Wednesday, April 04, 2012

The Convenience of Electronic Ticketing

I belong to the generation of travelers who live through the switch-over from paper ticketing to electronic ticketing and am thankful I can adapt and accept the transition. In just over a week my wife and I will travel again and this is how I've booked our flights.

1. I went online to check available cheap flights (maybe I should call it economy flights) from Kuala Lumpur to my destination. Viola! Several portals appear to offer various combinations of direct, 1-stop, 2-stops, economy, business, choice of airlines, flexi flight time or fixed. They will list out the return fare, usually all-in inclusive taxes and surcharges so you won't find hidden surprises when you decide to book. The best thing is where there are multi departures within a day you can choose which flight is most appropriate for you.

2. Having made comparisons and chosen the airline (Korean Air), departure/arrival dates, I lock into the airline website to book my tickets. I am lucky the fare stayed the same as promoted in the portals. Armed with my credit card my booking was made through a secured website and payment made. An email arrived shortly confirming my booking and another email giving my detailed flight itinerary. This is my electronic ticket which I print and present when I check in. Very convenient. In fact, I dare say if I overlooked to bring this hard copy, using my passport I can still clear the airline check-in counter since they will have electronic record of my booking and payment. But this is not the preferred option as explained below.

3. Usually 24 hours prior to departure the airline will allow you (sometimes they even SMS you to remind you) to web check-in to secure your boarding passes. Should you take up the offer you will be able to select seats that are not reserved (some airlines reserve good seats for an additional fee). In my case I have set up a reminder to do that so I can get the seats I want for my wife and I. It is a long flight so choice of seats is more important than in shorter flights.

4. What is obvious from the steps above is it is all self service without an intermediary. Travelers who still use ticketing agents are either not choosy, have no time or find the process unfamiliar or somewhat threatening.

5. With the e-ticket and e-boarding pass in hand, you only need to go to the counter to check in any check-in luggages, otherwise you just have your hand carry bags tagged, scanned and off you go to the departure lounge. It is very time saving. Those who did not e-checked in can use the kiosks in the airport to print out their passes.

Back track to 10 years ago when electronic ticketing was either non-existent or experimental. This would be how you go about getting your tickets and passes.

1. Locate a travel agent you like and tell him/her you want to fly to a particular destination on the preferred dates. They will call up the airline offices to get fare prices and ticket availability and then call you back. You'll be lucky to hear from them within the hour. Usually you don't have any choice since you don't have ways to compare prices and or flight times, or if you have to lay over for say, 8 hours to catch your connecting flight you didn't know of until after you've paid. Some good agents can help you choose what you want but not all.

2. Say after you've decided to book a particular itinerary. The agent will ask you to pay a deposit and return 4-6 days later to collect your tickets and pay the balance. The full fare will include the agent's commission. So if your agent is in the city you have to take time off to get there to collect the tickets. The agent will print for you the full flight itinerary so you will not forget when to wake up to get to the airport on time. Remember courier service was still not very popular then and many travelers don't trust them, especially with important documents like air tickets.

3. The traditional air tickets or passenger coupons come in a stack, the number of copies depending on how many stopovers you will be making. These tickets are printed in red, one set per passenger. You must be careful not to leave them out during packing or else you cannot fly. At each stopover when you change flight you present yourself at the airline counter at the departure hall and the attractive or handsome agent will smile at you, tear off the copy of the coupon related to that flight out of the airport to the next destination. You really want to be sure he/she tear the correct coupon off, otherwise you will be in real trouble later. You'll get a boarding pass at each airport, no such thing as web check-in where you can get ahead of some other passengers who choose manual or kiosk check-in later.

4. The boarding pass will be your ticket into the plane and once you are inside you can heave a sigh of relief that the hassle is over. The whole process is dependent on agents but for you, you just have to be there in person - to book the tickets, to collect/pay for them, to check in and get your boarding passes. It is time consuming and sometimes stressful when you have to wait, and wait.

I usually throw away my air tickets after my travel but am I glad to discover I still kept one issued by Singapore Airlines in May 1999 when my wife, older daughter and I flew into San Francisco on flight SQ103 (KUL/SIN) and SQ16 (SIN/SFO) for the commencement ceremony of our son, and later return on SQ1 (SFO/SIN) and SQ112 (SIN/KUL). On this ticket was stated the total airfare (excluding domestic flights from SFO to OKC via Denver) of RM4691 per passenger. It must be inclusive of all other charges except travel insurance.

After that, after 911, air travel suffered many changes, especially tightened security checks, higher fares since fewer people fly for fear of being a target and later crude oil price spiraled, making air travel more expensive. Out of necessity we still travel and electronic convenience helps take away some inconvenience and empower travelers to be in better control of which airlines they choose to fly. The excitement is also to buy early at a cheaper fare, but that is not necessarily the lowest. Flying cheap is sometimes a gamble, you get it sometimes and you brag; at other times you pay a premium because you cannot afford to miss the flight dates and especially during summer when more people fly, certain airlines/flights are filled up quite early.

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