When it comes to airline ticket rules, know your rights. Learn how to gain an edge for better pricing on airlines, get refunds, and deal with lost tickets.
The first of the airline ticket rules to know is that there are two ultimately important documents when it comes to airlines. The first is the Contract of Carriage that outlines the agreement passengers sign with an airline when they purchase a ticket. The second is the airline passenger service manual, normally a secret document, which tells airline workers what they can and cannot do for passengers. Between these two documents, airline passengers’ fate is defined.
Contract of Carriage
DOT rules require airlines to post their Contract of Carriage on their website and to make it available to passengers during travel on their websites, at ticket offices and at airports. We will dig into these in more depth.
A written contract between a passenger and an airline is created every time a ticket is purchased. The Contract of Carriage is available to every passenger on demand and serves as the basis for all customer service from the time of airline ticket purchase through the end of the trip.
Do not assume the Contract Terms for United Airlines are the same as those for United Express. Contract Terms for “Express” divisions of airlines, such as United Express (in effect independent regional airlines), are significantly different from the parent airline. They include provisions such as check-in deadlines, limits on liability for lost baggage, responsibility for delayed flights, and many other considerations.
Passenger service manual
The most important guidelines when it comes to what airlines can or cannot do for passengers is found in an airline’s passenger service manual. Every customer service representative studies these pages and the frequent updates to them. Depending on the airline, these manuals are either guidelines about how customers are to be treated or the absolute rules by which customers will be treated.
Delta Air Lines even had a mantra for its customer service agents: “No waivers, no favors.” Sadly, many customers are simply out of luck when customer service reps were forbidden from deviating from the manuals no matter what the situation. Today, many airlines still engage is that kind of unenlightened customer service straightjacket, which is why it’s so important to know your airline ticket rights.
Only the highest-paying and most frequent of travelers seem to get the benefit of the doubt and customer service representatives who go out of their way to help them. The rest are often faced with robotic agents who are severely limited in what they can do for the hapless passengers standing before them.
Passenger service manuals are updated and revised frequently. Most of the information in these manuals can only be discovered on a case-by-case basis.
These internal policies are part of each airline’s competitive posture within the travel industry. Passenger service is now as important a consideration for most travelers as finding a nonstop flight and securing the lowest airfare. As travelers use this book, realize that we provide only guidelines for your flying rights—every airline has its own internal domestic and international rules and procedures.
I don’t know of an airline that will make their passenger service manual available for public scrutiny.
The following pages will focus on these areas:
- Who sells airline tickets—airlines, Internet sites and travel agents
- The best ways to purchase airline tickets, get refunds, and deal with lost tickets.
- Contracts of Carriage—every airline traveler signs this when they purchase a ticket for air travel on scheduled airlines, and we explore the even more consumer-unfriendly details of Public Charters.
- Understanding the airfare maze—outlining the various classes of tickets and highlighting some of the discounts available to travelers as well as the rules that accompany these fares.
- Preflight decisions—dealing with infants, selecting seats, arranging for wheelchairs or other assistance, and ordering special meals.
- Dealing with problems enroute—delayed and canceled flights, lost tickets, overbooking and bumping.
- Baggage problems—baggage check-in limits, carry-on limits, lost and delayed bags, damaged bags, and additional insurance.
- On-board health considerations and miscellaneous airline issues.
Negotiating through the airfare maze
Purchasing airline tickets has become far more complicated in the past few years. Where once airline tickets included telephone support, seat reservations, free checked baggage, and the occasional meal, the new pricing models employed by airlines are filled with fees for what was once taken for granted.
Worse, airlines are not informing passengers up front about many of these ancillary fees. Baggage fees vary dramatically based on the type of ticket, the level of frequent flier membership held by passengers, and the type of credit card used to make the airfare purchase. Some passengers get seat reservations for free; others pay. Some airlines release all coach seats for free assignment to passengers on the day of departure; others wait until moments before the airplane door closes.
