5 most common ticketing mistakes — and how to avoid them

by Christopher Elliott on May 30, 2008

As far as mistakes go, the one Janet Gordon recently made didn’t seem like a big deal. She booked an airline from ticket Toronto to London under the name “Jan.”

But what happened next could only be summed up in one word — “chaos” — says her husband, David.

“It was a major hassle,” remembers Gordon, a human resources director for a college in Swansea, England. At almost every turn, the couple had to explain why the name on Jan’s ticket didn’t match her passport. “The computers wouldn’t allow us to check in and issue a boarding card,” he says.

In a business where slip-ups are almost as common as surcharges, the wrong-name-on-my-ticket error is a standout. You don’t have to look far for ticketing mistakes in an age of do-it-yourself booking. Take it from me: not only do I write the Travel Troubleshooter column, a question-and-answer feature that helps people solve real-world problems, but I’m also a an expert on errors.

I’ll get to my own shortcomings in a minute. But right now, let’s review the five biggest booking blunders — and how they could have been prevented:

1. Wrong name on my ticket
Before 9/11, airlines and security personnel — and I use the term “security personnel” loosely — might have let a nickname or even a maiden name on a ticket slide. No longer. If you have the wrong name on your ticket, you’re probably grounded. And there are two reasons for this: security and greed. The Transportation Security Administration wants to be sure the same person who bought the ticket, and who was screened, is boarding the plane. But when there’s an inexact match, the airline can either charge a $100 “change” fee or even force you to buy a new ticket. In an industry where every dollar counts, the exact-name rule is the government’s gift to cash-starved air carriers.

That’s the situation Gordon was confronted with, even when it was obvious that “Jan” and “Janet” were one and the same. There were suggestions that a new ticket might need to be purchased. “We didn’t let it get to that,” he recalls. Instead, he asked to speak with a supervisor who could finally fix the codes so that the ticket and passport matched up. How did all of this happen in the first place? Turns out Jan Gordon had signed up for a frequent flier account under her informal name, so when she booked an award ticket, it also used her informal — and inaccurate — name.

How to avoid it? Triple-check the name on your ticket. Make sure your computer doesn’t autofill another name and that the name on your passport or driver’s license matches up with your ticket. Here’s a recent videocast I did on dealing with a wrong-name scenario.

2. Booking a ticket on the wrong airline
Believe it or not, people board the wrong flight every day. I’m not even talking about codeshare flights, which is industry-speak for booking a ticket on one airline but then flying on a “partner” airline with different rules and maybe lower service standards. I’m talking about simply making the wrong choice of airline.

For example, the elite-level business traveler who is accustomed to being treated like royalty when he flies on his preferred carrier might want to stay away from a budget airline. “I gave Southwest a try and I hated it,” they’ll write to me. “I’m never flying with them again.” Of course not. If you don’t like flight attendants with a sense of humor, peanut snacks and on-time flights, you’ll probably hate Southwest, too. On the flip side, I hear from travelers who book tickets on full-service network airlines and then complain about the price. Which is silly. How else do you think an airline is going to pay for all of that service?

How to avoid it? Watch for the codeshare designation when you book online and do a little research before buying an airline ticket. That way, your expectations won’t be too high. Or too low. Also, consider using an experienced travel agent.

3. The city switcheroo
Selecting the wrong city pairs — going from point ‘B’ to point ‘A’ instead of from ‘A’ to ‘B’ — is another common error. Jennifer Hyde bought four tickets on Delta Air Lines through Orbitz. But instead of booking them from Boston to Baltimore she inadvertently switched cities, rendering the tickets completely useless. “Needless to say, neither Orbitz nor Delta is doing anything to help,” she says. Hyde, a homemaker from Newton, Mass., would have to pay a change fee for each ticket, plus any fare differential, to make things right. Not good.

How could someone switch cities? It’s easy. To an inexperienced Web user — and OK, let’s be completely honest here, even to some experienced users — those pull-down menus on travel sites can be utterly confusing. When you’re typing in airport city codes like BWI and BOS, it’s easy to forget which airport goes where. (But it could be worse — Hyde might have ended up with a ticket to the familiar-looking BAL city code, which would have taken her to Batman, Turkey.) Point is, if you’re not paying attention, of if you’re dyslexic, you could click “accept” all the way through the reservation process and you wouldn’t know you messed up until it was too late.

