David and Dorothy Juergens are looking forward to their fourth Princess cruise next month. There’s just one little problem: Their airline rescheduled their flight, and that messed up their schedule — and cost them money.

Airline schedule changes are a fact of life, and it’s usually unrealistic for passengers to expect a carrier to compensate them for lost wages or extra expenses incurred as a result of change in flight plans. But this just might be one of those rare exceptions.

I’ll let you decide if this trip can be saved.

It all started when the couple booked their December cruise through a AAA-affiliated travel agency. Their agent offered two options:

#1 Sunday, Dec. 11, from Cleveland to Houston at 6 a.m. (2 hr. stopover); arrive in San Juan at 4:25 p.m.

#2 Saturday, Dec. 10, from Cleveland nonstop to San Juan at 9 a.m.; arrive 2:11 p.m.

“We chose option two because of the nonstop flight,” says Dorothy Juergens. “We paid the added cost of $328 plus tax for one pre-night hotel reservation at the Sheraton Puerto Rico.”

But then in September, United Airlines canceled their nonstop flight, rebooking them on the Sunday one-stop flight. If the Juergenses wanted to change back to a Saturday one-stop flight, they would have to pay a change fee.

When Juergens asked their travel agent how the airline could such a thing, the agent replied, “Because they can.”

Details are in United’s Rule 240 (PDF).

D) SCHEDULE CHANGES

IN THE EVENT OF A SCHEDULE CHANGE OF A UA FLIGHT ON WHICH A PASSENGER HOLDS A TICKET INDICATING A CONFIRMED RESERVATION, UA WILL:

1) OFFER TO TRANSPORT THE PASSENGER OVER ITS OWN LINES IN THE SAME CABIN AS THE PASSENGER WAS ORIGINALLY SCHEDULED TO TRAVEL TO THE DESTINATION, THE NEXT STOPOVER POINT LISTED ON THE TICKET, OR THE TRANSFER POINT SHOWN ON ITS PORTION OF THE TICKET WITHOUT STOPOVER, AT NO ADDITIONAL COST TO THE PASSENGER, OR

2) AT UNITED’S DISCRETION, ARRANGE FOR THE TRANSPORTATION ON ANOTHER CARRIER OR COMBINATION OF CARRIERS WITH WHOM UA HAS AGREEMENTS FOR SUCH TRANSPORTATION; THE PASSENGER WILL BE TRANSPORTED WITHOUT STOPOVER ON ITS (THEIR) NEXT FLIGHT(S), IN THE SAME CLASS OF SERVICE AS THE PASSENGER’S ORIGINAL OUTBOUND FLIGHT AT NO ADDITIONAL COST TO THE PASSENGER; OR

3) IN THE EVENT THE PASSENGER DECLINES ALTERNATE TRANSPORTATION OFFERED UNDER (1) OR (2) ABOVE, REFUND IN ACCORDANCE WITH RULE 260 (REFUNDS-INVOLUNTARY).

Ahh, my ears are hurting from all the yelling!

Anyway, I’m not the only one who is annoyed.

“We thought this bait-and-switch tactic was wrong,” says Juergens. “We asked the AAA agent if either Princess, AAA, or Continental would compensate us for the pre-night hotel reservation.”

Princess Cruises customer relations was sympathetic, but told the couple that “airlines do this all the time” and the cruise line would go broke if they compensated everyone this happens to.

AAA also said no, even though the couple had been members for 25 years.

United offered to pay for their room at an airport hotel in Cleveland on Saturday night, but they declined.

“Frankly, we were leery of what those accommodations might be like,” says Juergens.

She’s determined not to let this airline problem spoil their cruise. They now plan to fly on Saturday, stay at the Sheraton, board this ship on Sunday and be on their way.

“It’s just aggravating that airlines do this because they can,” she says. “It’s disappointing that Princess simply passes the buck back to the airlines. And it’s sad that AAA disregards customer loyalty.”

I realize that an airline sometimes has to reschedule its flight, but it appears as if United didn’t so much reschedule this flight as it did these passengers — arbitrarily rebooking them from the Saturday flight to the Sunday flight. Then it told the couple it would charge them a change fee to put them back on a flight on their desired day of travel.

While I think the offer to pay for their hotel is good, it would have been even better if United had booked them on a the right day. I wonder if this is one of those rare occasions when I should ask United to reconsider its decision.