4 lessons we learned from booking flights online
On a grey and foggy day back in November, we sat happily engulfed in our sunny dreams of Portugal, chatting with friends in London about the perfect villa to choose for our summer holiday in 2017. The Algarve was our destination of choice and if you have ever tried to narrow down choices in and around the Algarve you know you are spoiled for choice with the myriad beautiful accommodations. We weren’t after much: it didn’t need to be too big, a pool and air-conditioning was a must, and it had to sleep all 10 of us. Finally, over the next couple of weeks we narrowed it down to one we loved and booked our non-refundable accommodation. With relief and anticipation, we moved on to the next step - booking our flights.
There are only a few flights from Zurich to Faro per week—and none are on a Saturday. We chose the Friday flight, but since villa rentals generally go from Saturday to Saturday we found ourselves in need of an extra night of accommodation. We decided to book our flights and the extra night through eBookers for simplicity sake. Having booked lots of flights before, and even having used eBookers once or twice, we thought we were in pretty safe territory. What could go wrong?
I’M GLAD YOU ASKED THAT QUESTION
We quickly found out exactly what could go wrong after we finally got around to booking our car rental. All went fine with the rental, but when the car rental agency wanted to know our flight number I needed to go back on the eBookers website to look that up. Imagine my face as I was searching for the reservation and discovered that our original flights had been cancelled. And now you can probably imagine me flying to the phone to call eBookers to see what the @#$% was going on. It must be a mistake, right?
No mistake. My fears quickly materialized and it soon became very clear that our direct flight from Zurich to Faro had been indeed been cancelled and that we needed to rebook. To make things worse, original options for direct flights no longer existed. With less than two months to go before the peak summer holiday season, we needed to rebook flights. Yeah, that was fun.
Still a bit in shock since this was the first time in all my years of flying that I’d had flights canceled, I rushed to do a post-mortem on this. How could it have happened? Did I miss something? Is there a way we could seen this coming?
Perhaps we shouldn't have used eBookers. To cut a very long story short, they never informed us that our flights had been canceled, and by the time we discovered this on our own we had very little time to find decent alternatives. After a week of going back and forth and chasing eBookers, and despite them promising to return our calls but never doing it, we were finally able to rebook our flights. We had to fly a day earlier and returning a day later and our previously direct flight has now turned into a flight with a connection via Frankfurt. We were out-of-pocket 600 CHF for the extra 2 nights accommodation in a hotel in the Algarve, as well.
Not a great start to the summer.
But instead of harping on about how unfair it is (which I have already done ad nauseam to every friend and family member that I have), let’s take some time to learn from the experience. My hope is that this little bit of insight can help you to avoid the pre-holiday chaos that we experienced. So here goes:
1. Book directly with airlines whenever possible.
Although it can be cheaper to book through third-party websites, when a problem arises with timetable changes and/or canceled flights, you’ve now added one more step in the process for vital information to get back to you. If we had booked directly with the airline, we would have be advised properly and most likely with plenty of time to find alternate flights.
2. If booking through a search engine, consider booking your entire accommodation at the same time.
We were informed by eBookers that if we had booked our entire accommodation (including Villa + extra night and flights) through their website at the same time, the additional two extra accommodation nights which were incurred because of the flight cancellation would have been covered by them. But, as we had booked our villa privately, they told us that they were not required to provide us with anything.
3. Airlines can legally cancel and/or modify flights up to 14 days prior to the date of travel
When we first found out about our cancellation, we immediately researched consumer rights in Europe regarding airline travel. What we found out surprised us. Airlines can legally cancel and/or modify flights up to 14 days prior to the date of travel. The only thing they are required to do is offer a reasonable alternative, or a full refund. Only if the flights are cancelled within 14 days of the originally scheduled date does compensation enter into the picture. So, in general, we are all at the mercy of the airlines with very little alternative.
A refund would not have helped us in our case as our villa was already paid in full - so taking whatever flights we could get our hands on was the only option.
4. You are ultimately responsible for your own travel
No matter who you book through, checking and double checking and checking again to see if things are as they should be comes down to the individual traveler. When you book your flights make sure you log in once in awhile and check that things are still as they should be. Emails may not be sent to warn you, phone calls may not be made to you, and at the end of the day you are your own best advocate. Put a reminder in your calendar or whatever it takes, but do check your reservation once in awhile.
How very lucky that we didn’t book our car reservation when we booked our flights, otherwise it could have been much worse.
I understand and expect that schedules occasionally change and not everything can run smoothly 100% of the time. However to be flexible, I need to be informed. The fact of the mater is that companies such as eBookers are huge, and individual customers like us aren’t that important. They have rules in place to save their own skins, but not to protect their customers.
After this experience I will not use eBookers again. And I am honestly rethinking my future use of booking sites given my potential financial exposure and overall inconvenience.