Consumer travel is one of the undisputed success stories of the Internet. Lured by bargain-basement fares, travelers now are buying directly from the airlines or from online travel sites, circumventing the travel agent altogether.

As a result, about half of us now are using electronic tickets, or e-tickets. In May, United Airlines reported that 51% of its passengers were "ticketless," surpassing the number of paper ticket holders for the first time.

Travelers are weighing in favorably on e-tickets, which are convenient and often more flexible than paper when it comes to last-minute changes. You can just show up at the gate (as long as you don't have luggage to check), flash an ID, and board the plane right before take-off. No more check-in drudgery, no more worrying about lost tickets, and no more overnight ticket delivery fees.
    E-ticket travel tips

So what's not to like?
Just wait until your flight is canceled or you have to make an unscheduled change, some travelers say, and watch that convenience evaporate like a vapor trail.

For the most part, electronic tickets live up to their promise of speed and convenience, and lost reservations or downed computers are thankfully rare. The choice between paper or electronic is often a matter of comfort—you can't leave an e-ticket in an airport caf´┐Ż because the reservation exists only on the airline computer (a lost ticket can cost $75 to replace). On the flip side, a paper ticket is a record of your transaction.

"Some people feel better if they have the actual document, so they can prove they are on the flight," says Eugene Laney, information and legislative services manager at the National Business Travel Association in Alexandria, Va..
     The choice
     between paper
     or electronic
     is often a
     matter of comfort.

Computer problems can ground your plans
Although e-tickets have soared in popularity among travelers, the airlines still are playing catch up with demand. The problem stems from co-chairing. Co-chairing is where two or more airlines agree to honor each other's tickets and, in some cases, frequent flyer miles. Unfortunately, the airlines' computer systems are not compatible and can't read each other's electronic reservations. If your travel plans include changing airlines midstream—often the case with overseas travel, cancellations, or trips involving more than one airline—you'll have to have your original airline print off the ticket.

Usually this means standing in line at Airline A's ticket counter while the agent prints out your electronic ticket. You'll then have to line up at Airline B's counter and present the ticket to board the plane. If you're traveling in a large group with 10 minutes to make a connection, you may wonder if the "e" stands for electronic or excruciating.

The good news is that airlines and the International Air Transport Association, located in Montreal, are working furiously to develop standard systems—a process known as e-ticket "interlining."

"We're seeing dents occur in interlining," says Allen Muten, spokesperson for the Airline Reporting Corporation, located in Arlington, Va., which tracks travel agency airline sales. "The trend is toward airlines developing systems within their alliances."

American and United airlines had hoped to have a system in place in 1999, but have pushed back the deadline to the end of 2000.

If the idea of an e-ticket sends your blood pressure into the stratosphere, don't worry: You can demand a paper ticket, even if you booked electronically, and most agents and online travel sites will oblige. One note of caution—once your ticket has been printed out, it is considered a paper ticket, not an e-ticket.

Generally speaking, electronic tickets are no different from paper, Muten says, as all the same rules and restrictions apply. "For e-tickets to be valuable, they need to replicate all the benefits of a paper ticket," he says. There is one crucial exception. Paper tickets are a legally binding document, says Laney. E-tickets are not.

Airlines, which save several dollars every time they issue a ticket electronically instead of on paper, may offer incentives such as frequent flyer miles to e-ticket travelers. Check the individual airline Web sites for information.

     Some people
     feel better if
     they have the
     actual document,
     so they can prove
     they are on the flight.

     If you book
     without using
     your travel agent,
     there's little
     he or she can do
     for you in a crisis.

Do you want paper or digital?
The advantages of e-tickets tend to outweigh the drawbacks. You usually can make last minute changes over the phone—a plus for the business traveler with a fluid schedule. Paper ticket holders, however, have to make an extra trip to the airport or travel agency to get new tickets issued.

Industry experts agree that e-tickets are not yet suitable for international travel as few foreign airlines use e-ticket technology and may not recognize your ticket. Throw in a language barrier and you've got an Excedrin-sized headache. You still can research and buy a cheap flight online, but have your travel agent or the online travel site issue paper tickets before you travel.

New technology that would allow you to print tickets from your home computer is in the pipeline. Until it hits the market, your best bet might be to use an e-ticket in conjunction with a travel agent. At the very least, make sure the online site you book your ticket through is reputable, and willing to make schedule changes. You'll have to pay the travel agent's commission as well as ticket-delivery fees, but it can be well worth it. In the event of difficulties, travel agents will go to bat for you—they're your advocate, not the airline's.

Travel agents also can search for a cheap fare and let you know about other promotions that may save you more money than using the Internet. They can explain policies, arrange car rentals and hotel reservations, and tell you whether your cheap hotel is really a bargain.

Whether you fly by paper or electronic ticket, if you booked without using your travel agent, there's little he or she can do for you in a crisis.

If you prefer totally digital travel, find out at the online travel site that issued your ticket if someone is available round the clock to answer questions or make changes to your reservation. Traveling is stressful enough; you need a live human being in your corner, not an answering machine.

     Paper tickets
     are a legally
     binding document;
     e-tickets are not.

E-ticket travel tips
Despite the occasional glitch, e-tickets really are a great way to travel, particularly if you're prepared for any eventuality. Follow these tips for a hassle-free trip.

  • Ask for a paper ticket for international travel. Your e-ticket may not be recognized by a foreign airline and a language barrier will magnify your frustration.

  • Bring your identification, credit card, itinerary, and confirmation letter.

  • You'll need your ID to pick up your boarding pass. Have the credit card you used to purchase your ticket available. Some major carriers will request to see it as a form of confirmation of your purchase and identity.

  • Your itinerary is vital for several reasons. It lists all the details that normally would appear on a paper ticket, such as airport, airline flight number, and arrival and departure times. More important, if the airline can't find your reservation, your itinerary is documentation of the transaction.

  • No matter whom you book your ticket through, ask for a faxed itinerary and a confirmation letter. If you alter your plans, ask for a final faxed itinerary reflecting those changes.

  • Consider booking an e-ticket through a travel agent, especially if you travel on business frequently or expect to make changes to your reservation. Every year, millions of people fly on e-tickets that they bought online and have a smooth ride, so it's a personal choice.

  • Arrive at the gate 20 minutes early, when possible. That way you'll have a little time to iron out any potential wrinkles before you board.

  • Confirm your flight ahead of time. You can call the airline directly to make sure your reservation is on the computer system.

© 2000 Credit Union National Association Inc.