When we were planning our trip to Greece, we knew only that we wanted to get away and that we wanted it to be as comfortable and easy as possible. Having travelled to Dubai and the Maldives earlier that year in luxurious business class seats, we wanted the same for Greece, but found that direct flights to Athens were beyond our “willing to spend” price range. So, a plan emerged.
We decided to take advantage of available routes and add a stopover vacation in London for a few days on the way home. In order to achieve this, we essentially booked two separate trips through Expedia: Toronto to London (with a short stop in Iceland both ways) plus hotel in London & London to Athens (with a short stop in Munich on the way there and a short stop in Frankfurt on the way back) plus hotel in Athens. Bundling the hotel and flights together allowed for further discounts on Expedia, which essentially meant we could travel in style and comfort in business class seats the entire trip for the same cost of a direct economy flight to Athens.
Toronto to Iceland was no issue; we sat comfortably in the large leather seats of Icelandair, enjoyed the free packages of travel essentials and delicious menu items (and discovered that blueberry liqueur is to die for). After landing in Reykjavik, we wandered around the Iceland airport for about an hour, before we were shuttled off to board our next flight to London. The departure of our Lufthansa flight was slightly delayed in Reykjavik and we taxied at Heathrow Airport in London for 20 minutes, but we weren’t worried. The Customs line was not very long when we joined, but we soon learned that it was moving at a snail’s pace. As we made our way slowly through the roped aisles, we had no idea what time it was or how long we had been waiting to be seen by a Customs agent. As soon as we passed through, we quickly picked up our bags and headed towards the gate. We arrived the exact the time the connection was set to depart and they were no going to let us on.
As the airport representative confirmed that we indeed missed the flight, we did not stress. We smiled, shrugged our shoulders and headed over to the Lufthansa desk. We had already anticipated this as a possibility, and being the worry wart that he is, my other half was already aware of a number of flight options that would land us in Athens around the same time as we originally planned. Calmly talking to the Lufthansa representative, we explained the situation and waited for her to provide flight options. To our surprise, she did not. What she did tell us, we were not expecting.
According to the calm, somewhat indifferent representative sat behind the small Lufthansa counter (in a long line of counters) we not only missed our flight, but essentially forfeit all the flights linked to it. She explained that since we booked the London to Athens (and return) flights separately, the London to Munich flight that we just missed was considered the first leg. Normal policy indicates that if you miss the first flight, you forfeit the remaining flights. Had we missed the second flight, however, the company would have no problem setting us up on the next plane out of London, free of charge. This was the moment we started to stress.
With a slightly smug tone, she explained that “no one reads the fine print” on third party bookings, like Expedia, and often travellers don’t understand what the risks are. She claimed we could likely receive a refund from Expedia if we called them to explain that we missed the flight, but it wouldn’t cover the total cost; the taxes paid would not be recovered. Either way, our only option was to purchase a flight if we wanted to continue on to Athens. Stupidly we believed her.
Standing with our bags in the middle of busy Heathrow Airport, we very plausibly could have no where to go. We weren’t sure if what the Lufthansa representative was saying about the remaining flights was true, but what we did know was our boarding pass was now null and void. The main priority was getting to Athens, so we walked a few feet to the left and asked to book the available Aegean Flight direct to Athens, which left in a few short hours. It wouldn’t be the posh business class Lufthansa flight, but it would be an upgraded premium economy and it would mean no stopping in Munich. We had planned on the possibility of having to catch a different flight, not necessarily having to buy another flight, but luckily we had the emergency credit card on hand.
TIP: Always have a way of paying for emergency expenses. If a credit card is not a possibility, ensure you have access to extra cash or bank account just in case you need it. You may never use it, but it is peace of mind knowing that you have an out in case the unexpected happens.
The Aegean agent pulled the flight up onto her computer and we inserted the emergency card into the hand-held credit machine. The payment did not go through. It hadn’t been declined, we knew that wasn’t a possibility, but it had been cancelled. Did the credit card think it was fraud and deny the transaction? Maybe, we thought. We tried again, and again it was cancelled. The third time, the agent had difficulty pulling up the flight on the computer. This is when the silent panic began to set in. Oh no, did the flight just sell out? She mumbled under her breath, complaining that the technology they used was old and the computers often froze, so she crawled under the desk to reboot it. While the computer took its sweet time booting back up, the agent called the credit office in an attempt to book the flight and accept the credit card manually. It took about 20 minutes, but the faceless voice on the other end of the phone accepted the card and we were finally booked.
