Janet and I just returned from a river cruise on the Moselle River in Germany…our first river cruise after more than 50 ocean cruises. We cruised with Avalon Waterways, a member of the Globus family of brands. It was an interesting, unique, and wonderful adventure as anyone who follows us on social meda could see with all the pictures and videos we posted. But that’s a topic for another time…perhaps our next newsletter. This post is about handling what happened to us on our trip over to Europe…flight delays, cancellations, missed connections, baggage issues, and rebooking after a day of delay we weren’t counting on in Europe.
After dealing with similar problems for clients already this summer, I thought Janet and I were mentally prepared. We were not. What can you as a traveler do when even your travel agent has trouble with travel?
1. Expect travel disruptions because almost nothing will go as planned this summer. Flights will be delayed or cancelled, connections missed, or your luggage will get lost…sometimes all three, and there is little you can do to prevent it. We followed all the advice we give to our clients about how to avoid travel troubles when we planned our flights, and still we got stung.
2. Purchase a travel insurance policy that provides lost luggage, trip delay, and trip interruption coverage, because you’ll probably need it. It is best to purchase tip insurance as soon as you book your trip, but even if you didn’t, as long as you haven’t departed on the first leg of your trip it’s not too late. Airlines are notoriously bad about stepping up to their responsibilities to travelers when there is a disruption in the service they offer and it has only gotten worse with all of the problems this summer. There is no guarantee trip insurance will cover all expenses associated with trip delays or interruptions either…it depends on the specific circumstances and the details of your policy, but I can absolutely guarantee it won’t cover anything if you don’t purchase it.
3. Download your airline’s app. That has become one of the best ways to deal with airlines when problems crop up and you can’t find someone at the airport to help. It isn’t a guarantee that you will get your travel problems fixed quickly, but it is rapidly becoming the airlines’ preferred method for working with travelers.
4. Arrive at the airport at least 3 hours before your scheduled departure, longer when you are flying home from Europe. You may find yourself having to wait for someone to show up at the airline’s check-in desk if you have an early morning flight, but at least you’ll be toward the front of the line when they do, which will cut down on your wait time. If you sail through check-in and security and end up with hours of time to kill, go get a cup of coffee or a glass of wine and consider yourself lucky.
5. Know your destination’s arrival requirements, particularly when it comes to COVID. Entry requirements, whether it be for pre-arrival testing or proof of vaccination, continue to change frequently. Most international destinations require that you fill out a health and contact tracing form online a day or two before your scheduled arrival. Airlines will have an app or website where you can fill out what is needed, but some destinations require that you submit information directly to them, so do your homework. If you submit the necessary form(s) at home, along with any COVID testing and vaccination documentation as required, you’ll be able to skip ahead of the people at the airport who don’t. You’ll likely get an approval notification via text or e-mail with a QR code or bar code on it. Print that out and take it with you in addition to storing it on your phone.
6. Likewise, print a copy of your boarding pass if you check in online, and make sure any QR code or bar code is free of smudges or fold lines. If you rely on your phone for your boarding pass any crack, smudge, or blemish on the screen can keep the airport scanners from being able to read it. If that happens you’ll have to get out of line and go back to the airline check-in counter to sort it out. And there is no skip the line pass to get you back to your place in line. When it comes to your return trip, most hotels and tour operators at your destination can arrange for you to print your boarding pass if you check in online, or you can print one at the airport. And thankfully, you no longer need a COVID testing before coming home.
7. Go with the flow. If a flight is cancelled or you miss a connection and your airline automatically re-books you, take the flight they’ve re-booked you on no matter how inconvenient it may be for you. We learned that lesson the hard way on this trip. It used to be you might find an alternative to what the airline offers that works better for you. Not this summer. Even if the new flight means spending several days before you can get another flight, take it.
8. If you don’t get re-booked automatically, try to re-book yourself through the airline’s app while you stand in line waiting for help at customer service. At many airports the customer service centers are so short-staffed they just close down. That’s what happened to us in Frankfurt when we missed our connection because of the three hour delayed departure from Philadelphia. We were automatically rebooked on a flight the next day, but we were on our own when it came to finding a hotel. As tempting as it may be to say screw it and pay out of pocket for a new flight, that should be your last resort. You are more likely to win the Powerball lottery than you are of getting reimbursed for that flight, even if you have a good travel insurance policy. You will have a better chance of getting any hotel, meals, and additional ground transportation reimbursed if you end up making those arrangements on your own, but not alternate flights.
