Don’t Make This Costly Error When Booking Airline Tickets
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Our time in Istanbul was coming to a close. We’d enjoyed our time in the largest city we’ve visited so far. The history, the culture, the monuments, and the unique architecture (relative to where we’ve visited so far) made our time in Istanbul memorable. The experiences we’d had over the last week were going to stay with us for years to come. Visiting Istanbul was definitely a highlight of our travels!
However, as bitter sweet as our departure may be, we had a house sit in Zurich, Switzerland with two cute dogs awaiting us. It was time for us to move on. We set our sights on Zurich and spent the day before our scheduled flight getting ready. We were finishing up work, washing clothes, and packing everything in our backpacks. At the point it was time to check into our flight for the next day, Shannon sat down at the computer and pulled up our confirmation email from the airline. She clicked through the link to manage the flight and was brought to a site that had a check-in time of 30 days in the future. She didn’t think much of it, there must be an error or a stale web browser cookie. She reloaded the page to no avail. She then manually entered the flight confirmation number on the airline’s website, but still received the same error, it was too soon to check into the flight.
This is where she started to worry a little bit. She went back to the original email and reviewed the information. To her utter dismay, the departure date of the flight was exactly one month later than when we needed to leave!
Let’s Rewind a Month
To fully understand the situation, we think it’s pertinent to the story to go back to when we purchased the tickets, about a month earlier. We’d been in Brussels, sitting in our hotel room, planning out our itinerary for the next couple of months, which consisted of six different countries. The whole planning process and logistics took us more than an entire day of looking for flights and hotels. We worked on making sure we were getting the best rates and finding applicable promotions, but most of all, making sure everything 'worked' together, and navigating dates of upcoming house sitting commitments we had planned. We got to the point where we had everything mapped out and it was time to buy the airline tickets to Istanbul. We found the least expensive tickets we could (at a purchase price of slightly over $150 apiece) on Turkish Airlines and booked directly with the airline.
When booking tickets, we’re diligent about not only carefully entering in the information requested (dates, names, addresses, passport information, etc.) but also reviewing and checking the information. We always have the other person review and okay it before we submit our payment information and complete the purchase. Forms and tickets can be especially tricky for American travelers because of the difference between the European date format and US date format. In the US the date is written as ‘Month/Day/Year’, but in Europe it’s ‘Day/Month/Year’.
As always, we made sure all of the information was correct and then clicked submit…
The page looked like it was loading and we waited patiently. Then it reloaded to the same page, but with a blank form. We tried again, thinking the SSL (secure connection) had possibly timed out while entering the information the first time. Again, the webpage did the same thing. We tried it in an incognito window, but it didn’t work. We tried it in a different browser and it still didn’t work. We tried it on another computer, still, it didn’t work. Finally, trying it on another computer in a different browser and an incognito window finally worked. After half-a-dozen attempts, re-entering all of the flight and passenger information each time, we finally got it to work. We received the confirmation email and we were relieved to finally have our tickets to go to Zurich, Switzerland from Istanbul, Turkey. Looking back, the best we can come up with is that Turkish Airlines’ servers where (probably) having a momentary database glitch. The fact that we were finally able to purchase our tickets while using a different computer, with a different browser, while in ‘incognito/private mode’, was probably merely a timing coincidence. We've since re-visted their website and it looks like they've re-designed the entire site.
Now Back to the Day Before Our Planned Flight
Shannon was stunned and horrified. At first she just wondered if this was really happening. Then she got a grasp on the situation, realizing that if we didn’t get into action quickly, we wouldn’t be flying out the next day, and we’d miss the first day of our planned house sit in Zurich. For us, that wasn't acceptable.
Shannon brought Sergio into the loop, explaining the situation. Thankfully, we’ve grown enough in our relationship not to get angry, play the 'blame game', or really not even worry about what happened until later. We both knew it was time to get into problem solving mode. (Shannon here: I assure you, as much as we may try, we’re not above getting angry at each other, but in this situation, with so much on the line, we rose above finger pointing.)
We knew we were in a bad situation. We hoped a call to Turkish Airlines would offer a simple and quick solution. We called and spoke with someone in the call center. We explained our situation. We needed to get from Istanbul to Zurich the next day. We’d already purchased tickets but had made a terrible mistake after entering the information half-a-dozen times due to errors on their website: we’d inadvertently purchased tickets for the wrong month. We’d hoped for a chuckle, sympathy, and kindness from the customer service rep, but we also didn’t feel entitled; we knew they didn’t ‘have to’ change our tickets free of charge. We could see on their website that there were tickets available for the next day, on the same flight. However, they wouldn’t budge. We could change the tickets, but we’d have to pay a penalty fee to do so. We asked how much the fee was. It turned out, the penalty fee would’t only cost more than the original tickets cost us, but, it would cost more than the current cost of buying new tickets. Meaning, we could go online and purchase new tickets for less than the Turkish Airlines fee to change our existing tickets!
