Question: What if you have airline tickets to a country and near the departure date the State Department says this is a dangerous area to travel to? What are the chances of getting a change of destination? Refund? Credit to use tickets later? I'm speaking of nonrefundable tickets.
Answer: Boyd's second question is easiest to answer: You can almost always change your destination on an airline ticket, even on a nonrefundable one — but it's probably going to cost you, and the change is even more expensive on an international flight. You generally will get a credit for the unused ticket, but you may have to use that ticket within a specified amount of time, usually a year.
Change fees range from nothing (Southwest) to $750 (US Airways, international) plus any difference in the price of the ticket you book. In other words, if you were flying to Cairo and your initial ticket cost $1,000 and now you want to go to London, where the ticket costs $1,500, you'll owe the $500 plus the change fee. Airfarewatchdog recently posted a chart of fees at bit.ly/1nMXx6r.
State Department warnings, which can be found at www.travel.state.gov, don't necessarily get you off the hook with the airlines if you want to cancel your ticket and not pay a penalty.
Since the first of the year, the State Department has posted 33 alerts and warnings, which it differentiates this way: An alert is "for short-term events we think you should know about when planning travel to a country," State's website says; a warning is issued "when we want you to consider very carefully whether you should go to a country at all." Note that it is not telling you not to go.
Indeed, in the alert issued May 23 after the Thai army seized control of the government, the State Department says you should "reconsider any nonessential travel to Thailand, particularly Bangkok" and also notes that U.S. government travelers are being told not to go if the trip is not essential. In other words, State is basically saying, "You can do whatever you want, but our folks aren't going unless they have to."
The problem with nonrefundable tickets is that they complicate your choices. Let's say you are worried about Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, or MERS, which is an issue on the Arabian Peninsula and, more recently, in the U.S. The Centers for Disease Control says this virus kills about 30% of the people who become ill with it, but as of last week, there was no alert or warning from the State Department. If your travels were to take you to that part of the world, you could cancel your ticket but you might not get your money back. Airlines often will waive change fees and sometimes even refund money based on what has happened (winter 2014 was a prime example of this), but they won't very often refund your money based on how worried you are.
Tim Winship, who worked for the airlines and now writes about them as publisher of FrequentFlier.com, explained it this way: "Airlines hold all of the cards. Until the airlines make an exception to the rule, you are basically kind of stuck."
But in a situation like Thailand's, isn't it pretty clear that this isn't the optimal time to travel? "What they [the airlines] are trying to do is to walk that tricky line between, on the one hand, maximizing their revenue, which means not giving anybody a break with any exceptions to the rule, versus the bad will that comes from not making exceptions to those rules in the sorts of circumstances you are alluding to."
I randomly chose Air Tahiti Nui to ask what its policy is: "In the situation of martial law or civil unrest, at that point, airlines will generally waive any change fees and offer refunds," said Nicholas Panza, vice president of the Americas for Air Tahiti Nui.
The only way you're going to know for sure is to call the airline and ask. Take a deep breath, present your case calmly and clearly and wait for the answer.
"There is a certain amount of flexibility on the airlines' part, if you press them. ... I always do suggest that they [airline passengers] not necessarily assume that the published policy is the be-all and end-all, that it can be worthwhile picking up the phone and pleading your case."
Before you do that, it's a good idea to read the airline's equivalent of terms and conditions, often called contracts of carriage, just so you understand what that published policy is. No need to tell the airline that you've done this because it could raise this question: "If you know what the policy is, why are you calling?"
If you don't get the answer you want — and you've heard this before in this column — hang up and call back.
Neither Winship nor I like to do this, but we have in the hopes of getting a sympathetic ear.
"Honestly I have the same reservations about following that bit of advice myself," he said. "I think it's perfectly valid when it comes to actually doing it myself — I've only done it a couple of times — and I really had to force myself to overcome my own dread of doing it.
"I don't think it's categorically unethical to do. ... It's a reflection of the fact that different individuals, given the same information, are going to process it differently and come to a different conclusion. That's a fact of life."
Plus, Winship said, when you call back, you probably won't get the same person.
Except that the one time I did this, I did get the same person (small airline in a different country, late in the evening, lots of stammering on my part after the agent said, "Oh, Catharine, is that you?").
Still, Winship said, "Air travel is expensive … so maybe it's worth overcoming that trepidation in the interest of maybe getting things right."
There is one other way to get things right, and that may make you less comfortable than calling back a second time. It's travel insurance, and in next week's column we'll talk about how it may, or may not, protect you.
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