9. Keep your travel agent’s contact information handy. Your travel agent can make all the calls necessary to help you get re-booked if your airline doesn’t do it automatically, and they can ensure your follow-on travel plans are adjusted to accommodate your delay.
10. Pack your patience. Our travel glitches on this trip were minor compared with others and still we found ourselves frustrated, angry, and feeling forgotten. Mostly because we were all those things. We got out on a flight the next day, as did our checked bags, but many travelers have been stuck for several days waiting for a rebooked flight.
11. Plan to arrive a day or two before you need to. We’ve never been a fan of same day arrivals and this summer that’s a sure-fire way to end up disappointed. The airline isn’t going to refund you the cost of your cruise or tour if you miss it even when it’s their fault, nor are they going to cover your cost to catch up even if your itinerary allows for that. Booking your air through the cruise line or tour operator might help, but it might not. Don’t take that chance with your vacation. The same goes for your return flight. Don’t plan to fly home late in the day when you have an important event that you can’t miss the following day. The airline doesn’t care if they can’t get you back in time for your personal schedule. Their sole obligation is to get you back…sometime.
12. Pack with the assumption you will not see your checked luggage when you arrive at your destination. A recent report indicates lost luggage, which only occurred about 1% of the time pre-COVID, is now happening about 30% of the time. Pack a carry-on bag with all the meds you’ll need for the entire trip (plus a week more for contingencies), some basic toiletries, and one or two changes of clothing. Do the same thing for your return flight, even if you have a non-stop routing. If your flight is cancelled you will most likely be spending one or more nights somewhere other than home before you can get on another flight, and you won’t be able to get your checked luggage back. The airport and airline baggage departments are too short staffed to pull luggage once it is checked in. We found that out the hard way, fortunately we were prepared. If you have to, buy some necessities to tide you over but be sure to keep all your receipts. You’ll need them when you file your claim with the airline and your insurance company. And be reasonable. The insurance company is not likely to cover the cost of a designer outfit when your Kohl’s purchased shorts and t-shirt go missing.
13. Janet’s favorite tip for packing checked bags is to avoid falling into the habit of packing “his” and “hers” luggage. Pack half of your stuff in one bag and fill the rest of that bag with your partner’s clothing and accessories. Do the same with however many bags you need to carry all your stuff, but try to make sure that you also divide up the essentials, and that what you pack in each bag goes together. It wouldn’t do much good to pack a suit in one bag only to have your dress shoes in another if one of the bags gets lost. Likewise, if the airline loses the bag with all your undergarments it doesn’t much matter that they didn’t lose the bag with the rest of your clothing.
14. Make sure you have removed all bar code tags from previous trips to avoid confusing the automated luggage handling systems. If you don’t, you could end up at your destination while your bags end up at your previous destination.
15.Keep the baggage claim tags given to you when you check in. I am amazed at the number of travelers that still don’t do that. If you don’t have your claim tags, you might as well give up any hope of ever being reunited with your bags. Some airlines send you the claim number in their app if you’ve registered your flight with them, but keeping a paper copy is always a good idea.
16. If your luggage gets lost, don’t count on the airline to find it and deliver it to you. Try to find someone who can escort you to the airport’s lost luggage center, which will probably be harder than you think, and search for your bags yourself. If that isn’t an option, provide a detailed physical description of your luggage as well your travel itinerary when you file your lost luggage claim. Many people are relying on Apple Airtags to help them track your luggage, and they work. You’ll know where your luggage is. Where they don’t work so well is getting anyone from the airline to go get your bags and send them to you.
17. Take a picture of your luggage and place a sheet of paper with your contact information inside. Both steps will help overworked and understaffed baggage claim employees isolate your bags from the thousands of others in search of their owners. Make sure you note all that information on your lost luggage claim form. The more you can do to help differentiate your suitcases from someone else’s, the more likely you are to get them delivered to you before the end of your trip.
Nothing about the delays and hassles associated with travel today is remotely satisfactory. It is the reality of travel, for now. My hope is that as the travel industry recovers from their current staffing shortages things will gradually improve. The good news is you can now travel pretty much anywhere in the world. The bad news is so can everyone else.