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Pesky airline problems

A large majority of questions readers submit to this column deal with airlines, one way or another. That’s no surprise: The airlines’ prices, policies, and procedures are far more Byzantine than those of any other segment of the travel business. This week, I’ll answer a few short questions from several readers.

Refundable or not

I recently bought a ticket on SkyEurope from Slovakia to England. Due to work commitments I wanted to cancel the trip, only to be told that the airfare is nonrefundable. Is there any regulation on refunding unused tickets?

There is certainly no “regulation” beyond ordinary contract law. If the ticket says nonrefundable, that’s what it is. On U.S. airlines, most “nonrefundable” tickets are actually “reusable,” which means you can apply the dollar value toward a future ticket, less a fee of up to $100. But on many foreign lines, a nonrefundable ticket is totally nonrefundable. Check with SkyEurope to see if you can use any of the value of your ticket toward a future ticket.

Expiring miles

Is using my AA Citibank credit card regularly enough to update those expiring frequent flyer miles? Or do I actually have to redeem miles?

Children have fewer options to extend expiring miles than adults. What can I do for my eight-year-old’s airline mileage accounts?

On most lines, any “activity” in your frequent flyer account is enough to reset the expiration meter back to zero. As far as I know, adding miles from a credit card counts as “account activity” and resets the meter. Also, you can use a few miles to pay for a magazine subscription or such, or buy the minimum miles you can buy to add to the account.

More tax than fare

Why do the taxes and fees on an air ticket sometimes add up to more than the airfare?

Most of the taxes and fees you pay these days are calculated per-passenger, not as a percentage of the fare. So when an airline offers a very low promotional fare, it may well cost less than the taxes and fees. This situation arises most often on short international routes within Europe, where low-fare lines often advertise a few low-ball prices and international fees are high. Keep in mind that airlines outside the U.S. are free to pitch low fares, then add their own “fees” such as a fuel surcharge that should really be part of the base price.

Flights to the U.S.

Would it be less expensive to buy a round-trip ticket for my English friend’s visit to the U.S. (in dollars) than to buy it in England, using pounds?

A friend who lives in St. Petersburg, Russia, wants to visit me in Philadelphia. What is the best way to get a ticket for him?

If you’re buying a ticket at a published fare, international rules require that a round-trip ticket be purchased at the local-currency price in the country where the trip originates. You can buy such a ticket for U.S. dollars, but the airline still charges you the local price, converted into dollars at the time of purchase. If you want to pay for the ticket, yourself—and buy it in U.S. dollars from a local agency—you can do that, but the ticket won’t be any cheaper.

Even when you’re looking for a discount ticket, local discount agencies in most of the world can find more deals from their home country to the U.S. than you could find through agencies in the U.S. I suggest your friends check around some of the many local (U.K. or Russia) discount ticket agencies for the best deal available starting in the U.K. or Russia. If you want to check with U.S.-based sources, however, your best bet is to try one or two of the agencies that specialize in discounted round-the-world tickets. They build RTW itineraries out of a series of one-way tickets so they have deals on flights that originate in quite a few foreign countries. Try Air Brokers,, World Travellers’ Club, and Around the World Fare.

Please, Southwest

We need help to get Southwest to offer nonstop or direct flights from Kansas City to Little Rock. Currently there are no nonstops, and connections entail a long layover and change of planes at St Louis. Any suggestions?

Travelers from cities all around the U.S. are asking the same questions—how do we get Southwest to come in here, or to add new flights? Unless your city is willing to guarantee Southwest against a loss on a new service or route, you can’t do much other than have your airport manager or some community leaders make the case and submit it to Southwest’s headquarters. Southwest is constantly evaluating possible new routes and schedules, and the folks there pretty much know their business. If enough of your neighbors keep flying from Kansas City to Little Rock, Southwest will see that and start some flights.

Refund for overpriced ticket

I bought one of the more expensive coach tickets to Honolulu because I wanted one I could upgrade with frequent flyer miles, which I did. But 12 hours before scheduled departure, United canceled my flight. The agent put me on another flight, but of course no first class seats were available. If I’d been willing to fly in coach, I could have bought a ticket for much less than I paid for my original upgradeable ticket. Do I have a right to recoup the difference between the first flight I booked and the one they put me on? And how do I file a complaint against the airlines if I believe that they are canceling flights inappropriately?

The only “right” you have is what you can assert and negotiate. You can ask United to refund the difference, but I expect it will refuse to do so. And if United stonewalls you, your only recourse would then be small claims court.

You can file an airline complaint with the Department of Transportation by snailmail to:

Aviation Consumer Protection Division, C-75
U.S. Department of Transportation
400 7th Street SW, Washington DC 20590

Or by email to

Don’t expect DOT to follow up on your specific complaint. All that will happen is that your complaint will be tallied against United in the monthly and annual complaint reports.

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