I’m a big fan of what Gary Leff calls “gardening” your reservations. If you book it and forget it, then there is a greater chance you will be disappointed when the time comes to take your trip. Flight schedules change often enough, and many airlines don’t do a great job of alerting the customer to these changes. Despite other complaints, I actually think United does a better job at this than most. In contrast, my upcoming trip on American Airlines has had two changes to the return journey with no notification.
I was originally scheduled to depart St. Thomas in the late afternoon, around 4:30 PM, and make a connection in Miami to the only non-stop flight to Seattle. Then that flight got moved later, too late to meet the legal connection time in Miami. So to make the trip work, STT-MIA got moved to 2:30 PM. Then for whatever reason we got moved even earlier to 9:30 AM.
We’re taking a cruise in the Virgin Islands, so while 2:30 PM was fine, a 9:30 AM return flight just doesn’t work. American Airlines never sent me notification of these changes, and the only reason I noticed was because I logged in yesterday morning for a last-minute check.
It paid to do my homework before calling the Executive Platinum desk. The agent’s first suggestion, as I anticipated, was a one-stop itinerary on US Airways through Charlotte. No thanks. I will do whatever it takes to avoid flying US Airways in economy class. I thanked her for the suggestion but asked if I could propose one of my own. Some agents are touchy about being told how to do their jobs. This one said, “I love it when you guys do all the work for me.”
Staying over in Miami didn’t work because it would still mean getting home late — just late on Sunday evening instead of Saturday, which Megan wouldn’t like. I decided instead to get us as close to home as possible, adding a second connection in DFW, SFO, or ORD.
I dislike Chicago-O’Hare, and San Francisco would have us arriving at midnight before taking an airport shuttle to the hotel. We’d probably have to take a really early flight from San Francisco to Seattle, too. Instead, I picked Dallas because it has a more manageable 8 AM departure on Sunday and two Hyatt properties connected to the terminal. I’ve already stayed at the Hyatt Regency before; this time I’ll get to review the Grand Hyatt.
As you can probably tell by now, an agent has some flexibility to rebook you on alternate flights when the schedule change is the airline’s fault even if the original booking class isn’t available. So while you can search on a site like ExpertFlyer or KVS Tool if you want to know the inventory breakdown, most people will be able to use the airline’s site just to see if any itinerary is possible in the same cabin. Let the agent determine if there’s a problem with the fare class once you get on the phone. (I’m talking about different fare classes for the same cabin. It’s unlikely you’ll be able to get rebooked into first class if you were originally booked in economy class.)
However, you should try to be a little creative when you search. My overnight stop in Dallas never appeared on any conventional search. Even when the agent knew I needed to go to Miami first, she tried to take a short cut by searching STT to DFW and nothing was available.
Knowing your airline’s partners, their hubs, and any other details about their route network will help you create your own itinerary leg-by-leg. Remember that connection times are limited to 4 hours on domestic flights and 24 hours on international flights, but you can stay longer than that as long as you take the first departing flight the next morning.
Strategy can come into play here. I knew about the first change months ago and did nothing. It was good enough. I hoped that maybe something else would open up, and then I could could use the change as justification for something better than what I started with. I didn’t want to play my card too early, but there was a chance — there’s always a chance — that waiting too long means flights will fill up and I can’t play the card at all.
Other times I’ve used schedule changes to get a refund on a flight I no longer wanted to take — I argue that no alternate itinerary is acceptable. Maybe I know weeks in advance that I want to cancel, but a schedule change hasn’t happened yet. If one doesn’t happen by the departure date, then I can still cancel and pay the same cancellation fee as if I hadn’t waited.
Gardening your reservation can help with hotels and car rentals, too. I often book refundable rates so I can go back later and change hotels if I find out they’ve started renovations or rebook a hotel room or car at a lower rate. Hyatt’s new “My Elite” rates and most AAA and Costco rates have cancellation policies of 24 hours before arrival. Online travel agencies, including PointsHound, are doing a better job of offering “pay later” hotel rates that can be cancelled without penalty. And most car rentals, especially those booked through the company’s own site, are also cancelable unless otherwise indicated.
So pay attention to your travel plans! The sooner you spot an issue, the more likely you’ll be able to address it and possibly even improve upon what you already booked. You can do this even if you don’t take action immediately. But if you want until you arrive at the airport, my guess is all you’ll gain is a bad mood.