It's unfortunate that the relationship between customers and the airlines has descended into Cold War levels of suspicion and dubiousness, but here we are. Here's a guide to just of a few of the rights you, as a consumer, are entitled to, but won't hear about from the airlines.
1. Bumped? You're Entitled to Cash
So your flight is overbooked and you've been bumped. It happens. An inconvenience for sure, but, hey, that airline voucher the staff member is offering is decent compensation, right? Wrong. In 2011, the Department of Transportation stepped up airline regulations, which means that airlines now have the obligation to cough up cold, hard cash if they can't get you on your flight, or on a different flight that arrives at your destination within one hour of your originally scheduled arrival time.
Here's what the DOT says:
- "If the airline arranges substitute transportation that is scheduled to arrive at your destination between one and two hours after your original arrival time (between one and four hours on international flights), the airline must pay you an amount equal to 200 percent of your one-way fare to your final destination that day, with a $675 maximum.
- "If the substitute transportation is scheduled to get you to your destination more than two hours later (four hours internationally), or if the airline does not make any substitute travel arrangements for you, the compensation doubles (400 percent of your one-way fare, $1350 maximum)."
Of course, there are caveats... like, you need to have actually arrived on time for your flight. "If you miss the check-in deadline, you may have lost your reservation and your right to compensation if the flight is oversold," says the DOT. And also: "If the airline must substitute a smaller plane for the one it originally planned to use, the carrier isn't required to pay people who are bumped as a result," which hardly seems fair.
2. And You Can Squeeze Them for More
Say being bumped from that flight means eating the cost of a non-refundable hotel room, car rental, or fun activity, you can air your grievance, and maybe get compensated. "If being bumped costs you more money than the airline will pay you at the airport," advises the DOT, "you can try to negotiate a higher settlement with their complaint department. If this doesn't work, you usually have 30 days from the date on the check to decide if you want to accept the amount of the check. You are always free to decline the check (e.g., not cash it) and take the airline to court to try to obtain more compensation."
3. If You're Delayed, They Can Book You on a Competitor's Flight
According to Thrillist, airlines' obligation to rebook you at no extra cost, even on a competing airline, officially ended with deregulation in 1978, "but airlines will still do it if you ask nicely or if you have elite status." Thrillist advises putting a little effort into finding a suitable flight yourself, then presenting the options (calmly!) to the nice staff member behind the counter.
4. Non-Refundable Fares are (Sometimes) Refundable
If you've spotted a great fare but are not totally committed, you can go ahead and book it anyway, safe in the knowledge that (as long as departure date is at least seven days out) you can cancel within 24 hours of booking and get a full refund. The only U.S. airline this does not apply to is American, which, instead, lets you hold a fare for 24 hours before having to commit to paying for it. In American's case, be sure to hold rather than purchase if you think you might change your mind.
The other instance in which you can get a refund on a non-refundable ticket is when an airline makes a significant schedule change prior to departure. For example, they change departure time from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., or throw in a stopover on what was meant to be a nonstop flight. Call the airline and they will issue a refund, which, frankly, seems like the least they could do.
5. Delayed Baggage Doesn't Mean a Ruined Trip
Watching the baggage carousel turn around over and over again without your bag on it is an upsetting way to begin a vacation. But all is not lost. Employees will generally dole out money at the airport so that you can make emergency purchases. Per DOT guidelines, "The amount depends on whether or not you're away from home and how long it takes to track down your bags and return them to you." If they don't give you money up front, they may agree to reimburse you, in which case, you need to be clear on what types of articles are reimbursable and keep all receipts.
If you need replacement clothing, you might only get back a portion of the cost on the grounds that you, "will be able to use the new items in the future," so best not go shopping beyond your normal means. If the airline misplaces sporting equipment, it will sometimes pay for the rental of replacements.
6. You Can Get a Premium Seat Without Paying For It
Readers' Digest recommends checking your upcoming flight's seat map about four days (100 hours) before your flight, as that's when the airlines start upgrading fliers from coach to business and so, "some of the best seats open up." Thrillist, on the other hand, advises asking for premium seats when you arrive at the gate. "Because those seats cost extra, (they) are most frequently the only ones left empty, even on an “extremely full flight. If you ask nicely and are super polite ... the gate agent has the power to give them to you."
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