What? You say my flight left two hours ago?!

On a Saturday, while visiting DC, I argued with friends Vicki Ritterband and Lauren Markoe that using third-party booking services added built-in problems. They didn’t believe me. I also said companies treat you better when you book directly through them. My pals weren’t buying it. So when Vicki had a big problem the next day with her United Airlines flight, booked through Travelocity, I thought I’d be doing the “told-you-so” dance. Well, it turned out it was mostly just one of those things, so I had to remove my dance shoes. Still, there are ways the mix-up could have been avoided.

The background: Lauren lives in DC. For a gal-pal weekend, Vicki, who lives in Newton, Mass., flew down from Boston on a Friday night, landing in Dulles Airport without a hitch. (I drove up from North Carolina.)

The drama: Just before Lauren pulled out of the driveway to take Vicki to the airport on Sunday, Vicki called United to check on the What do you mean my flight left two hoursĀ ago?flight status, something everyone should do. Much to her surprise, the customer service rep told her it had left two hours earlier. “What do you mean my flight left two hours ago??” Vicki kept saying. Flights might leave five, even 10 minutes early, but not two hours. To their credit, United scrambled and got Vicki on a US Airways flight (they have a partnership) leaving from Reagan Airport. The new location was actually more convenient, though Vicki’s stress level was sky high.

What happened: By calling Travelocity and United the next day, this is what I learned. More than a month before Vicki traveled, United changed the DC-to-Boston schedule by several hours. Travelocity said it emailed Vicki about the change. Vicki said she never got the email. So the flight that left “two hours early” was actually a different flight number with a new, earlier schedule, and Vicki was booked on it — unbeknownst to her.

The lessons: Always check your flight, in both directions, online or the phone before you leave on a trip, especially if you booked more than a few weeks out. In this case, Vicki also could have signed up with United’s automatic alert system, called EasyUpdate. As for Travelocity, I think the company should not only email but also telephone customers about major changes like this. It’s all automated and easy to do, and they had all Vicki’s contact information. In the end, Travelocity could have gone the extra mile, United in fact did, and Vicki lucked out!

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