travelocity
These days, travelers have the options of booking flights through a “brick and mortar” travel agency, an online agency or on the airline’s own website. Airlines prefer the latter, since it doesn’t cost them booking fees and it’s easier to keep travelers from going to a competitor.

As an agent, I recognize that sometimes even regular clients may want to take advantage of online specials and bonus miles. Or, a trip may be so easy that it doesn’t seem worth booking through an agent.

However, a recent case, when a client temporarily lost his Southwest direct booking, reminded me that there are steps travelers should take when booking online with an airline.

These suggestions may seem trivial or obvious, but for every tip listed, I’ve known travelers who have had problems by not following them.

1. Make sure you actually get the email confirmation. Generally, airline websites do send confirmation emails. But, a spam filter can get them and typos happen. No confirmation means that the reservation might not have gone through, which is a bad thing to find out at the last minute.

2. Double check the confirmation carefully — and within 24 hours of booking. In a touchscreen age, typos are easier than ever. Travel agents may or may not have the clout to fix a problem, but with a direct booking there is no one to help you out.

In my experience, with fewer and fewer people using wall calendars, date mistakes are also easier than ever to make. (Personally, I have a wall calender and two calendar strips on my desk.)

3. Print out a copy of the booking. If it’s a business expense or something that will be reimbursed, make sure you have it on paper. Getting a past-date receipt from an airline is often time-consuming and some airlines charge for it. (United, for example, charges $20/receipt, per person.)

4. Check for fee changes. For things like checked baggage and change fees, don’t assume that because the rules were one way the last time you booked, that they will be the same. Things change, and they generally don’t get less expensive. (However, if you think that the baggage fees or change fees or other fees have changed since purchasing your ticket, complain to DOT and the airline. Those fees charged should be at the rate in effect when your ticket was purchased.)

5. Get a phone number for the airline involved. If there’s a problem that can’t be solved online and the lines at the airport are long, a phone call may be the fastest way to a solution.

6. Remember which credit card was used for the booking. On Southwest, when my client couldn’t find his booking, they would only give him the information upon him giving them the last four digits of the card. (In this case, it could have been a bigger mess, as it was his grandfather’s credit card, and he was able to call me to get the number.)

7. When checking in, print the boarding pass when possible. Despite what airlines say, the mobile phone boarding passes don’t always work. (I had to race back to a kiosk at Dulles when I didn’t follow my own advice earlier this year.)

In addition, when it’s an online direct booking it’s not as easy to call and get the details, confirmation number, etc. This goes double if you’ve booked a rental car or hotel through the airline site — print the confirmation(s) and bring them. In case there’s a problem, paper still rules.

Yes, some of these steps may feel a waste of time and paper, but it’s better than wasting travel time because you can’t retrieve a document should your iPad or smartphone or whatever be out of battery power.