Maybe the travel industry’s one-sided cancellation policies are due for cancellation

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Change your mind when you’re traveling, and the consequences can be costly.

Most airline tickets are nonrefundable and require a hefty change fee plus any fare differential. And many hotel rooms are totally nonrefundable and nonchangeable, so you could lose the entire value of your room. So, why doesn’t it work the other way around?

After Alaska Airlines recently changed his flight schedule, Art Ellis, a retired researcher from Sacramento, wants to know.

Ellis and his wife, Marianne, were scheduled to return from Anchorage to Sacramento at 8:20 p.m., but Alaska shifted the flight to a longer stopover, arriving at 11:20 p.m. The flight arrived 20 minutes late, and the tired couple didn’t get to their house until the next day. “It took us all day and night to get home from our cruise in Alaska,” Ellis says. “I felt like I was being jerked around.”

If Ellis is getting jerked around, he’s not alone. Airlines, cruise lines and hotels routinely alter their schedules or delete reservations to accommodate a large group or to renovate a building. When they do, their one-sided adhesion contract — an agreement that applies to you but not necessarily to the company — allows them to get away with it without paying the customer a dime in damages. Some businesses, notably tour operators, give themselves permission to keep your money and issue a voucher for a future vacation.

Travelers say this isn’t fair. After all, when their plans change, even for events beyond their control, they must pay fees and possibly lose some or all of the value of their ticket. Ellis, who paid $825 for his tickets, would have had to fork over another $125 to change each one, plus a fare differential. Alaska informed Ellis of the change about two months before the flight, but occasionally travel companies don’t bother telling affected consumers, even when they have their contact information.

An Alaska Airlines representative said that the airline publishes its flight schedule 330 days in advance, an industry standard. This is done so that customers can start to research and plan early. “We want to give them a pretty good idea of when they might be able to catch a flight back home for Thanksgiving, for example,” said Alaska Airlines spokeswoman Halley Knigge. “Because the booking schedule is published far in advance, it really is a forecast of when and how frequently we’ll be flying 11 months later.”

Alaska, like other airlines, updates its schedule quarterly, and it tries to keep the final schedule as close to the booking schedule as it can, paying particular attention to preserving routes with connections.

In Ellis’s case, he’d booked his tickets for June last December, based on Alaska’s booking schedule. The final schedule was published two months later. Early-booking customers on Alaska have the option of changing their itinerary on the same day or the day before or after the flight at no additional charge, or of requesting a full refund. “We apologize for any inconvenience Mr. Ellis experienced,” Knigge added.

In the past, the divide between the rights of travelers and travel companies was known only to insiders, because it rarely became an issue. As a practical matter, airlines, hotels and cruise lines accommodated their guests even when they didn’t have to, in the interests of customer service and because it was the right thing to do.

But today, it’s not difficult to find customers who were dismissed. Their stories offer creative ways to tip the travel industry’s “no-fault” rules a little in your favor.

When Haruko Terada and his family were returning recently from Myrtle Beach, S.C., on Spirit , the airline decided to cancel their Sunday flight, citing weather conditions. When was the next available flight? In three days, an airline representative told him.

“I was lucky enough to find out quickly,” says Terada, who works for a restaurant in Southfield, Mich. “I was one of the first ones to get the refund, made a quick reservation for a rental car online, and we left the airport before midnight, when the rental car place closed for the day. We got back to our home in Michigan around 4 p.m. on Monday.”

Patrick Schmidt, a college professor from St. Paul, Minn., faced a similar arbitrary cancellation of his rental vehicle in Skopje, Macedonia. The problem: Although he’d reserved the vehicle through Priceline and Avis, a company representative in Skopje told him that he couldn’t have the van for 768 euros (about $1,030), because, “as a franchisee, they would lose money on the rental” with that discounted rate, he says.

Schmidt appealed to Priceline and Avis after the local office canceled his reservation. I contacted Priceline on his behalf, and through their contacts at Avis, the local office agreed to honor the original reservation. But his story offers yet another tip for everyone else: Don’t take a cancellation lying down. You can often fight it and win.

The takeaway? Sometimes it’s possible to book a flight, or a hotel room, too far in advance, as Ellis probably did. Then again, you could roll the dice and book a schedule you know is likely to change, which would allow you to invoke an airline’s change policy to score a seat on a desirable, but far more expensive flight — a risky move, to be sure.

None of these strategies should be necessary. The one-sided contracts that allow travel companies to cancel their flights, rooms and cars with little or no compensation shouldn’t be legal.

Are the travel industry's change policies fair?

