20 August 2011

British Airways flights and group bookings (short version)

(See the long version)

Booking my BA flights as part of a holiday through a tour company has taught me:

- Group bookings are treated differently from normal bookings, even if you have a booking reference number

- You cannot check in online or using BA's mobile app, you will have to check in at the airport

- You can request that your flights are associated with your Executive Club membership number, and you can earn miles and tier points (call BA for assistance with this)

- You may be able to view your flight under 'My bookings' but you won't have access to 'Manage my booking'

- If you want to upgrade your class of travel, ask at the airport check-in desk, BA don't offer pro-active upgrades in advance

(Note: this is based on my experience and BA's responses to my queries).

British Airways flight booked by a tour company (long version)

(see the short version)

In case this is of use to other travellers...

I booked an organised holiday through a tour company (Exodus). I had the option of booking my own BA flight to Naples, or letting Exodus include them in my holiday booking. A quick check showed me that the prices would be pretty much the same. Considerations of potential liability/insurance claims led me to book the holiday inclusive of flights.

There followed extended exchanges of emails with both my tour company and BA as I attempted to confirm check-in arrangements and whether I could earn BA miles and tier points on the flight with my BA Executive Club membership. Exodus notified BA of my membership, and the flights appeared in my BA mobile app under 'my bookings'. Not, however, on their website when I logged in.

A helpful customer service assistant at BA checked my flights and tier points (20, the standard Euro Traveller amount), and a couple of days later the flights appeared on the BA website under 'My Bookings'. However, clicking on 'Manage my booking' led me to an error message.

Exodus assured me "You are able to check in on line 24 hours before departure" and erroneously stated that "You are unable to upgrade on this flight as they are small planes with no business or first class seats available" (I've flown this route and there is the usual BA short-haul Club Europe cabin). A week before travel, BA's flight search was offering two Club Europe seats on the flight at high prices... so probably unlikely any affordable upgrade will be on offer later. Regarding online check-in, BA wrote to me "As you have made a group booking, you will be unable to access your booking through 'Manage My Booking' and check in online for the flight".

Exodus suggest that specific seats may be requested through one of their agents - I may try this and report back.

Unless events prove otherwise, I am stuck with queueing to check in at the airport - with the August crowds - and getting a limited choice of seating. I was interested in upgrading the flights to earn more tier points, but this possibility is not open to me until the airport - minus any special offers that would have been accessible through 'Manage my booking'. An email from BA states ambiguously that "If you pay for your upgrade, you may then earn Tier Points for your upgraded cabin."

So booking through a tour company has given much less control over my flights, without the possibility to use online or mobile check-in, earn more tier points, or choose a seat prior to airport check-in.

As a note to anyone with the same initial dilemma: Yes, allowing your tour company to book your flights may well provide increased security if you have to cancel or if things go wrong. A group booking may be cheaper in some cases, and may be nice if you are travelling with a group you already know (perhaps groups are seated together?). But you may be sent back to the dark ages of air travel, without the convenience of queue-skipping online services. Frequent flyers will find this frustrating. And the upgrade/tier points restrictions may also be worth considering.

In short, if you want to keep control of your travel, think hard about how you book. I could have paid a similar price, travelled on the same flight, met the group as arranged in the destination airport, but benefited significantly if I had booked my own flights. It also, as it turns out, would have saved me the time spent trying to hunt down correct information about British Airways and group bookings. The conflicting messages and lack of online information has led me to write this article.

Perhaps there will be no airport queues (not even at Naples), a good choice of seats and no problems... I'll report back.

15 August 2011

BA upgrades - and Gatwick lounge

As an update to my previous post about the merits of upgrading from BA's Euro Traveller class to Club Europe, I've now upgraded on a UK - Italy flight. This was my first opportunity to sample the hospitality of a dedicated British Airways lounge - and I was very impressed. The BA lounge at Gatwick is large and very lavish compared with standard airport lounges. It's large, with a TV area, a quiet business area, and lots of armchairs with views out over the airport. Children are - marvellously - confined to a kind of soundproof glass 'cage' and despite the number of summer travellers, it was quite peaceful.

The food was exceedingly generous. A large salad cart with a good choice of healthy options, cheeses, speciality bread rolls, soup of the day (tomato and red pepper) and sandwiches. As well as these filling fresh foodstuffs, there were also loads of pre-packaged items, from cake slices to cream crackers, from Kettle Chips to boiled sweets. Two self-service bars provided limitless alcohol - wines, spirits, mixers - as well as fruit juice, soft drinks and hot drinks.

