10 air-travel lessons learned the hard way

by Hilary Nangle on July 27, 2012

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

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  • Dean

    Pretty much common sense stuff

  • skinlajolla

    Lesson you did not learn.. is buy travel insurance… Your hotel and other expenses in getting home would have been reimbursed under the policy (train/taxi, etc)

  • sue

    It’s nice that you didn’t want to disturb your seatmates, but really, I for one would have understood if you needed to maneuver around to get some reading material.

  • Frank

    HOTEL: I cant tell you how many times I’ve gotten into bed. (after I’ve checked for bedbugs). Turned out the light. And, in the middle of the night, the ALARM goes off. ugghhhh. Someone set the alarm and it wasnt me, nor did I have to get up that early.

  • http://twitter.com/OffTheMaptravel Off The Map Travels

    Common sense, but many people don’t think of these on the spot.

  • MeanMeosh

    It is common sense stuff, until you’re stuck in a bad situation like Hilary’s and have to make decisions on the fly, often in a tired, hungry, and confused state. My wife, on her way back home to Dallas, got stranded in Chicago when her connecting flight was canceled, after getting off a 19 hour set of flights from India. The airline strung the passengers along for hours, even taking off at one point only to return to the gate because of problems at DFW, before finally canceling the flight at 11:30 P.M. – nearly 4 hours after the scheduled departure. Being jet lagged and hungry, and with the only advice from the airline being “call the 800 number and rebook”, about the only thing she could think to tell me at that point was “can you come up to Chicago and get me?” Sitting at home, it was easy for me to second guess what she should have been doing, but it’s also understandable why she wouldn’t have thought of these things at that point in time.

    I would add another one – see if you can line up a buddy (whether a family member at home, or a travel agent if you used one) to run point for you if needed. Since I was at home, I was able to help my wife out; the first thing I did was book her a hotel room so she could at least get some sleep while I dealt with the airline to get her rebooked. She wasn’t in a state to get much done, but having my computer in front of me (and being well rested at home), I was able to research various options and get her home.

  • Frank

    You just described my sense of being after my weekly trip. Exhausted, almost dizzy and wanting to go home. You’re flight attendant. =)

  • Mike313

    I travel to/through Heathrow frequently. No black-cab taxi would ever take you from T4 to T1 (ro vice versa).

  • http://www.nycparamount.com/ Paramount Hotel

    I have read here all lesson. It such a useful and informative for me, I am so impressed by that, Thanks for giving a best information.

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