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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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  • Bill___A

    And I can afford it, it just isn’t a good use of money at that price in my opinion.

  • bodega3

    It keeps the riff-raft out ;-)

  • Bill___A

    There seems to be a lot of riff raff still…

  • jameslmorrison

    ” If people were allowed to change their tickets, any added costs would be passed along to us.” It was not that long ago that you could change your tickets at any time for no charge. I just booked a flight to Europe and the Delta agent told me that it would cost $450 to change the ticket after tomorrow. Does anyone really think that this cost is a true cost for Delta to change a reservation?

  • Marc Elliott

    “Why didn’t you use a TA? ”

    I shouldn’t need to.They advertised a product and I purchased it. Then they changed the product. I understand you may have a personal/financial interest in encouraging people to use a travel agent but I’m afraid my income makes my family budget/low-frills travelers. (That’s right, AirB&B and HouseTrip, no hotels) The only agent I spoke to regarding this trip quoted my a crazy price that would have been prohibitive. Also, what difference could a TA have made in this case?

    “you could have canceled for a full refund if you didn’t like the new schedule”

    1 — not according to Kayak/Vayama

    2 — I’d already booked accommodations and non-refundable ground travel for portions of my trip and I was unlikely to find a good price on flights at that point, all economy seats having been sold out that close to departure.

    “Also, that route is not governed by US laws”

    I don’t see what that has to do with anything. I’m not suggesting that US law should play any part of this.

    I’ll also say that Icelandair/Vayama was not completely unreasonable and were willing to change the day of the next leg of my journey without a change feed so I wouldn’t effectively lose a day of vacation in Iceland. Still, I’d have rather had kept the schedule as booked and really that was least they could do since they took my money and then made my flight very much less desirable.

    In case you’re wondering, MXP at midnight was absolutely empty except for my flight. KEF was pretty busy though.

  • bodega3

    I have stated it here many times, we have past passengers to thank for many of the rules that are in the fares.

  • Travelnut

    Looking at the policy further, if a single leg of a flight is over 10 hours then they do allow the employee to fly business. I thought I remembered that the folks traveling to India got to do it. Traveling to London tho? Back of the plane.

  • bodega3

    I don’t buy the low budget for not using a TA. I don’t care if you do or not, but when you take on any DIY project, it is YOUR responsibility to know all the rules. If you hire someone to do it for you, it is THEIR responsibility. Kayak doesn’t made rules. Kayak is a search engine and Vayama is a consolidator who sells tickets according to the rules of the carrier. They have to refund if the schedule change doesn’t work for you but they can charge a fee for that, which is reasonable. NO airline schedule is guaranteed. You just learned something that is very important. Also, FYI, Kayak doesn’t always show the lowest fare option. I have looked at it several time and have beat the fare in my GDS. So what you think you might be saving in cost, you might not. But you don’t know, do you? Ha…the internet never lies.

  • bodega3

    Yes, that is usually a common policy but from what I am hearing the old policy isn’t being put back into place with some corporations. Glad yours is? Do you have to give up your miles to the company? Many corporations make you do that, which I don’t agree with.

  • Travelnut

    Nope, we do get to keep our miles. I think we would revise policy if spending was getting out of hand, but not necessarily due to changing economic conditions. “Control the cost of travel while being good stewards of (the company’s) money.” One good example from a few years ago: there is a professional designation that quite a few people here earn. The company pays for you to attend the annual conference the year you get the designation and you can defer a year. One year the conference was going to be in Hawaii. This drove behavior quite predictably. That year they ended up giving a set amount to people and any travel costs above that were on the employee. (My conference was in New Orleans.)

  • Judy Serie Nagy

    Whether you think that the OP is a jerk or not (my, we have some tough cookies reading these posts), the current policies of airlines need to go. They should be required to charge only a reasonable fee for whatever … $25 to change a ticket 30 days out for example. If you do it yourself, there should be no fee, it costs the airline nothing. Hotels are justified in penalizing people who book non-ref rooms, the price differential is not that great … the guest has a choice of which kind of room rate to book … with the airlines the difference is hundreds of dollars. If only we had some leaders in DC who would give a little effort to taking care of the American consumer instead of consistently bowing to big biz lobbies, the travel industry might become reasonable again.

  • bodega3

    Why do you think it costs the airline nothing? IMHO, regarding the last part of your last sentence, what about reasonable passengers? In the decades I have been in travel, people have changed and not for the better. It goes both way.

  • bodega3

    No that isn’t a true cost. There are costs involved, but they are trying to discourage people changing their plans willy nilly. I get it. Do I like the cost, no.

  • bodega3

    Glad you can keep your miles.