It was a great way to fill up before a flight - on the short trip to Venice, it was a challenge to manage the onboard meal after feasting in the lounge.

Consequently I have now set my heart on getting BA Executive Club silver status (not that easy if you only fly within Europe) in order to gain access to this marvellous spot, and others like it, while travelling on my frequent standard-class flights. You get various other perks with silver status, including extra BA miles, but I think lounge access is probably the most useful benefit. I would advise those with similar inclinations to consider this quest towards the beginning of their membership year, however. I have only a few weeks left and 100 points still to accrue...

10 August 2011

Ba Club Europe upgrade - is it worth it?

Is it worth upgrading from BA Euro Traveller to Club Europe?

Euro Traveller is the British Airways standard class for travel within Europe. Club Europe is the business-class equivalent. Sometimes, before your flight, BA may offer you 'upgrade offers' – for example, £59 per leg of your journey. Is it worth the additional expense?

It all depends on your journey – destination, length of flight and time of day – and on your priorities. Flights are classed according to their length and the time of departure, with different food and 'comfort' options for each band of flights. You can find out more about the food options and flight categories by scouring useful forums like flyertalk.

I fly frequently on the Venice – Gatwick route, a flight of approximately two hours. In standard Euro Traveller class you are offered drinks – hot, cold, alcoholic – and a choice of cookie or birdseed. There are three seats either side of the aisle; seating is reasonably comfortable. The first row of seats on the left, behind first class, is the most comfortable place to sit as usually you will have first-class seating - two wider seats with a narrow folded seat between them.

The best offer I've received for upgrading to Club Europe on this route is £59. Not a bargain, especially considering my sister, flying a longer flight to Greece, obtained upgrades for £40.
On my last journey Venice- London I decided to pay the extra and give Club Europe a go. Here's what I got for my money, and what I thought:

- Priority queue for bag-drop and check-in at Venice Marco Polo Airport. In theory useful, in practice I got stuck behind a family travelling on connecting flights with lots of baggage, so had quite a wait.

-Priority through security. The check-in clerk scrawled on my boarding pass print out and I was able to sail through the priority lane, which was a distinct advantage.

- Free entry to the airport lounge. You may already have free or paid admission through loyalty schemes, of course. Using Priority Pass I can use this lounge at a cost of £15. The lounge at Marco Polo is comfortable with armchairs and room to work. It has great views of the apron and runway, and has an outdoor terrace where you can stand and watch the planes. There are free drinks – including local Prosecco – and snacks including filled croissants, small squares of cold pizza, nuts and crisps.

- Priority boarding the plane – in theory. In Venice the staff weren't particularly bothered about the order of boarding, but most airports will ensure Club Europe passengers board first.

-More space on the plane. On the left-hand side, there are two seats with a folded seat between them, on the right hand side there are three seats in a row, of which the middle one remains empty (these seats aren't sold).

- Extra customer service – a friendly assistant available for most of the flight for the small Club Europe section. Staff take customers' jackets and hang them in a locker. Our flight attendant approached me after boarding, addressed me by name and said “I just want to let you know we have your special meal on board”. If you are vegetarian or have other special dietary requirements, notify British Airways in advance of your travel date.

- Cold towel on take-off (more of a damp cloth, really).

- Champagne and other drinks offered early on and available throughout flight.

- A quite substantial meal with “more champagne?” offered. My vegetarian meal consisted of a filling mild curry dish, biscuits, cheese and grapes and a roll and butter. I found it very satisfying. The standard meal seemed to be involve salad; I thought vegetarians did better.

- The Club Europe section is at the front of the plane so you can be first off .

- I think in theory your luggage should have some precedence – a big orange priority label was attached – but I don't know if this often happens. My suitcase emerged quite a long way down the conveyor of luggage.

I really enjoyed the perks as a novelty. If I hadn't upgraded, I might have spent £15 on the lounge and some extra cash on a meal – though this wouldn't really take me up to £59. Compared with budget airlines, BA's standard class is really quite decent. On a strict value for money basis, it probably wasn't worth paying the extra – though a £40 upgrade, or a longer flight time, would shift this equation. The extra space and comfort and service was very pleasant, though. You can't guarantee there won't be babies or disruptive passengers in Club Europe (I once witnessed two men almost coming to blows) but you are more likely to travel in peace. If I expect to have a busy day or tiring onward travel, I'd consider paying extra for comfort. A special holiday would be another time when it might be a welcome treat to fly Club Europe with the lounge access and other perks. It's certainly worth doing once, as I did, just for the experience.

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