BUDGET TRAVEL TIPS

8 Common Air-Travel Snafus (And How to Beat Them)

From missing your flight to losing your passport, flying can be full of nasty surprises. Check out Budget Travel's insider tips for coping with, and avoiding, these headaches.

By Sean O'Neill, Monday, Apr 25, 2011, 1:00 AM

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YOU FACE A SURPRISE LAYOVER

Airlines can cancel your nonstop flight without much warning and rebook you on a flight with connections.

Why it matters: Nonstop flights usually cost top dollar, but an airline can make such a change without reimbursing you for the premium you paid. That means a financial loss—not to mention an inconvenience.

How to deal: When you learn about the change (usually via text or e-mail notification from the airline, see below), check online to see if there's another nonstop flight available. If there is, call the airline and politely ask to be put on that flight at no additional cost. If your airline has no nonstop flights (even though it sold you one), ask for a refund. Major airlines will comply without charging any change fees if you refuse to accept a new, multistop flight that arrives at your destination more than two hours later than originally scheduled, says Brett Snyder, former airline pricing analyst and current aviation blogger at the Cranky Flier.

Trick to avoid the problem: At the end of the month, many cancellations on U.S. carriers may be due to flight crews reaching caps on the number of hours they're allowed to work, or so we've heard anecdotally through airline employees. Logic holds that, by adding a layover to a flight, airlines can swap out a fresh crew to fly the final leg of a journey. The lesson: When possible, fly early in the month to reduce the chance of a nonstop switcheroo. Insider tip: Sign up to receive text or e-mail notifications about delays and other flight changes when you buy your ticket.

YOU'RE NOT FLYING THE AIRLINE YOU EXPECTED

Two airlines may sell seats on the same flight through a sales strategy called code sharing. This means that you may book your ticket with one airline, but you'll be flying one of its partners.

Why it matters: This sleight of hand can make it confusing to know which airline's customer-service office you should call for help when a problem crops up. For instance, one airline may allow you to check a bag for free, while the other may charge a fee. Whose rules apply on your code-share flight?

How to deal: First, it's important to understand that the flight rules that apply are the ones of the company whose logo is on the plane flying you. But when it comes to re-ticketing, you usually need to talk to the airline that took your money. For instance, if you miss your connecting flight and need to rebook, the gate agent is likely to refer you to the airline you originally bought the ticket from.

Trick to avoid the problem: Keep your eye out for code-share flights so you're prepared. Some travel websites, like Expedia, point out which airline you're truly flying on under the flight details section in their search results. In other cases, you have to call an airline to find out. Insider tip: If you're in need of help at the airport, ask to be pointed to the customer-service counter for the airline that took your money in the first place. If there isn't such a counter at the terminal, ask to speak on a phone to the "duty airport manager" for the airline that sold you the ticket, says David Rowell, publisher of The Travel Insider. This is the person who manages the day-to-day operations of the airline at that particular airport and who can usually help you resolve your issue.

YOUR FLIGHT GETS CANCELED

Your aircraft has to be taken out of service because it needs maintenance—or a snowstorm keeps it grounded.

Why it matters: If you need to cancel, an airline will usually allow you to use the value of your "nonrefundable" ticket on another flight within a year (while also charging you a change fee, of course). But when the airline is the one doing the canceling, it will most likely rebook you on a later one, which could leave you stranded at the airport for hours—or even days.

How to deal: In the U.S., if your flight is canceled for a cause that's within the airline's control, such as a mechanical failure on the aircraft, some airlines will provide modest compensation, like vouchers for meals. But when it comes to weather cancellation, and you're a coach-class passenger, you're on your own until they can rebook you on the next flight, which means you'll be paying for all of your meals and your hotel room. If you're flying from or within Europe, the airline may owe you compensation for cancellations (ask an agent about EU rule 261).

Trick to avoid the problem: Try to book early morning flights, when there's a full day ahead for airlines to recover from any weather or operational delays. Insider tip: Before you book, check to see a flight's statistical average for cancellations at flightstats.com (listed under the on-time performance rating). Consider that it may be worth peace of mind to book an alternate flight that has a lower historical average of cancellations, even if that option costs a bit more.

YOU'RE BUMPED FROM A FLIGHT

Last year, airlines bumped 681,105 passengers from flights in this country (8.7 percent of these individuals were bumped against their will). Overbooking is to blame.

Why it matters: If you volunteer to give up your seat, you'll be rebooked and usually rewarded with a free flight pass to use at another time. But if you're unlucky enough to be kicked off a domestic flight against your will, you're at the mercy of the airline's schedule. With planes often flying at capacity today, it could be a long while before you reach your destination.

How to deal: If you're bumped involuntarily, know your legal rights: Being placed on another flight within an hour scores you no compensation. Yet when it takes up to two hours on a domestic flight (or four hours for international travel), the airline must pay you double the value of your one-way fare, up to a maximum of $650. If you're more than two hours delayed, you'll be reimbursed four times the value of your one-way ticket, up to $1,300 max. Flying in Europe? Rules are similar, with possible compensation up to $874.