How to avoid it? Pay attention! If you’re easily distracted maybe you should be working with a qualified travel agent instead of booking yourself. And read your confirmation immediately. If you spot a mistake, your agent might be able to undo it at no charge.

4. Buying a ticket that’s too restrictive
Booking the wrong kind of ticket is yet another common error. Airline sites often assume you want to purchase the cheapest and most restrictive fare, so that’s the first quote you’re usually offered. The pricier, fully refundable tickets are buried deeper in the site, which is too bad. For air travelers whose plans might change, these are the best selections.

Why should you pay more for a ticket? Because if your plans change and you’re holding a non-refundable ticket, it will be practically worthless. Every day I field a question from air travelers who would have benefited from this advice. They ask the airline to make exceptions to its refundability rules. They make up excuses. They throw tantrums. It almost never works.

How to avoid it? If you can’t buy the right ticket, at least buy the right insurance policy. It might protect you if you change plans.

5. Wrong date
Like the wrong city switcheroo, the wrong date problem is an epidemic among air travelers. Part of the reason is simple absentmindedness: choosing the sixth month instead of the seventh month and then not reading the subsequent screens.

But part of the reason is that airline Web sites are anything but user-friendly. Reader Nancy Smythe wrote to me recently about her flight from West Palm Beach, Fla., to London, which she booked directly online through the airline. It turns out the carrier had sold her a ticket it couldn’t deliver — her connection times were too short. So it agreed to rebook her on a later flight. But when it sent her the new ticket, it had the wrong date on it. When she pointed out the mistake, she was asked to pay a change fee. “This wasn’t my error,” she says. So why should she pay for it? Smythe’s experience reveals the maddening secret of ticketing mistakes. The airline will try to make you pay for an error — even if it’s not yours.

How to avoid it? Wake up and read the screen! No, seriously. This can usually be avoided by just reviewing your itinerary before you click the “book” button.

So look out for wrong names, wrong airlines, wrong cities, wrong dates and wrong expectations. Easy for me to say, right?

Wrong.

I’ve made every mistake in the book — and then some — when it comes to travel. All of the above errors are on my record. And let me also add that my mistakes aren’t limited to travel. I have some big-time screw-ups to my name that extend into my professional and personal life. Hey, don’t we all?

But as I look at the subject of mistakes in general, and ticketing mistakes in particular, I’m not worried about the ones we make once and learn from and are unlikely to repeat.

It’s the ones that we make over and over for no other reason than that we’re just easily manipulated — those are the screw-ups that infuriate me.

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  • Jason

    It seems all these errors basically come down to user stupidity. It is a sad day when we need to be reminded to double and triple check every single thing. But then again, some people are incapable of following basic instructions.

  • jlawrence01

    Some of these errors also occurred in the “good old days” when travel agents were doing all the booking. As I had to travel to Jackson, TN and Philadelphia, MS, on more than one occasion I was booked in Jackson, MS and Philadelphia, PA hotels.

  • Hapgood

    What do you mean by “all of that service” when referring to legacy carriers? The legacy carriers are hemorrhaging money by the day, so they’re racing each other to the bottom in their efforts to cut whatever is left of their “service” and to treat their paying customers as if they’re doing them an enormous favor by letting them occupy a child-sized middle seat that would be more profitably used for air freight.

    Southwest promotes itself honestly as a flying cattle car, and promises nothing more than the most basic transportation. They have an efficient operation that can (mostly) reliably deliver exactly what they advertise. The legacy carriers still pretend to be “full service,” but their inefficiency (and the utter contempt their lavishly-compensated executives show for their paying customers) means they charge top dollar for “service” that too often is far below Southwest’s “Greyhound-with-wings” standard.

    At least with Southwest I know that I’ll endure bovine treatment, but at least the stockyard is well enough managed to regard me as a prized bull and treat me humanely. The management of the legacy treats passengers as veal calves being herded and packed in for slaughter.

  • marge

    Very humorous article, Chris! Not sure it was meant to be but I couldn’t help laughing. Bottom line for sure is “Pay attention!!”

  • Mike

    I have booked tickets incorrectly before–wrong dates once and wrong destination once. When you book tickets often, you can get a little complacent. One airline allowed me to change the dates for no charge; the other airline said I would have to pay the change fee to fix the incorrect city.

