When it comes to air travel, there’s a growing rift between informed and uninformed passengers.
I see it every day. A reader contacts me asking for help with a refund on a nonrefundable airline ticket or to change the name on an unchangeable reservation or to get their expired airline miles unexpired. Common sense tells you it shouldn’t be a problem. But spend a little bit of time studying the rules, and you’d know it is.
Ah, rules. They’re dense, cryptic, wrapped in legalese. But they do not apply to all customers.
A small subset of air travelers has taken the time to obsessively study every restriction, paragraph and clause. They often spend hours figuring out a creative way around those silly roadblocks that are meant to extract more money from customers. They get “free” airline tickets, as they did last week. That doesn’t make these “hackers” better or more deserving of the preferred treatment they get — they’re just better-informed.
Alas, the vast majority of travelers don’t bother to read the fine print, because they have better things to do with their time. And they pay a high price for it, often end up boarding last, being banished to the worst seats, or losing their entire ticket purchase on a technicality.
It’s this chasm between the know-it-alls and the know-nothings that seems to be growing. It’s a knowledge gap.
It shouldn’t exist.
I don’t know jack
The hopelessness of the situation became clear to me during an exchange on a social network following the publication of a story that was deeply critical of airline loyalty programs. So did the solution.
After the article appeared, one of the frequent flier apologists, who took my criticism personally, messaged me. He insisted that loyalty programs were absolutely “free” and that the first-class tickets he’d just scored for his vacation had cost him absolutely nothing. That’s something I should know, he said, given my “vast knowledge of frequent flier programs.”
He was being facetious.
Fact is, you do pay dearly for each award ticket in many ways. Maybe you spend more for your airfare over the long term. Maybe you waste your time collecting miles that don’t even belong to you. Or maybe you fly a less convenient route or just give your valuable personal information to the company. But calling it “free” is stupid. There’s no such thing as “free” — at best, you’re getting a discount.
But at that moment, I also realized that the argumentative reader had made an absolutely valid point.
I do not have a “vast” expert-level knowledge of the often frustrating, consumer-hostile loyalty programs. I’m too busy saving the world from avaricious airlines.
Do I know which airline participates in what alliance? Do I have any idea what the terms and conditions on the latest mileage bonus offer are? Can I find an award ticket for a flight to Hawaii for Christmas? No.
The same is true for the highly complex fare rules governing each airline ticket. Am I aware of the difference between “B” and an “X” fare class? Nah, I’m a little fuzzy on it. Do I even know where to find the fare rules? Often, I don’t.