How Airlines Can Improve Online Check-In

Written by Kate Goldstone

Not so long ago you’d always have a proper ticket for a flight, officially printed on thick colourful card with dates and times, often with special security stuff like holograms and tear-off sections. An airline ticket was a thing of beauty, containing all manner of essential information.

airline ticket

Old Style Airline Ticket

Now you can do the whole thing online, quickly and easily, and it’s brilliant. But there are a few areas where the online flights thing falls down, as we discovered on a recent trip to Amsterdam. Here are some practical tips based on our experiences, plus appeals to airlines, ticket sellers and airports to do a better job.

Online flights – choosing who to buy tickets from

There are countless websites where you can buy flights online. It’s an excellent idea, so much better than it used to be, much faster and more convenient. And there are so many providers to choose from, my task began with a visit to the MoneySavingExpert website to see which online flights seller they recommended.

The interfaces used by online flights sites are clear anough, even if it’s your first time booking flights online. But the difference is in the after-sales emails they send. Sadly, the recommended ticket seller I used didn’t send the best autoresponder emails – in fact they were absolutely baffling.

Online flight autoresponder nightmares

Having made our bookings through our chosen online flights provider, I sat back and waited for an email confirming the details of both flights: out via BA and home via easyJet. And I received five emails, all of which looked exactly the same until I examined them closely in minute detail.

At that stage I expected a clear email – just the one – telling me that our flights had been booked safelty and our payment received. Plus information about where to go to check in online and print off our boarding passes. What I actually got was a series of emails full of sales stuff, where the information I needed was buried so deeply and obscurely that it was extremely challenging to find.

The emails drove me relentlessly towards phoning the online booking site’s call centre so they could handle the boarding pass side of things for me, for which they charged a ‘small’ fee. Which was ridiculous since it’s actually really easy and fast to do it yourself… or it would have been if they’d made the links to the airline websites obvious.

After half an hour fiddling about reading all five different emails I gave up in disgust and tried to phone the number the online booking people provided. It would only have cost a couple of quid to get them to do it all for me so I thought “why not”. But that opened up another can of worms…

Can of worms number 2 – Call centre fun… not!

For a start, the number they provided wouldn’t accept calls from mobiles so I had to use our landline, which is nowhere near my computer. The automated message I got when I called the number came with a very strong accent, so strong I found it hard to understand what ‘he’ was saying. So I gave up and went back to the emails.

I eventually found links to the airline sites, where I finally managed to check-in and get our boarding passes, more than an hour later. By that time I was already fed up with the whole thing. It wasn’t a pleasant experience, more pointlessly complicated than trouble-free.

Online check-in – Leave up-selling until later

Worse still, the five emails I was sent were full of offers for ‘additional’ services like hotel bookings (which I’d already done separately) and car hire. Why? At this stage the last thing I needed was to book extra services. All I wanted to do was check in online and get our boading passes sorted.

  • My first recommendation to online flights websites is this: it would be much better to send one simple email confirming the booking and including links to online check in and boarding passes for each flight, rather than five of them
  • My second recommendation is: Leave out the sales blurb. From a marketing perspective, up-selling should come later, once the basics have been sorted
  • My third recommendation is: don’t rip people off by trying to persuade them to contact your call centre, when checking in and getting a boarding pass online is easier than buying tickets in the first place
  • And fourth, get someone without a strong accent to create your automated voice message, so it’s easy to understand

Gatwick gets it right

Gatwick Signage

Gatwick Signage

On arrival at Gatwick, from where we flew, it was perfectly clear that because we’d already checked in online and printed off our own boarding passes for our British Airways flight, there was no need to check in at the airport. There was lots of lovely clear signage so all we did was follow the signs to the right gate and correct departure lounge, as smoothly as a smooth thing. Well done, Gatwick.

Schipol signage fail

At the other end, on the way home, Schipol proved a bit more of a challenge. There didn’t seem to be a separate route for easyJet passengers who had already checked in online, so we ended up milling around in confusion for quite a while, unable to figure out where to go and how to get there. As it turned out, we actually had to go through the check-in area to reach the H gate, then wait in the H departures area until the sub-gate, H1, was announced.

Schipol cheese

Schipol – Good for cheese

When you’re dragging heavy baggage around it’s the last thing you need. If you’re an inexperienced traveller, things can potentially get very confusing indeed. All it takes is a few simple signs to make everything perfectly clear: Checked in online? Go this way.

Why not include practical details on the boarding pass?

Our boarding passes represented a wasted opportunity for the airlines themselves. We printed them off at home, which was really convenient, but like the emails I got they also included adverts, which seems inappropriate at this stage when leaving aderts out would leave room for the information we actually need.

Ideally the boarding pass document should provide answers to all the questions you might need to ask, including instructions about where to go when you’ve done your check-in online. It would make much more sense to put it all in one place, in writing, telling people clearly that they don’t need to go to the check in desk, and where they should go instead.

It should also clearly indicate the gate that you need to head for, if there’s any potential for confusion. And,  importantly, it could also include information about where to go in the airport if you need help: the airline desk or whatever.

A map of the airport layout would be brilliant. Both Gatwick airport and Schipol are absolutely huge, and putting a basic map on the boarding pass would be really helpful. As it is, the advert (in Dutch) for car hire, at the foot of our easyJet boarding passes, wasn’t any use to us at all.

One more thing. If you want people to print off their own boarding pass, don’t include full-colour adverts. It just uses up expensive colour print cardridges, which is a pain.

Advice about how online check in works

What about your online flight bookings experiences?

We’d love to know about your experiences booking flights online. How would you change the system? If you have any horror stories, leave a comment.

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