How missing a flight can cause your other airline bookings to be cancelled

You could find yourself stranded in a foreign city.

I had an inkling something was wrong. Normally, about 24 hours before a flight, Swiss Air will send through a boarding pass to inform you you've been automatically checked in. But I'd woken up that morning and there was nothing. No email. No boarding pass.

Hmm. So I logged in to the website to review my booking, to see if I could check in online. I plugged in the details to pull up the flight and … it wasn't there. My original flight was there, the Zurich to Rome leg from a few days ago. But Rome to Zurich, the flight I was due to take in six or seven hours' time, was not.

Panic began to set in. This wasn't just one flight to Zurich I was taking. It was the beginning of a long journey home, the first step to meet a flight from Zurich to Singapore, and then eventually on to Sydney. If the Rome leg didn't happen, it was a house of cards. I'd be in Italy forever.

So I called Swiss Air. Just checking on my booking. Making sure things are OK. They pulled it up on their computer and, hmm, same thing – the Rome to Zurich flight wasn't there. The customer service person put me on hold, said she'd look into it. Five minutes later, she came back.

"Sir, did you board the first leg of your booking, from Zurich to Rome?"

I didn't. There was a good reason for that, too. I'd decided I needed to fly from Zurich to Rome a day later than planned, and as my Swiss Air booking didn't allow for any changes, it was actually cheaper to just book a one-way flight the following day, and then use the Rome to Zurich flight I'd originally booked as my return leg.

Except, I was about to find out, you can't do that. If you fail to show up for your first flight on any booking – and this is industry standard – the airline will simply cancel any following flights. No notice. No excuses. Essentially, they appear to just assume that the only reason anyone would possibly not show up for a flight is that they've keeled over and died, and what would be the point of sending notice to a dead person?

That, of course, isn't the official line. The Swiss Air attendant I spoke to said if enough people don't show up for a flight then it can't depart, which unfairly punishes those who have turned up. Therefore, you're the one who gets punished.

That makes little sense to me, as surely all the money for the flight has already been paid by the people who haven't showed and you'd just end up with a lighter aircraft that burns less fuel and everyone would save money in the long-run anyway, but apparently that's beside the point. Fail to show for your first flight, and it's all over.


Read the fine print. It doesn't matter that you've paid good money for that second flight. It doesn't matter that you've received no automated email letting you know your booking is now null and void and you should make other plans. You're done. It's over.

Now, I know what you're thinking. I'm a professional traveller and I didn't know this? And yeah, I'll cop that. It was kind of dumb. But surely the fact I didn't know this shows that plenty of other people don't know it either? Surely this is a rule that needs to be spread among those of us who think we're tricky and only plan to use part of our booking?

I stayed on the phone far too long arguing. I needed to get to Zurich. Swiss Air weren't budging. They did, however, offer to simply rebook me on that same flight that afternoon.

"Oh great," I said, "how much will that cost?"

"Um, let me just check," the assistant said. "OK, that will be €690."

That's more than $1000 for a one-hour flight. I politely – OK, not that politely – declined, and hung up and tried to figure out my options.

I needed to be at Zurich airport in 10 hours. I was currently in an Airbnb in central Rome. Bugger. My flight options were either direct with Swiss Air for €690, or a convoluted three-flight extravaganza starring some of Eastern Europe's worst airlines for €180. Horrendous, and unreliable.

But this is Europe, where you can also use the train. I logged in to Trenitalia and checked the schedule. There was a train from Roma Termini to Zurich Hauptbahnhof departing in two hours, going via Milan. It would take seven hours. It would cost €120.

Bingo. I booked it. I would have to rely on the Italian train system running on time, but it was the best option. I hailed a cab and raced to Termini. I boarded a swanky, fast train with decent coffee and lots of space, and whizzed up to Milan. There (after a quick espresso), I changed to another swanky, fast train and cruised up in Switzerland, via lakes and mountains, through tunnels and over bridges. Beautiful. Comfortable. Easy.

And, of course, I made it to Zurich on time, with fewer euros but with more sense.

If you don't turn up for a flight, your booking will be cancelled. Apparently, that's a thing. I'd recommend taking the train.

Have you ever had an air travel booking cancelled? Have you ever been stranded in a foreign city because of your own mistake? What did you do?



​See also: How a mistake got me banned from the US for life

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