A married name, a singular headache

By | October 4th, 2008

Question: My daughter and son-in-law will be traveling to South Africa to attend a cousin’s wedding. They’ve been carefully watching ticket prices online and recently found a fare on South African Airways. They phoned the airline to book the tickets.

The problem is that my daughter’s ticket is under her married name. My daughter has yet to secure a new passport and green card with her new name, and there isn’t enough time to get them before they leave.

An airline representative told my daughter that South African would issue a refund, minus a 25 percent administrative fee. But then she would have to buy a new, and probably more expensive, ticket. And there would be no guarantee she could get a seat on the same flight as her husband.

I do realize that this was a mistake of their own making, but the 25 percent fee works out to $400, which they can ill afford. Can you help? — Shaun Francis, Orlando

Answer: South African Airways was well within its rights to charge a 25 percent fee for a refund. In fact, some airlines won’t issue a refund of any kind when you buy a ticket under a wrong name. You’re just out of luck. At least the airline was offering some of your daughter’s money back.

But should it do more? I think South African might have considered listening to this young family’s story. They’re newlyweds with limited resources and in my correspondence with you, it turns out they did their best to fix this mistake immediately, including calling the airline only a few hours after the erroneous booking.

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Your daughter isn’t the first newlywed who has done this. I’m not suggesting the airline should fix this free of charge. A mistake was made. But was it a $400 mistake?

There are easy ways to avoid the wrong-name error. Hiring a travel agent is the most obvious. Although an agent will charge a ticketing fee, you can also be sure that a competent travel professional will take the trouble to get your names right. They’re also well connected, so that if something does go wrong, they can usually negotiate a name change at little or no cost to you.

You can also conduct the transaction online instead of by phone when booking directly with an airline. That’s your next-safest option. Why? Because you’re given several opportunities to review your name, and most airlines also have warnings that the name on your passport has to match the name on your ticket. It’s less likely you would have made this error online.

By the way, this could have ended much worse. Your daughter could have tried to fly under her original ticket, using her marriage certificate as evidence that her name had been legally changed. That might have gotten her on the plane, but she also might not have been allowed back to the States. And that would have been a much bigger problem.

I contacted South African on your behalf, and it agreed to fix the ticket for a $50 fee.

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