If you're a skittish traveler these days, you may be reluctant to commit to a trip that requires you to pay in advance. If something causes a change of mind, what are your options for refunds? We asked our Savvy Traveler, Rudy Maxa.
Two weeks ago, when the federal government asked Americans to be on alert for a new round of terrorist attacks, a listener, Martha Lutz of northern California, decided she really didn't want to get on a plane after all. So called she the airline and asked for a refund on her ticket. The airline refused and sent her back to the place where she bought her ticket-Priceline-dot-com. Priceline said it was the airline's decision. Martha went back and forth but never got her money back.
For weeks after the horrible events of September 11th, airlines waived change fees or issued refunds to travelers who just couldn't bring themselves to fly. But those days are over. My researcher, Kim Lee, placed calls to four major airlines on Monday posing as a passenger married to a nervous flyer. If something terrible happens before her trip, she asked, could she get a refund on her advance-purchase ticket?
No, said three airlines. The telephone reservation agent for a fourth, American, was less certain. If the federal government issued a terrorism alert, well, maybe a refund might be possible. But the agent was wrong. American's policy is not to provide refunds to nervous flyers anymore - we're back to the old rules. You can apply the value of an unused, advance-purchase ticket to a future ticket, but you'll have to pay a change fee of, usually, $100.
But not everyone in the travel industry has gone back to the older, more strict rules. In a bid to get Americans traveling again, some companies will allow you to cancel travel without a penalty. The big British travel company, Trafalgar Tours, for example, offers what it calls a "peace of mind guarantee" through the end of the year. You may cancel any tour up to 72 hours before departure that includes a flight on Delta, Continental, United, British Airways, Lufthansa or SAS with no penalty. You can apply your money to a future tour.
A company that rents apartments for short stays in London called In The English Manner also recently announced a more flexible cancellation policy. It will fully refund a deposit on a future rental if you feel unsure about travel due to any immediate crisis. And the company reduced its minimum stay from seven to four nights, a nod, perhaps, to Americans who are wary of being away from home too long these days.
Last month, one major airline made an offer that's expired, but if business doesn't pick up, you may see it again. British Airways expired offered rock-bottom priced tickets with this innovative twist: You could cancel your flight for any reason for no penalty right up to the time the plane left the gate. British Airways didn't extend that offer, but it'll be interesting to see if anyone else tries it. This is the time, however, to ask tour operators if they have more flexible cancellation policies. At least your know your options up front, and if you don't like them, you can shop around.
As for obtaining refunds because of current events-real or feared-the bottom line is this: You can still find some travel suppliers willing to accommodate last-minute changes. But in the eyes of most airlines, the crisis has passed.
Well not quite. Planes are still flying with far fewer passengers than this time last year. And the airlines just extended by another month their double mileage offer. Fly up to mid-December and receive double miles if you remember to pre-register with each airline before boarding the plane.
I'm Rudy Maxa for Marketplace.
You can read - and hear - more from Rudy and company at SavvyTraveler.org!
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