I Could Have Saved $400 and 18 Hours — Reader Mistake Story
Today, I want to share a story from TPG reader Mel, who failed to take advantage of elite benefits and other airport services:
My wife, two kids (8 and 6) and I booked a flight from New York (JFK) to San Jose (SJC) on Delta to visit family. We arrived at the airport two hours prior to our flight time. It was early in the morning and surprisingly crowded with the bag check line looping several times around. Due to the chaos and us almost losing our 8-year-old, my wife took the kids through security and I stayed behind to check in our one bag and meet them at the gate afterward.
By the time I reached the counter, the agent told me I was 5 minutes too late — the cutoff time to check in bags for our flight had just passed. Apparently, JFK is very strict about having all bags checked in one hour prior to the flight. Because the security line was also very long, the agent told me I wouldn't make the flight and I would have to be rebooked while my wife and kids continued on their journey.
The only flight available was one out of LaGuardia (LGA) to San Francisco (SFO) with a connection (that ended up being delayed) in Texas. I didn't have to pay a change fee, but I did have to pay the $400 fare difference. My wife and kids made it to SJC. I took a cab to LGA with my one bag I needed to check in, and finally made it to SFO 18 hours later at 1:00 am. Fortunately, my brother was able to make the 1.5-hour round-trip drive to pick me up at that hour.
The next morning, my sister-in-law asked me why I didn't use curbside check-in at JFK. She also reminded me that I have Medallion status (since I travel a lot for work) and asked why I didn't use the priority check-in line. Because I only have a carry-on bag when I travel for work, I have never had to check in luggage, so using the priority line never occurred to me. It was very early in the morning, we were trying to not lose our kids in the crowd while handling all the luggage, and we hadn't had our coffee, so neither of us thought of those options at the time.
If we had, curbside check-in or priority check-in would have allowed us to make the cutoff time and get on the same plane. That would've saved me an additional 18 hours of travel, my brother from having to pick me up at 1:00 am, and $400 plus the cab fare to LGA. Next time we travel during peak times, we'll get to the airport even earlier and make sure we utilize other check-in lines available to us.
The benefits of airline status go beyond upgrades and fee waivers; even at the lowest tiers, frequent flyer programs offer an assortment of other perks (like priority phone lines or partner services) that can make flying easier and more enjoyable. However, those perks are only worth what you get out of them, and as Mel's story shows, ignoring them altogether can be costly. You shouldn't go out of your way to use benefits just to extract full "value" from your status (or from an airline credit card), but you should at least know your options in case they're needed. My advice is to look over your benefits thoroughly when you first earn them, and then keep a link to an overview handy in case you need to review.
Mel's story offers two more helpful reminders. The first is that curbside check-in is available to everyone, not just to those with elite status. It's a good strategy for circumventing long lines at the ticketing counter, so if you need to check bags and you expect crowds around your departure time, find out whether curbside check-in is offered. The second is that cutoff times for check-in and bag drops may vary by airline and destination. For example, Delta requires domestic passengers with checked bags to check in 40 minutes before departure in Seattle and San Francisco, but extends that to one hour at JFK and as long as 90 minutes in St. Thomas (STT). Make sure you know the cutoff time for your flight if you plan on cutting it close.
I appreciate this story, and I hope it can help other readers avoid making the same mistake. In appreciation for sharing this experience (and for allowing us to post it online), I’m sending Mel a gift card to enjoy on future travels, and I'd like to do the same for you. Please email your own travel mistake stories to firstname.lastname@example.org, and put "Reader Mistake Story" in the subject line. Tell us how things went wrong, and (where applicable) how you made them right. Offer any wisdom you gained from the experience, and explain what the rest of us can do to avoid the same pitfalls.
Feel free to also submit your best travel success stories. If your story is published in either case, I’ll send you a gift to jump-start your next adventure. Due to the volume of submissions, we can't respond to each story individually, but we'll be in touch if yours is selected. I look forward to hearing from you, and until then, I wish you a safe and mistake-free journey!