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Outlook calendar tricks & traps adding from links and .ics

There are web links or .ics files that let you add an appointment direct to your Outlook calendar without retyping. Airlines and some theater and concert events offer them at the end of online booking.  They are simple to use but there’s also tricks to make them even better.

We’ll look at some of the hassles and traps in web links and .ics to add events plus a practical example from just one site. When you book a trip or event, you might see a web link like this:

You’d hope that a click on that link would create a new appointment in Outlook (or whatever default calendar app) will many of the fields filled in.  You can review the appointment, click Save and it’s in your calendar.  Oh, if it were that simple.

Email too

The same information, as an .ics file, can arrive via an email.  Open the .ics to add to Outlook as shown below.

Appointment problems

Here’s just some of the problems you make strike.

  • Incomplete details. Missing address or other important reference details.
  • Wrong Time! Carefully check the date/time
  • Wrong duration also check the duration of the event.
  • No Time Zone The appointment will be added with the computers current time zone.  Some downloaded appointments don’t include time zone details and assume you’re in the same TZ as the event (not always the case if you’re travelling). Others do add the vital TZ details, but not in the way that Outlook recognizes.
  • Wrong calendar Outlook adds the new appointment into a brand new calendar – not your default calendar.
  • Added without chance to check. Outlook adds the appointment directly to a calendar, instead of opening it to let you check and revise. Importantly, this misses the chance to set your own reminder.
  • Can’t update. If you download the appointment details a second time, it won’t update the existing appointment.  Instead a duplicate event is added.  Incoming appointments can include a unique identifier, but Outlook ignores it.   Of course, you can open the existing Outlook appointment and edit that.
  • Third party extras some sites want you to use some 3rd party software to add the event to your calendar. This isn’t necessary and should be avoided.

To fix these problems requires both the web site and Microsoft to fix the problems.  The .ics appointment sharing system would be a lot more popular if the various ‘stakeholders’ made a little effort.

How it works

Add an appointment links are really very simple.

The web site makes a custom file with the appointment details. This is a .ics file, a format that’s been around for some time and is in plain text.  You can open one in Notepad to see it ‘raw’.

Clicking the ‘Add Appointment’ button downloads the tiny .ics file to your computer.  For most people, you’ll have to double-click on the .ics download to add it to your Outlook calendar (or whatever program is associated with .ics files).

We’re not aware of any virus or hacks via the .ics files, so you can use them without concern on that score.

Real World Example

Here’s an example of how an ‘Add an appointment’ link works and the hurdles you have to go through.  We’ll use the British Airways web site and flight for the example since they do a pretty good job on their side.

Start after making a booking on the site and look for an Add Appointment link, usually near the Print/View button.

BA opens another window to give you an important option.

The ‘Keep booking details confidential’ option changes the information sent in the appointment details.  UNcheck the box to add the vital booking reference (the ‘PNR’ 6 character code) which is essential to finding an airline booking in the massive global database.

At least BA gives you the choice (albeit in a confusing way).  Many sites don’t give you a choice and drop important details from the appointment data.

Click on the button to download the .ics file to your computer.   It’s a tiny file that should arrive in the blink of an eye.

Adding to Outlook calendar.

What happens next depends on your computer setup. We’ll show you the process on a default setup of Outlook 2016 for Windows – your experience may vary.

Most likely you’ll have to open the .ics file manually.

The .ics appears in your downloads folder.

Double-click on the .ics file and …. nothing happens!  Or rather, nothing seems to happen because there’s no change on the screen.

In fact, the appointment has been added to Outlook automatically but not in a way that’s helpful or obvious.  If you switch to Outlook, you should find the appointment added in a totally new calendar!

Now you have to find the newly added appointment in the otherwise empty calendar (the ‘Untitled’ calendar on the left). Get to the right day and scroll to see the appointments.

In this case, two appointments.  BA, via the .ics file, has created an appointment for the flight plus another to let you know when online check-in is available.  We’ll focus on the main appointment as an example of the wider problems.

Here’s the appointment as it’s created with the downloaded .ics file.

Where to begin with problem on this appointment?  Some are personal preferences for formatting flights into Outlook but are still good examples of why added appointments should be opened for editing before saving.

Subject line is OK, as far as it goes.  It omits the important Terminal detail for Frankfurt airport.  It’s also too long, which can make it hard to read on a mobile device.

Location  At the very least should read ‘Frankfurt T2’.  For other events, the address of the location is necessary, not just the name of the place.  We like to include other details in the Location line for quick and easy reference – in this case the booking reference.

Time Zones  The appointment has been added assuming that the computers current time zone applies to both the start and end times.  That’s despite the .ics having time zone details!

Details area doesn’t have useful information like the flight duration, luggage allowance or a link to updated flight details / manage booking.

Reminder and Categories aren’t set.

The .ics format supports Reminder, but it’s rarely used.

Here’s our revised version of the same appointment making all the changes mentioned above plus a few more.

The Subject and Locations lines are kept short but with the key details. This makes them quickly visible on a smartphone and saves opening up the full appointment.

The ‘manage booking’ link and other details were copied from the email confirmation of the booking. It was information that should have been added to the .ics.

Copy to ‘My Calendar’

Last, but certainly not least, remember to copy the appointment to your own calendar.

Remember that it’s a Copy, not a move of the appointment.   Now there are two instances of the same event.

The original appointment and it’s separate calendar remains.  That’s not a big problem but it’s untidy and unnecessary.   You should delete the ‘Unititled’ calendar for the sake of neatness.

Why isn’t it better?

As with so many things, ‘follow the money’.

Microsoft has little incentive to improve .ics support beyond the basics.   Redmond has its own cloud-based and proprietary method which it would much prefer customers use over a more widely available system like .ics files.

The ‘stakeholders’ are too diverse, especially the web sites who create the calendar files.  They make .ics but seem to give little thought to adding details so it will work well for customers.

We’d love to see more web sites offer .ics files either at the end of a booking or in an email confirming a booking. Those that do should carefully check how they work for the receiver and improve what they provide — starting with proper time zone settings!

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