For their next act, the dis­ap­pear­ing-reser­va­tion trick

The Washington Post Sunday - - TRAVEL - El­liott is a con­sumer ad­vo­cate, jour­nal­ist and co-founder of the ad­vo­cacy group Trav­el­ers United. Email him at chris@el­liott.org. CHRISTO­PHER EL­LIOTT

No one knows ex­actly why part of An­drew Smith’s busi­ness-class air­line reser­va­tion from Salt Lake City to San Juan, Puerto Rico, van­ished. But when Smith clicked on Amer­i­can Air­lines’ Web site to check on his in-flight meal, he dis­cov­ered he was go­ing nowhere.

De­spite the so­phis­ti­cated tech­nol­ogy used in to­day’s reser­va­tion sys­tems — or maybe, be­cause of it — data goes miss­ing from time to time. For­tu­nately, there are ways to re­cover your reser­va­tion and sal­vage your trip.

Smith was tem­po­rar­ily work­ing in Utah and com­mut­ing to Wash­ing­ton, D.C., and the busi­ness-class tick­ets were for a get­away with his wife. Oddly, one leg of his flight, from Dal­las to San Juan, had been can­celed.

Amer­i­can of­fered to re-book Smith on his orig­i­nal Dal­las-to-San Juan flight in econ­omy class, but he wanted his orig­i­nal class of ser­vice. The air­line also of­fered an al­ter­na­tive flight in busi­ness class, but it would have ar­rived in San Juan too late in the evening for his pref­er­ence, and Smith turned that down as well.

“A rep­re­sen­ta­tive told me that she would have to kick it up the chain,” he says. A few days later, Amer­i­can re­stored his itin­er­ary.

What hap­pened? Amer­i­can says the glitch is un­re­lated to its re­cent merger with US Air­ways and that it would in­ves­ti­gate the par­tially lost reser­va­tion. Per­haps it’s just as well; when things go wrong, trav­el­ers al­most never find out why, but, in fair­ness, they al­most never ask as long as the prob­lem is solved.

Smith’s reser­va­tion wasn’t an easy fix. His air­line con­tin­ued to in­sist that he ac­cept an econ­o­my­class ticket or a new, less con­ve­nient sched­ule. Smith says he was pa­tient and per­sis­tent, which may be the first rules of find­ing a miss­ing reser­va­tion. Smith also re­mained po­lite, even when it ap­peared his Puerto Rico va­ca­tion would be less than per­fect. It’s a strat­egy that paid off.

What are the chances your next reser­va­tion will get lost? If you’re fly­ing, Smith’s prob­lem is one in a mil­lion, says El­iz­a­beth Blount, pres­i­dent of Uniglobe Travel De­sign­ers, a travel man­age­ment com­pany. She’s never had an air­line lose a reser­va­tion, she says. “Car rentals and ho­tels have lost reser­va­tions a hand­ful of times for me.”

The prob­lem is de­clin­ing as travel com­pa­nies up­grade their sys­tems. But it’s far from ex­tinct, and it prob­a­bly never will be. The rea­son: hu­man er­ror.

Mike Dan­ish says he re­cently lost a car rental reser­va­tion made on­line through CarRen­tals.com. The cause is un­clear.

“When I got to the Dol­lar counter in the air­port in Seat­tle, I was told there was no reser­va­tion,” he says. Ac­cord­ing to Dol­lar’s records, Dan­ish had made two reser­va­tions for a dif­fer­ent date. The er­ror came at a cost: In­stead of pay­ing $26 a day for the rental, Dol­lar billed him a walk-up rate of $48.

Dan­ish, an elec­tron­ics re­pair con­sul­tant based in Aberdeen, Md., isn’t sure whether he pushed a wrong but­ton or whether CarRen­tals.com booked the wrong day. But if it was his mis­take, he won­ders why the sys­tem didn’t catch an im­pos­si­ble pick-up or drop-off date.

One of the most com­mon lostreser­va­tion cases used to in­volve ho­tels, par­tic­u­larly rooms booked at the last minute. The rea­son was largely tech­ni­cal. As re­cently as a decade ago, many ho­tels used fax ma­chines to han­dle reser­va­tions — and fax ma­chines can run out of pa­per. “The tech­nol­ogy and prod­ucts for last-minute book­ings have come a long way,” says Leslie Caf­ferty, a spokes­woman for the Price­line Group, which owns Price­line and Book­ing.com.

A few sim­ple pre­cau­tions can en­sure that your trip isn’t ru­ined by lost reser­va­tions.

Smith’s strat­egy is among the best. “It’s never a bad idea to con­tact a com­pany 24 hours prior to the trip,” says Ben Hamil­ton, the pres­i­dent of Imag­ineAir, an on-de­mand plane ser­vice. “If there is a prob­lem, you will have time to cor­rect it.”

Even if you don’t re­mem­ber to call ahead, you can still save an AWOL reser­va­tion by pack­ing a hard copy of your con­fir­ma­tion. Noth­ing jogs a gen­eral man­ager’s mem­ory like a print­out.

If you’re in­con­ve­nienced by a lost reser­va­tion, you can ask for rea­son­able ac­com­mo­da­tions, Hamil­ton says. “There may be a pol­icy in place to award a credit, up­grade or free room al­to­gether,” he says. For ex­am­ple, at Imag­ineAir, if an im­por­tant de­tail in a reser­va­tion is flubbed by hu­mans or tech­nol­ogy, your flight is free.

“Ev­ery­one un­der­stands that mis­takes are made,” he adds, “but it’s how they are han­dled that of­ten makes the dif­fer­ence be­tween earn­ing new cus­tomer loy­alty stem­ming from a lost reser­va­tion, or en­sur­ing that the cus­tomer never comes back.”

And that may be your most ef­fec­tive tool for find­ing a lost reser­va­tion. Po­litely re­mind your air­line, car rental com­pany, cruise line or ho­tel that it has a rep­u­ta­tion to up­hold. That should be all it takes to help it lo­cate your ticket, car or cabin.

ISTOCKPHOTO

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