Flexibility counts more than ever
The more flexibility travelers have and the earlier they begin to make reservations are major factors in negotiating the airfare maze. Remember, when a reservation agent informs you that all low-priced tickets have been sold, they are telling you what the situation is at that moment. Within hours, minutes, even seconds, there may be seats opening up at the low price you wanted to purchase. Another traveler may have canceled a reservation or failed to pay for their reservation, the airline may have decided to make more discounted seats available, or the size of the airplane may have changed. These are only a few of the factors that affect airline ticket prices and availability.
There are three basic classes but scores of airfares
Most airlines have more than a dozen different types of fares for domestic flights and as many as 75 in various international markets. But there are some basic fare groups that serve as a starting point for breaking them down.
The three classes offer the principal breakdown of fares and are operated as separately as possible from each other.
- First Class is the top-of-the-line service, with wide seats (some that fully recline), sometimes beds, and meals far too extensive and rich for any normal traveler to consume, served on fine china with silverware, all accompanied by flasks of vintage wine and champagne as well as port, cognac and liqueurs.
- Business Class is normally a significant step below First Class. Here seats are not as large nor do they recline as far, you won’t find beds, and the wines and spirits are far more pedestrian. (Some airlines are now eliminating First Class and replacing it with a souped-up Business Class.)
- Coach Class is the back of the plane. Here seats are narrow with only minimal reclining possibilities. Meals on domestic flights are virtually non-existent or available for a charge. On U.S. carriers flying domestically, passengers usually pay for any beverage other than basic juices, carbonated sodas and water.
On international flights, most airline meals (when available) are served on plastic and consumed with similar utensils. Some U.S. airlines do provide free alcoholic drinks on international flights. On foreign airlines, a bottle of wine or beer is often included in the Coach Class price when flying within Europe and free beverage service is the norm when flying intercontinental.
Within each of these classes there are many fare variations. At this point the important fact to remember is that the fares you would pay—if you merely walked up to the counter and purchased a ticket for a flight on that same day—are nothing short of mind-bogglingly high. Plan ahead.
Comparison shopping is not easy
Any passenger attempting to compare apples to apples will be frustrated, or be faced with thousands of options virtually impossible to decipher without the assistance of a computer algorithm.
Only one airline does not currently charge for the first two pieces of checked baggage — Southwest. Only one airline has no cancellation/change fees — Southwest.
Delta Air Lines does not participate in all ticket-selling websites.
Basically, the only way to get the real price information is to visit an online travel agent such as Expedia, Trivago, Travelocity or Orbitz. Also, search on a metasearch engine such as Kayak.com. And then visit Southwest.com for Southwest Airline airfares.
Many travel experts tout the system of searching for the best airfares by using an online travel agent and then buying directly from the airlines. However, this practice does not help consumers in the long run. If travelers do not support websites and local travel agents that permit comparison shopping, these platforms will not survive.
Travelers United urges all travelers to support websites that permit comparison shopping. The only exception is Southwest Airlines, which does not participate in any comparison-shopping website; however, Southwest offers by far the most consumer-friendly rules and best customer service as well as free bags and no cancellation/change fees.
Compare, compare, compare
Because of the emphasis on price competition, consumers may choose from among a wide variety of airfares. It is easy to compare fares and schedules on the web, using airline websites or third-party reservation services. Passengers can also contact a travel agent, another ticket outlet, or the airlines serving the places they want to travel to. (Some airlines and other outlets charge a fee for tickets purchased by means other than the web. On the other hand, a few airlines may charge a fee for tickets that are purchased via the web.)
Passengers should also be alert to social media, newspaper and radio ads, where airlines advertise many of the discounts available in specific cities. Finally, be alert to new companies serving the market. They may offer lower fares or different services than older established airlines. Here are some tips to help decide among air fares:
- Be flexible in travel plans in order to get the lowest fare. The best deals may be limited to travel on certain days of the week (particularly midweek or Saturday) or certain hours of the day (e.g., early-morning flights or overnight “red eyes”). When searching flights and fares on the web, travelers can usually specify whether dates are flexible, and in the search results the fares are generally listed from lowest to highest. If shopping by phone or in person, after travelers get a fare quote, ask the reservations agent if there are more savings by leaving a day earlier or later, or by taking a different flight on the same day.
