Saturday, 3 January 2015

Booking an airline ticket yourself: how to avoid some common mistakes.

Today's blog post started life as a compilation of stories re-telling our worst holiday catastrophes. Horrible experiences which we look back on now with amusement; if not quite fondness. Somewhere about the first paragraph however I realised that after almost four decades of independent travelling we have probably learnt a thing or two about how to avoid holiday disasters. My New Years Resolution for 2015 is to try to pass on some of this knowledge and smooth the way for other travellers.

I don't pretend to be an expert. My advice all comes from personal experience. Unless you decide to take the coward's way out and use a travel agent, which has its own shortcomings, then hit the internet and do some research. I hope the following advice on how to avoid common catastrophes helps.


Missing a flight:

My best advice on missing flights is - just don't do it. It is not worth the stress. Check and re-check your itinerary. Check and re-check transport and traffic conditions en route to the airport. Plan to arrive early - very early.

Don't assume your flight won't be cancelled or re-scheduled right up to the last minute. Check and re-check with the airline. In these days of almost universal wifi you don't have to make a nuisance of yourself - just keep going online. Our most stressful missed flight occurred in Egypt. We confirmed the departure time a week or so in advance and then failed to check again. Egypt Air cancelled it the day before we were due to fly. We missed our connection to Rome and got stuck in Cairo late on a Thursday evening - nothing opens on Fridays. We had no idea whether there was a flight to Rome the next day, the day after or ever, let alone whether we could get on it. It is an experience I NEVER want to repeat.

Partner Airlines

We have only ever missed a handful of flights - almost all of them when our connecting flight was delayed. Generally speaking if you have been ticketed through to your final destination missing a connection is not a huge issue.  I can't speak for the budget airlines or smaller operators in out of the way places but the big players tend to do the right thing with a minimum of fuss.

Don't expect much help however if you have two separate tickets. If you know you are going to need a connecting flight book it at the same time as your primary flight and make sure both flights are on the same ticket. Unfortunately we rarely take this advice ourselves. David is a sucker for a special. If he sees a cheap airfare to somewhere we might want to go he'll grab it and worry about the detailed planning later. He does however always book onward flights with a partner airline. It is no guarantee that you will be treated better but sometimes it helps.

Moreover if your connecting flight is with a partner airline it is possible to join up two separate reservations. We've done it with QANTAS and its US partner airlines a couple of times but we have also spent many, many frustrating hours on the telephone and at 'special assistance' airline check-in counters trying to determine how it is done. Every airline employee we talk to has a different understanding of how the system works.   David is one of the world's great experts in finding his way around rules, regulations, terms and conditions and even he can't pin down exactly how to ensure that one reservation gets joined up with another if they were made at different times.

Non-partner Airlines
Just don't miss a connection with a non-partner airline - honestly it is not worth the aggravation and stress.

If you do miss a flight, check the terms and conditions of your ticket. We have rarely had to buy completely new tickets. Many airlines will let you change your ticket right up to the time of departure for a small fee.  If you are delayed taking off and you know you won't make the next flight contact your connecting airline as soon as you can and throw yourself on their mercy.

Don't always go for the cheapest available ticket. The more you pay, and often it isn't a lot more, the more flexibility you will have. We have noticed this particularly with domestic carriers in the US. Sometimes for $10 or $20 more you can choose a class of ticket which allows last minute changes.

Summary

  • Book all your connecting flights at the same time as your primary flight and with partner airlines.
  • If you can't manage that then at least book your connecting flights with a partner airline and ask that the two reservations be joined up in the airline's system - Good luck!
  • If all else fails stay clam, be polite and look helpless when you get to the airline check-in counter.
For a list of Partner Airlines click the links below.
  • OneWorld  - This includes QANTAS, British Airways, American Airlines and Japan Airlines.
  • SkyTeam - This includes KLM, China Southern, AirFrance and Alitalia.
  • Star Alliance - This includes Air New Zealand, Air Canada, United, Lufthansa and Singapore Airlines. 
  • Virgin - This includes Virgin Australia, Virgin America, Virgin Atlantic as well as Delta, Etihad, Air New Zealand and Etihad.
Egypt was fabulous - almost worth the aggravation of missing that plane.

