Airfare rules: An airline’s fine print

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When you purchase an airline ticket, the transaction creates a contract between you and the airline.  The airline agrees to transport you, and you agree to pay for that transportation, and also agree to things like security checks and baggage limits.  Part of this contract between a passenger and an airline is the specific rules set forth in the fare purchased.  Inexpensive (or “discount”) fares typically have lots of rules.  They’re usually not refundable, have hefty fees for making changes to the ticket, and may earn limited or no frequent flyer miles.  Expensive (or “full”) fares don’t have these restrictions.  You’re paying extra money for the flexibility that comes with these more expensive tickets.

Beware these fare rules.  Airlines like to test new lows in customer service, so the Latin caveat emptor (“let the buyer beware”) is especially true in the travel industry. Following are two examples of ultra-restricted tickets I’ve seen recently when booking travel for clients.  In the first, the airline imposed a maximum stay of just 30 days, and in the second, the airline refused to allow a change to a business class ticket, even for a fee.

United Airlines: United States to Thailand

One of my clients needed to change his return from Bangkok to the United States by a few days. United kept pricing this change in the thousands of dollars, which didn’t make any sense.  Typically changing a return ticket (when the outbound flights have already been flown) is a matter of paying a change fee, and possibly a small fare difference.  What United’s agents eventually discovered was that the ticket had a 30-day maximum stay, and the change we were trying to make was outside that 30-day window.  The airline was pushing his fare up to a full fare ticket as a result.

British Airways: Changing a business class ticket

Another client needed to change the date on a British Airways flight to one day earlier.  A very simple request, and we expected to pay a change fee and be done with it.  However, the airline informed us that the ticket could not be changed.  While this was a discounted business class fare, it was still a $4,000 ticket.  In other words, the price wasn’t so low that an average traveler would start to think about onerous restrictions like a ticket being non-changeable.

The lesson from both examples: When booking a ticket, always click the link that leads to the fare rules for each ticket you buy.

Rules and Restrictions

Check for anything out of the ordinary, such as a ticket being non-changeable. Understand what you’re getting into, and print or save a pdf of the rules for future reference.

Think about it this way: Would you sign a lease on an apartment without reading it first?  Airlines expect us to go along with whatever rules they impose.  As savvy travelers, we need to start holding them accountable to be more transparent.  The fare rules should be prominently displayed during the booking process, and written in a straightforward manner, not the current mix of airline speak and legalese.

Have overly restrictive airline fare rules ever caused you travel problems?


About the Author

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Ryan has been a travel expert for more than ten years. His journeys have taken him to all six inhabited continents, including living in the Middle East and backpacking across Australia, Asia and Europe.

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