That’s not the ticket credit you promised me

After a canceled flight, a merged airline and crossed wires with Expedia, Anoop Ramaswamy is the proud owner of a worthless airline ticket. Now what?

Question: I booked a roundtrip ticket from Buffalo, NY, to Chennai, India, on Continental Airlines, just before it merged with United Airlines. I used Expedia to make the reservation. I completed the one-way trip but due to a family medical issue, I had to cancel the return. I called Expedia and requested a cancellation.

Expedia issued a cancellation, saying it would be in the form of an airline credit that would last a year. I called Expedia a few months later to use my voucher, but was told they couldn’t book the flight because of the merger with United. They asked me to call United directly.

I called United and they informed me that fare rule mentions that I can only book the same return flight and nothing else.
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Looks like United may not be a lost cause after all

United is ready for takeoff? / Photo by John Rogers – Flickr Creative Commons
For the better part of the last year, I’ve thought United Airlines was a lost cause. The Continental Airlines merger couldn’t have gone worse, from a customer service perspective, and as much as I liked many of the people now working at the new United, it was difficult to say anything nice about the airline — let alone write anything positive.
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You call this consumer advocacy?

Is it about you -- or them? / Photo by Give away boy - Flickr
Do you ever strike out?” readers of my syndicated newspaper column often ask me. They see my Q&A feature in their travel section, and every week the good guys win.

To which I reply: “All the time.” Just read my site.

Case-in-point is the email I received from Susan Mintz a few days ago. She’d been trying to secure a refund from Continental Airlines after being rushed to the hospital with a cardiac condition before her scheduled flight.

“I need advice please,” she wrote. “I’ve sent all my documentation to Continental and received a request ID on Feb. 15. Its refund policy states 20 business days. We’re way, way past this. I have sent five letters and three faxes. Nothing!”

I get hundreds of emails like this in a week, and I usually try to get to a resolution by asking and short series of questions.

Me: I’m sorry to hear about this. Could you send me some of the correspondence? I’d like to review it.

Mintz: Attached is the original letter.

Me: (After reading the email). Did they agree to a refund? Normally they only issue a ticket credit for these situations.

Mintz: I have only received a “request number” and nothing else since February.

Me: You might want to get United to clarify. Have you tried calling?

Mintz: Are you serious! Of course, I tried calling. Have you read the refund policy? There is no need for clarity. It is very simple. I am entitled to refund.

A ticket credit is acceptable as well. Anything. But my request is being ignored.

I contacted you because your web site states to do such when reaching a dead end. I sent you a copy of my letter asking for advice and you ask if I called them. This is advocacy for travelers?


I tried to explain that Continental (now United) would probably only issue a ticket credit, but that a refund would be unlikely – and yes, I am trying to help.

I haven’t heard back from her.

Something tells me I’m not going to make her holiday card list this year.

My exchange with Mintz is a useful exercise, and it comes at an interesting time.

Earlier this week, I learned that a well-known investigative reporter is working on a story about the “best” consumer advocate in travel. Several commenters who belong to a certain newspaper’s reader panel forwarded the email questionnaire.

My first thought was that ranking consumer advocates makes about as much sense as rating your priest or rabbi.

How can you assign a value to someone who is there to help?

And my second thought was, who cares? I haven’t been a pure-play travel advocate since 2010, although I did help start a nonprofit called the Consumer Travel Alliance, which advocates for travelers (I currently serve as its volunteer ombudsman).

Some of my readers suggested that the results of the survey are a foregone conclusion. They say the writer has a special relationship with one popular advocate for air travelers, and wants to give her a boost by discrediting the competition.

Nonsense, I said. I know this guy’s work – he’s always seemed honest. Besides, if he really cares about helping consumers, he’d understand that having more people advocating for travelers is better than fewer. Or just one.

But the Mintz letter and the leading questionnaire made me wonder: What makes a good consumer advocate?

Mintz probably thinks I’m a fraud.

I think she wanted me to contact United on her behalf immediately and demand a quick payment, even if technically she wasn’t entitled to one. I’d like to be able to do that, but I can’t. My United contact will call me and ask if I’m familiar with the airline’s refund rules.

I’ll say “yes.” And then he’ll say he can’t help Mintz.

Should United help her? Absolutely. The passenger was in the hospital. How about a little compassion? But I’m pretty sure I know what United’s final answer will be.

My job isn’t to get customers what they want every time. It’s to get them what they paid for — and indeed, what they deserve.

If Mintz notified United of her hospitalization before her travel date, she’s entitled to a ticket credit. I can help her with that.