Who should you book with:

Online booking agents like Expedia can be very useful to find flights but if you book with an agent and you want to change your flight then you have to deal through the agent. We have found that airlines will only deal with you directly if you have booked with them directly in the first place. Moreover Expedia is worse than useless when you want to change something. We once had to throw away tickets from Lima, Peru to Santiago, Chile because David accidentally booked for the wrong day - the day before our flight home to Sydney left - Oooopps! In theory we were entitled to a refund of the taxes but LAN refused to deal with us because we had booked through Expedia and Expedia just didn't want to help.

Don't be a victim of Dynamic Pricing:

Dynamic pricing is a fancy term for pricing according to demand. If you want to fly in peak season it will cost you more than flying when the no-one else wants to - fair enough.  The problem is that airlines have, with the aid of cookies, taken dynamic pricing to new levels. Have you ever checked the price of a flight on line a couple of times and then found it is more expensive when you go to book? If so, you have probably been the victim of dynamic pricing. The way dynamic pricing works is that airlines track your interest in a particular flight by the use of cookies which send information back from your computer. They know you want that flight so next time you log on they nudge the price up. You think you were a bit slow in booking but the cheap seats are still there - just not for you.

Fortunately for the cognoscenti avoiding dynamic pricing is simple. When you are ready to book either clear the cookies from your computer or use a different computer.

Click here for a great explanation of dynamic pricing, how it works and how to avoid it. The page is slow to load but it is worth persisting because the article is excellent.

Taking too much, or oversized baggage:

Pack light - It doesn't matter how many weeks, months or years you plan to be away you really only need a couple of pairs of spare undies and a towel. See The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy for why you need the towel.

I just thought I would throw this advice out there because every other travel blog I've ever read says this is what you should do. Yeah right - David doesn't even know the meaning of packing light. We once flew from Norfolk Island to Sydney with several hundred kilos of luggage and I mean that literally. We had lived on the Island for a year and for a billion reasons decided the best way to get our effects home was to put them on the same plane as ourselves. It was a bizarre feeling knowing all our worldly goods were in the hold as we were thousands of feet up above the Pacific Ocean. I kept thinking if the plane went down we would lose all our furniture. For some reason I wasn't worried about David, myself or our two small children; just the pots and pans, coffee tables, bed linen and assorted junk.

We have given up taking furniture with us when we travel but we still take small mountains of luggage. That David insists on taking our bicycles wherever we go really doesn't help. When your basic kit includes two oversized suitcases, a backpack, two laptops and a couple of mountain bikes you become intimitely acquainted with airline baggage rules.

Travelling light?

I don't think I'm giving away any state secrets by saying that baggage rules vary from one airline to another, from one country to another and from one class of ticket to another. They even vary within the same airline according to your destination.  QANTAS for example has one baggage rule for travel to Nth and Sth America and another for travel to the rest of the world. We once spent over an hour in a check-in queue at Narita Airport in Tokyo because a large group of US servicemen who were on the same flight just assumed the baggage rules from Tokyo to Sydney would be the same as if they were flying home. QANTAS wanted to charge them a small fortune in excess luggage fees and they didn't want to pay. It was chaos.

Don't assume that baggage rules will be easy to navigate - see my advice here about travelling light. Sometimes the baggage allowance which applies to your ticket will come down to which flight is listed first. (click here - for the rules on Interline Flights in the US.)

As with missed connections it makes a big difference if your connecting flights are with the same or a partner airline. Usually domestic carriers have a smaller baggage allowance than international carriers but if you transfer from a domestic flight to an international flight or vice versa on the same or a partner airline within 24 hours then the international allowance will generally apply. (click here - for QANTAS baggage rules).

Don't assume that the person behind the check-in counter will know their own airline's baggage rules. Our experience with flying bicycles is that no matter how much research you do and how many airline staff you talk to before hand when you get to the airport the guy behind the counter will interpret the rules differently. The minute you see a problem head to the special assistance counter and ask for a supervisor - then pray. I've found that looking like you're about to break down and cry can help a lot. (click here - for why flying with bicycles is a bad idea and click here  -for why we should have learned our lesson the first time.)
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Summary
  • Pack light.
  • If you can't pack light consider not travelling at all.
  • Never fly with bicycles.
  • If you absolutely must fly with bicycles be prepared to throw them away and buy new ones after your trip (click here for why).
  • On second thoughts - Never fly with bicycles.
  • Don't attempt to understand airline baggage rules - it can't be done.
  • Try to ensure that any connecting flights are with the same or partner airlines and that you are ticketed through to your final destination - it can't hurt.

