No “low” fare guarantee at United Airlines – plus, they’re rude!

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Sometimes, you can eyeball a case and know almost immediately: This guy doesn’t have a snowball’s chance.

But then you read to the end and you think: then again, maybe he does.

Xavier Nolasco’s experience with trying to persuade United Airlines to honor its fine-print-laden low-fare guarantee is one of them.

The guarantee, as you probably already know, looks too good to be true:

When it comes to finding the lowest United fare online, we guarantee you will find it on united.com.

In fact, if you find a fare for the same flight, itinerary and cabin at a price that is lower than the fare offered on united.com by $10 or more, we’ll make up the difference and give you a $100 USD Electronic Travel Certificate.

And not only will you find the lowest fare at united.com, but you’ll never pay a service fee for booking online.

And you know what they say? If it looks too good to be true …

No one knows that better than Nolasco. He’d booked two tickets to Hawaii for $730 each, cashing in 52,000 reward points on his Chase Sapphire Rewards card and a total of $821 cash. A few days later, the tickets could be purchased for a total of $608.

He called Chase, which told him to contact United. But when he contacted United, it told him to get in touch with Chase.

“I’m getting the runaround,” he says.

No doubt.

Here’s the thing. He probably doesn’t have a case. Check out the details of United’s offer. Look at the last line: “This offer does not apply to airfares on another website that have been reduced as a result of promotional discounts, such as dollars off coupons, loyalty program discounts or fly ‘free’ offers.”

(Thanks for putting “free” in quotes, guys.)

Our editors got into quite a debate over this story after I wrote it. The loyalty program experts who vet my posts say that United’s interpretation (and mine) is wrong, and that he deserves to have the guarantee honored.

So here’s where I think Nolasco might have a case. When he tried to get this resolved, he should have been told politely, but firmly, that the rules are clearly spelled out.

Instead, when he called, the conversation quickly devolved into an argument, he says.

“When I tried to offer them a code as further proof that this was a valid offer, she hung up on me,” he says. “At this point, after several frustrating attempts, I believe more compensation should be included on top of the credit.”

Well, maybe not. But still.

Nolasco appealed to a supervisor, hoping for a better resolution. But his written request was met with yet another form denial:

I have reviewed your request and reservation. I understand you feel this
is unfair that you are not able to take advantage of the lower fare.

However, this is the terms and conditions of the low fare guarantee. I ask you please review this information which is available for our customers online, www.united.com,

https://www.united.com/CMS/en-US/products/travelproducts/Pages/Lowfareguarantee.aspx

Based on the terms of this agreement, this offer is valid for customers who purchase travel through united.com. Offer valid only on flights operated by United Airlines and United Express. United Vacations® and united.com specials purchases do not qualify for this offer. This promotion is not available to customers who book reward travel via
united.com site or other distribution channels.

Mr. Nolasco, we apologize for the inconvenience to you, however, based on my review of your request, I have to respectfully decline the adjustment.

I disagreed with the way it allegedly handled the request, at least by phone. You don’t hang up on a customer. But I thought this was an “iffy” case, at best.

I was just about to put this up to a vote, as I do every Monday, when I hear from Nolasco with good news. He’d received the following email from United:

I believe their (sic) is some confusion over the lower fare and fare downgrade. Fare downgrade is the difference refunded in travel certificate for future use minus the $50 service fee. This also has to be completed within the 30 day period.

I would like to reach a resolution with you as I understand from what you have mentioned the fare went down to $608.

What I will do for your is issue you a travel certificate for $125 per person without going through the Customer Refunds Services, as this has to be submitted to them for the fare downgrade. I also did not assess the $50 service fee.

Case closed? Yes, but the debate will continue. Are these fare guarantees just too darned difficult to do anything with?

Is United Airlines' fare guarantee too difficult to file a successful claim on?

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at . Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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  • bodega3

    Many vendors are not allowing discounts below what they can sell their own products. If an agency does it, they will lose their contract to sell.

  • AUSSIEtraveller

    that’s one hell of a restriction of trade.
    If a vendor trys that in Australia, they will end up in court.
    A few vendors have tried by backdoor means (eg. supplying very slow or very poor service to discounters) & have been caught out & lost in court.

    What funny(dodgy more like it) laws you have in USA.

  • bodega3

    Travel is different than other types of travel. We don’t own what we sell, therefore, we have to follow the vendors rules. But even in other areas, like apparel, stores selling brand names have restrictions. Levi’s won’t let a store sell their products for less than their contracted pricing without permission. A couple of years back, Levi’s too their apparel away from a store…actually went in and removed the items off the store tables, when a store was selling them for less than allowed by Levi.

