Airline travel tips learned from United Airlines nightmares

My husband had a terrible travel experience this week — twice. On both legs of his round-trip journey on United Airlines, big problems occurred, further reinforcing our belief that United Airlines is one of the worst airlines on which to travel. While I may rant a bit in this post, it will focus mainly on lessons we’ve learned that can help you in similar situations.

Lessons learned about baggageplane-in-sky-landing
On his outbound flight, United lost my husband’s suitcase, which contained all the clothes he needed for a week’s worth of business meetings. It wasn’t your typical lost luggage error. My husband was at the airport in plenty of time for his first flight, and he had an ample layover before his second flight. You know the white, self-adhesive tag that the airline prints out and places on your baggage? It turns out the United counter representative put someone else’s airline luggage tag on my husband’s bag. He realized this the next morning when he looked at his claim check and noticed it had someone else’s last name. I called the airline, got the contact information associated with his claim check number updated and he got his bag 24 hours after arriving at his destination. This taught us:

  • Check the luggage claim check the airline gives you at the counter. Make sure it has your name on it.
  • Be sure you have your own luggage tag on your suitcases. This helped the airline confirm which bag belonged to my husband.
  • Make a mental note of unique items packed in your suitcase, so the airline can confirm it has the right bag by examining the contents.
  • For travel involving next-day business meetings or other critical events, place a day’s worth of clothing in your carry-on baggage, along with key supplies such as deodorant and contact lens solution.

Lesson learned about canceled flights
After getting my husband’s trip off to a terrible start, United also managed to ruin the end of it. On his way home, after his first flight landed, he learned his connecting flight home had been canceled for “environmental reasons.” The airline didn’t bother to explain what this term meant. On Delta, when we’ve had canceled second flights, the airline has rebooked us on new connections while our first flight was still in the air. United doesn’t provide this excellent customer service to its travelers. The airline forced my husband to stand in line to reschedule his flight, then told him it couldn’t get him home for 24 hours, even though there was no bad weather affecting other flights. He was traveling between two large airports featuring  multiple airlines, so there was no excuse for a 24-hour delay. He asked about being placed on other airlines but was told no seats were available.

Back at home, I looked online at some of those other airlines and found three same-day flights on Delta with economy-class seats available. I called United and conferenced in my husband. I pointed out to the United representative that there were flights available on other airlines and asked her to book him on one. We spent an hour and 20 minutes on the phone with her (most of the time on hold), then she cut us off and never called us back, even though she’d requested our call-back number. Another, 40-minute call with a new agent resulted in my husband being booked onto a US Airways flight the next morning. United did not pay for his hotel room or even give him a meal voucher. From this, I learned:

  • Staff in the airport terminal does not always tell the truth. Don’t take their word for it that options on other airlines are not available.
  • Ask a friend or family member to call the airline’s national number for you and to try to rebook your flight.
  • Before calling to rebook a cancelled flight, research what options are available on other airlines, and have them in front of you. Tell the airline the flight numbers/times of the flights you want the traveler to be placed on.
  • When dealing with United, you may have better luck if you asked to be rebooked onto US Airways. Part of the reason for the long delay in our phone calls was the wait time it took for the United Staff to get on the phone with Delta Airlines staff. Booking my husband onto US Airways took only a fraction of the time.
  • Ask what will happen to your luggage if you change flights or airlines and what you should do if it is not at your final destination when you arrive.

My husband’s arrival home will not be the end of the story for me. I plan to write a detailed letter to United explaining all the ways they negatively impacted my husband’s travel and asking for reimbursement for the costs he incurred. At the least, I am hoping to get a travel voucher or frequent flier miles as compensation, although I’d really like to see them pay for the hotel room he needed.

By the way, an independent study recently confirmed United is the worst in customer service among major carriers.

Do you have “lessons learned” from your own travel nightmares? Please post your tips to help others avoid the same headaches.

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Filed under Customer service, Travel tips

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