
– Melbourne, Florida and Melbourne, Australia
– London, England and London, Ontario
– Panama City, Panama and Panama City, Florida
– Jacksonville, Florida and Jacksonville, North Carolina
Of course, each of these airports has its own unique three-character code, but when you search for cities on many travel sites (both airlines and third-party booking sites), all of the options will show up, and if you’re in a rush, it’s frighteningly easy to select the wrong one! For example, my corporate booking site (Egencia) will list Melbourne, Australia first, and if you type in “Columb” when searching for an airport, you’ll see both Columbias and all three Columbuses!
How to avoid these mistakes
Obviously, you are your own first line of defense when it comes to avoiding these mistakes, immediately recognizing them when they occur, or minimizing the damage that they cause. Here are some simple tips:
1) Know your airport codes. When you search for flights to Portland or Panama City, the search engine should list each city along with its three-character IATA code. This can help you verify that you’re traveling to the correct city. Most sites allow you to actually search by typing in the code, and many include a lookup tool to facilitate this process. My personal favorite site for such information is simple and lists the name of the airport, its three-digit code, and the city in which it’s located.
2) Double- and triple-check your itineraries. This should go without saying, but when you’re booking a flight either online or over the phone, verify the dates, destinations, and passenger names twice or even three times before locking in those details. Then, when you get the e-mailed itinerary, scan it again to make sure it looks good. The U.S. Department of Transportation requires airlines to issue penalty-free cancellations within 24 hours of booking, so if you notice a discrepancy and immediately call to report it, you should be able to fix the itinerary with limited hassle.
3) Buy a refundable ticket. There’s no question that refundable tickets are more expensive than non-refundable ones. However, if the price difference isn’t too large, the additional flexibility might be a good idea (though be sure to look at the price difference between coach and first, as the above example indicates!). I did this once with a tentative wedding date for a friend, and I’m glad I did, since the date was eventually changed! Cancelling and refunding the ticket was a simple process with no fees or hassle.
Another option to consider is purchasing a on American Airlines. When they were first introduced, they offered more flexibility at a much lower cost, though as the linked post above indicates, they were significantly devalued earlier this year. Still, they offer significant savings over a truly refundable ticket. Remember that even though Choice Plus fares waive the change fee, a fare difference may still apply.
Finally, if you’re traveling domestically (or to select international destinations) you can always just fly Southwest Airlines, which leads the industry with its no-fee change and cancellation policy, even on award tickets. If only more airlines would follow suit!
4) Consider travel insurance. Last year, TPG commissioned Princeton Survey Research Associates International to study travel insurance, and . The most common reason for purchasing travel insurance was trip cancellation coverage, with over half of the respondents citing this rationale. You can generally get this coverage from airlines directly as well as independent providers (see for more information). We all see these options when we check out on airline websites, and many actually have separate sites devoted to them. However, be sure to read the fine print carefully, as simple mistakes when booking may not be covered. Unfortunately, the as well as the new will not help with these issues, as they mainly apply to snafus that occur while traveling.
5) Use common sense. I think sometimes we can get a little carried away as points & miles enthusiasts, but it’s important to remember that common sense has to prevail. In the above example with the Birmingham mix-up, the first red flag for me would’ve been the price. How in the world can we fly from England across the Atlantic to the Caribbean and back for just £400 per person? The second would have been the flight times. Birmingham, England to (insert connecting city here) to Trinidad obviously would require much longer flights than those leaving from Birmingham, Alabama.
What to do after the fact
Unfortunately mistakes will happen, not only with us but also with airline employees. If an error was made and you didn’t catch it immediately, there are a few things to keep in mind as you try to sort it out:
1) It doesn’t hurt to call and ask for help. I’ve been in the points & miles game for several years now, and I have had phone agents at Delta, American, US Airways, JetBlue, and Southwest all bend the rules for me at some point or another. (Quick disclaimer: I am not a “Do You Know Who I Am?!” type of traveler; in all cases, I simply called and politely asked for some leniency.) This should be your first step when you find any type of error on a flight reservation. If you are nice to an agent, explain the error, and very politely ask for help, you may find a sympathetic person on the other end of the line. If they can’t or won’t help, you can always try to hang up and call again, but don’t push your luck; three “No’s” in a row probably indicates that your problem can’t be fixed as easily as you’d like.
How this phone call unfolds also depends on who is in the wrong. If the airline clearly made the mistake and I find a phone agent unwilling to help, I’ll politely ask to speak to a supervisor. They can usually offer be more flexible than a regular agent. Be firm but respectful; no one will want to help a traveler with an attitude.
2) Keep an eye out for schedule changes. For the most part, significant schedule changes are a points & miles enthusiast’s worst nightmare, as your meticulously planned itinerary (which may include hard-to-change hotel reservations or non-refundable, pre-booked tours) goes up in smoke. However, if you have a trip booked with some type of significant error (like those mentioned above), a schedule change can be a lifesaver. Most airlines allow fee-free cancellations or rebookings when a schedule change results in a missed connection or when an airline drops a direct flight. My wife and I were supposed to visit Istanbul this past New Year’s using Delta miles, but they dropped their direct JFK-IST flight and wanted to rebook us on Air France’s 6 am flight to CDG or KLM’s 5:45 am flight to AMS. On the morning after New Year’s Eve? No thanks! A big change like this (or even some smaller changes) may afford you some additional options.
3) Take advantage of elite status (or free changes anytime). Most airlines offer some type of fee waivers for certain tiers of elite status. Some apply to paid tickets, while others apply to award tickets. Here are some additional details:
Delta: Waives cancellation and reticketing fees on award tickets for Platinum and Diamond Medallions.
American: Waives change and reinstatement charges on award tickets for Executive Platinum members.
US Airways: Waives mileage redeposit fee for unused award tickets for Chairman’s Preferred members.
United: Waives change fees for date/time/cabin/carrier modifications made at least 21 days in advance for Silver, Gold, Platinum, 1K, and Global Services members; waives change fees for last-minute changes and origin/destination changes for Platinum, 1K, and Global Services members.
JetBlue: Waives change and cancellation fees for Mosaic members on both paid and award tickets.
Virgin America: Waives mileage redeposit fee for Elevate Gold members.
Southwest: Has no fees for changing or cancelling paid or award tickets.
Keep in mind that changes to existing paid tickets on JetBlue (for Mosaic members) and Southwest (for all travelers) might still cost more due to a difference in fare; the policies described above pertain only to avoiding additional fees.
4) Get ready to pay. Southwest is currently the only US-based carrier to not impose any change or cancellations fees; in fact, the trend in recent years has been for . Most legacy carriers in the U.S. now charge $200 for changes or cancellations to domestic tickets outside the 24-hour risk-free cancellation window, and international change fees can get up to $750! These change fees are a BIG reason why it’s so important to check and then re-check every bit of information that you provide to the airlines when booking flights.
There’s no question that airlines are in the business of making money, so as savvy travelers, we have to pay very close attention to avoid these mistakes or catch them soon enough to avoid costly penalties and the potential to ruin vacations.
Do any of you have funny stories (or nightmares) related to these types of mistakes? Please share them in the comments below!