- Plan as far ahead as possible. Some airlines set aside only a few seats on each flight at the lower rates. The real bargains often sell out very quickly. On the other hand, air carriers sometimes make more discount seats available later. If you had decided against a trip because the price you wanted was not available when you first inquired, try again, especially just before the advance-purchase deadline. Flights for holiday periods may sell out months ahead of time, although in many cases you can find a seat if you elect to travel on the holiday itself, e.g. Christmas Day or Thanksgiving Day.
- All discounts are not the same. Some airlines may have discounts that others don’t offer. In a large metropolitan area, the fare could depend on which airport passengers use. Also, a connection (change of planes) or a one-stop flight is sometimes cheaper than a nonstop.
- Check extra fees. Be aware that many airlines charge extra for checked baggage, advance seat assignments, meals, or other services. Airlines include information on these fees on their web sites.
- Most discount fares are non-refundable. If you buy one of these fares and you later cancel your trip, you will not get your money back. In many cases you can apply your ticket to another trip in the future, but there may be a steep fee. Many fares also have a penalty for changing flights or dates even if you don’t want a refund. You may also have to pay any difference in air fares if your fare type is not available on the new flight.
- Most airlines charge change/cancellation fees. These can range up to $200 for domestic tickets. Southwest is the only airline that does not charge these fees.
- Do airlines transfer baggage from airline to airline? Southwest does not. Many others do not as well. Or, they only work with airlines that are a part of their alliance or with whom they have interline agreements.
- Fares can change. After you buy your ticket, call the airline or travel agent once or twice before departure to check the fare. Fares change all the time, and if the fare you paid goes down before you fly, some airlines will refund the difference (or give you a transportation credit for that amount). But you have to ask.
- Once a fare is paid, it cannot be increased. The fees associated with the flight, such as baggage fees and so on, cannot be changed, either. This is a DOT rule.
Differences in air fares can be substantial. Careful comparison shopping among airlines does take time, but it can lead to real savings.
Schedules and tickets
Once travelers decide when and where they want to travel, and which airline they want to use, they will usually have to purchase a ticket in order to hold a confirmed seat.
However, DOT rules (enacted through strong advocacy work by Travelers United) require that all airlines provide a full refund if passengers cancel in the first 24 hours. This procedure permits passengers to hold a seat and a fare for a short time while continuing to shop for a better deal.
Be aware of the following considerations when selecting a flight and buying a ticket:
- Check the on-time performance percentage for flights. On-time performance percentages for individual flights of the larger U.S. airlines are available by phone from those airlines upon request. These airlines are also required to post this information on their web sites, with special notice for flights that experienced serious delays or cancellations.
- Passengers can see aggregate information about airline and airport on-time performance and a list of the most frequently delayed flights in DOT’s monthly Air Travel Consumer Report (http://airconsumer.dot.gov). Also, the website of DOT’s Bureau of Transportation Statistics (www.bts.gov) contains detailed on-time performance data for the large U.S. airlines that are required to report this information.
- When purchasing a ticket, be sure all of the information is recorded accurately. Before clicking “Submit,” or making a final commitment to a reservations agent, review all of the essential information — the spelling of your name, the flight numbers and travel dates, and the destination cities and airports.
- Passenger should use the form of their name that is on the photo ID that they will show at the airport. (For an international flight, this will be their passport.) This is usually your full legal name. It’s also important to give the airline more than one telephone number and an email address so they can let travelers know if there is any change in its schedule.
- If passengers qualify for TSA PreCheck through membership in PreCheck or Global Entry or as an active duty member of the armed forces, be sure to provide your nine-digit Known Traveler Number (KTN) when booking with participating airlines. Members of the military: your military ID number is also your KTN. Also be sure to provide your frequent flyer number if you have a loyalty account with the airline with which you are booking, or a partner airline.