If she waited until after her flight, it would be up to the airline to decide what to do, but actually, it’s allowed to keep her money. Those are the rules.

I suspect she waited until after her flight to tell Continental of her condition.

Who’s the real advocate?

Here’s the thing: There’s no bar or certification agency for consumer advocates. Anyone can call themselves one, and a lot of people do.

So what separates a real advocate from a poser?

I think it all comes down to motives. If you’re in it to help consumers, then everything you do will reflect that desire.

You’ll respond immediately when someone asks for help. You’ll work tirelessly at educating buyers. You’ll push for them to get what they paid for. And you’ll have the integrity to tell them when a company is right, and they are asking for too much, which can happen from time to time.

Above all, it’ll always be about the customer – not the advocate.

Posers use consumer advocacy to build their personal brands. Right and wrong don’t really matter as much as the next travel scandal that will score them a soundbite on CNN, helping increase their visibility.

For them, victims of incompetent travel companies are nothing more than props that can be leveraged to raise their profile, so you’ll find these fakes pushing for folks who don’t deserve any advocacy. Like thieves.

For posers, it’s always about them, not you.

That kind of behavior may be a big turn-off to consumers who truly need help, but I think even posers have a place. They may not be able to do much for you, but they often shine a light on some of the more unsavory practices in the travel industry.

(It could be worse: The clueless producers booking them could ask company representatives to offer their spin on the evening news. How enlightening would that be?)

Losing “Miss Consumer Advocacy” 2012

I re-read the reporter’s questions and considered who he’s sending them to. They’re mostly business travelers. You know, the kind on folks you’d encounter on a certain online forum for frequent travelers that I’m fond of criticizing and that shall remain nameless in this post.

And yeah, a lot of these people hate me because I’ve referred to them as entitled elites, criminals, and crybabies in numerous online commentaries. Because some of them are.

Soliciting nominations for “Miss Consumer Advocacy 2012” is like like asking the College of Cardinals to vote on the one true religion.

My frequent-flying friends will happily denounce me as a heretic. They’ll say I’m in the latter category, that I’m nothing more than a media-savvy poser.

Thanks, guys. I love you, too.

It doesn’t take much to close the loop. Any cub reporter can Google me and find enough dirt for a juicy hit piece. He can track down more unhappy travelers like Mintz, of which I can assure you, there are more than plenty.

If that doesn’t turn up enough, just read my book. Maybe throw in a conflict of interest accusation or two while you’re at it.

Bring it.

When the dust settles from this silly popularity contest, it will be my email exchange with Mintz that troubles me the most.

I think I could have helped her. I’m sorry she wouldn’t let me.

Update (May 7): The story is out. Can’t bring myself to link to it. Just not gonna go there …

What am I owed for Continental’s codeshare confusion?

Ah, the perils of airline codesharing! That’s the questionable but widespread practice of claiming another airline’s flight is yours. And it doesn’t always benefit the passenger, as Brad Albing will tell you.

Albing and his wife were flying from Cleveland to Paris by way of Montreal on Continental Airlines, which at the time was operating as a division of United Airlines.

Their schedule called for a departure at 6:10 p.m., arriving in Montreal at 7:31 p.m., with a connection on another Continental Airlines flight leaving at 8:55 p.m.

“We arrived at Cleveland Hopkins more than two hours early and checked in with a Continental employee who issued our boarding passes for Cleveland to Montreal,” he says. “We asked for boarding passes for the Montreal-Paris leg and he told us to get them in Montreal. We asked if we would have enough time when we got there and he said yes.”

They didn’t.
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Is this enough compensation? No reservation — but the bill sticks

It’s been a while since the last missing hotel reservation case, and here’s one with an interesting twist: The booking was made through an airline website.

Peter Skipp pre-paid for accommodations at the Radisson Our Lucaya Resort on Grand Bahama Island for one of his employees after booking airline tickets on (You’ve probably seen those screens that ask “do you need a hotel?” after you’re done paying for your flight.)

He says Continental charged his card $86 for one night at the Radisson. At least that’s what he thought.
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The Travel Troubleshooter: How much is that coffee spill worth?

Question: My husband and I recently flew from Berlin to Newark on Continental Airlines. After about 45 minutes in the air, the flight attendants offered beverage service. I politely requested coffee.

There was no turbulence. When the flight attendant reached over my husband to serve me in the window seat, she spilled the entire contents of a cup of scalding hot coffee directly into my lap. I jumped out of my seat and took off for the restroom. I was scalded, traumatized and very embarrassed. Everyone up and down the aisle was staring.

