Booking overseas flights can be challenging, but if you know when to hold and when to fold, in the long run you’ll return a happier traveler.
The most important thing to keep in mind is that cheap isn’t the same as successful. With that in mind, here are 5 ways to smooth out your ride:
Go Easy on the OTAs
(Online Travel Agencies). Third party bookers like Expedia, Orbitz, and Kayak are an awesome way to score a good deal on domestic tickets—most of the time. There’s also a level of convenience using them to search across a variety of fares and airlines. And when you’re ready to book, you can feel pretty good knowing you’re getting the same price as you would on an airline’s website.
But when it comes to international travel, the OTA booking convenience has its trade-offs: unless you are experienced with workarounds for complicated flight hiccups, it can actually be risky. In fact, one of the pitfalls of booking either domestic or international through an OTA is what happens when you run into problems (flight cancellations, delays and reroutes).
The unmitigated hassle of being in the middle of the airline and the online agency will most certainly negate any convenience. Frequent fliers note that airline reps and gate agents put third-party tickets at the bottom of their “concern” list, and are unlikely to help you sort out issues like they will for loyalty program fliers who book directly with their airline.
How do they know you didn’t book direct? The coding on your ticket spells out your booking method.
The bottom line for overseas travel is that it’s best to use the OTAs to compare prices among airlines and then go book directly at the airline’s website for a better chance at getting help, should you need it.
Get a Human
The more complicated your itinerary—flying to multiple countries through multiple cities and hubs on multiple codeshare flights, group ticketing, or special pricing in conjunction with a hotel or cruise deal—the more it makes sense to seek out a traditional travel agent. When it comes to flight ticketing only (no other travel arranging like hotels or cars), the average markup is around $60, according to a quick survey of travel agencies. When it comes to problem resolution, especially if you have a solid relationship with your human agent, the $40 to $80 you pay them will likely bring a faster resolution of your issue than if you’re fending for yourself. They know the ropes—and they’re paid to have your back.
To check out well-vetted lists of local agents, or ones who specialize in the type of travel or destination you’re interested in, visit the American Society of Travel Agents.
When OTA is the Only Way
If your budget dictates OTAs as your best option, then be prepared. Error on the side of caution and make sure you have the third-party agency as well as the customer service number for the airline you’re flying in your phone. That way you can call and try to get any issues resolved while you’re standing in line waiting to speak to a human agent at the airline’s customer service counter about a re-accommodation.
Be aware that most of the customer service reps for OTAs are outsourced, which can often make it harder to get the answers you need. In the end, they still have no power to help rebook you if your flight gets canceled or rerouted. So it’s incumbent upon you to know what your rights are with the airline you’re using. Bone up here.
When Things Don’t Go As Planned
What to do if you’re using an OTA and everything goes haywire?
Call the airline or OTAs customer service number. Make sure you have your airline record locator number (on your boarding pass, usually in caps and in bold). Note the date, time, and length of call (do yourself a favor ahead of time and learn how to record the call using a cell phone app). Also, don’t forget to ask for and note the name of the representative or their employee number. Then as one experienced frequent flier advises, keep it simple. Do not get into a complicated discussion or an angry whine fest. Tell them you booked through the OTA, then state your name, your record locator number, the flight date and time of flight, and the problem—“my flight from A to B got canceled, and I need to rebook pronto.” Leave it at that.
You’re lucky if they fix your problem, but if not and you’re mid-flight and they don’t or won’t assist you, be prepared to pay for an alternate flight. If you haven’t yet started the trip, you may have other options and it’s worth being more persistent, staying on the phone and making multiple calls as needed. But you also may be simply spinning your wheels and wasting valuable time trying to make them help you.
If They Don’t Want to Help You
What if you have to buy an extra ticket to complete your flight? Once you call the OTA rep, you have met your legal obligation to make a reasonable effort to avoid a breach of contract. Beyond that, you don’t have to compel them to do their job nor do you need to stay on hold for a specified period of time. Nor are you required to make multiple attempts at contact. So if they don’t help you, the onus is on them. Your legal obligation to the OTA and the airline ended when you made a concerted effort to seek redress.
Once you’re back from your trip, file a claim directly with the OTA, and if need be take them to small claims court (or the court of social media) where the burden of proof will be on them once you provide the details you noted at the start of this hassle. The judgment will be in your favor. Collecting on it, however, could be another hassle.
Get Travel Insurance
You could avoid a lot of this if you purchase travel insurance. It’s designed to help you recoup your money and even time in the event of a missed flight, trip delay, or cancellation caused by bad weather, an airline mechanical breakdown, sudden illness onset, or even a car accident en route to the airport. Don’t expect to rely on your credit card to cover flight delays or cancellations, or for that matter, emergency medical coverage overseas. Often when there is coverage, the benefits are highly limited.
Knowing that you’ll get reimbursed for a last-minute ticket or a rebook can help take the stress out of the chaos that typically ensues in these situations. But always thoroughly research the coverage and the insurer (check online reviews) to make sure you’re fully protected.
A travel agent can walk you through coverage options, or you can visit World Nomads to find appropriate insurance to fit your particular needs.