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The trials and tribulations of buying airline tickets online

By Debbie Leffler • May 24, 2019 at 10:00 AM

As my older son would say, this is definitely a first-world problem.

Third world problems are serious ones, like starvation, malnutrition and lack of clean water.

I know this is not a serious survival problem. It’s only a problem I want to complain about but I realize that, in the grand scheme of things, this problem is trivial.

Have you ever tried to purchase an airline ticket online?

I do it from time to time. With one of my adult children in California, one in Texas and one in Chile, I like to see them and I occasionally travel to where they live.

So in June we are going to visit our son in California, and I went online to try to get a cheap flight.

I usually check a variety of airports — Cleveland is the closest, but Columbus, Toledo, Akron-Canton and Detroit also work. And, when going to California, Oakland is the best airport for us to arrive at — smaller than San Francisco and closer to where our son lives.

I try for a direct flight if at all possible. A direct flight means less chance of problems like getting stuck somewhere in the middle which is not our destination — although once, when our daughter lived in France, I found a wonderful fare which routed us from Cleveland to Toronto (where we switched airports) to Montreal to Paris, and all three flights were on time and wonderful.

I fly Southwest when we go to Dallas — it goes to Love Field, Dallas’ smaller airport, which is nearer to where my son lives, and we can get a direct flight from Columbus to Dallas. Southwest boasts it has “transfarency” — which means no charge for luggage, no change fee if we need to change flights, no charge for carry-on items, and they give us a free drink and a snack on the plane. They don’t have reserved seating, but we always find seats together.

This time, it seemed Spirit Airlines was the best choice — a direct flight at a reasonable price. That is, it seemed like the best choice until I tried to book it online.

Then, it turned out, it wasn’t quite so simple. First of all, a window kept popping up and telling me I ought to join the “$9 Fare Club” for $60, and it would save me exactly $131.80 on this booking. I didn’t want to join the $9 Fare Club, but that window kept popping up and it seemed like a reasonable thing to spend $60 and then save $131.80, and so I now belong to Spirit’s $9 Fare Club and those popup windows stopped popping up.

Then I got to the luggage screen. Spirit charges for carry-on bags – they are only free if they are less than a certain size. I didn’t want to pay for my carry-on bag of snacks, books and things to do on the plane, so I’m just going to have to fit them into something that qualifies for the free size.

Then the next screen told me I would have to pay for checked luggage. I added one piece of luggage which will have to weigh less than 40 pounds — the cheapest they had.

The charges didn’t stop there. I got to a screen which let me choose my seat, but that, too, would cost at least $14 apiece for each flight. I considered not choosing a seat — they couldn’t not let me on the plane if I didn’t choose a seat, could they? — but I went with two $14 seats, which are located at the back of the plane, for each flight — which added $56 to the total cost.

OK … at this point I had spent quite a bit of time — and money — at the Spirit website, and I just wanted to be done with it. But no … another popup window appeared several times, asking me if I wanted to pay an additional amount for travel insurance. No! I am going on this flight no matter what. I am not planning to be sick; I am going to see my son in Oakland for his birthday and nothing is going to change that. I turned down the travel insurance several times, and finally the screen let me enter my credit card information and hit the “purchase” button.

This is not a big deal. I shouldn’t complain. I have my flight, and I am happy to be able to afford a visit to my younger son. If the Spirit flight leaves relatively on time and gets me to California and back safely, I will be content. After all, flying is faster than driving, and the idea that a huge man-made vehicle can travel through the sky and cover so many miles in a matter of hours is a miracle — even though the website was treacherous.

Debbie Leffler is a free-lance writer who lives in Norwalk. She can be reached at [email protected]

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