We went back and forth with customer service, but there wasn’t a happy ending. We could pay an outrageous fee to change the tickets, we could pay a similarly outrageous fee (which was more than the value of the original tickets) to change the tickets into a credit for future flights, or we could cancel the tickets and get only our taxes and fees back. So, we ended the call and got to work on…
Each on our own computer, we simultaneously scoured the internet for tickets to Zurich. We used every tool and every resource we could think of. The price of tickets on Turkish Airlines’ website was increasing as the time passed. We suspect, between the two of us looking at those tickets, and the call center agent looking at those tickets, the website was employing dynamic/surge pricing to increase the price because of the ‘high interest’ in the flight schedule. After nearly an hour of looking, we found tickets on another airline for about $250 each.
We continued to look, searching for possible flights to another city and then connecting to Zurich. We weren’t having much luck, so we decided to ‘make peace’ and purchase the $250 tickets, for a total cost of $500. We then realized that we had the option of paying for tickets with ThankYou Points from our Citi Prestige credit card. The redemption wasn’t great, but it was better than spending $500 out of pocket. It was a tough pill to swallow, but it was necessary.
Shannon went to the airline’s website, found the tickets available on the date in question and started the process of filling out the needed information to purchase the tickets. Sergio continued to look at options, since he’d realized that we could use ThankYou Points from our Citi Prestige credit card to pay for our tickets. We just had to find a ticket on Citi’s redemption website. Low and behold, before Shannon pressed the final submit button to purchase the tickets directly from the airline for $250 each, Sergio found an alternative.
We moved on to plan C. Sergio found two available tickets, for the next day from Istanbul to Zurich, with a layover in Kiev, Ukraine. We could go directly to the airlines website and purchase them for $115 each. Seriously, that’s $230 total, more than half the cost of the tickets we were moments away from buying! Or, we could use our ThankYou Points instead, and purchase the same tickets on Citi's travel website. No doubt, the redemption value of using our points to book the new flight was sub-par, but it seemed like the best option.
So, we went through the whole purchase process of buying the tickets on the Citi redemption site and clicked purchase. We waited with anticipation, thinking that surely in a matter of seconds this whole thing would be behind us. The 'internet gnomes' on the other hand, had a different idea... There was an error! The site could no longer find the tickets available. It was now time for another new plan.
This plan wasn’t too hard to come up with. At this point we were tired, slightly deflated, and feeling a bit defeated. We decided we were going to go to Ukraine Airlines' site and purchase the tickets directly through them. The last thing we wanted was to try the Citi website again, be unable to purchase them because of some error, and in the meantime, have someone else buy the tickets (or the price go up) and lose out on the tickets altogether.
On Ukraine Airlines' website, we very carefully entered our flight and passenger information. We double and triple checked all the information, especially the dates, and then clicked the button to purchase the tickets...
Surprises, surprise. We got an error! The tickets were no longer available at the listed price. They’d increased $40.00. At this point, it wasn’t a big deal to us and we accepted the price increase. We purchased the tickets and received a confirmation email with our ticket information. Finally, we were done with the ordeal and would be on our way to Zurich the following morning!
Or, so we thought…
High Risk Payment Alert
The relief was short lived. Just a few minutes after receiving our confirmation email from Ukraine Airlines, we received a second email. The email stated that our payment was flagged as ‘high risk’ and that we needed to email a copy of the credit card used and the cardholder’s passport. If we didn’t comply, our tickets would be canceled. As you may know Sergio’s an IT Consultant, so we know better than to send such sensitive information over email, not without strong encryption anyway. We sighed, would this ordeal ever end?!
We proceeded to make a phone call to Ukraine Airlines, and waited for the next available customer service representative. Being that this was an Eastern European airline, when the representative took our call, we kindly asked if she spoke English. She said she did and we went ahead and explained the situation and the email we’d received. Our first red flag was when we gave our confirmation number and she had trouble understanding it. The second red flag was when she put us on hold, came back on the line and asked us to repeat what the problem was. At that point, it was clear that the languages we each natively spoke were going to be a roadblock. We attempted every which way to help her understand the email we’d received and insure our tickets would be valid for our flight the next morning. Ultimately, after 20 minutes of talking with her, we were stuck. She thought we wanted to send a picture of our credit card and passport to her, not that we'd received an email from Ukraine Airlines requesting it. In the end, we knew it wasn’t her fault, she just didn’t understand our language well enough, and we couldn’t speak any amount of hers.
