As far as mistakes go, the one Janet Gordon recently made didn't seem like a big deal. She booked an airline ticket from Toronto to London under the name "Jan."
But what happened next could only be summed up in one word -- "chaos" -- says her husband, David.
"It was a major hassle," remembers Gordon, a human resources director for a college in Swansea, England. At almost every turn, the couple had to explain why the name on Jan's ticket didn't match her passport. "The computers wouldn't allow us to check in and issue a boarding card," he says.
In a business where slip-ups are almost as common as surcharges, the wrong-name-on-my-ticket error is a standout. You don't have to look far for ticketing mistakes in an age of do-it-yourself booking. Take it from me: not only do I write the Travel Troubleshooter column, a question-and-answer feature that helps people solve real-world problems, but I'm also an expert on errors.
I'll get to my own shortcomings in a minute. But right now, let's review the five biggest booking blunders -- and how they could have been prevented:
Wrong Name on a Ticket
Before 9/11, airlines and security personnel -- and I use the term "security personnel" loosely -- might have let a nickname or even a maiden name on a ticket slide. No longer. If you have the wrong name on your ticket, you're probably grounded. And there are two reasons for this: security and greed. The Transportation Security Administration wants to be sure the same person who bought the ticket, and who was screened, is boarding the plane. But when there's an inexact match, the airline can either charge a $100 "change" fee or force you to buy a new ticket. In an industry where every dollar counts, the exact-name rule is the government's gift to cash-starved air carriers.
That's the situation Gordon was confronted with, even when it was obvious that "Jan" and "Janet" were one and the same. There were suggestions that a new ticket might need to be purchased. "We didn't let it get to that," he recalls. Instead, he asked to speak with a supervisor who could finally fix the codes so that the ticket and passport matched up. How did all of this happen in the first place? Turns out Jan Gordon had signed up for a frequent flier account under her informal name, so when she booked an award ticket, it also used her informal -- and inaccurate -- name.
How to avoid it? Triple-check the name on your ticket. Make sure your computer doesn't autofill another name and that the name on your passport or driver's license matches up with your ticket.
Booking a Ticket on the Wrong Airline
Believe it or not, people board the wrong flight every day. I'm not even talking about codeshare flights, which is industry-speak for booking a ticket on one airline but then flying on a "partner" airline with different rules and maybe lower service standards. I'm talking about simply making the wrong choice of airline.
For example, the elite-level business traveler who is accustomed to being treated like royalty when he flies on his preferred carrier might want to stay away from a budget airline. "I gave Southwest a try and I hated it," they'll write to me. "I'm never flying with them again." Of course not. If you don't like flight attendants with a sense of humor, peanut snacks and on-time flights, you'll probably hate Southwest, too. On the flip side, I hear from travelers who book tickets on full-service network airlines and then complain about the price. Which is silly. How else do you think an airline is going to pay for all of that service?
How to avoid it? Watch for the codeshare designation when you book online and do a little research before buying an airline ticket. That way, your expectations won't be too high. Or too low. Also, consider using an experienced travel agent.
The City Switcheroo
Selecting the wrong city pairs -- going from point 'B' to point 'A' instead of from 'A' to 'B' -- is another common error. Jennifer Hyde bought four tickets on Delta Air Lines through Orbitz. But instead of booking them from Boston to Baltimore she inadvertently switched cities, rendering the tickets completely useless. "Needless to say, neither Orbitz nor Delta is doing anything to help," she says. Hyde, a homemaker from Newton, Mass., would have to pay a change fee for each ticket, plus any fare differential, to make things right. Not good.
How could someone switch cities? It's easy. To an inexperienced web user -- and OK, let's be completely honest here, even to some experienced users -- those pull-down menus on travel sites can be utterly confusing. When you're typing in airport city codes like BWI and BOS, it's easy to forget which airport goes where. (But it could be worse -- Hyde might have ended up with a ticket to the familiar-looking BAL city code, which would have taken her to Batman, Turkey.) Point is, if you're not paying attention, or if you're dyslexic, you could click "accept" all the way through the reservation process and you wouldn't know you messed up until it was too late.
How to avoid it? Pay attention. If you're easily distracted maybe you should be working with a qualified travel agent instead of booking yourself. And read your confirmation immediately. If you spot a mistake, your agent might be able to undo it at no charge.
Buying a Ticket That's Too Restrictive
Booking the wrong kind of ticket is yet another common error. Airline sites often assume you want to purchase the cheapest and most restrictive fare, so that's the first quote you're usually offered. The pricier, fully refundable tickets are buried deeper in the site, which is too bad. For air travelers whose plans might change, these are the best selections.
Why should you pay more for a ticket? Because if your plans change and you're holding a nonrefundable ticket, it will be practically worthless. Every day I field a question from air travelers who would have benefited from this advice. They ask the airline to make exceptions to its refundability rules. They make up excuses. They throw tantrums. It almost never works.
How to avoid it? If you can't buy the right ticket, at least buy the right insurance policy. It might protect you if you change plans.
Like the wrong city switcheroo, the wrong date problem is an epidemic among air travelers. Part of the reason is simple absentmindedness: choosing the sixth month instead of the seventh month and then not reading the subsequent screens.
But part of the reason is that airline Web sites are anything but user-friendly. Reader Nancy Smythe wrote to me recently about her flight from West Palm Beach, Fla., to London, which she booked directly online through the airline. It turns out the carrier had sold her a ticket it couldn't deliver -- her connection times were too short. So it agreed to rebook her on a later flight. But when it sent her the new ticket, it had the wrong date on it. When she pointed out the mistake, she was asked to pay a change fee. "This wasn't my error," she says. So why should she pay for it? Smythe's experience reveals the maddening secret of ticketing mistakes. The airline will try to make you pay for an error -- even if it's not yours.
How to avoid it? Wake up and read the screen. No, seriously. This can usually be avoided by just reviewing your itinerary before you click the "book" button.
So look out for wrong names, wrong airlines, wrong cities, wrong dates and wrong expectations. Easy for me to say, right?
I've made every mistake in the book -- and then some -- when it comes to travel. All of the above errors are on my record. And let me also add that my mistakes aren't limited to travel. I have some big-time screw-ups to my name that extend into my professional and personal life. Hey, don't we all?
But as I look at the subject of mistakes in general, and ticketing mistakes in particular, I'm not worried about the ones we make once and learn from and are unlikely to repeat.
It's the ones that we make over and over for no other reason than that we're just easily manipulated -- those are the screw-ups that infuriate me.
Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine and the host of "What You Get For The Money: Vacations" on the Fine Living Network. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
(c) 2008 Christopher Elliott Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.