5 ways to avoid last minute airline nightmares

Do you ever feel like you’re being front-run by airlines or squeezed for every penny on ticket prices? Airlines have sneaky ways of padding their ticket prices – from nickel and diming on taxes and fees to charging extra for flight changes or checked baggage. Sometimes, it even seems like ticket prices change right before your eyes, as if the airline selling you your ticket can anticipate your purchase before you make it.

5 ways to avoid last minute airline nightmares

Airlines play a balancing act with their ticket prices by setting prices low enough to fill as many seats on an aircraft as possible, yet high enough to reap maximum profits. As a result, airfare can change multiple times before takeoff – even multiple times within the same day – making the purchasing process unpredictable for the passenger. Unlike many other products and services, two people may pay vastly different prices for the exact same commodity, sold by the exact same company.

Frustrations about the unpredictability of airline purchases are common, but there are ways to fight back. Here are five money-saving tips to help you save yourself from being duped on your next ticket purchase:

1. Avoid airlines with “surcharge” fees when using miles

You may notice additional fees for “fuel surcharge” – or now more commonly a “carrier imposed surcharge” or “international surcharge” – on your airline ticket. Despite what many believe, these additional fees are neither government-imposed taxes nor even costs directly associated with fuel. Instead, these additional fees are really just hedges for airlines to protect their profits in the event of rising oil prices, air traffic control fees, or emissions trading scheme payments.

While most passengers simply factor these surcharges into the cost of their tickets, frequent flyers using airline miles are the ones who really get swindled. Typically, frequent flyer points can only be redeemed for base fares, the rest – the surcharges and government taxes – must be paid in cash. Therefore, stating that this hedge or cost of goods sold is really a “surcharge”, not part of the base fare, means that frequent flyers using miles have to pay out of pocket for these costs, which can get quite expensive.

Tip #1: Some airlines charge more in these “surcharge” fees than others, and some don’t charge them at all. If you plan on using airline miles for your next flight, identify airlines with low or no additional surcharge fees to maximize your miles.

2. Get creative with ticket transferability restrictions

If you buy a ticket to a sporting event or concert and can’t attend, you can resell your seat to another buyer. Why can’t you do that with airline tickets? Airlines cite security concerns regarding name changes on tickets; however, consumer advocates assert that the Transportation Security Administration’s system, called Secure Flight, is perfectly capable of screening airline passengers who have been resold tickets from another passenger.

“There is no reason why a consumer should not be able to easily transfer her ticket to another person in the event that she cannot travel,” said Sally Greenberg, executive director of the National Consumers League, in a USA Today article.

Tip #2: Two real-life, out-of-the-box solutions to this problem are to either change your name or find someone with the exact same name to whom to sell your ticket. While these solutions may seem crazy, both have been done before: one by a 28-year-old Toronto resident, Jordan Axani, who gave his ex-girlfriend’s ticket to a complete stranger with the exact same name; and the other by 19-year-old Manchester resident Adam Armstrong who actually changed his name to Adam West due to a ticketing error.

If these options seem too absurd, perhaps opt for airlines with low or no change fees. Keep in mind that most airlines will honor free changes to your ticket within 24 hours of your ticket purchase, as well as in extreme circumstances, such as a death in the family, (in which case you will need to furnish a death certificate).

3. Fly with flexible airlines to circumvent change penalties

You want the best deal for that holiday trip, so you buy months in advance. You pay the airline in July for services you won’t actually utilize for several months. If your plans change, almost all carriers charge you a penalty if you change your mind for a trip you haven’t taken and the carrier hasn’t provided. These change fees can sometimes add up to more than your original cost for your ticket!

Tip #3: Airlines set their own rules for change fees, and some carriers are more ruthless and inflexible than others. Choose to fly with a carrier that is flexible about changes. There are a few other security measures you can also take, such as booking with a credit card that has built-in travel protection

4. Know your rights

So it’s July and you find a cheap ticket to fly home for the holidays. It’s now October and you need to make a change. The airline claims changing it will now cost over $2,000 to change the $200 ticket you bought during the summer. How do you know if it’s right? What if they’re wrong? Just because an airline says you owe $2,000, does this mean the airline agent is properly reading the rules of the ticket you purchased in July and accurately calculating the fare difference? It is important to read through contracts and terms so you are fully aware of your rights as a passenger.

Tip #4: There is no independent council available to travelers to solve these disputes over fare differences, so it is important to know your rights when you experience a nightmare travel experience. It is always important to read the fine print before and after one of these scenarios. If you’re dubious about the way a ticket exchange was handled at the ticket counter, try calling into the airline’s support line to work with the airline directly on reimbursement. If you still feel like you’re getting cheated, you may find recourse in small claims court, which is even recommended by the U.S. Department of Transportation, which also provides a handy Consumer Guide for Americans opting to seek recourse from airlines.

5. Check for updates to avoid getting bumped

It is not uncommon for airlines to oversell flights, causing passengers to scramble to find alternative flight options or simply get bumped altogether. There are a number of calculations airlines make to determine whether or not to oversell flights, including load capacity, maximum authorized capacity, and historical no show rates. Essentially, at the end of the day, there is a mathematical equation that can predict the likelihood of your flight being overbooked.

Tip #5: Protect yourself with frequent ‘check ups’ of your reservation between the date of purchase and the departure date. Once a week, enter your booking locator on the airlines website to be sure it’s still there. If you can’t see the reservation, this could be a signal of potential problems. At least you can contact the carrier to solve the problem in advance rather than praying for a last minute airport fix on the day of travel.

Lars Condor is the Managing Director of Passport Premiere.

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Comments (1)

  1. Hugh says:

    It’s crazy isn’t it that there is no independent council available to travelers to disputes over fare differences!

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