  • http://notravelmlms.blogspot.com John F

    I will defend the agents a little–not a lot. But when you are booking itineraries for thirty to forty clients in a day, mistakes do happen for sure.

    However, if you are booking your own travel, one would think those kinds of oopsies would be a little less frequent

  • Kath

    Nicely put, Chris. I pay attention to detail almost to the point of paranoia when booking my trips but it’s ever so easy to slip up with those confusing websites – especially if you click a ‘back’ button and the system changes the details you’d selected.

    Might I request one small correction to your article, though? Swansea is not in England, it’s in Wales. Suggesting that a Welsh city is in England is likely to cause offence to the Welsh.

  • Elisa

    I agree with Jlawrence1: I worked in a company which had its own travel agency – I booked a flight to San Josè, CA, but I ended up in San Josè, Mexico. Point is, I didn’t have any idea of where I was, people was waiting for me at the Californian airport, and the Mexican airport was so small that it didn’t even had an information point or Police office. I had to get out of the airport, catch a taxi, arrive to a Police station in order to understand what had happened……..And this from a travel agent which booked around three flights per day!

  • B Helenbart

    Here’s a different mistake that doesn’t cause too much loss. Booking tickets for non-FF spouse and FF self. One is FFB, other is paid ticket. Spouse should get the FFB ticket and paid ticket for self–to get Frequent Flyer miles for the flight.

  • Pepper

    So how does a newlywed couple book the tickets to their honeymoon? My son and his fiance leave the morning after their wedding. Should he put the ticket for her in her maiden name, take the wedding certificate? I don’t want to be an interfering Mom but would hate for them not to be able to fly because of the wrong info.

  • B Helenbart

    newlyweds? She has to travel under the government issued ID the TSA anti-terrorist squad matches to her face to pass security. To get into the hotel in the same room, show the htoel clerk the wedding license.
    You think this is bad, wait until you bring a step child with a different last name. You’ll be treated like kidnappers unless you have a court certified document stating that you are the legal guardian or have the witnessed document saying you have permission to take the minor out of the country.

    I got another one for you, not a ticketing problem as a big costly one with travel documents like above.
    You visit Israel. You try to visit an Arab country later. You end up deported on an expensive ticket out of that country because your passport is stamped as having been to Israel–yesterday or 5 years ago, it doesn’t matter. Any country that states that Israel has no right to exist will not let you enter it–end of vacation or whatever.
    Get a new or second passport.

  • Pepper

    Thanks for the info B! I’ll pass it on. I got stopped with all 5 of my kids when they were younger going to visit friends in Canada. Had to get all the kids out of the car, pull out the birth certificates to prove they were mine and then they wanted to know if my Hubby was aware of our trip. I wanted to say “you think I’m crazy enough to travel cross country by myself” but they were so serious I calmly explained he was flying in the next day. Then they wanted to search the car for weapons. I opened the back door (of a suburban) and said “have at it” at which point my oldest held up a squirt gun and showed the poor lady who was going to do the searching. Thank goodness she laughed and said “that’s okay honey, just go on across”.

    That was way before 9/11, I can’t even imagine the hassles that stepchildren or traveling to enemy countries could cause now.
    Good idea on the new passport!

  • C

    For newlyweds, NO, do not attempt to use your married name! And do not bring your marriage certificate as verification of your name being different than what’s on your ID card. This will not work! The marriage certificate is not proof enough, you must update your ID before you book your travel.
    If you are honeymooning immediately following your wedding, book your flights and honeymoon in advance using your maiden name, because you can’t update your name change with the government until you AFTER you are legally married. If you are leaving for your honeymoon the day after you get married, your Identification will NOT be updated with your new name and you will not be allowed to travel with un-matching names. (as this article states)

  • Pepper

    I did talk to my son and he said that he had booked the ticket for her in her maiden name. Guess he’s smarter than I gave him credit for. When they get back she has a lot of name changing to do for various things; drivers license, voter registration, bank accounts and probably many more that I don’t remember doing 30 years ago when I got married. I’m assuming as a new dutiful husband he will at least accompany her as she makes the rounds to the various places.
    Now if our flight to the wedding several states away will go smoothly we’ll all be happy (leaving nothing to chance we are flying in a day earlier than needed).
    Thanks again for all the great advice!

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