COVID Series: Buying Plane Tickets In A World Of Travel Restrictions
Updated: Jan 20
Today we're stepping outside the world of miles and points to talk about some major traps and headaches to avoid when flying during COVID on cash tickets, drawn from the most common complaints and booking disasters I've encountered since lockdown started.
It's worth reading this article in tandem with our piece on crossing borders during COVID.
Most of the problems discussed here simply don't apply when booking with points, since award bookings are generally pretty simple transactions in which your home airline is acting as your travel agent.
Let's get started!
#1 - BUY AIRFARE DIRECTLY FROM THE AIRLINE - AND NOWHERE ELSE - UNTIL COVID IS REALLY, TRULY OVER.
I'm dead serious about this one. No matter what kind of price you see on "FlyDealz.com" or any other Online Travel Agency (OTA), no matter how tempting it looks, I urge you to buy your plane tickets ONLY direct from the airline, or at least through a personal travel agent you know and trust, until COVID is entirely behind us.
The reason for this is simple: when flights get rescheduled or cancelled - and that's happening an awful lot this year - you really don't want to be stuck trying to go through a third company's phone-support system to try and get rebooked or refunded. I've heard from countless people this year who've lost hundreds of dollars when a flight gets cancelled, and both the third-party reseller and the airline respond with "not our problem, you need to talk to the other guys".
Below is a screenshot from the "shopping cart" page of one of the biggest online travel agencies. This was for a "deal" where they were selling a flight from Toronto to South America for what is presented as "$100 less than the airline". Problem is, they want you to give back most of the money they've just "saved" you, simply for the privilege of them NOT leaving you on hold for hours and delaying any refund you're legally owed.
Just to make matters worse, the "cheaper" flight this website offered was also a Basic Economy fare, which doesn't include checked bags or seat selection unless you pay additional fees - but most people go to South America for a month with just carry-on, right?
I'm not going to pretend that airline customer service call centres are any kind of fun to deal with, but at least you'll be talking to someone who CAN address your problem.
#2 - BE VERY CAREFUL WHEN COMBINING FLIGHT BOOKINGS
I love Google Flights as much as the next person - used correctly, it's a powerful tool for efficient, highly-customized flight searches.
...but it also loves to come back with this little gem: "Separate Tickets Booked Together".
In this case, it wants to sell you the outbound trip to China on one ticket, and the return on to New York on a different ticket from a different airline. Ignore for the moment the part where it wants you to fly from the US to China via India, during COVID, and this one's not a big deal.
Where you absolutely CAN run into huge trouble is by splitting the same part of your journey across separate tickets.
For example, as I write this it costs a lot less to book Atlanta-Miami and Miami-Rio de Janeiro on two different airlines, than it does to book Atlanta-Rio de Janeiro on one ticket. We're talking $600 USD separately instead of $1500 USD together.
Thing is, if your Atlanta-Miami flight is late, or gets cancelled, Airline #2 doesn't care WHY you didn't show up for the flight, they're just going to cancel your ticket or, if you're very lucky, let you fly after they charge you a huge change fee to re-book for the next day.
I know it's possible to save a lot of money this way, and that's fine, I'm just saying leave yourself lots and lots of room for things to go wrong, *especially* in a time when some airlines are cancelling flights left and right just weeks before departure.
#3 - CHECK COVID BORDER RESTRICTIONS BEFORE YOU BOOK!
In the Times Before COVID, you could find some really great deals by leveraging airline partnerships, flying three or four different Star Alliance airlines between Boston and Bali.
Currently, several countries' COVID restrictions state that foreign nationals who can't come TO the country can still come THROUGH the major airports, providing their arriving and departing flights are both operated by the same airline.
Online Travel Agencies aren't normally responsible for verifying your eligibility to enter a country before they sell you a ticket to go there, so you've got to double-check for yourself before you click Purchase.
#4 - TRUST, BUT VERIFY
The reality of COVID-world is that airlines are going to reschedule, cancel and otherwise juggle flights around constantly. Once you've booked, check back two weeks, one week *and* two days before departure to ensure your flight is still going as planned. If something's changed, you should get an e-mail notification, but it's still worth taking a minute to keep an eye out, while you've still got time to work around any last-minute changes.
In most cases, a cancellation or substantial schedule change (several hours, not ten minutes) should be enough for most airlines to rebook you for free, but you'll have much better luck with this a few days before departure, than when you check in the night before and find out your noon flight now lifts off at 5 AM.
#5 - DO I REALLY NEED TO BOOK SIX MONTHS IN ADVANCE? NAH.
As airlines struggle to find their way back to profitable operation, we're going to see some remarkable sales, but also some bankruptcies, takeovers and re-structuring. As I watch airfares roll out for 2021, I'm not seeing much that makes me want to give an airline an interest-free loan from now till November, for a flight that's likely to get rescheduled six times between now and then.
More importantly, as a certain airline that rhymes with "Bear Panda" continues its nasty habit of cancelling hundreds of flights on short notice, and refusing to issue refunds to affected passengers in favour of "future flight credit", I'm encouraging travellers to vote with their wallets and not book any further in advance than necessary.
Use Google Flights and check my math on this, but generally speaking, right now I'm seeing airfares start to climb up above "cheap advance purchase" prices at about the one-month-before departure mark. Personally, I'm happy holding onto my money until then, so I have at least some idea that the airline actually expects to deliver the product it sold me.
If you're buying your airfare in places like Europe that haven't abandoned consumer-protection laws, this is less of a concern. Yep, I'm snarky about this. Airlines that screw over their customers now, are only prolonging the damage to the travel industry as a whole.
#6 - REMEMBER THAT AIRLINE STAFF ARE PEOPLE, TOO
Over hundreds and hundreds of flights throughout the years, no rule has served me so consistently as this: "be the nicest person airline staff will encounter all day".
You can do this because your mother raised you right, or you can do it because it'll often get you better treatment than the jerk in front of you in line who thinks yelling's going to get him to Pittsburgh any faster. Both are fine, and I've absolutely gotten difficult re-bookings or even free upgrades, simply by being the first polite customer an agent has talked to in hours.
I've spent a lot of time since COVID started talking with airline phone agents, managers, gate agents, check-in clerks and flight attendants, and the one thing they've pretty much all got in common is that they're exhausted. Picture all the stress you and I have felt about lockdown, or losing our jobs, or having to wear a mask all day, or getting COVID, and then imagine doing this while spending all day, every day, in a metal tube full of people, for months.
This isn't a sob story, it's advice: as we all start to fly again, the stress of travelling will be at an all-time high. When you deal with a cancelled flight, or a tarmac delay, or any of the things that went wrong while travelling BEFORE the world ended back in March, remember that the person in front of you didn't cancel the flight or make it snow. Treat them like a human, and the absolute least that will happen is that you'll have made somebody's life better.
Treat them like dirt, and you've basically removed all their incentive to try and find a creative solution to your problem; and trust me, this is something they can do, within reason.
Treat them like dirt, and you may just find that "yes, sir, I can get you onto this flight, but the only thing available is a middle seat in Row 50". You might think I'm joking, but that last one is a real example that happened to the rude, angry people in front of me in line on a flight to Heathrow last year. I was next in line, I was friendly and polite, and lo and behold, I sat next to the only empty seat on the plane.
Don't treat this like an automatic ticket to special treatment - it's absolutely not - but the absolute worst that can happen is that you were nice to somebody just because.