My one really useful packing tip

  • Keep a master packing list. I keep mine on Evernote. Write down everything which you can't bear to leave behind even obvious things like phones, chargers and contact lenses. Whenever you pack for any trip refer back to the list - it makes life a lot less stressful.

Getting stuck with the worst seats on the plane:

This happens to the best of us - just live with it and try not to let it spoil your holiday. Checking-in early doesn't really seem to help. No matter how early you arrive at the airport everyone else on the plane will have managed somehow to get their seat allocation before you.

Lots of airlines now allow you to pick your seat for a small fee when you book. Pay it - trust me it's worth it. (click here -  for QANTAS's seat selection program). If your airline doesn't offer this then consider another airline or at least jump the check-in queue by doing an internet check-in before you leave home. The ability to check-in online is becoming more and more common but David and I are constantly surprised at how few passengers take advantage of it. Not only do you get to pick your seat before all the decent ones are gone but you head straight to the bag-drop counter and skip the long frustrating queues. (click here - for QANTAS's internet check-in rules).

I probably have to mention SeatGuru here if only because it is so comprehensive. However sometimes the seats it rates as the worst on the plane are those we like the most so I wouldn't rely on its rating system too heavily.

Summary

  • Pay the seat selection fee when you book - it's worth it.
  • Check-in online before you leave home.
  • If all else fails carry lots of sleeping pills and remember that even the longest flight in the world is only about 15 hours.
Cordoba was worth the crappy seats and lost bags.

Losing your bags:

I really can't offer much advice here. I just mentioned it so I can put in a link to my tale of woe about getting the worst seats on the plane and losing our bags - (click here - for my blog post on lost luggage and here for my post on lost bags and crappy seats.)

Well perhaps one piece of advice:  Don't buy a black bag. Every second piece of luggage on airline carousels seems to be black. If you don't want someone to accidentally walk away with your bag buy a bright colour and add something to make it look unique. David and I have matching bright purple bags - horrible to look at but easy to identify.


Do you have any tips and advice for independent travellers? If so I would love to hear them.


Addendum:

I just had to share this. It was sent to me by one of the people I share things with on Twitter. He described it as a few light-hearted tips of his own, jotted down in response to my blog. Tips number 6, 7 and 8 are priceless.


  1. NEVER fly Jetstar
  2. Always check in on-line; make sure that seat is confirmed and always check its the seat of choice ( also if travelling with business colleagues allows you to "politely not sit with them LOL)
  3. Go for the nearest seat to the front; its where the meals/drinks carts start and ensures at least a semblance of service. Also facilitates being one of the first to immigration and customs (if only carry on and no baggage) when leaving the plane
  4. If you are in a "lounge" NEVER leave on the first call and check at the desk before you exit that the plane is LOADING; not just "call to gate" .....Nothing worse than leaving (OK sculling) half a beer and then waiting at the gate.
  5. IMHO aisle seat is best; ease of loo access and if you happen to end up with a "[insert here the kind of person you least want to sit " next to you (more and more common) allows the aisle as some relief.
  6. Never leave your passport in your jeans after travelling and throw them in the wash after you get home
  7. Always work out your method of transfer at "the other end" and realise cab drivers ARE scoundrels  ... when you let them. KNOW the EXACT details of your destination and preferably check the route on Google maps beforehand (who knew Hollywood Boulevard went for about 100km and a cabbie would start at the WRONG end?)
  8. In Europe don't carry very nice (& expensive) French wine in hand luggage unless you have checked the 'liquids" regs (or you feel like sculling at 11 a.m. in the morning!!)
  9. ALWAYS argue for a better room in a hotel if you are not satisfied .... Amazingly they are one of the few industries that are totally trained in "customer service"
  10. If (WHEN!) they lose your bags ... Complain ... and keep complaining. Last time it happened to me I lost all my stuff after a business trip and I was in Canberra for a wedding the next day. QAN were unbelievable I have to say and were going to buy me a suit if they did not get bag ( and suit) to me in time. In the end they GAVE me $100 (from memory) to drive to aiport to pick up bag ... I was staying 5 mins from airport!
  11. DO always check on line how the airport you are going to "works"  ....  especially when you are driving there yourself and you have a rental drop off. Ditto re picking up a rental car .... and send one person to handle the car key pick up while the other(s) wait for luggage at the (worst part of travel) carousel.
  12. NEVER fly Jetstar.