Trick for avoiding the problem: Check in via the airline's website as soon as you're allowed—usually 24 hours before departure. Early check-in may boost the chance that you'll make it onto a flight. Insider tip: When it comes to reimbursement, federal law entitles you to cash for being bumped against your will. The airline may try to give you a voucher for a free future flight instead. Insist on the cash, which is obviously less restrictive than a voucher. But if you're volunteering to give up your seat, don't be pushy about receiving cash. In that case, airlines aren't required to give you anything, so a gracious "thank you" is all that's called for.

YOU MISS YOUR FLIGHT

Sometimes travelers show up too late for their flight because of traffic or other snafus.

Why it matters: Booking a new, eleventh-hour plane ticket can be costly.

How to deal: Whatever the reason, if you miss your flight on a nonrefundable ticket, you can usually pay a change fee—typically between $150 and $200 on a domestic flight—and be rebooked on a new one. You generally also have to pay for the difference between your new ticket's price and the original fare. Policies on overseas airlines may vary, but expect to pay in the ballpark of $250.

Trick to avoid the problem: Your mother was right: Showing up early is the smart thing to do. Other tricks can give you an edge when life doesn't cooperate: Don't bring bags to check, so that it'll be much faster for agents to allow you to board—even if you've missed the check-in cut-off time (see below). Insider tip: Find out in advance the airline's cut-off time for checking in by going to seatguru.com <http://www.seatguru.com/>, picking your airline, and clicking on the "Check-in" tab. For example, Continental's policies at Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson airport requires check-in to be completed 45 minutes before departure or else you may be denied boarding. If you're en route to the airport and realize you're going to miss your flight, look up alternative flight times (and seat availability) via an app like TripCase, which is free for devices such as the Android, iPhone, and BlackBerry.

YOU DON'T FIT IN YOUR SEAT

If you're super tall or extremely overweight, you may not fit in the typical airplane seat.

Why it matters: Consider how flight attendants on a recent Horizon Air flight forced a six-foot-nine-inch-tall passenger to leave a plane because his legs were blocking the aisle. The airline later apologized, saying it should have instead had the flier trade seats with another passenger in the roomier exit row. Plus-size passengers have also been in the news in recent years: Airlines increasingly insist that passengers who can't fit in a seat with a seatbelt extender buy an additional seat.

How to deal: When you have trouble fitting in your seat, ask a flight attendant if he or she could arrange for a swap between you and another passenger who may have more legroom or free space on either side.

Trick to avoid the problem: Check in online 24 hours prior to departure and select a seat assignment in the roomy exit row. If that's not possible, call the airline, explain your problem, and buy an adjacent seat. Insider tip: If you do buy a second ticket, ask the gate agent what your airline's policy is on refunding the price of the spare seat if it turns out that you can sit comfortably without it—some airlines will reimburse the cost if they have made a note ahead of time in the reservations system.

YOUR LUGGAGE, OR SOMETHING INSIDE, IS DAMAGED

Your suitcase isn't insured by the airline for wear and tear. But if something inside your bag is damaged, it may be covered.

Why it matters: On domestic flights, a passenger can recover up to $3,300 for damaged or lost contents of luggage. Liability on most international flights is less, strangely enough, at about $1,500 a passenger.

How to deal: Report a claim within 24 hours, or else you may lose your chance to file for reimbursement. Be prepared to itemize your belongings.

Trick to avoid the problem: Never pack anything fragile or difficult to replace in your checked luggage. For instance, airlines almost never cover jewelry or electronics. Even breakable items such as musical instruments that aren't packed in hard-sided cases are usually not covered by U.S. airlines. Just ask Dave Carroll, the musician who made a famous YouTube video about how his guitar was damaged to the tune of $1,200 by United baggage handlers. Insider tip: If your bag's contents are critical, ship them by a service such as FedEx or UPS. Because of rising checked-baggage fees, major shipping services are increasingly competitive in their rates. Just be sure to call your hotel first to make sure it will accept your package for delivery without charging a fee.

YOU LOSE YOUR PASSPORT

Perhaps you got pickpocketed or lost your day pack. Either way, your passport has gone the way of your cash and credit cards. Talk about headaches.

Why it matters: Without a U.S. passport, you won't be able to return to the country. (Vacations are nice, but who wants to become an accidental expat?)

How to deal: Passports can often be issued at a U.S. embassy on the same day if you can prove your identity (the U.S. Department of State has a full list of embassies and consulate offices around the world). Of course, it's hard to prove your identity when your wallet—and everything in it—is MIA. The best first step in this situation is to go to a police station to get a statement declaring your situation. Take this statement to the embassy, and they should be able to retrieve your information in their system. You will need to pay a fee (around $135) to replace your passport.

Trick to avoid the problem: Stash your passport in a hotel safe or stuff it in a security pouch, such as the Rick Steves Silk Money Belt, which you can wear under your clothes (from $10, Amazon). Insider tip: Before you depart, sign up for the U.S. Department of State's free Smart Traveler Enrollment Program. Store your passport number and other details in its online database, making it easy for you to receive emergency assistance from a U.S. embassy or consulate during an emergency. Alternatively, e-mail a scan of your passport to yourself at a Web-based account, which you can access if you lose your passport and you need to look up its number and issue date to request a new one.