This past year I’ve been up in the air on a variety of airlines, and left up in the air — by air travel, hotel, car rental and computer glitches — more times than I can ever recall. I hope my mistakes can help your family avoid your own.
Remember #1: Leave plenty of time.
Maybe it all began on my flight from New York to West Palm Beach on Delta. I’d been impressed with the improvements Delta made to their terminal at LaGuardia and didn’t even mind getting to the airport early any more. But on this flight, I checked in the night before and got to the airport to find out that my flight number had been changed, my pre-printed boarding pass was no longer valid because the aircraft had changed, and the roll-aboard that I counted on was no longer able to fit in the overhead bin.
No matter how much you think you’ve planned ahead and gotten it together, leave enough time at the airport to solve the truly mysterious things that go wrong in travel. You may have to check that bag that you know fits in the overhead.
Remember #2: Check & Double Check Your Trip Details.
I flew back from West Palm to Newark on Continental but it actually turned out to be a United flight. I checked in at Continental and boarded a plane filled with flight attendants in United uniforms. Because they switched the type of plane, none of the boarding passes matched available seats. It became the first-come-first-served scrum you expect on Southwest flights, but those passengers who had forked over dollars or points were really ticked off.
There has been so much consolidation in the airline industry — with partnerships that have moved beyond code sharing — that you may never know what you’re flying till you get to the airport. If you are flying on a recently merged airline, always check which terminal you should check into.
Remember #3: Be Prepared to Empower & Advocate for Kids.
On another recent flight I was seated a few rows away from an unaccompanied minor — one of those sophisticated, bi-coastal offspring who shuttle between divorced parents. He appeared calm and well traveled. I always like to observe how the airlines treat their young wards, many of whom have paid an extra $100 per flight to get some adult attention. In this case, the young tween with a wad of cash wanted to get the lunch box offered for sale but the flight attendant refused. Eventually, the boy was brought a meal from First Class and put his wallet away.
Always make sure your kids who are flying alone have a credit card with them. It may sound crazy to give your 7-year-old your Black Amex card but she will not be able to buy food aboard many flights if she can only pay in cash.
Remember #4. Know Who Paid for Your Booking.
A recent press trip to the Dominican Republic was frought with weirdness. As is my habit, I checked in for my JetBlue flight the day before departure. That is, I tried, but JetBlue’s website had no record of my reservation number. E-ticket in hand, I called the airline and read all my flight information to an agent. After 15 minutes, she figured out that I had the record locator for another passenger on the plane, but was not legally able to confirm whether or not I had a reservation unless I provided her with the last four digits of the credit card that paid for the flight.
If you are traveling on a ticket someone else paid for, request the last four digits of their credit card in case you are stranded in a computerized nightmare like I was.
Remember #5. Carry Your Own Contact Info for Travel Vendors.
Fortunately, my e-ticket had an after-hours 800 number for the travel agency’s Help Line. The agent there refused to help me because she said they were only after-hours phone support and the actual agency that booked the flight (even though their name and contact information was nowhere on the e-ticket) would have to deal with it. The agent gave me that number and I was able to get the correct record locator for both the outbound and in-bound flights.
As soon as you book a flight, hotel or rental car, find out all the possible ways to contact a reservations agent so that you have recourse to help when you need it.
Remember #6. Be Extra Careful Buying Through 3rd Party Vendors.
On a recent trip to Dallas, I arrived with my rental car confirmation email from Priceline but no indication which rental company I had booked through their bidding process. (Full disclosure, the email did have a link to more info but it wasn’t working when I left the office, so I just printed out the email without reading any further…) I gazed at the many rental car counters under DFW’s bronze bull sculptures, and hoped the Budget guys would take pity on me. They had seen this before and, after not finding my name in their own reservations system, called Priceline for me to inquire which counter I should go to. Thank you, Budget.
If you book your tickets or travel plans through an OTA (online travel agency), be sure to go to each company’s own website and make sure you have a reservation in their system. With all the new TSA and online privacy regulations, your customer loyalty member number and password may be the only way to verify your identity online. Join them all, or allow extra time to fix mistakes at the airport.
Remember #7. Setup Communications Channels Before You Go.
Sadly, my father-in-law passed away during one international trip and I had to change my departure date and itinerary in order to attend his funeral. I had purchased an international data roaming plan from Verizon because I planned to use email and social networks during my travels. I figured that if I really had to use the phone I would get an international SIM card and not be one of those $1.99 per minute suckers. But I was stuck at an isolated all-inclusive resort on a Sunday in a very Catholic country.
Trying to arrange the change of flights required nearly $240 in phone calls to the toll-free numbers I had for the after-hours emergency travel agency and the airlines, who I had to call regarding bereavement fares. Get a US$10 SIM card at the airport just in case, or make a deal with your cellular carrier.
Remember #8. Not Every Answer You Get is Right.
The reason I had to make so many phone calls was because I could not change my return ticket on American to a different route on American because, as the American Airlines reservations agent explained to me, “JetBlue owns the ticket stock.” She said that they had to wait for JetBlue to turn over the return ticket to them so that they could reissue it. This was after speaking to two different travel agents who said it was no problem.
Travel agents are people too and, as helpful as they are, some are more knowlegeable about each airline’s rules than others. Being an agent requires constant training so if you don’t think the answer you get the first time sounds correct, hang up and call back till you get an agent who sounds wiser. This is as true for travel agents as it is for airlines reservation agents. Having said that, travel agents are your best friend. The after-hours emergency travel agency did finally come through by assigning me to a supervisor who spent 70 minutes on the phone to JetBlue and American (on her phone bill) trying to broker a deal between them until she got my ticket changed.
Remember #9. If You Paid for the Trip, Insure It.
I knew when I accepted this international assignment that my father-in-law was very ill. Nonetheless, I did not consider buying travel insurance because I did not pay for the tickets or the hotels on my trip. When all is said and done, this change of itinerary will cost me $556 in additional ticket costs to Dallas, $329 for the ticket Dallas to New York and nearly $240 in international phonecalls.
As I always tell my readers, “Always buy travel insurance. Better safe than sorry.”
Remember #10. People Make Mistakes but Don’t Always Fix Them.
At a very swank five-star resort on Key Biscayne recently, as we checked in for a multigenerational family vacation, my husband was given a welcome letter which congratulated him on his birthday (3 days earlier) and offered him complimentary breakfast for two each day (a $60 value) plus 50% off on all spa treatments. Excitedly, my mother and I booked facials while my husband and son contemplated the sports massage and wellness treatments. Then I looked at the welcome letter and realized it was addressed to someone else… with a similar name. When my husband brought this to the attention of the Front Desk clerk he said, “Oh, that’s our mistake. We have no discounts available for you.”
Always check your travel documents and reservation confirmations carefully. We all take for granted that computers don’t make mistakes… but never forget that people do.
One More to Remember that is Often Forgotten….
And perhaps the most important lesson for my colleagues in the travel and tourism industry: Don’t let anyone spoil your precious family vacation. When mistakes happen, remember that the customer is always right. Like taxes and death, it’s one of the few certainties in business.
This story was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question, and stay up to date with current events to ensure a safe and successful trip.