22 comments:

  1. Seeing as I can't imagine us doing any traveling any time soon, I'll bookmark this page for the future. The thought of one day going somewhere and not being prepared greatly stresses me.

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    1. Hi Jess. Travelling is stressful but its also great. We travelled a lot when our children were young and it made us all very close. D and I still travel and sometimes the young adults come for a while.

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  2. Having been in a terrible seat on our last trip to NZ (only a 3 hour flight, thankfully), I agree with paying more to get a decent seat! As the emergency exit was behind us, we couldn't recline our seats at all - which becomes even more of a problem when the person in front of you reclines theirs, and your little TV screen and food tray are practially in your lap ...

    Visiting today from #teamIBOT

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    1. Hi Janet and thanks for the comment.
      I'm sure you have found as I have that #teamIBOT is great for connecting with others.
      I don't mean to belittle your experience at all but you don't know what a bad seat is until you have sat in the last row of an Aerolineas Argentinas flight from Sth America to Sydney - it was so awful I didn't even blog about it - though I might one day.

      I'm not a great fan of SeatGuru but the sort of problem you mention is something which shows up there - of course that assumes you can pre-book your seat which not all the airlines flying to NZ will allow you to do.

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  3. These are awesome tips! I totally agree with it all - pack, then take out half of it before you leave and make sure you can carry it all and the kids easily (especially if young enough to fall asleep at the most inopportune times!); always stay below the baggage limit; get to the airport early and get bored in the lounge, beats stressing every time. I hate when we book separate onward flights to save money because there is always the stress of connecting ok, but hey a dollar is a dollar. I'd love for you to link up with my #wednesdaywanderlust travel link party on Wednesday.

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    1. Hi Malinda. We started travelling with our children when the first was six months old so I know all about the hassles and utter unmitigated joy of travelling with children. Actually we kind of started before he was born since we were living in Hong Kong when we had him. He didn't arrive in Australia until he was 10 months old and already a seasoned world traveller. We used to say that as long as we had the kids with us it didn't matter what else we might have forgotten to pack.
      I'm absolutely intending to link up with #wednesdaywanderlust tomorrow. Thanks for hosting it.

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  4. These are great tips, but I'm not sure that 'you happen to end up with a "fatty" next to you' was necessary. It's incredibly offensive and I think the tip could have been added without that.

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    1. Hi Tegan. You're probably right and I apologise. In my own defence I can say that I didn't write that phrase just repeated it without really thinking about it. In defence of the person who wrote it I can say I have been sharing stuff with him on twitter (not travel or blog related) for quite a few years and I have found him to be a really nice guy. I'm sure he didn't mean to offend anyone.

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  5. I have matter when packing. If you are on HOlIDAY for 7 days pack for 7 days worth of clothes ( who wants to wash on holida). Going for 2 weeks pack for 1 and do one load of washing at the laundry ( your still on holiday). Going for months take 3 days worth of clothes, you are not on holiday you are travelling - it's an entirely different thing.

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    1. I never thought of it that way. Maybe that's why when we travelled around the world for 9 months with two small children we packed lighter than I do now for a weekend trip to the mountains. A big part of my problem is not knowing what the weather is going to be like. We travel a lot in the US in Spring and autumn where it can be boiling hot one day and freezing cold the next. It makes packing very difficult.

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  6. I've made so many mistakes in the past and learnt from them the hard way! Totally agree with Never fly JetStar - should be the first rule of travelling! #Wanderlust

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  7. I have a few friends who also hate JetStar. We've been lucky and never had a real problem with them - my first rule of travelling is never fly Aerolineas Argentinas (except domestically where they are quite good) - lol.

