We have no control over some of the misfortunes of air travel. The flight is late or, worse, canceled, because of weather, mechanical or crew problems, sending a ripple through your travel plans. Annoying, yes, but there’s a category of travel problems even worse because you didn’t know you’d agreed to certain rules. Welcome to the self-inflicted travel wound.
An L.A. area colleague needed to get to a close-enough-to-drive destination, then fly back to attend to matters in L.A., then fly back to the destination, from which he would drive home. For your scorecard, he was sandwiching a return to L.A. between his out-of-town trip.
Plans changed, and instead of flying back to L.A., he drove. But he forgot to cancel the flight he was supposed to take. He didn’t just lose the first part of his fare; he lost the whole thing.
He was angry at the airline, but the finger-wagging should have been directed at himself.
“If someone simply opts not to take a flight in the itinerary and it’s not due to an airline-related issue, then they are generally out of luck,” Brett Snyder, former airline employee and now president of CrankyFlier.com, which deals with airline questions, and Cranky Concierge.com, which offers air travel assistance, said in an email.
THE RULES for these kinds of situations are in the terms and conditions, also called the contract of carriage or the conditions of carriage, that every major airline has. You agree to them when you buy your ticket. If you don’t abide, you pay, especially on nonrefundable tickets.
Here’s what Southwest, the airline on which this happened, states in its terms and conditions: Its least-expensive fare, the Wanna Get Away, must be canceled at least 10 minutes before departure. “If the customer does not travel, all segments associated with the reservation are canceled and funds associated with … the fare are forfeited.”
With the pricier business-select fare, all reservations are canceled, but you get a travel credit. If it’s a ticket that has a mix of fares, the corresponding rules will be applied.
Part of the reason is financial: A no-show means the seat you would have occupied cannot be re-sold. The airline will act as though you’re there and keep your money.
But why cancel the entire ticket and keep that money too?
American Airlines’ contract holds the answer: “Reservations made to exploit or circumvent fare and ticket rules are strictly prohibited.” It goes on to say that you may not “purchase a ticket without intending to fly all the flights (in order to) gain lower fares (hidden cities).”
Exploit? Circumvent? Hidden cities? Yes. Here’s how this scheme works.
Let’s say you want to go to Cincinnati, but the fares are high. You find a round-trip fare to a primary city (that is, a city that has plenty of air service and cheaper fares, even though it’s geographically farther away) that includes a stop in Cincinnati. You leave the plane there and applaud your cleverness.
If the airline finds out, it may kick you out of its frequent-flier program and confiscate miles.
If it’s like Lufthansa, it may sue you. The airline recently went after a passenger who, it said, used a hidden-city scheme to get a better fare. The case was thrown out, but Lufthansa is appealing, CNN reported.
TO AVOID suffering the same fate:
>> If you are going to miss your flight — you overslept, there was a wreck on the freeway and snarled traffic, you misread the time — call and explain what has happened/is happening. Ask for help in rebooking if you still intend to go.
>> Even if it’s not your fault (you miss a connecting flight because your first flight was late), call. “If the traveler misses a flight due to an airline-related issue, then it is always best to talk to someone at the airline to make sure that the return isn’t canceled,” Snyder said.
“The systems are automated so that if that flight is missed, the rest of the itinerary cancels. Usually in a situation where the airline knows it’s a missed connection, there are other automated systems that will rebook the passenger on the next flight.”
Three more important takeaways:
>> Make sure you have the airline’s customer service number saved in your phone.
>> Call. Don’t leave it to chance.
>> Be nice. If you’ve made a mistake, throw yourself on the airline’s mercy. Be humble. The worst that can happen: People will accuse you of being polite.