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Two-Ticket Connection Hassles

Logic would lead you to conclude that a through air ticket from your home to your destination—even one that requires a connection—would cost less than separate tickets from your home to the connecting hub and from the hub to your destination. But long-time visitors to this site know that logic often has little to do with airfares. Over the years, I’ve received several reports from readers who found two-ticket connections cheaper than one-ticket flights, but most of the reports I got were specifically from travelers who had problems because they missed their connections.

This report was triggered by a recent story first reported elsewhere, but it recalled an earlier question from one of my readers. Since the problem hasn’t gone away, a current look at two-connection tickets seems appropriate.

My earlier reader bought two separate tickets for a trip to Baja California: one on United from Portland to Los Angeles, the other on Aero California from Los Angeles to La Paz, Mexico. Unfortunately, on her return trip, the Aero California flight was delayed and finally arrived at Los Angeles too late for the United connection. United couldn’t accommodate her to Portland until the following morning. She wanted to know what her “rights” were in those circumstances.

The short answer is she had no guaranteed “rights.” These days, most airlines hold to a policy that if you miss a flight that isn’t part of a through ticket, for whatever reason, and don’t cancel or change it prior to departure, your booking is cancelled. Some lines allow you to use your original ticket for a later flight, if there is one within three hours of your original schedule and a seat is available, by paying the usual change fee. Other lines don’t even give you that three-hour window. Beyond the time limit, whether three hours or zero, your ticket becomes worthless: no future flight, no refund, no credit.

Weird fares

I’m sure that diligent digging would uncover lots of cases where two separate tickets cost less than a single through ticket. I’ve even seen a few such cases on just a single airline, but I suspect most of them involve two different airlines, one of which is probably a low-fare line. There’s no point in asking “why” fares are that way, or whether they’re “fair.” You simply don’t look at airfares in those ways.

Instead, the question is whether booking separate tickets is a good idea. And that depends, as is so often the case, on just how “separate” the tickets really are.

Alliances replace interlining

When I first started flying, a connecting itinerary was almost always booked on a single ticket. Where the itinerary involved two or more different airlines, an international web of “interline” agreements assured uniform treatment. You generally got a through fare, and you could check your baggage through to your final destination. If you missed a connection, you’d be transferred to the next available seat, regardless of airline, at no additional cost.

Now, however, universal interlining is essentially dead:

  • Most of the big “legacy” lines belong to one of the three major worldwide “alliances,” that generally provide many of the benefits formerly offered through interlining. That includes through ticketing and through baggage check. It also usually includes arranging alternative flights at no charge when you miss a connection.
  • But airlines in those big alliances generally don’t interchange that way with non-members of their alliance.
  • And most low-fare lines don’t belong to alliances at all.

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