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  8. If your flight is delayed dont assume you can claim it on your insurance. If you know your flight is delayed you still have to check in if you want to claim for the delay.
    You’ll still need to check in to prove that you’d made the effort to get there on time.
    Your insurer will most likely ask for written confirmation from the airline of what time you checked in.
    From Top 8 ways to void your travel insurance wp.me/p5aNcq-4F

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    1. Hi Bec. Thanks for that tip. We travel with only basic credit card insurance so we don't really think about it much. I don't think we have ever made a claim. Even when we have had stuff stolen it's usually just not worth the hassle claiming by the time you report it to the police and pay the excess. Our primary concern is the cost of medical treatment if we have an accident or get sick.
      Your checklist on 8 ways not to void your insurance is worth checking out. I can see that for you, travelling with your Mum, insurance is much more significant.

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  9. I think it's funny (amusing, not ha-ha) that your friend hates JetStar so much. We always travel with JetStar domestically and have had no problems. Follow the rules, be there early, check and re-check your flights, check-in online. Our last flights were postponed a little (45 minutes, both ways), but we had a few weeks' notice and everything was just fine.

    After many years of air travel I always make sure we all have a spare change of clothes, a toothbrush and a hairbrush in our carry-on. Dh scoffed at me when I insisted upon this for our trip to the US. I've heard enough horror stories of luggage being lost of more than a day or two that I don't want to be left high and dry if mine ever gets lost! I think you can just about bear anything if you can shower, change and brush your hair and teeth after a long flight.

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    1. Hi Tracy, I think we all have our favourite airline to hate. My own experiences with Jetstar have been okay but clearly my twitter friend has had a few clangers. Maybe Jetstar just needs to sit up and take a bit of notice of it's customer feedback. D and I were once the most loyal QANTAS flyers in the world. We lived in Hong Kong for a few years and stepping on the QANTAS plane always made us feel as if we were already home - then QANTAS gave us a succession of appalling seats and rotten treatment. We took our business elsewhere and only came back when QANTAS lifted its game a few years ago - particularly with its system of allowing passengers to reserve seats for a small fee. Now we are loyal again.

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  10. Great tips. I've learnt a lot of these myself. Some the hard way (including the washing of a passport). As for packing light we have that down to a fine art! We can pack our family of four into a medium size suitcase for a ten day holiday and still manage to take things we don't need. #teamwanderlust

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    1. Hi and thank you for the comment. Can you come over to my place sometime and teach me how to pack - lol.

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  11. i say pack your suitcase then take half out and that about right.
    i use my 3+5 rule
    3 shorts 3 pants,3 shirts, 3 jumpers, 5 tshirts that should cover it all
    cheers
    Mark

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    1. Hi Mark,
      Thanks for the comment. Even without your name I can tell you're a guy- lol. I don't think I know a single woman who could manage your 3+5. Where are the skirts and what if the three shorts don't all go with the 3 shirts and what about shoes. It breaks my heart not being able to wear my red wedges when I travel - but they're just too heavy. Hey and then there are scarves and gloves and jackets and make-up and skin care products and .........

      cheers
      Lyn

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  12. Excellent tips. Some reminders and who doesn't need to be reminded of good ideas to make traveling easy and relax.
    Let me add a few:
    - If going on a beach holiday, pack a bathing suit in your carry on. Unless you don't mind walking from your beach chair to the water in your underwear until your misplaced bag/suitcase is returned to you. Or if you enjoy going shopping for a bathing suit on your first day of holiday...
    - Indeed pack light, and to do so buy a small suitcase. And I mean small: carry on size. I still check in mine as I don't want to lug the 12kg I pack through long corridors and have to lift it to the overhead bin. Plus, not all Airlines accept carry on of more than 10kg, sometimes 7 or even 5... Other plus: some lowcost only allow carry on. What a pity to have to forgo a deal because of a )*%#& suitcase.
    - My suitcase is royal blue. So is my carry on. If number one gets lost I can show the exact color they should look for. How do you say royal blue in mandarin ?
    - Royal blue canvas suitcase with strips of masking tape bearing my family name on 2-3 sides. Not two alike in the world (so far). Absolute No-No: scarf or ribbon or other thing that can get snagged in conveyer belts.
    Wishing you many wonderful trips this year.
    cm

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    1. Hi Anonymous and thank you for all your tips and kind wishes.

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