  • AUSSIEtraveller

    wow that’s very anti consumer.
    How can Levi’s “steal” good they don’t own ?

  • Michael__K

    Essentially the same tariff rules are cited on the page I linked.

    Note, this is: “a internal policy regardless of the Tariff rules… within the 30 day window.”

    If the policy is no longer in effect, I would expect the last email to state so. When a carrier grants an exception, they typically make it clear not to expect it the next time.

    The rep who sent the email does make it clear that they made two exceptions: they didn’t go through Customer Refunds Services and they didn’t assess the $50 service fee. The implication is that the policy itself is still in effect (through Customer Refunds Services for an ETC for a $50 service fee within 30 days).

  • bodega3

    It is part of the contract a merchant signs to sell a product. They may not ‘own’ the jeans like other merchandise they sell. Very common with brand names. It might be due to commissionable sales, but I really don’t know. Makeup counters at department stores are never part of a coupon sale, same with cologne/perfume as those are commissionable products.

  • bodega3

    There should be a change fee and the $50 service fee is their ticketing fee at $25 per person. Also, what is this 30 day window? When a fare drops and the class of service is available, you have to reissue within the ticketing time period of the fare. Waiving this ticketing time to 30 days makes no sense. This letter has to be bogus.

  • Travelnut

    I think there’s a continuum between infinite bananas and having spent many, many hours trying to resolve issues with a company that continually gives you the runaround. I’ve been there, and yes, I’ll admit it. I asked for additional compensation for what they put me through. I didn’t get it. But I don’t feel guilty at all for telling them they owed it to me. And only once have I ever asked for that. I think the “entitlement” is when someone uses this tactic habitually whenever something doesn’t go their way.

  • Poley King

    In the Marriott example. The rate qualified which does not compare to this situation where it doesn’t.

  • Michael__K

    The posts from United’s own facebook account have to be bogus too?

    https://www.facebook.Com/United/posts/618137098223836

  • AH

    my browser does allow cookies from this site, but i clear my temps and cookies on a regular basis, as i have an older computer and not doing slows things. it’s not the popup itself that i mind as much as the fact that it’s coded in such a way that it’s impossible to close with my screen resolution. (before the site redesign, i could easily click the x to close it, now i can’t. it’s a coding problem. i’ve done some website coding myself, so i can recognize it when it happens.)

  • VoR61

    Understood. FYI, I have used CCleaner for over a decade and it does a great job of cleanup while allowing you to exclude certain cookies (and other items) from the cleanup. I use it in my backup program.

  • brianguy

    “When I tried to offer them a code as further proof that this was a valid offer, she hung up on me,” he says. “At this point, after several frustrating attempts, I believe more compensation should be included on top of the credit.”

    what credit? there was no aforementioned offer of a credit in the article. now I’m *really* confused as to the details of his conversation with them. but shouldn’t be…

  • brianguy

    because United and said travel site would have to have an agreement in place for that website to sell United tickets online and they can easily put in the contract you can’t sell below the published fares without prior permission from United. why does that seem illegal? it’s not price fixing if they agree to it. travel agencies who book in person or over the phone via the United TA booking system aren’t subject to the same restriction.

    example, Southwest won’t allow their airfares to be sold on any other travel site. it’s not unlike cable networks negotiating with the cable and satellite providers to carry their channel. it’s all lawyers talking to other lawyers and deciding what they will or won’t allow.

  • brianguy

    yes, and sold anywhere else is grey market. this isn’t exactly new news… it’s like buying a camera with the same model number and specs but not stamped “US” on it, in the U.S. the only difference is the price and lack of a valid manufacturer warranty.

  • bodega3

    WN sells via the GDS, so they do sell elsewhere just not online. We are restricted on our booking systems and by phone if we give our identifying number.

  • AUSSIEtraveller

    yep it’s price fixing. totally illegal in Australia, (if caught).
    Many companies try this sort of stuff, but won’t put it in writing, it’s just implied, which means harder to prove in court.
    Thought you had better consumer protection in USA ? (must be all those dodgy lawyers you have)

  • TMMao

    Recently used my Citicard points + Chase UAL credit card through Citicard’s travel service to book a United flight for two of us. UAL had the same itinerary for about $18 less but this was the only way to use the points. All went well except that on the return flight, the agent wanted to charge for our checked bags, even though the ticket was paid using the UAL Explorer Card that includes first checked bag for free. After a bit of polite back & forth, the supervisor waived the bag fees, calling it a glitch in their system because the fare was not entirely paid by c/card. The other oddity was that our return itinerary was split and my spouse was assigned a new record locator, so our reserved seat assignments were also gone. Fortunately, the supervisor found two seats together in Economy Plus at no extra charge.

