How Alitalia Misled Me (Or: Economy Plus Is Not What You Think)

As problems go, this is a relatively small one.

I want to lead with that, lest you think I’m being overdramatic. Don’t worry, I know that the world has bigger fish to fry. That said, for a certain segment of the population, this could still be a problem, and thus it’s one I want to illuminate. Anywho…

Recently, I found myself booked on an Alitalia flight to Barcelona via Rome. I’m using Delta SkyMiles for this flight—30,000 miles plus $25 for taxes and fees—meaning that Delta sold me the flight even though it’s operated by Alitalia (not a codeshare or anything, you fancy airline pros, but an actual Alitalia flight).

Because of the way the Delta computers talk to the Alitalia computers—or the way they don’t talk—you need to make your seat reservations directly with Alitalia. I got the numbers I needed and called Alitalia to make the arrangements.

The agent on the phone answered quickly, and seemed eager to help. In fact, she mentioned, I could even upgrade to the airline’s “Economy Plus” offering for just $95. Considering how little I paid for the flight, that seemed like a bargain. I was in!

Quick background.

Alitalia calls their economy offering “Classica”. Their premium economy offering is called “Classica Plus”.

If you’re familiar with Alitalia, you might see right where this is going. But I wasn’t, and didn’t; this will be my first flight on Alitalia, not to mention my first ever award flight.

Back to the story.

Happy to have snagged a $125 flight to Barcelona in relative comfort and style, I cheerily went about my life. Until today.

Checking over my flight information again, and cross-referencing it with the cabin map on SeatGuru, I noticed that my assigned seat was in the economy cabin, not the premium economy cabin that I thought I was in. The $95 charge hadn’t posted to my credit card either, so I assumed a mistake had been made and my booking hadn’t been updated.

I gave Alitalia another call.

This time, they were still quick to answer, but as I explained the situation I was in it was clear today’s representative was in a very different mood. (I wonder if she had received similar calls in the past and was gearing up for the inevitable fight?)

You see, you may have noticed earlier that I was offered a seat in “economy plus”, not, as the airline brands it, “Classica Plus”. It turns out that although Classica is the Alitalia equivalent of economy, “Classica Plus” is not synonymous with “Economy Plus”.

Now if you’re a regular Alitalia customer, this might be obvious to you. But remember, this is my first Alitalia flight. I’ve also informally polled a few friends, and they all agreed: if Classica was economy, naturally economy plus would be equivalent to Classica Plus.

I won’t go too much into the “bedside manner” of this latest customer service agent, except to say that she was immediately defensive and acted shocked that this would have confused me. In fact, she seemed downright insulted that I would dare to question the policy. She was quick to place the blame squarely in my lap. And, of course, there would be no way I could get my money back and downgrade to a regular economy seat.

Again, in the scheme of things this is not a big problem. A $125 flight to Barcelona is still nothing to be too upset about. However, I still think this is a misleading practice (intentional or not, and it is probably not) worth highlighting, to prevent future travellers from making the same mistake.

A few takeaways for Alitalia (if you’re listening):

  • Change the name of this “economy plus” offering, or change the name of “Classica Plus”. Maybe the Italian translations are more clear, but in English they are totally misleading.
  • Train your customer service associates to be nicer. Although my first experience was pleasant enough, my second was quite the opposite, and based on a cursory Google search I know I’m not the only one. (Recent FlyerTalk thread title: “Is Alitalia an airline or a joke?”)
  • Make it easier (or just possible) to get a refund. I realise that airlines love these types of upgrades because they cost so little and maximise every dollar spent—especially on award flights. I also realise that with Alitalia in relatively rough financial waters, you’re eager to maximise those dollars more than usual. However the combination of poor customer service and inflexible policies are far more dangerous than a red balance sheet. A red balance sheet can be reversed, but it’s meaningless if customers don’t want to fly with you in the first place.

So there you have it. A quick cautionary tale, in hopes that it might steer someone else in the right direction in the future. As for me, I’ll try Alitalia a few more times (I hear that their customer service representatives all seem to have different interpretations of their policies; not a good omen for the quality of service, but potentially useful for me) and hope I get someone who is willing and able to help.

