If airlines could do without paying humans at the airport, they would. If you have traveled through an airport recently, it appears that they’re getting closer to that goal.
One part of their efforts is check-in kiosks and automatic rebooking programs, which can perform many of the functions formerly done by airline employees.
Kiosks now can even provide new boarding passes when a flight is automatically rescheduled because of a change or cancellation. Plus, airlines suggest passengers use kiosks first when there is a potential problem.
While skipping a long line to talk to an agent may sound appealing, here are four times it’s not worth it.
It’s not that the automatic program can never find the best available alternative, but it never hurts to double check when possible and be more pro-active.
1. The next scheduled flight may not be the next flight actually leaving. I recently had a client who missed her connection in Denver to San Francisco. The automatic program grabbed the next flight, which was at 9 p.m., except that the 9 p.m. flight was going to be well over an hour late. The 9:47 p.m. flight was going to leave a lot earlier.
When I reached a United agent by phone, she cheerfully changed the flight to the later option. It ended up saving the traveler almost two hours. As a bonus, because so many people had been switched to the earlier flight, the 9:47 p.m. was half full, so she got space to stretch out and sleep.
2. Automatic rebooking programs generally don’t know about nearby airports. Booked to JFK? You probably won’t be offered a flight to LaGuardia, let alone airports that may be an hour or so apart, like Boston and Providence.
Sometimes a nearby airport won’t work with ground transportation or a parked car, but if you’re flexible, it never hurts to ask.
3. Other airline options almost never happen automatically. This is a particular shame when the problem at a hub is weather, because another carrier may be able to avoid that hub altogether.
4. When things are changing rapidly, waitlists change. For example, weather delays may not only mean that you have missed your flight, but later scheduled passengers may have also missed their flights; sold-out flights may open up at the last minute.
Despite airport waitlists, an airline employee or travel agent may be able to snag one of those newly available seats. A program that considers you rebooked won’t keep trying.
In short, the more effort you or your travel agent can put into managing your own destiny, the better off you are likely to be. If there really are no better options, at least you’ll know you gave it your best shot.