  • bodega3

    How do you know you get the lowest fare on UA’s website? They aren’t regulated and they don’t have to give you all the flight options.

  • Mel65

    You have something far more valuable: the patience, willingness and generosity of spirit to WANT to help people. I mostly want to smack them.

  • Marcin Jeske

    On the other hand, we had Amazon, which sold eBooks at a loss to try to dominate the market. A bunch of publishers got together with Apple to create a new model of selling eBooks where they would have greater control of the retail price…

    … the federal government charged them with collusion…

    fast-forward a few years and the publishers have settled and paid large fines, and Apple lost in court.

    Generally, there is something suspect about a company selling goods below cost, unless it is for narrow promotional reasons. I am sure Australia has rules against dumping. Generally, the point is to knock out a competitor(s) who doesn’t have as much money in reserve. Under US anti-trust law, that is considered more dangerous than a manufacturer exerting control over the prices of it’s products.

    For instance, Apple enforces minimum prices for its products, leading to Apple products rarely being discounted, but often coming bundled with extra stuff like accessories and gift cards.

    Airlines giving away tickets on rival airlines sound kinda fun… what kind of message does that send? It would be harder to do in the States where buying a ticket without naming the passenger is difficult.

  • AUSSIEtraveller

    lots of dumping across international borders.
    Look at agricultural sector. Lots of incredibly inefficient European & to lesser extend U.S. farmers paid to dump products in foreign countries, where sold at much less than cost or locally produced goods.

  • AUSSIEtraveller

    who said buying tickets without a name ?
    They simply make them up.
    Obama
    Osama
    Smith
    Jones
    etc.

  • Marcin Jeske

    Ummm…. yeah, but what happens when Susie Jones gets to the airport and her ticket says Obama Osama? I don’t know about Quantas, but US airlines will not go along with such a name change… they levy heavy fees for many even minor name corrections, precisely to eliminate any secondary market.

  • AUSSIEtraveller

    they’re not “buying” them for someone to use, they are “buying” them to kill off opposition price reduction sale.
    If only a small number of seats easy to do. Lots of dirty tricks like this go on all the time.
    Sometimes they just book them, hold them a few days & then cancel them, often by which time sale is over, or people have stopped looking.
    BTW most airlines now allow name changes for a fee, which varies wildly.
    We couldn’t use an international ticket to LAX from Australia, which was 100% non-refundable inc taxes, worth over AUD$2k (USD$1880) & for AUD$100 changed name & dates at same time & gave it to a relation to use. We could have also sold it to anyone, but that was too hard.

  • Marcin Jeske

    Oh, I misunderstood… you originally said they were buying them to give them away… I assumed to actual people that wanted to fly.

    If they are buying cheap tickets and letting them go unused… or better yet, buying and then canceling (although, with sale fares, they are usually non-refundable)… then those are some pretty stupid companies… they are giving their competitors money and leaving them with seats they can potentially sell later at a higher price.

    If the targeted airlines yield management systems are up to snuff, they will overbook and have standby passengers ready. They sell the seats twice, get to up-sell customers looking for the sale… and are completely innocent of any manipulation.

    Again, airlines in Australia may be different, but for at least the last decade, US airlines have been much more strict. According to an Elliott article a few years back “the industry standard is that minor slips such as typographical errors can be corrected, while major alterations require either a change fee or a new ticket.” Most carriers in the US state that tickets are non-transferable… allowing name changes for a fee when someone’s legal name changes, or the person booking made a mistake on the legal name.

    The exceptions are Southwest and such where their unique change rules allow a ticket to be cancelled and reissued for free.

    Changing dates is of course a completely different issue, airlines will gladly charge some fees for that… but either that ticket you changed was on a nice airline, was more than a decade ago… or because of a shared last name the airline assumed you were just correcting a name, not changing the passenger. But I am glad it worked out for you.

    I do wish we could go back to the days where a ticket was a bearer document, where you could hand it over to anyone you wanted, no questions asked. (But then, that would probably complicate a lot of the sophisticated pricing airlines use now.)

  • Annie M

    You may not get the absolute lowest price if you book elsewhere but you get no low price guarantee.