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On a wing and a prayer

The tickets are booked, the bags are packed. Then, even before you can even take off on that dream vacation, chaos descends. What now?

india Updated: Jun 19, 2010 16:46 IST
Pranav Dixit

Make no bones about it. The week before you leave on that rejuvenating vacation you’ve been planning for months, is the most stressful of all – meeting office deadlines, wrapping up last minute errands.

Then, just when you think all is well, fate throws the proverbial spanner in the works – you get stuck in that mile-long traffic jam on your way to the airport; halfway through the ride, you realise you’ve left your passport back home; or worse (shudder!), you arrive at your destination sans your luggage which has been ‘lost in transit’ (“But our systems can track it anywhere in the world, sir,” assures the hapless airline official once you release his collar).

Sticky situations like these, especially when you are just kicking off your holiday, are highly unpleasant and can lead to a lot of unnecessary stress. Not many of us, however, know what to do (will the airline adjust me on another flight if I miss mine? Do I really have to reach the airport about a hundred years before take-off?) Here’s the what, how, when, where and why of how to handle things if you find yourself in a pickle. Have a travel horror story? Drop us a line, we would love to hear about it!

1. Dude, where’s my plane?

First, the numbers: more than 50 per cent of the respondents to a survey conducted by a major airline last year said that they had missed a flight at least once. Thirty five per cent reported having missed a flight at least twice. And about 5 per cent reported having reached the airport minutes after takeoff four times or more. Mumbai-based banker Sharad Sinha (name changed to protect privacy) falls in the last category. “Yes, I have gained quite a reputation for missing my flights,” he says with sheepish smile. “Once I managed to reach the airport after the check-in counters were closed. The airline people were extremely adamant and simply wouldn’t let me board, even though there were 20 odd minutes for my flight to take off!” helaments.

Not all of us may be as tardy as Sinha but we could certainly use a few tips from the experts. “It is an extremely common mistake to misjudge the intensity of traffic jams on the way to the airport,” says Bhawna Agarwal, founding vice president, Airlines Business Group, Yatra.com. “So ideally, you should aim to reach the airport at least an hour before departure (if you’re taking a domestic flight. For international flights, reach at least two hours before). Also, keep in mind that boarding gates close 30-45 minutes prior to the departure of the flight. I know a lot of people who have missed their flight after the boarding gates were closed,” adds Agarwal.

There are times, though when airlines will make exceptions, “especially if you tell them that you were delayed because of a medical emergency,” laughs Agarwal. “But ultimately, it’s the airline’s decision and there’s nothing you can do about it if they don’t let you.”

If you’re not flying on a low-cost airline, they might take you on the next available flight after charging you a nominal penalty,” says Keyur Joshi, co-founder and chief operating officer of MakeMyTrip.com. “Otherwise, you have no option other than buying yourself a new ticket by paying the basic fare (taxes get refunded).”

Expert Tip

A click in time can save a lot of hassle: you can check in via the Web upto 24 hours prior to departure (all major airlines offer this service on their websites). “I always check in via the internet,” says Agarwal. “Once I reach the airport, all I have to do is collect my boarding pass.”

2. And where’s my baggage?

Two years ago, Bhawna Agarwal of Yatra.com herself had a harrowing experience while flying from New Delhi to Goa for a vacation. “When I reached the Goa airport, I couldn’t find my bag anywhwere on the conveyor belt,” she says. “Instead, I could see another bag which looked exactly like my bag (but wasn’t mine). I put two and two together and figured that someone else had mistaken my bag for their and had taken it away. I was so freaked out!”

Agarwal then went and filed a complaint with the airline. “It is critical to involve them and let them know of the situation,” she says. “Because there were no other bags left, the authorities opened up this bag and tried to find anything that would lead them to the owner. They finally found a bank statement inside which had the owner’s cell phone number, which is how we tracked him down – he hadn’t even realised that he had taken the wrong bag!” After a flurry of phone calls, the airline made arrangements to retrieve the ‘lost’ luggage.

What if they hadn’t managed to track down the other person so easily? Would Agarwal have been entitled to any monetary compensation? “You are compensated only if it is explicitly the airline’s fault that your baggage didn’t arrive at your destination and that too only up to a certain limit,” says Agarwal. If the baggage has arrived at the final destination, however, then it is the responsibility of the passenger to pick up his or her own luggage. “So try and reach the belt before anyone else!” she laughs.

Expert Tip

Tie a colourful ribbon or a special marker to make your bag stand out from the rest. You might also want to take a picture of your bag with your cellphone so that just in case it does get misplaced, it is easier for the authorities to identify it. “It is also a good idea to buy travel insurance (Rs 100-130 on most domestic airlines) while flying so that you are covered against baggage loss, baggage delays or medical emergencies", says Agarwal.

3. I lost my passport!

Lost your passport at a foreign airport? Congratulations, you just landed yourself in the stickiest situation possible. “When you are abroad, your passport is your only identity. So losing it is a very serious problem,” says Bhawna Agarwal of Yatra.com. “The first thing to do is inform the airline, which will send its staff scrounging about in every nook and cranny of the airport, from the aircraft to the washrooms (how embarrassing!).”

The airline will also make arrangements to get you to the nearest local police station where you can file an FIR. You should also rush to the Indian Embassy of whichever country you are in with this FIR copy and apply for an emergency passport, which is usually issued within a few hours.

Expert tip

Keep your passport in an extremely safe location (preferably somewhere on your person). It is also a good idea to have scanned copies of both your passport and your visa stored in your email account. That way even if you lose the photocopies, you can easily retrieve them.

4. This is not happening... I missed my connecting flight

A few months back, Suvarna Joshi, a web designer from Pune, was left running from pillar to post after she missed a connecting flight simply because her first flight was delayed due to technical failure in the aircraft. “I was so frustrated because it was really no one’s fault - I couldn't even blame anyone!” she says.

“It is a good idea to always call up the airline of the onward journey to check for alternatives,” says Keyur Joshi of MakeMyTrip.com. “If your first flight was cancelled, inform the onward flight airline and reschedule the same or call your travel agent and seek rebooking for a new connection.”

Expert Tip

If possible, try and book a connecting flight with the same airline. If your original flight is delayed (or cancelled), then the airline will make sure that you’re put on a new flight at no extra cost to you.