Why won’t United Airlines honor its fare guarantee?

Digital Media Pro / Shutterstock.com
Digital Media Pro / Shutterstock.com
Chuck Barnes tries to invoke United Airlines’ low fare guarantee. But it doesn’t quite work the way he hoped it would. Is he out of luck?

Question: I made a reservation on United’s website from Tampa to San Francisco for a total price of $180. After completing the reservation I looked up the same itinerary on Orbitz. Much to my surprise, it was $10 less than the price I had just paid on United.com.

United offers a low-fare guarantee. I read the low fare guarantee page to confirm that it covered my fare discrepancy and then I called the United reservations number. The agent I spoke with was polite, but insisted that I had to find the lower fare online at United.com only — Orbitz did not qualify.

But that’s not what the fare guarantee says. I referred her to the page, and she asked if I would “hold.” I waited 20 minutes and then called back from a different phone. An agent said I could cancel the flight if I wanted to, but I said I was interested in the lower fare guarantee.

Finally, I was connected to a supervisor who stated that the time he looked (now over 45 minutes from my booking and Orbitz fare difference) the lowest fare he could find was $177 and he would be happy to refund me the $3 difference. I declined, stating that I felt the delay that has occurred allowed for a fare change. I feel United should honor the lower fare guarantee. Can you help me? — Chuck Barnes, San Francisco

Answer: At the time you booked your tickets, United’s “low fare” guarantee said if you purchased tickets through its site (which you did) and found a published retail price online that’s $10 or more lower (which you did), then United would refund the difference and give you a $100 voucher toward a future flight.

But you have to mind the small print. In order to invoke the fare guarantee, the fare must be found on the same itinerary, same day, same cabin. That’s more or less an industry standard, and yes, it makes it difficult to make a successful claim.
I’m not a big fan of guarantees like this. It’s often impossible to invoke one because of all the terms and conditions. You’re better off finding a great fare than suffering buyer’s remorse followed by the agony of filing a claim that may or may not be successful.

One other observation: All this for $10? The amount of time you spent pursuing this claim — well over an hour — is probably not worth your time. I imagine you have better things to do.

If you weren’t getting anywhere by phone, you could have contacted someone higher up at United. Here are a few executives.

I asked United to review your claim. An airline representative contacted you, apologized for your experience and offered you a voucher for $150, which you accepted.

Is United's "low fare" guarantee a legitimate offer?

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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 chris@elliott.org. Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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  • Carver Clark Farrow

    I suspect it was the $100 voucher that he wanted.

  • Raven_Altosk

    $150 for a $10 problem?

  • backprop

    Wow dude, pick your battles.

  • Cybrsk8r

    Well, once I click “buy”, I pretty much never look back. Airline and OTA “price guarantees” are pretty worthless. I don’t know about United, but you almost have to be sitting next to the customer who got the lower fare, on your entire itinerary, to invoke Orbitz low-price guarantee. It’s not worth my time to chase something I’m not likely to get.

  • EvilEmpryss

    That’s what I was thinking. It isn’t the $10 fare difference on *this* flight, it’s the potential for the $100 voucher on a later flight that the LW was going for. Since I don’t make anywhere near $100 an hour, securing that voucher for waiting on the phone for 45 minutes isn’t a bad deal. Now he’s got $150 to play with… even better for him.

    Depending, of course, on the LW’s ability to conform to the VOUCHER’S terms and restrictions. It may wind up being worthless anyway, if some of the stories here are any indication of the airlines’ tactics for disallowing their redemption.

  • Justin

    Reminds me of the offer Carver and another posted mentioned on a prior thread. Two stores sell the same item. One item has a model number ending in -1. Another model (same product) ends in -2. Low price guarantee is advertised, but you’ll never find a lower price.

    Airline advertises “low price” with the intention of rarely if ever honoring.

    Unlike Carver =), most of us aren’t making 100/hr . The Op didn’t care about the $10, but the $100 bucks towards a future flight.

  • Justin

    Op wanted the voucher more so than the $10 dollar difference. I’m sure United rarely if ever honors their $100 voucher price if $10 dollars or more discrepancy.

  • Justin

    Note to Self: Capture a screenshot. Even if price changes 20 minutes later, you’ve got a picture validating the claim.

  • http://www.jeffkolkerart.com Jeff Kolker

    I agree, life is too short to spend that much time chasing something so minimal. I buy, and then I’m done. If I was willing to pay the price initially, then it must be worth the amount, to me, for what I got. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have bought it.

    In the near future, we may have another story…”United Won’t Honor My $150 Voucher”. Wonder how much time could be spent on that? ;)

    Low price guarantees never seem to really work. An advertising gimmick to get you to spend your money thinking you are “protected”. Experience tells me (I’ve tried once or twice, no luck) that once the money it out of your hands…. its gone!

  • MarkKelling

    The UA guarantee still says the same thing: find a fare exactly matching one you booked on UA and they will pay you the difference plus give you the $100 voucher – IF UA can verify the price themselves. Seems a great way out for them, doesn’t it? “No sir, I can’t find that flight at that fare when I look for it. You don’t get your $100.”

  • MarkKelling

    That voucher may turn out to have restrictions like one I got from them: must call the reservation center to use it ($25 fee), only valid on flights that do not terminate at a hub, and so on. All designed to eliminate any value to the passenger.

