Multi-Carrier e-Ticketing Hell

or Screwed by Flying Virgin

Okay, this is the second time this has happened to me, so I think it needs a blog entry.

Lately it’s possible to book cheap, complex routes on multiple airline carriers thanks to the magic of the internet and fear — good old fashioned fear — of insolvency.

This may at first seem like a godsend to the would-be international vagabond; that is until you actually try to take one of these flights. While Orbitz may know each carrier’s routes and be able to plan out the perfect budget ticket for you, it doesn’t take into account exceptions. If something goes wrong, such as, say, a twenty minute flight delay, be prepared to scramble.

For example, last week I booked a cheap round-trip ticket from Boston to Chennai, India via London and Mumbai. Had it worked, this would have been a team effort between American Airlines, Virgin Atlantic, and (greatest airline in the world) Indian carrier Jet Airways. Twenty-three hours of flight time is a little longer than I had hoped for, but a deal for the $1,500 price tag.

Five hours into the tip I knew I was in trouble. We were going to be twenty minutes late into Heathrow. If you’ve ever been to Heathrow, you know that every second counts: Navigating inscrutable tunnels filled with random checkpoints and the occasional train takes time.

I emerged blinking from the gangway, eyes darting about and ready to sprint off into the labyrinth. When suddenly, not twenty feet down the terminal corridor, I spotted my connecting flight, Virgin Atlantic Airways 350, accepting the last of its passengers. I had thirty minutes to spare.

Smugly I sauntered over to the gate and presented my official Orbitz itinerary with a slight flourish. Ah, the magic of the internet. Who needs a ticket when you have an e-ticket, right? Yeah. Well, actually since this is the second time this has happened to me, I wasn’t all that surprised for what came next.

Frowning intently at my official draft-quality Orbitz printout, the gate security guard disappeared behind a barrier to return with kindly Virgin staff who explained, sympathetically, that I was pretty much screwed. Though I had a an e-ticket, and though — just down the gangway — my paid-for seat was available, Virgin policy required that I first pass through the transfer desk, requiring at least a twenty minute trek deep into the Heathrow labyrinth via checkpoints, scanners, trains, minotaur, and who knows what else. I was, it seems, to spend a night in London.

So, off I went to the transfer desk. Of course, by the time I arrived (10 pm), the American Airlines desk was deserted. Emergency hyperactive backup staff at the late night Virgin desk explained that I would have to book my own accommodations and request reimbursement from American. They also recommended that I transfer my luggage to the next Virgin flight rather than picking it up at Heathrow at such a late hour. Reasonable enough I suppose.

To make a long story short, I am now here in Chennai, following a $500 stay in the luxurious Heathrow Hilton and a completely different flight on British Airways, sans luggage. And, yes, I have learned my lesson.

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