- Comparison shop: Consult more than one Web site to see that you're getting the best deal. That means looking at different airlines and online travel agencies.
- Think about all the fees you might encounter, including those for checking a bag as well as for food, beverages, headsets, blankets and other amenities. Factor these into your overall cost before you buy a ticket. These can add up — especially for a family trip
- When booking online with a carrier or online travel agency, consult the seat map. See what's available at the time of your booking and pick the best seat available at that time.
- Check in online with the carrier 24 hours before departure. Even if you don't have access to a printer to print your boarding pass, you can still check in using a computer, smart phone or any other Web-enabled device. It's still possible to get your boarding pass printed at the curbside check-in or at the airline ticket counter. Make seat adjustments if you need to.
- When arriving at the airport, don't check your bag until you have an actual seat assignment.
- Troubleshoot with a human: If the computer kiosk at the airport isn't giving you the seat assignment you want, ask for help or walk up to a customer agent at the check-in counter.
Courtesy of Travelocity
When travelers search for flights on Travelocity.com, they can click on a link to see if checked baggage fees apply.
When travelers search for flights on Travelocity.com, they can click on a link to see if checked baggage fees apply. Courtesy of Travelocity
Purchasing a product from an online retailer can be a snap. But when it comes to airline travel, it isn't always a joy ride.
Some travelers have been venting their frustrations on Twitter. That's where David Austin turned when American Airlines' Web site didn't automatically show him the cost of the flight he wanted to book.
"I care about cost, time [when I leave and arrive] and, if I've got stopovers, how much time in between flights," says Austin, a 30-year-old manager of a Web team for an oil and gas company in Calgary, Alberta. "[American's] site looked like a giant spreadsheet and I had no idea what I really had to do next."
Austin says he'll guide his fingers to the telephone — not the mouse — the next time he tries to book a flight with American.
Billy Sanez, a spokesman for American, says the airline surveys its online customers regularly and revises the site every two weeks. "We try to create a Web site that is sort of uniform to the masses because we do talk to 1.6 million people a day on AA.com," he says.
"The expectation that consumers have is that Web sites should make us completely self-sufficient," says Henry Harteveldt, principal analyst for airline and travel research at Forrester Research. "We've embraced the do-it-yourself nature of planning and booking flights online, but it's not always as easy to do that as we would like it to be."
Since 2007, there's been a steady decline in the percentage of travelers who actually like using the Internet to research and purchase any kind of travel, according to an online travel survey conducted in February by Forrester. Those who enjoy using the Internet to both plan and buy travel dropped from 53 percent in 2007 to 45 percent in 2009, the survey found.
Forrester projected that by year end there will be 68 million online travel buyers, up from 66 million in 2008. But the survey found that an increasing number of travelers are willing to use "offline" travel agencies.
Airfare represents the largest share of travel purchased online, Harteveldt says. More travelers were pleased with how they were treated by travel agency Web sites (41 percent), however, compared with travel supplier sites (31 percent), which are run directly by airlines, hotels or car rental companies, according to the survey.
Take A Seat
One common complaint heard by Kate Hanni, founder of Coalition for an Airline Passengers' Bill of Rights, is that when people book air travel online, they don't always end up with a seat assignment. When travelers follow up with telephone calls to customer service agents, Hanni says, they typically hear the same answer: "'Don't worry: You'll get a seat, just get to the airport and you'll get your seat assignment at the gate."
She says this creates problems — especially if travelers check a bag curbside and then don't end up getting a seat on the flight. Beyond shelling out the extra money that most airlines now charge for checking a bag, it may also mean that your suitcase travels to your destination without you.
"Bottom line: If you aren't given a seat assignment, assume you aren't flying on that flight," she says.
The Promise Of Convenience
The promise of online booking is one of convenience. With a mouse, a consumer can search for the best fare without waiting on the phone to speak with a customer service agent. It also can translate into less time in the airport: If you arrive with a boarding pass that you printed beforehand, you can head through security and go right to your gate.
For the airline industry, which continues to search for ways to economize, it's also a key strategy. "If they can push you to the Web to do whatever it is that you need to do, it costs them virtually nothing," says Genevieve Shaw Brown, senior editor for Travelocity.
Don't Forget The Fees
But nothing about buying an airline ticket online guarantees that you'll have a crystal clear picture of all the fees you might have to pay. That's especially the case if you plan to check a bag.
Brown says baggage fees are the No. 1 item that impacts flight pricing — and it's also the item that most travelers forget to factor in.
"Airlines have not done a good job of reflecting the true cost of the trip on their Web sites," says Harteveldt of Forrester. The additional fees for checked bags, snacks, meals, headsets and other amenities can quickly add up.
He says TripAdvisor.com's fees estimator is one of the best ways to help sort these things out before you buy online. Travelocity also has a fare notes section where customers can learn about checked baggage fees before booking.
Confusion over fees exists, in part, because there is no government oversight of airlines' disclosure of these optional fees.
"In the economic environment we're in right now, people are watching things down to the last proverbial penny," Harteveldt says.
So, even if you're not a road warrior or frequent flier, it pays to follow a checklist to make sure your mouse is leading you to the best deal.