  • AJPeabody

    There are two stories in the news or online that always occur at least once a year: Price matching guarantees are worthless. Pope celebrates Christmas mass.

  • TonyA_says

    Apparently you have not heard of Chrome WebEdit.
    User can easily change whatever appears on Website to whatever they want and then take a screenshot. What are you validating, ha?

  • TonyA_says

    This one is embarrassing. Not for United, but for the OP and to anyone who believes in his story :)

  • Judy Serie Nagy

    Wasting even 10 minutes time on a $10 difference is beyond comprehension.

  • Annie M

    So what was different about what the OP found? He said everything was the same.

    “But you have to mind the small print. In order to invoke the fare
    guarantee, the fare must be found on the same itinerary, same day, same

  • Michael__K

    Do you ever invoke that sentiment when the shoe is on the other foot?

    “Dear Airline, Yes, the rules may be on your side, but pick your battles. Let this one go, you won’t even notice the impact on your bottom line. You may even be better off having your employees spend their time and energy on weightier matters.”

  • BMG4ME

    Would taking a screenshot from Orbitz have helped?

  • omgstfualready

    I agree unless I’m on southwest since they allow you to cancel and rebook and ‘bank’ the difference up to a year from the initial booking. I fly them a few times a year for personal travel so I will check it now and again, nothing OCD, but sometimes I stumble on some nice discounts.

    I edited to add in that is another reason why I’ll pull the trigger on a southwest flight sooner than other carriers since I’m not feeling ‘stuck’ should the price go down later. If I didn’t fly them as often I’m not sure I’d bother with doing this at all.

  • Cybrsk8r

    Will SW allow you to cancel a ticket and re-book the exact same itinerary at the lower fare?

  • omgstfualready

    Yes, you don’t get the difference as a credit back on your charge card, but it gets saved for 12 months (but not from when you cancel/rebook, it is from when you initially purchased it). When you book again you apply the code you are given to the next fare to reduce that price. It takes the sting out of waiting and waiting for the best price.

  • TonyA_says

    Writing about it and getting published, priceless.

  • Cam

    Seriously dude, I’ll pay you $10.00 to mow my lawn if you like.

  • KarlaKatz

    Wow! No, I’ve never heard of Chrome WebEdit either, but I’m glad you enlightened me… thank you!


    Bought the ticket at UA.com and THEN looked on Orbitz? I smell something funny here. Sounds like he knew exactly what he was doing and the objective was the voucher and not the $10 fare difference.

  • Ben

    Plus a $100 voucher, worthwhile for many travelers.

  • Ben

    If that’s the case, even better! Consumers taking advantage of the airline’s low-price guarantee will (1) prove to the airline that customers do care about price, (2) encourage the airline to be diligent about its prices to ensure that it is indeed offering the lowest fare, and (3) instill trust in the consumer. The point of the guarantee is to steer customers away from third-party sites and directly to the airline’s website, but it won’t work if the airline’s website is more expensive and they won’t honor the guarantee.

  • bodega3

    Remember, fares are cached online, and what he might have seen, may not be the final price on Orbitz Also, depending on the OTA’s GDS, and their allotment of space they get to sell, prices can be different in one system than the other. Also what wasn’t available 20 seconds ago, might now be there. This is the nature of computer bookings. We have had up to three systems at our agency and it is very common to get one fare on one system that the other isn’t pricing. When fares change at different times during the day for each system, playing the matching game can be difficult.

  • pauletteb

    Wasting all that time for $10 reminds me of a family member who would spend hours online looking for the lowest fare and frequently booked one-way tickets (not on SWA). All those one-way tickets often resulted in her getting pulled out of line for additional screening and, because she was always cutting her time too close, more than one missed flight.

  • William_Leeper

    You are exactly right! Walmart and best buy will sell the same TV’s with the same screens, chips, sound and connections, in fact identical sets made on the same production line. They will NEVER have the same model number for different retailers. Typically Walmart will always have an “A” at the end of the model number if the item is sold at other retailers.

  • Justin

    Yep. Industry trick of the trade. Consumer nightmare. Never count on price matching. Always shop for best item and price.

  • Jessica Hernandez

    There is no way I believe that the product sold at Walmart is the exact same screen. It is close, but the chips, electronics and quality are not the same. That is why the model number difference.

  • Miranda Paley

    I actually got $77 in fare difference along with the $100 voucher. Honestly, I would have been happy with the fare match had it been easier. After 75 minutes on the phone I felt like I deserved the e-fare too. I had to ask for a supervisor MULTIPLE times and stick to my guns reading the 5th line in the terms which says, “any openly accessible online retailer” (e.g., expedia, orbits, travelocity, etc) It was frustrating but worth it in the end. It’s too bad there’s no online tool that does it automatically. They intentionally make it VERY hard to redeem.

  • Miranda Paley

    Yup. They claimed that when they went onto expedia that the fare was $667 or like $3 MORE than the united.com fare. I just stuck to my guns and called the BS. Eventually they accepted a screen shot as evidence, which is funny because the terms explicitly state that a screenshot is not suitable….but I won!!!

  • Tony

    My wife just had the same issue. Bought a ticket on united.com and then found out that the price dropped by $12. She tried to call for their low fare guarantee and was denied for the exact opposite reason discussed here. The lower fare was on united.com and the “supervisor” indicated that she could not honor it because it was on united.com and not some other website like orbitz.com. WTH?!?!