From there, we walked a short ten feet behind the booking counters and headed over to Aegean Airlines to check in and drop off our bags. We were the first in line. The agent scanned my passport and then moved onto my partners. That’s when our bad luck reared its ugly head again. For some reason, his passport would not register. At first the agent thought it was the scanner he was using, so he attempted to use the one at the desk next to him, but couldn’t because a different agent was required to sign in to the computer. He was alone. He made a few phone calls, trying to flag a colleague to come to the check in desks and sign in, but no luck. After a few minutes, people began to line up behind us, waiting for their turn to check in and drop off their bags. After about 15 minutes, we began to receive dirty looks from those same people. Clearly, we had done something wrong. Finally a second representative arrived and was able to sign in on another computer. Our agent quickly swiped the passports, but again, it did not register. What is going on? It was shortly thereafter that the reason became clear; the entire Aegean Air system had gone down. This was why we had trouble with the credit card, and this is why we were unable to scan our passports. The airport was performing a system-wide reboot. We could do nothing but laugh. Just our luck. Once the system rebooted, we were quickly checked-in and directed to the boarding gate.
While we waiting in the crowd of people at the gate for the airline to announce boarding, I decided to call Expedia and confirm if our remaining flights were indeed null and to inquire about the refund. The Expedia representative explained that the agent who informed us about the cancellation was incorrect. Not only were our remaining flights and hotel still booked, we could have been booked on the next flight to Munich for free and in time to catch the original flight to Athens. Unbelievable. We were so mad at the agent for providing false information and more so at ourselves for not checking before spending the extra funds on the lesser quality flight. As stressful as this was to hear, we were happy that we were headed to Athens and that everything else remained as planned.
The Aegean flight was perfectly fine and arrived as expected. Our airport pick-up (whom we informed about the change in flights) was waiting for us in Athens when we landed. Funnily enough, she told us when we arrived that we were lucky we changed flights, as the Munich to Athens flight had been cancelled. All those passengers on the flight that we missed in London were left stranded at the Munich airport for the night and had to be re-booked on the first flight out of Munich in the morning. That early flight would have landed us in Athens after breakfast, meaning we would have lost a night at the hotel and ruined our plans for the next day. Ironically, had everything gone to plan, we would have landed in Athens a day later, much more exhausted. Maybe our luck wasn’t that bad after all.
Happy that we were back on course, but reeling from the fact that we paid out of pocket for an unnecessary flight based on false information, I decided to formally complain to Lufthansa. Emailing their customer service department, I explained what happened in great detail, indicating how frustrated and disappointed we were in the customer service that left us with a large bill. Shortly after we returned home from the trip, I received a response. Lufthansa, in the broken English email from their customer service, offered us a refund. Ironically, it wasn’t as penance for the poor customer service, but as compensation for the Munich to Athens flight being cancelled. Our files showed that we were booked on the flight that was cancelled and didn’t get re-booked on the later flight, therefore we were entitled to a refund for that leg of the journey. To our very good fortune, the credit offered almost completely equalled the cost we paid for the Aegean Flight.
TIP: Flex your rights and report bad customer service or bad experiences when necessary. Don’t abuse the system and complain solely in the hopes of getting something or for everything little thing hat goes awry, but openly complain to the right departments when you truly feel you have been greatly inconvenienced or given poor customer service. Give the company who was wronged you an opportunity to make it right.
We may have had to jump through a few surprising hoops to get there, but we made it to Athens and continued with the remainder of our itinerary as planned. It wasn’t a stress-free experience by any means, but we learned from it. We would continue to hope for the best, prepare for the worst and have an emergency plan. Most importantly, we learned that even in stressful situations, we can remain cool and collected and not let the bumps in the road ruin our well earned vacation. That is a lesson that gives us the greatest peace of mind for all future travels.