Many travelers consider all their flight-planning work done once they buy a plane ticket, and they don’t think about it again until it’s time to fly. In most cases, that’s a recipe for trouble. There are many things that could go wrong and ruin your trip long before you arrive at the airport, and paying just a little attention — I call it “gardening” your reservation — and knowing how to handle those issues in advance could prevent a travel disaster.
Let’s begin with the simple things. As you may have discovered, sometimes there are no seats available for you to select at ticketing. That could be a result of overselling the cabin, or the only seats left may require an additional fee. Many fliers simply leave it at that, hoping for a seat on the departure day.
It doesn’t take much to do better than that. Whether you have no assignment or are stuck in a middle seat, chances are a decent seat will open up before your travel day, as other passengers get upgraded or cancel their reservations. All you have to do is check the seat map from time to time. Convenience and comfort are very important to me during a trip, and I don’t like to leave anything to chance. That means there are certain things I have to do to “tend” to my bookings, so that any potential issues can be resolved in advance.
For example, I request upgrades as soon as a ticket is issued — there is no point in waiting until check-in. If my itinerary includes flights on carriers different from the ticketing airline, I call them for four reasons: to confirm that they have me on their flights; to ensure they have my frequent-flier number so I receive mileage credit; to get seat assignments, if that can’t be done on their website; and to make sure they have the ticket number, because if that number wasn’t transmitted, they will likely cancel my seats. That may be a rare occurrence, but it has happened to me.
A few years ago, I issued a United ticket with segments on Saudi Arabian Airlines from Sharm el Sheikh, the Egyptian Red Sea resort, to Dubai via the Saudi city of Jeddah. It was a paper ticket — just before they became extinct — so I thought I had sufficient protection and didn’t bother to call Saudi Arabian to verify whether it had received the ticket number from United — until the day before my flight.
The Saudi carrier had no trace of me on those flights, and now the first segment was sold out. For the first and only time in my life, I was holding a worthless airline ticket. At least I didn’t wait to find that out at the airport and had a day to make alternative arrangements. My only option was to buy a new electronic ticket on EgyptAir and Emirates via Cairo, and get the paper ticket refunded when I got back home.
Another part of my gardening is to keep an eye on my upgrade requests and get a seat in my new cabin when an upgrade clears. There have been many cases in which a seat would open up, but I’d still be waitlisted — for whatever reason, airline systems do that. Then I’d have to call and have an agent manually clear the upgrade.
I also watch out for any schedule changes to my reservation — in the flight times, routing, aircraft type and seat assignments. Why aircraft type? Because different planes even on the same airline may offer different seats and comfort levels. As I’ve written before, schedule changes have been rampant in recent years, especially on domestic flights. Add a big airline merger to the equation, and the effect easily multiplies.
What many travelers don’t know is that it’s up to them to decide how much they can put up with in the event of changes imposed on them. You don’t have to accept the new flights on your itinerary if they are unreasonable. Almost all rebooking is done by computers. Even though airlines use sophisticated software that looks for an alternate routing to get you to your destination as close to your original arrival time as possible, machines are not humans, and sometimes they do illogical things.
So the next time an airline alters your itinerary, take a look at what other options you might have, and ask an agent to put you on the flights that would minimize the inconvenience caused by the change — and don’t worry about the booking class. An available seat in any booking class — not class of service — would do, since the rebooking is not your fault. There will be no extra charge, of course, because the change is involuntary.
You have many rights that you probably don’t even suspect. After all, when you want to change a nonrefundable ticket, you pay a penalty. An involuntary schedule change puts you in the driver’s seat. Did you know that most airlines allow a full refund even on nonrefundable tickets if your flight has been moved significantly? I wouldn’t be surprised if you’ve never been offered that option.
- Nicholas Kralev is an author and expert on diplomacy, world affairs and global travel. He hosts the weekly program "Conversations with Nicholas Kralev." A former Financial Times and Washington Times correspondent, he has traveled around the world with four U.S. secretaries of state — Hillary Clinton, Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell and Madeleine Albright. He has flown over 2 million miles and visited 84 countries.
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