Flying on separate tickets – what can go wrong

Since getting the travel bug (as I seem to have now) I have started looking for cheap ways to travel in premium cabins. I have mentioned a few ways to find good deals in previous posts and so using those techniques it is possible to find some great deals in Business or First Class cabins. It is tempting to take advantage of deals on back to back legs with different airlines or using special deals from different airlines but there is a little known “gotcha” that must be considered when booking a trip using more than one ticket.

When you buy an airline ticket to your final destination you are, in effect, forming a contract with the airline for them to get you to your final destination. If your trip consists of multiple flights then if any of your intermediate flights is late or cancelled (often called “IRROPS” or Irregular operations), resulting in you missing a connection to your next flight, then it is the responsibly of the airline to get you to your final destination by booking you on other flights.

This is a huge benefit. It means that in most circumstances, a late or cancelled flight will still mean we will get to our destination albeit late.

Sometimes, however, you may find a deal with a particular airline, perhaps through a sale or special offer, that allows you to pick up a bargain but it only takes you part of the way to your final destination. Often, conditions of the deal require you to book direct with the airline and so it becomes impossible to get all the way to your destination on one ticket. No worry! Just buy a ticket for the bit you can’t get through the deal separately. So what is the problem.

I can show this situation with my Round the World trip in March. The itinerary is:

LHR (London)AGP (Málaga)British Airways
AGP (Málaga)HEL (Helsinki)Finnair
HELDEL (Delhi)Finnair
DELKUL (Kuala Lumpur)Malasian Airlines
KULNRT (Tokyo)Malasian Airlines
HND (Tokyo)JFK (New York)Japan Airlines
(Marketed by Malasian Airlines)
JFKLHR (London)British Airways

From the above table you can see that several legs of this trip are flown with different airlines… BA then Finnair then Malaysian then BA again. As I have utilised special offers with Finnair, which had to be ticketed by Finnair as a condition of sale, I could not book this trip on a sigle ticket with any airline. So for this trip I actually have bought 4 tickets.

In buying 4 tickets in this way I have introduced a significant risk: there are 4 contracts and so these tickets are not linked in any way. This means that if there are IRROPS and one of the flights is late or cancelled resulting in me not making one of the connections for the next ticket then I will be classed as a “no show” and that ticket will be cancelled.

To make this a little clearer, let’s consider what might happen if a flight was cancelled or delayed and see how it might pan out…

Finnair flight AGP-HEL cancelled or delayed

This flight is on a ticket that starts in Málaga (AGP), has a flight to Helsinki (HEL) and then a flight to Delhi (DEL). So I have a contract with Finnair for them to get me from Málaga to Delhi.

So the first leg of this ticket is cancelled or significantly delayed for whatever reason resulting in me missing my next flight to Delhi.

Finnair will reschedule me onto another flight to get me to Delhi without additional cost to me. Also, if that resulted in an enforced overnight stay they would in all likelihood also covered the accommodation costs. OK, I might be late, possibly by a day or more, but Finnair would get me to my final ticketed destination of Delhi.

However, I am late arriving at Delhi. My next leg of the trip is with Malaysian Airlines and is on a separate ticket. There is no contractual obligation for Finnair beyond Delhi. So if the delay means I miss my flight out of Delhi then I will be classed “no show” and I would automatically have my ticket cancelled, and all the associated flights on the ticket, cancelled with no refund. I would have to pay for an additional ticket from Delhi and in this particular scenario, on my Round the World trip this could potentially have a knock on effect resulting in me not making my flight out of JFK so “no show” to London. I would have lost all the money used to buy the ticket DEL-KUL-NRT/HND-JFK-LHR! It would be a total financial disaster… not to mention the fact that I would be stranded in Delhi and would also have to buy a new ticket to get me back home and that could be very expensive at such short notice.

I hope you can appreciate that buying a multi-leg trip on different tickets carries with it a significant risk.

So what can we do to reduce or eliminate the risk?

The first thing is to buy a single ticket with one airline to your final destination. This might seem obvious but it isn’t always so clear-cut. For example, my leg from Tokyo to New York is with Japan Airlines but it is sold by Malaysian Airlines on my ticket from Delhi to New York. The JAL flight is sold on a Malaysian-issued ticket. As the entire route from DEL – JFK is sold by the one airline, on one ticket, so the single contract exists and so, in the event of IRROPS, Malaysian Airlines would guarantee to get me to New York. So, even if you are flying different legs on different airlines it is sometimes possible to book all the flights on a single ticket, through one of the airlines. This is often available where the airlines concerned are members of the same alliance program… Oneworld, Star Alliance etc.

If you cannot buy a single ticket then the risk of missed connections resulting in cancelled tickets exists and you have to take measures to reduce the risk. The only real option open to you is to leave a long enough time gap between the last flight on one ticket and the first flight on the next. In my case I have booked an overnight stop between so if the last flight is delayed there is less risk that I will miss the connection to the first flight on the next ticket. This is still risky. It would help in the case of moderate delays but in the event of a flight cancellation the resulting delay might be more than 24 hrs and so it might still result in ticket cancellations. For me, the savings by buying separate tickets were significant and so I am happy to accept that remaining risk but I would not have done it without the overnight stops between tickets. But it will be costly to me if I do miss one of my connections between tickets.

This is a complicated topic to explain in a blog but I hope you have got the picture and the takeaway is to always leave a significant gap, preferably at least overnight, between the last flight on one ticket and the first flight on the next ticket.

I hope you never fall foul of “no show” cancellations like this… I hope I don’t too on my RTW trip in March!

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