Avoiding Air Travel 'Gotchas'

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

And sometimes the problem isn't about losing a city but gaining one; you may have paid a hefty premium for a non-stop to Europe but out of the blue your airline converts it into a connecting flight. Unfortunately, there's not a lot you can do in a situation like this.

As for the dropped route gotcha, speed is your ally. The quicker you get on the phone with the airline, the more options you'll have. Usually the airline will try to work with you but if all else fails, you should get a full refund so you can get a flight on another carrier. In that case, though, brace yourself for the possibility of paying more especially if you need to make changes close to your original departure date. As I always say, ask the airline what it can do for you in the way of vouchers or other assistance; you won't get a thing if you do not speak up.

5. The free ticket "gotcha"

There are times when you want to redeem your miles with your airline's code share partner airline, only to find your 'free' ticket to Europe costs hundreds of dollars in fuel surcharges and taxes. Now this won't occur with all redemption activity, of course, but when it does - gotcha!

6. The multi-airport "gotcha"

You've just flown into New York's LaGuardia and look around for your next flight but can't seem to find it anywhere. A quick glance at your ticket reveals the gotcha: your next flight takes off from JFK. This happens, especially if you're flying multiple airlines and there's really only one thing you can do: pay close attention whenever you book a flight but especially a flight with one or more connections and see what airports they fly in and out of. Already booked? Check your itinerary carefully. 7. The unruly passenger "gotcha"

I don't know if there's something in the water or it's just the dog days of August but there have been a rash of 'bad passenger' incidents this month, bad enough to delay or divert flights. One particularly notorious case involved a man on a JetBlue flight who allegedly ranted at seatmates before punching a passenger and groping a pregnant woman. The cross-country flight diverted to Denver. Nothing much the average passenger can or should do about such incidents beyond letting the professionals - flight attendants or even air marshals - deal with it. Interference on your part, no matter how well meaning, could result in you too getting tossed from a plane.

Now if you're the 'victim' of a delayed or diverted flight, the airline may offer you a voucher for your convenience but if they don't, go ahead and ask. United recently atoned for a nightmarish delay by providing passengers with free meals and hotel rooms, as well as refunding the entire cost of the tickets and giving each passenger a $1,000 voucher. Those passengers earned the largesse; they'd been stuck in the Shanghai airport for three very long days.

The opinions expressed by Rick Seaney are his alone and not those of ABC News.