NOTE: Should a passenger make a mistake on their electronic ticketing either by a misspelling, selecting the wrong airport, or if they simply change their mind, they have the right for 24 hours to a refund for the amount paid unless the ticket is purchased within a week of travel. This rule was put into effect in 2012 by DOT after advocacy work led by Travelers United.
- A “direct” (or “through”) flight with a single flight number can have one or more intermediate stops. A connection (change of planes) nearly always has a separate flight number for each flight, but sometimes the two flights are listed on the same line in schedules. Look carefully at the “Stops” column and the departure and arrival times to determine whether the flight suits your needs.
- If flying to a small city, the flight may be on a commuter airline that has an agreement with the major carrier in whose name the flight is advertised and sold. Or, the flight may be on a major partner airline. These agreements are referred to as “codeshare flights” and airlines are required by DOT to disclose this information. Look for disclosures of these so-called “codeshare” flights in the schedules, or ask the reservations agent.
- Airlines are required to inform passengers of all code-sharing flights. More information regarding code-sharing can be found in the next section.
- When checking baggage and connecting to another airline, make sure that airlines will transfer baggage. Otherwise, plan to collect your baggage at the intermediate stop and then check it in for the ongoing flight (this will require exiting the secured area of the airport and re-entering through security). At one time these transfers were automatic, but now interline agreements between airlines, even large network carriers, do not always provide for baggage transfers.
- As soon as you receive an e-ticket or email confirmation, check to make sure all the information on it is correct, especially passengers’ names, the airports (if any of the cities have more than one) and the flight dates. Contact the airlines immediately to make any necessary changes or corrections. Remember, passengers have 24 hours to make any changes to the airfare purchase or to cancel the reservation without penalty. After 24 hours, many airlines impose change fees for any changes, whether to the itinerary or to the passenger’s name spelling.
- A government-issued photo I.D. is required when flying. It is important that your name, as it appears on the ticket, is the same as it appears on the I.D. passengers will be using. If their name has recently changed and the name on the ticket and I.D. are different (or will be different by the time of your trip), bring documentation of the change (e.g., a marriage certificate or court order). IDs acceptable for domestic travel are state-issued driver licenses or DMV ID cards, passports, any federal government-issued ID (including military or government employee ID), passports, Global Entry, NEXUS and SENTRI cards.
Re-check the departure and arrival times of flights a few days before the trip; schedules sometimes change. On international trips, airlines may require that tickets be reconfirmed at least 72 hours before each flight. If the reservations are not confirmed they may be canceled.
Bring ticket or printed confirmation to the airport. Print the boarding pass from the carrier’s web site within 24 hours of departure or from a kiosk at the airport, or have it displayed on your smartphone.
Payment by credit card provides certain protections under federal credit laws. When a refund is due, the airline must forward a credit to the card company within seven business days after receiving a complete refund application; however, the credit may take a month or two to appear on a passenger’s statement. If you paid by credit card for a refundable fare and you have trouble getting a refund that is due (e.g., they have a refundable fare, or have a nonrefundable fare and the airline canceled your flight and you did not travel as a result), report this in writing to the credit card company. If you write to them within 60 days from the time that they mailed your first monthly statement showing the charge for the airline ticket, the card company should credit your account even if the airline doesn’t. This procedure is particularly useful if your airline ceases operations before your flight.
NOTE: In some cases, tickets purchased overseas in foreign currency can only be refunded in that same currency and country, due to foreign government monetary restrictions. Keep this in mind when considering buying a ticket in a foreign country.
International and domestic airlines in recent years have developed marketing alliances that allow them to offer “seamless travel” between Europe, Asia, the United States and Africa on separate airlines. Code sharing, which started with the KLM/Northwest landmark partnership, opened the door to allowing one airline to sell seats on another airline’s aircraft and to coordinate flights and service to ensure the best possible connections.