My pants were soaked through to my underwear. The seat cushion was soaked and my husband’s shirt and pants were wet as well. Both seat cushions had to be replaced. The flight attendant was apologetic and upon my return from the restroom, realized that I was hurt and in tears. She offered me ice. I declined. Another attendant came over a while later and offered me aspirin.

The attendant informed us that we would be required to complete an incident report, which we did. We were also given a voucher to have our clothes cleaned.

In consideration of the pain, embarrassment and inconvenience, I asked Continental to reimburse my frequent flier account 100,000 miles, which is what I paid for my ticket. Continental has refused. Can you help? — Sheryl Siegel, Wellington, Fla.

Answer: Continental was correct to apologize and offer you the cleaning certificates. But how much more are you entitled to? What’s your pain and suffering worth?
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Can this trip be saved? Do I have to pay Continental’s fee-on-a-fee?

When I wrote about “fees on top of fees” yesterday, several readers accused me of exaggerating. But Sergei Shevchuk wasn’t one of them. He’s been trying to recover an undisclosed reticketing fee of $25 he had to pay Continental Airlines for several months.

I’m not sure if he’ll ever get the refund, but his story is worth telling and I’d like also your feedback on it. Should I try to recover the surcharge on principle — or should Shevchuk let it go?

I think it’s also worth taking a moment to figure out if this fee thing has gone too far. Fees now account for a bulk of some airline profits, and many of the extras are imposed without adequate disclosure. Is it time for a fee moratorium?
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“It seems like these airlines do not care about their customers”

When Seth Kunis booked a Thanksgiving flight on Continental Airlines, it included a snack. It’s a small thing, he admits. But when Continental changed its onboard food program, he felt the airline had reneged on a deal.

I’m sure that some of you reading this will agree with Kunis about this being a small thing. What’s a little snack in the grand scheme of things?

The problem is that for airlines, this has been a pattern of behavior during the a la carte revolution: They take something that was once included in the price of the ticket, unbundle it from the fare, but leave the price unchanged.

The government took steps to stop airlines from imposing their new luggage fees on old tickets a few years ago. But it doesn’t normally get involved in minor issues, like those involving airline meals.

So Kunis decided to let Continental know he was unhappy.

“I honestly don’t know what else to do,” he told me. “It seems like these airlines do not care about their customers and they may have lost a lifelong customer.”
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He already likes the new United Airlines — but will you?

You may have missed it, but Continental Airlines and United Airlines officially tied the knot on Oct. 1. And guess what? You might actually like the new United Airlines.

Chris Romm thinks he will. He wrote to tell me about an experience he’d had with United’s customer service department that may be an indicator of things to come.
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Oh dear, did we forget to mention that $500 change fee?

Question: My wife and I recently flew from Vancouver to Ecuador on Continental Airlines, then to Lima on LAN Chile. After booking the trip through our travel agent of about 20 years, we asked if we could change the LAN leg from Quito to Lima by two days without penalty.

Our travel agent called Continental and was told that the LAN leg could be changed without any change fee because we weren’t changing any Continental legs. He asked if they were certain that there would be no change fee and was assured that was the policy. He had another follow-up discussion with a Continental agent and was given the same information. We changed the flight.

Two months after our flight, our agent was advised that we should have been charged a change fee of $500 and an electronic fee transaction was applied to the travel agent’s bank account. Our travel agency has challenged the payment with Continental without success.

Today I called Continental and spoke to an international ticket agent. She said my agent had no recourse, and should have known the rules. When I asked her how Continental expects travel agents to know the rules, but not their own agents, I didn’t get an answer. I asked to speak to a supervisor about my complaint, but was told “there is no point as the booking is no longer in our computer system.”

If Continental had told us that there would be a $500 change fee when we first enquired about the change we would not have changed our flight to Lima. It is very high-handed of Continental to conduct business in this manner. We would greatly appreciate anything you might do to help. — Brian Petersmeyer, Vancouver, Canada

Answer: Continental shouldn’t have charged your travel agent $500 after your flight. And even if it had, you shouldn’t have been dragged into it.
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“It was never my intention to cheat Continental Airlines out of any money”

Lori Kaufman didn’t mean to play the system. She just wanted to reschedule her flight so she could attend her grandmother’s funeral.

In the process, Continental Airlines ended up dinging her for a total of $954 — more than twice what she’d originally paid for the tickets. It also failed to tell her it would be billing her credit card that much, she says.

Kaufman thinks the airline should return some of the money.
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