10 air-travel lessons learned the hard way


I recently spent two weeks gallivanting about Great Britain, using frequent flyer miles to get there and then traveling by train with a BritRail FlexiPass. It was easy and trouble-free, until my journey home. While some of these woes were my own fault, others made me realize that a bit of advance preparation goes a long way.

— I had paid for an upgrade and chose the perfect aisle seat in the Economy Plus section for my return trip, a roughly 8-plus-hour flight from Heathrow to Dulles, before a connecting flight home. The day before my return, the flight was switched to a different aircraft — I had been reassigned to a non-aisle seat in a five-seat center configuration. Ugh. Because I noticed this during online check-in, I was able to change to an aisle seat.

Lesson learned: Stay atop of flight details.

— When arriving in Britain, I flew into Heathrow’s Terminal 4. When departing, I glanced at my return boarding pass (without my glasses), I saw Terminal 4 and had the taxi drop me there. Inside, I couldn’t find the flight listed anywhere and hooked up with another woman searching for the same. We finally found an agent who told us our Dulles flight departed from Terminal 1. Yes, the fine print did say Terminal 4, but only for the Newark flight; Dulles departed from Terminal 1.

Lesson learned: Read the fine print.

— The agent said the timing was tight, but we could still make our flight, and she directed us to the Underground. I was lugging a small, but heavy, roll-aboard-sized suitcase that I planned to check. Traveling from Terminal 1 to Terminal 4 required two 15-20 minute run/walks and a Tube ride. By the time we arrived at the check-in, we were hot, sweaty, and achy. In hindsight, we should have split a taxi.

Lesson learned: When faced with a last-minute terminal switch, ask about all options for the journey.

— After waiting about two hours in Dulles for my 10:20 p.m. connecting flight, it was canceled just before 10 p.m. I ran to a nearby gate for an announced Boston flight, hoping to get closer to home, but because I’d checked a bag, I was refused. The gate agent directed me to customer service, and then added that the closest one was at Gate X, but the one at Gate Y would be less busy.

Lessons learned: Know the alternatives. If you’re flying with only carry-on, know which alternative flights might get you closer to home; if you have to rebook, find out the locations of more than one place to do so (assuming you’re on forever phone hold with the airline).

— Despite being quick to the counter, the only available flight to my home airport was departing two nights later. Instead, I requested a flight to Boston, since I knew I could get home via either bus or train. I booked a flight for the following morning.

Lesson learned: Know your options and be flexible.

— Since the cancellation was weather related, I was entitled to no vouchers, but I was provided with a central number to call for special rates: “These are often 75 percent lower,” the agent told me. I called, but Dulles rooms in the program were sold out. I searched online and found hotels with availability and free shuttles. I called requesting “distressed traveler” rates and found a room for about $160 (more than I wanted to pay for 5 hours of sleep, but I wanted a shower and I didn’t want to sleep in the airport for safety reasons). If it hadn’t been so late and if I hadn’t been so exhausted, I would have kept searching for a better deal.

Lesson learned: Research lodging options for connecting airports in advance so that you can speed dial and make arrangements quickly.

— My experience at the hotel was not a good one. The first clerk had no record of my reservation or rate and then I was checked into a dirty room. I finally got into a clean one just before midnight. But, there was no soap, shampoo, etc. A few days later, I received an online customer survey about my stay. I filled it out calmly and completely, stating only facts and without whining or asking for anything in the comment boxes. The hotel manager contacted me the next day promising a 50 percent refund, as the hotel hadn’t met my reasonable expectations of a clean, serviced room.

Lesson learned: Do fill out follow-up surveys, praise the good and detail the bad without ranting.

— I had to awaken at 5:30 a.m. to make my Boston flight, so I set my alarm and went to sleep. It went off, I shot out of bed, dressed, repacked, and was about to depart the room, when I glanced at an in-room clock. It read 12:50 a.m. I had neglected to reset the time zone.

Lesson learned: Check all clocks for accurate time. Corollary — Make sure any in-room clock alarm isn’t preset for an ungodly early hour.

— En route to Boston, I had a middle seat in the back of the plane, for which I was thankful. But really, I’m not a large person, and I could barely squeeze in; once in the seat, I couldn’t move to access the reading material in my satchel without discomforting those on either side of me. I figured I’d watch TV, but it was fee-only, and even if I’d been willing to pay, I couldn’t access my wallet.

Lesson learned: If you’re in the dreaded middle seat, take out everything you might need or want before settling down.

— My checked bag didn’t make it to Boston, not that I expected it would. I had borrowed a bag for this trip and although I’d wrapped a fluorescent green shoelace around the handle and placed a copy of my itinerary inside the bag, the agent wanted a description: black roll-aboard was all I could say.

Lessons learned: Know where the baggage office is so you can be in the front half of the line; keep a photo of any checked bags on your phone.

Photo: Flickr Creative Commons by cote