We asked for her supervisor, in hopes they'd speak better English, and she flatly responded “No” to this request. When we insisted, she told us to hang up and call back; maybe someone would answer who spoke better English. This was so different from the customer service that we’re used to, that we couldn’t help but laugh about it later. We kept asking to speak to a supervisor and finally, she transferred us. Essentially, to make this long story not as long, the supervisor had a slightly better understanding of English, and while we’re still unsure if she fully understood the email we’d received, she was able to assure us that our tickets were valid and that we’d be able to fly out the next morning.
This was the best assurance we were going to get. We tried searching online for other people who received the same email, but came up empty handed. We did a Google search for the email address the message was sent from, and again, we didn’t find any applicable results. We decided to let it go and make our way to the airport (fingers crossed) the next morning.
The Airport and the Flight
We woke up at 2 am, to give us enough time to get ready, get a taxi, and get to the airport in time for our 6 am flight. In turned out that while we slept, we’d received an email from Ukraine Airlines that said they hadn’t received our email response with a copy of our credit card and passport. They went on to say that we could show them the requested documents at the ticket counter before our flight that morning. We made our way to the airport, and waited for the counter to open so we could clear the ambiguity right away. As to not risk complicating matters further, we decided to check-in and get our boarding passes without mentioning the email. The last thing we wanted was a misunderstanding in explaining (or understanding) the situation and therefor further complicating matters. We were so grateful and relieved when the woman at the ticket counter looked over our passports, looked up our tickets, printed our boarding passes and told us to be on our way.
Finally, we were on our way to Zurich!
But Wait, There’s More!
We should have known, it’s never done, until it’s done. After passing through security and passport control, we had some extra time before our flight left. We made our way, after making the wrong turn a couple of times, to the airport lounge. We knew when our boarding time was, per what was written on our boarding passes. So, we purposefully left the lounge five minutes before boarding would commence. We walked out and looked at the monitors to check the status and quickly noticed that next to our flight, it said in bright red letters “Final Boarding Call”. However, we didn’t understand why, since boarding was just supposed to be starting, not ending. We broke out into a run through the busy morning airport traffic. Walking would have taken us ten minutes, but we cut the time in half and arrived at the gates out of breath.
Another sigh of relief! We'd made it! We boarded the plane and took our seats. We were then thoroughly confused as to what “Final Boarding Call” in Istanbul meant, because we waited another 20 minutes on the plane as passengers slowly boarded. Apparently, our understanding of “Final Boarding Call”, as in 'the gates are closing and the plane is leaving if you don’t get here right now', was incorrect. In this airport, it meant, 'don’t worry, just make your way to the gate as you can, we’ll be closing the gates in 20 or 25 minutes'.
In the end, we boarded the plane and were happy to be making our way to Zurich!
The Cost of a Typo
We paid $250 for the new plane tickets, which would have been a great deal considering our original tickets were $300. However, the original $300 wasn’t refunded, so we ended up paying $250 on top of the $300.
To make matters worse, the new flight was five-hours earlier than the original flight (remember, we had to wake up at 2 am!), so our plan to take the Metro to the airport wouldn't work, because the metro didn't operate that early in the morning. So, we paid for a taxi ride to the airport and lost the money we’d put on our Istanbulkart for the metro ride. We gave the Istanbulkart away, in hopes someone else would be able to use the credit we'd left on it. We’d lost sleep in having to wake up so early, on top of spending hours of our time the previous day trying to fix the problem, and subsequent email messages. We also paid for hours of international calling time, as we spoke with multiple customer service agents from different airlines. And, to add insult to injury, our small pair of sewing scissors, that had gone through dozens of security checkpoints, in well over half a dozen countries, were taken away. We had to pass through security again in the Kiev Airport, a place we never intended to be, and apparently, scissors are not allowed, in any size, in a carry-on. As you may know, every item we carry is precious, so to lose anything is tough. Shannon pleaded for the scissors, the blade was only about an inch long, but they insisted on taking them.
We calculate, that after it was all said and done, we spent an extra $300 on fixing a problem caused by a typo. This of course doesn’t include any calculation of our time or frustration; if we factored that in, our ‘expense’ would be much greater.
What's the moral of the story you ask? You can’t be too careful entering information for purchasing tickets (or for any transaction/situation for that matter). If you’re tired, or frustrated, it may be best to take a break and come back later. And lastly, can we add one thing? Can we all just use the same darn date format?! It doesn’t have to be the current ‘American’ format, but can we please reach a consensus and go with it? Oh, and speaking of different formats, let’s not forget gallons vs liters, or 1 pm vs. 13.00. Again, can we just pick one and make it a global standard?