You are planning a cruise, and you leave Los Angeles to fly to your port. Suddenly you are stuck in Chicago and your hopes of making it to your embarkation point in time are eroding with every tick of the clock. Your nightmare comes true; you don’t make it. You shake your fist, literally or figuratively, at the airline and hope it knows it’s going to pay for what it did (or didn’t do). Don’t get your hopes up, but do keep your shirt on.
Getting airlines to pony up when things go wrong is challenging in the best of situations, but making them pay for goods and services you missed out on is, some would say, a fantasy.
Here’s why: You signed a contract when you bought your airline ticket, and it pretty much says the carrier’s obligation is to get you from Point A to Point B.
It doesn’t say it will get you there on time. It doesn’t even say it will get you there the same day. It doesn’t say that just because you reserved Seat 9A, which has the extra legroom, that you’ll get Seat 9A, the one spot that will keep you from becoming a human pretzel.
“Sometimes consumers forget there is an implied and agreed to contract when you fly,” said Billy Sanez, founder of the new website goflymore.com, set to make its debut this week.
“When we buy … we just … click the ‘yes’ and don’t take the time to read the fine print.”
If you read these contracts (or conditions) of carriage, you’ll pretty quickly discover who holds all of the cards (hint: not you) and who does not (hint: you).
Here is an excerpt from the American Airlines contract. (We’re not picking on American, but its contract is clearer than most):
“American will endeavor to carry you and your baggage with reasonable dispatch, but times shown in timetables or elsewhere are not guaranteed and form no part of this contract.”
Translation: We’ll try to get you and your bags there approximately when we said we would but if we don’t, well, you can’t really come after us.
And it goes on to add this: “American is not responsible for or liable for failure to make connections, or to operate any flight according to schedule, or for a change to the schedule of any flight. Under no circumstances shall American be liable for any special, incidental or consequential damages arising from the foregoing.”
If you read the other airlines’ contracts or conditions, they say some variation of the same thing, although Southwest tops its contract with this: “We don’t take our commitments lightly. We are dedicated to doing the right thing … .”
But even doing the right thing has some limitations. Those limitations include force majeure, which includes an event no one saw coming. Southwest defines it as “acts of God, meteorological events, such as storms, rain, wind, fire, fog, flooding, earthquakes, haze, or volcanic eruption.”
It goes on to mention riots, wars and other unpleasantness.
Or, said another way, the world may be blown away by a storm or a hostile event, but that is not the airline’s problem; it is yours.
That means if you’re sitting on the ground in the Windy City in whiteout conditions and your cruise or tour bus is pulling away from the dock/embarkation point in some sunny part of the world, it’s nobody’s fault except Mother Nature’s. The airlines are powerful, but they’re not powerful enough to control the weather.
But even in this situation, all is not lost. Here are some ways you may be able to salvage your trip. These points may bring you more psychic than financial relief, but that may be the better reward.
—You bought your cruise/tour with the airline instead of buying it on your own.
Airfares always seem to be a bit higher when you buy them as part of a package, and some travelers will buy their own airfare to save money.
But it may not be worth it, Sanez said.
If you’re booked as part of the package, the cruise or tour company (which is your advocate) usually will help you get rebooked to the next port or stop.
Airfare booked through a cruise line “gives you an opportunity to call one person and to clear up everything, and that sometimes ends up being cheaper,” Sanez said.
If you bought your own airfare, Sanez said, “the airline may say, ‘Well we got you there, according to the rules of carriage. If it’s a weather delay, we got you there as soon as we could and if it was mechanical, we got you on the next available.’”
This is nice, but it doesn’t help if you’re now faced with making reservations on short notice to, say, the Turks and Caicos in high season.
—You used a travel agent/and or you bought travel insurance. What you may need most is an advocate. Besides helping you spend your money wisely, a travel agent is in your corner. Besides travel advice, they’re also being paid to help you out of a jam. Travel agents have connections you can only dream about.
Insurance companies often can help you during your trip, not just before when you’ve had to cancel, or after when you’re trying to collect, with a person who can help when things go wrong.
In either case, make sure you have all your information with you and you have the customer service number handy. It’s one of those precautions you hope you never need, but if you do, you’ll congratulate yourself later for making your own life easier.
—You’ve been given the gift of calm. Perhaps you’re just tranquil by nature; perhaps you’ve taken anger management classes. We say this not completely in jest, especially if you have neither protection of the cruise or tour company nor the advocacy of a travel agent or insurance company.
Because in most cases, you are on your own.
Keeping your cool is going to be the key to getting your trip back on track, Sanez said.
He knows what he’s talking about. Besides having about seven years of experience with the airlines, he has been that person who was desperate to get on a flight home to care for a sick wife. Very different from a trip for pleasure, of course, but the pressure mounts in either case.
Sanez was worried and tense, and it didn’t help that the airline closed the flight early.
“I got really mad,” he said, when no one could or would help him. The gate agent “looked at me and walked away,” he said.
The first key to turning the tide in any situation, he said, is asking, not demanding. He often tells his kids, “Daddy will get you a glass of milk if you ask me instead of telling me to do it.”
One of the truths of travel is that people generally won’t walk away if you ask nicely for help.
But you must have the presence of mind to stay cool and calm and say, “Can you help me out, please?” Helping other people usually feels good, and so does being the hero of the story.
When you’re talking to a customer service person, “the person on the other end of the line didn’t cause it and they may not be able to solve it right away,” Sanez said. “But that person may be able to call a supervisor and say, “Hey, listen, can we help this person out?’ I think it’s always appealing to the empathetic side of anybody, not ticking off the person who’s on the other side of the line or the other side of the Tweet” if you’re using Twitter.
You probably won’t get back a pro-rated payment for the day you missed. But there’s nothing to stop you from asking for a few hundred or thousand frequent flier miles or maybe a voucher or two.
Sure, at the end of the day you are swearing you are never going to fly that airline again, so why would you want a voucher or anything that means you’ll have to do business with the likes of them any time in this lifetime?
Because travel trouble is like the pain of childbirth: You forget in time (probably) so why not derive some benefit from pain and suffering?
Whether you’re traveling at the holidays or you’re under pressure to get somewhere quickly, the stakes seem unbearably high.
“We travel for a purpose,” Sanez said. “We don’t travel to just get up to 35,000 feet. It’s either a cruise or a concert you want to go see, or an event somewhere like a wedding — all of that is the reason … we go there.”
The one place you don’t want to go is crazy. We’ve all been there, and as a destination, it’s the pits. So cancel that reservation. Zen is where it’s at.
Have a travel dilemma? Write to travel @latimes.com. We regret we cannot answer every inquiry.
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