7 tips when booking air travel direct with a website

by Janice Hough on August 21, 2013

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These days, travelers have the options of booking flights through a “brick and mortar” travel agency, an online agency or on the airline’s own website. Airlines prefer the latter, since it doesn’t cost them booking fees and it’s easier to keep travelers from going to a competitor.

As an agent, I recognize that sometimes even regular clients may want to take advantage of online specials and bonus miles. Or, a trip may be so easy that it doesn’t seem worth booking through an agent.

However, a recent case, when a client temporarily lost his Southwest direct booking, reminded me that there are steps travelers should take when booking online with an airline.

These suggestions may seem trivial or obvious, but for every tip listed, I’ve known travelers who have had problems by not following them.

1. Make sure you actually get the email confirmation. Generally, airline websites do send confirmation emails. But, a spam filter can get them and typos happen. No confirmation means that the reservation might not have gone through, which is a bad thing to find out at the last minute.

2. Double check the confirmation carefully — and within 24 hours of booking. In a touchscreen age, typos are easier than ever. Travel agents may or may not have the clout to fix a problem, but with a direct booking there is no one to help you out.

In my experience, with fewer and fewer people using wall calendars, date mistakes are also easier than ever to make. (Personally, I have a wall calender and two calendar strips on my desk.)

3. Print out a copy of the booking. If it’s a business expense or something that will be reimbursed, make sure you have it on paper. Getting a past-date receipt from an airline is often time-consuming and some airlines charge for it. (United, for example, charges $20/receipt, per person.)

4. Check for fee changes. For things like checked baggage and change fees, don’t assume that because the rules were one way the last time you booked, that they will be the same. Things change, and they generally don’t get less expensive. (However, if you think that the baggage fees or change fees or other fees have changed since purchasing your ticket, complain to DOT and the airline. Those fees charged should be at the rate in effect when your ticket was purchased.)

5. Get a phone number for the airline involved. If there’s a problem that can’t be solved online and the lines at the airport are long, a phone call may be the fastest way to a solution.

6. Remember which credit card was used for the booking. On Southwest, when my client couldn’t find his booking, they would only give him the information upon him giving them the last four digits of the card. (In this case, it could have been a bigger mess, as it was his grandfather’s credit card, and he was able to call me to get the number.)

7. When checking in, print the boarding pass when possible. Despite what airlines say, the mobile phone boarding passes don’t always work. (I had to race back to a kiosk at Dulles when I didn’t follow my own advice earlier this year.)

In addition, when it’s an online direct booking it’s not as easy to call and get the details, confirmation number, etc. This goes double if you’ve booked a rental car or hotel through the airline site — print the confirmation(s) and bring them. In case there’s a problem, paper still rules.

Yes, some of these steps may feel a waste of time and paper, but it’s better than wasting travel time because you can’t retrieve a document should your iPad or smartphone or whatever be out of battery power.

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  • MJFLYOMA

    I agree wholeheartedly. It may be a bit more time on the front end, but a printed document/receipt/ticket number will save lots of headaches when really needed.

  • StephenD

    Agreed. Having hardcopies of itineraries, receipts, etc. are invaluable. You never know when the computer system may crash.

  • Graham

    If you are travelling internationally make sure you take along the hard copy of the ticket with all the terms and conditions. Some countries (the USA is one) can ask foreigners to show their return ticket sometimes (I’ve had entering with the USA).

    Most people here (all?) will say “never happened to me”. Doesn’t mean it never happens to anyone – be sure.

  • janice hough

    Right, and “never happened to me” should be followed by a “yet.”

  • MeanMeosh

    I would add that some countries (India is one) won’t even let you into the terminal without a printed copy of your itinerary. If you show up without one, you have to go to the airline ticket counter outside and ask them to print one for you. No big deal if you’re flying a domestic airline, but trying to find someone to help for an international carrier can be problematic.

  • Vector

    Another reminder is to get the Record Locator Number for the partner airline as well as the issuing airline if you have a leg on an alliance carrier.
    They will be different codes.

    I always get the ticket number, because on time in Budapest I walked up to the airline and give them the RL and she said they had no ticket under that locator!
    Problem was solved when I pulled up my ticket number.

  • sirwired

    In addition to the bulky PC-generated boarding pass, I also, if I have time, have the kiosk generate one. Not only is the kiosk pass smaller, you have a chance to check for a better seat assignment and you can also request an “official” receipt that has full up-to-date itinerary information and more detailed fare information than an e-mail confirmation.

  • dcta

    I had a friend who announced one day on FB: “Jane (pseudonym here for daughter) just left this afternoon for her flight to London! She’s going to be there for a year as an au pair!” I immediately thought, “uh oh …. did she buy a round trip ticket for this kid and did they bother to get a work visa?” Sure enough, at Heathrow, they asked her for her return ticket/plans and she told them, “I’m staying a year with a family in Oxford to work as an au pair!” No return ticket (they only bought her a one way) and no work visa – what makes people think it’s easy to work in the UK when it’s not easy to come work here? (And this friend of mine? She’s in early childhood education for 30 years and has known hundreds of au pairs form Europe.) Mom is awoken in the middle of the night by call from daughter telling her she’s being deported back to the US and is banned from entering the UK for 3 years.

    So yes, they do ask for a “return ticket” and always when least expected!

    And of course they didn’t come to me for the air ticket – bought on-line on Cheaptix. Had they come to me I would asked about a visa, etc…..

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