Otherwise, I’ll consider it a semi-expensive learning experience, and take solace in the fact that it might help you avoid the same $95 fate.

Travel Tips

I’ve just finished off a series of speaking engagements and events that have required a lot of travel—six cities since mid-August—and have had a lot of time to practice and hone my travel skills.

Here are a few travel tips that guide my “travel philosophy”. Hopefully they’ll help you too.

1. Pack light

Packing light is the cornerstone of my strategy. For me, that means packing my entire trip into a single bag (this one, if you’re curious).

Because I restrict myself to one bag, I’m forced to make tough decisions about what stays and what goes, which is why I need to…

2. Pack smart

With so little space to fill, I need to be extra savvy about what to pack. That process starts by cutting out everything but the essentials, but also involves choosing gear that’s as light and/or multifunctional as possible.

For example, I often used to carry a single shirt for wearing under button-downs, and another shirt for wearing to bed at night. By switching to a shirt from Uniqlo’s Airism line, I’m able to get a single shirt that can do double duty, because it resists odors and wrinkles (Airism gear is also incredibly lightweight, which is just as important).

I also try to be smart about what I’ll actually need. I never pack liquids, because I know I can get them when I arrive at my destination, and it helps to avoid TSA complexities.

3. Last on, first off

When using air travel with designated seating, there’s no reason to wait in long, crowded lines, unless you need to ensure space in the overhead bins on a flight. Because I pack just one bag (that’s well within the “personal item” allowed by most airlines), I don’t have the same rush.

I also make sure I pick aisle seats (close to the front of the plane) whenever possible. Most people new to air travel go for windows, because they want to see the world from above—and that’s cool. But once you’ve become a flying pro, you quickly realise that the aisle seats are best. They give you slightly more room to stretch out (unless the flight attendants are doing drink service) and they’re easier to get in and out of without manoeuvring around other passengers.

The double whammy of packing light and choosing an aisle seat means I can wait until lines have cleared to board, because I can stow my bag under the seat (don’t have to worry about space in the overhead bins) and because I can sit down quickly without bothering the other fliers in my row.

4. Be prepared for security

The biggest bottleneck/time suck at any airport (especially domestic airports) is the security line. You can help this process along—and minimise stress—by being prepared.

I usually carry a wallet, pens, headphones, and other similar gear in my pockets. Rather than rush to take everything out when I’m loading my stuff in the security bins, I take a few moments (usually in the cab ride to the airport) to get everything out in advance and into a pocket on my backpack. The only things I keep with me are my identification and cell phone (for the mobile boarding pass).

While waiting in line to enter security, I also make sure to take off my belt and untie my sneakers. If I have enough time, I’ll take my laptop out of my backpack, just so it’s ready to go.

It may all be “security theatre”, but being prepared for the routine will help you get through quickly, efficiently, and on time.

5. Always remain calm

Travel is a great excuse to practice meditation and mindfulness. Whenever something goes wrong—whether it’s turbulence, missed connections, or anything else that’s unexpected—having a calm mindset is essential.

For example, one of my flights this past weekend was diverted. Instead of landing in Houston, we were forced to land in Austin due to inclement weather. As soon as the announcement was made, the plane erupted into panicked chatter and confusion. When we touched down in Austin, it got more pronounced as the cell phones were brought out to try to figure out what to do.

Some travellers left the plane to attempt to figure out plans. Others were on the phone trying to figure out what was going on with customer service agents who knew as little as anyone else.

In the thick of that, I focused on staying calm and continuing to read. When things had died down a bit, I got an Internet connection, used TripIt to find an alternate flight, and—by providing exact flight numbers—was able to get myself quickly booked on the next open flight. I also put myself on standby for a few earlier flights.

Because I was calm, and had a good understanding of exactly what needed to be done—and focused on that—I was able to get to my final destination much sooner than many of the other passengers on the flight. And when we did finally land in Houston, and I saw the mobs trying to get information from customer service, I was contented with the fact that my flights were well taken care of.

So those are a few of my travel tips. What are yours? Share in the comments.