For instance, if you purchase a ticket for an AirFrance-KLM flight from Boston to Zürich, passengers will check in at a joint Air France-KLM/Delta counter. Then, though their ticket clearly states the flight is on Air France-KLM, they may board a Delta jet for the flight from Boston to Amsterdam. The connecting flight will be on a KLM jet from Amsterdam to Zürich.
In the beginning, this airline coordination was touted as a way to improve passenger service. Code sharing allowed coordinated schedules on international flights theoretically to make the travel experience more hassle-free. The concept is now being expanded to include coordination of domestic airline schedules between separate airlines. In the codeshare world, coordinating schedules and marketing is the easy part. Developing similar standards of service to be shared between foreign and domestic airlines has proven much more difficult. Reality has shown that service improvements have been minimal, but airline bottom line improvements have been significant.
Code sharing works when the airlines are more or less well-matched, such as Delta and KLM, where the crews and passengers all speak good English. Problems and confusion arise when passengers expecting to fly on a Continental flight end up flying on Alitalia; Swissair passengers find themselves on Delta or Austrian Airlines; and German-speakers have to deal with United Airlines flight attendants when they were expecting to fly on a Lufthansa plane. This mixing of airlines is only going to get worse before someone steps in to calm the madness.
Theoretically, in the United States, reservation agents are required to inform passengers of flights that are sold under the name of one airline and flown on aircraft owned by another, but in most cases the passenger must know enough to ask. Otherwise, the reservation agent may forget.
Except in extraordinary and international areas, the majority of ticketing is “ticketless.” Paper tickets have almost gone the way of the dinosaur. All notifications for these tickets are available on airline websites.
Payments & Refunds on Airline Tickets
Payments for airfares should always be made with credit cards because of protections offered by these cards and the flexibility available for refunds.
If passengers plan to pay in person and with their own bank check, take along at least two forms of identification, such as a driver’s license, major credit card, and employee ID card. Airlines, travel agencies and other ticket sellers will want to confirm your identity, particularly when purchasing tickets far from home.
If a ticket is paid for with cash or personal check, the ticket refund will generally have to be processed through the airline accounting department and mailed. The airlines have 20 business days—a calendar month—to process any refund.
When passengers pay by credit card, their account is billed, whether they use their tickets or not.
NOTE: Most airlines have instituted draconian change and cancellation fees for airfares. At the time of press, the major legacy carriers — American, Delta and United — were all charging $200 change fees for domestic tickets and $300 for international airfares.
If passengers pay by credit card and have trouble getting a refund for a refundable ticket, report this in writing (or using the secure message portal after logging into your account on the credit card company’s website) to the credit card company. If passengers write the credit card company within 60 days after they mailed your statement showing the charge for the ticket, they should credit your account.
If the airline goes bankrupt, passengers can get a refund on their credit card. If tickets are paid by cash or by check, there may be a very long and unfruitful wait.
Most airline tickets are good for one year—after that time it may be difficult or impossible to get a refund.
Changing tickets and refunding tickets for lower fares
Many passengers have purchased an airline ticket only to find that the price dropped dramatically the next week or even the next day.
In these cases ticket holders may exchange their higher-priced ticket for the lower airfare. However, all the original restrictions of the original ticket must still apply, seats at the restricted fare must be available, plus, passengers will be forced to pay a change fee of up to $200 for U.S. domestic tickets.
If the difference in airfare is not at least $200, making the change is not worth the effort.
This money-saving technique seems obvious, however many travelers overlook its benefits. To take advantage of lower fares, simply check out airfares to and from nearby airports. For instance, Boston to Chicago is a very expensive business fare ticket; however, if a traveler departed from Providence, RI, or Manchester, NH, each only an hour’s drive from Boston, the walk-up fare to Chicago is less than any advanced purchase fare available from Boston.
Alternate city techniques work well in cities such Boston, New York, Washington D.C., Chicago, San Francisco or Los Angeles, where there are several airports within an hour of downtown. Fares for flights in and out of LaGuardia are often higher than flights serving J.F.K. or Newark. Dulles and B.W.I. often provide discounts when compared with Washington National.