The observation that everybody is a TV critic was made a long time ago, but in the last few years I've also noticed that most people think they know how to travel – both how to book a trip and how to handle all aspects of the journey.
At the same time, we keep hearing and reading horror stories about mistreated and overcharged passengers, ruined vacations, missed weddings or funerals. Those tales often end with the affected travelers' solemn pledge never to fly the airline that wronged them again. But are the airlines the only ones to blame or should travelers share at least part of the responsibility?
Having flown almost 2 million miles and visited more than 80 countries, I've seen it all – airline agents who offer completely different answers to the same questions, and others who simply make up rules to avoid dealing with an issue; flight attendants whose dislike for their job is evident in everything they do on board; rude and demanding passengers who fail to recognize when an airline employee actually does them a favor.
For years, I watched, listened and learned. Whenever agents touched my reservations, I asked what exactly they did and how, so if another agent had to deal with the same booking later and couldn't figure something out, I was able to point them in the right direction. I began paying closer attention to detail, read fare rules and restrictions, and also learned the intricacies of frequent-flier programs.
Instead of panicking when delays and cancellations occurred, I developed a system to track where my planes come from and to inform myself of alternate flights and to check if they have available seats so I could get rebooked.
Armed with all that knowledge and experience, I've achieved what most people deem impossible today: hassle-free, convenient, comfortable and even pleasant travel, for the most part. Although I usually pay low coach fares, I haven't sat in coach on domestic and intercontinental flights in eight years – this is not a result of gaming the system, breaking rules or negotiating with gate agents, but of knowing the rules and using them to my advantage.
Nearly two years ago, I began writing this column to shed light on both good and bad practices in the travel industry and to share my experience, but also to educate readers and tell them that one doesn't need to have a high-flying job or be independently rich to become a jet-setter.
Thanks to the unprecedented democratization of travel in recent years, the transparency of airline data brought about by the Internet, as well as the instant and global reach of social media, benefiting from rare fare deals and frequent-flier perks has made it possible for people who could never afford to travel in first class on the world's best carriers to actually experience that luxury.
Now I've decided to take the next step and start educating travelers how to do just that, but more directly and in slightly more intimate settings than a newspaper column. Beginning in June, I'll be teaching "On the Fly" seminars – first in Washington, and hopefully in other cities around the country soon.
You might remember my April column about the impromptu seminar I gave to a few friends on how to achieve top elite airline status for the least amount of money. Hopefully, educating passengers about the basics of travel and letting them in on strategies and tactics they never knew will prove a winning combination.
If more travelers were better educated, they would know how to handle most situations and wouldn't dread their next trip – or have unreasonable expectations because they didn't bother to read the rules of their heavily discounted fare.
Last summer, I wrote about Michelle Renee, an author and former bank executive, who paid $586 for a ticket from Los Angeles to Australia on United Airlines.
After flying to Melbourne, she backpacked around the country and ended up in Sydney. Her ticket had her flying back home from Melbourne, with a brief stop in Sydney on the same flight number, but she saw little sense in going to Melbourne only to turn around right back to Sydney. Not bothering to at least call United to check if that would be an issue, she showed up at the check-in counter in Sydney and was stunned to find out that she had to pay a $250 change fee.
"I felt like I had just been cornered and robbed in an alley by a bully that looked a lot like the United counter guy," Ms. Renee wrote on her blog.
Had she been better educated about the basics of travel, she would have known that, if you miss a ticketed flight voluntarily, the rest of your itinerary is automatically voided. The United agent had every right to require a much more expensive new ticket, but he did her a favor by charging her only $250, and she publicly accused him of "robbing" her.
In a more recent case, actor Don Cheadle told Jay Leno on NBC his own United horror story, which began when he and his wife approached an airport counter to change their seats, because the airline, which he didn't name, hadn't "given" them seats together. That story ended with some controversial remarks by a flight attendant, but Mr. Cheadle must know he can get seats as soon as a ticket is issued. He most likely doesn't book his travel himself, but even people who do often don't bother to request seat assignments or to check if there have been schedule changes to their flights.
The airlines have contributed to many travelers' frustration and confusion by adding new fees and introducing or changing rules all the time. But passengers also share part of the responsibility for what travel has become. One shouldn't have high expectations and demand a seamless and hassle-free trip if one doesn't invest the time and pay attention to the details when booking that trip.
So as the "On the Fly" seminars begin, the "On the Fly" column will take a summer hiatus and will hopefully resume in the fall, though not in the Washington Times. In the meantime, my blog will try to fill the void.
• Click here to contact Nicholas Kralev. His "On the Fly" column runs every Monday.
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