A casual observer might have thought that Anthony LaMesa was booking a last-minute JetBlue Airways ticket from New York to Cancun, Mexico, on a whim, perhaps to escape the frigid winter weather.
Appearances can be deceiving, though. LaMesa needed to fly to Mexico for emergency dental care. But when he found treatment closer to home, he discovered that he couldn’t change his ticket.
“When I booked this ticket, I thought I had the 24-hour cancellation window for a flight, which has been publicized all over the news,” he says. He didn’t. The 24-hour rule has an important, but often unarticulated, catch: It doesn’t apply to flights booked fewer than seven days in advance.
LaMesa was stuck with his purchase, and when he asked to cancel the ticket, he says, he got an earful from JetBlue. When he talked to one call-center representative, she “condescendingly” told him that she, too, had been “stung” by not reading the airline’s terms and conditions. When LaMesa pushed, she turned aggressive, he says.
“I was literally interrupted and then screamed at in the most cruel and harsh tone imaginable,” he says.
The 24-hour rule exception makes some sense. After all, an airline ticket booked less than a week in advance and then canceled might not be resold. But the way that JetBlue and other airlines disclose that restriction doesn’t make sense. If you’re booking a ticket online through JetBlue.com, you have to click on a tiny “fare restrictions” link to see the disclosure. And passengers booking within the one-week window aren’t offered any additional warnings that the 24-hour rule doesn’t apply, which can easily lead them to believe that they have a one-day grace period, when in fact they don’t.
“Gotcha” clauses related to timing are a venerated travel industry tradition. The most common restrictions pertain to vouchers or ticket credits, often rendering them all but useless after days, weeks or months. To avoid these limits, you have to think like a lawyer and act like a marketer, minding the fine print and asking yourself, “How would I try to stick it to customers — and get away with it?”
One perennial complaint is the ticket credit expiration. It happened to Mazen Hamza, a professional dancer from Philadelphia, who recently booked a nonrefundable US Airways flight from Philadelphia to St. Maarten and then canceled it. An airline representative told him that he had a year to use the ticket, which was true. But it was one year from the date of purchase, not the date of the flight. Sometimes, agents offer an incomplete or misleading explanation, but a look at any airline’s Web site reveals that the clock starts ticking when the booking is first made.
Hamza argued that there’d been no disclosure and that if he’d known, he might have made a different purchase decision. The airline refused to extend his credit, citing the written restrictions on his fare. He appealed to US Airways’ customer service department. “They responded that due to the fare type, there was nothing they would do,” he says.