Avoiding Air Travel 'Gotchas'

PHOTO: A departure board at the airport shows delays and cancellations.

Just when you think everything about your trip is going smoothly, a little voice pipes up to say, gotcha! I've heard it and bet you have too.

I'm sure the woman flying Pakistan International Airlines last week heard her own version of "gotcha" when she got off the plane in Lahore - because she was supposed to be in Paris. For reasons that remain unclear, she slept through the landing, slept through the layover and apparently slept through at least part of the return trip. Eighteen hours on a plane and why a flight attendant didn't wake her is anybody's guess.

Most air travel "gotchas" are not so extreme, but they are annoying and sometimes expensive. Here's how to avoid the worst of them.

For more travel news and insights view Rick's blog at farecompare.com 1. The ticket buying "gotchas"

Book a ticket, pay for airfare. Pretty simple, except with some airlines. Most charge a fee of $25 if you have the audacity to buy your ticket over the phone. Don't think the web is totally free either; both Spirit and Allegiant charge for online booking but you can avoid the charge by going to the airport and making your purchase there. Wonder how many do that?

If this phone gotcha gets you, not much you can do except learn from your mistake, but it's a good reminder to look up all fees before booking a flight. Remember, if you're buying a non-refundable ticket (as most of us do because they're the cheapest) most airlines charge a fee for any itinerary changes. And always compare prices. That ultra discount fare may not be all it's cracked up to be once you do the math.

2. The delayed flight "gotcha"

The gate agent gets on the PA system to tell assembled passengers there's a mechanical problem with the plane and the delay will last one hour. So off you go to some far corner of the airport for a leisurely lunch. Here's the gotcha: if the mechanical problem gets fixed earlier, the plane will take off, with or without you. If you find yourself in a similar situation, grab a lunch and bring it back to the gate. Never go out of range of the PA system or you could be in for a nasty surprise.

3. The carry-on bag "gotcha"

I always say avoid bag fees by using a carry-on but even so, there are a couple of gotchas. Allegiant and Spirit charge for all bags including carry-ons, so there's one. Another is bag weight: Hawaiian charges a fee for carry-ons weighing more than 25 pounds. As for checked bags, you may be surprised to learn plenty of airlines on intra-Europe routes do not adhere to the U.S. allowance of up to 50 pounds and those overweight fees can be fierce.

One final carry-on gotcha: an airline lets you bring it onboard for free, but once you get to the gate you're told, sorry, not enough bin space and your bag is placed in cargo. At least you don't have to pay for that, but if you must hand it over, be sure to grab any medication you might need during your flight or valuables/important papers. Chances are the bag will be fine, but chances are something I don't like to take.

4. The dropped airline route "gotcha"

This is probably the worst of the bunch; you have your ticket, your trip is all planned out when up pops an email from the airline saying, "Sorry, but we've dropped this route." We're hearing about this more and more as carriers drop unprofitable routes - and this includes bankrupt airlines like American as well as high-flyers like Southwest.

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