Image: Devil in the details
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When it comes to airline ticket rules, the devil isn’t in the details. The devil is the details, travel columnist Christopher Elliott writes.
By Christopher Elliott Travel columnist contributor
updated 10/8/2007 9:36:21 AM ET 2007-10-08T13:36:21

When it comes to airline ticket rules, the devil isn’t in the details. The devil is the details.

You’ll find Old Nick in something called the ticket tariff, which is a massive, rambling and often incomprehensible document that passengers rarely see in its entirety.

Why? Partly because they tell you what you already know — for example, that you have to pay a fee if you want to change your ticket — and partly because it just doesn’t concern you. For instance, some tariff rules talk about special fares for police officers or firefighters, which a vast majority of passengers wouldn’t care about.

But there’s another reason why you won’t see these rules: Airlines would rather you not know about them. That’s because they like to bury all kinds of restrictions in the fine print, hoping their passenger won’t read them until it’s too late.

“These rules are put there for one reason, and one reason alone,” says Rick Seaney, the chief executive of the Web site “To maximize revenue.”

Of the 25 rule categories in the tariff, Seaney says there’s one every passenger should pay attention to before buying a ticket: category 16, which covers cancellations and changes.

To be fair, airlines and online travel agents do reveal some of the rules at the time of booking. But not always the way they ought to. Sometimes there’s a summary that glosses over key details, or you have to click on a link for more information, or the rules are written in UPPERCASE which is a big turnoff because people think YOU’RE YELLING!

Here are six of the worst ticket rules that could affect your next trip:

Cancel anytime – not!
Ticket tariffs are often contradictory. For example, here’s one called the “CANCELLATIONS ANY TIME TICKET.” You would think such a ticket would be cancelable any time at no additional cost, right? But you’d be wrong. The fine print says you’ll be charged a change fee. And if you happen to miss the flight because of unforeseen circumstances, you’re out of luck. The ticket’s no good, and you have to buy a new one: “NO CHANGES OR REFUNDS PERMITTED FOR A PASSENGER WHO NO-SHOWS,” the rule says. The fare also doesn’t allow for any upgrades on the day of departure. “I guess anytime doesn’t include the day of departure,” complained one airline insider who recently got snagged by this rule. “It’s terribly misleading.”

Even the dead have to pay fees.
When a passenger dies, airlines usually cut them a break. Sort of. Their next of kin can apply for a refund. But even in death, airlines have figured out how to make a little extra money. Check out this clause in one airline tariff: “NOTE — IN THE EVENT OF DEATH OF PASSENGER AN ADMINISTRATIVE SERVICE CHARGE OF USD 50.00 WILL BE ASSESSED IN ORDER TO PROCESS A REFUND.” The airline doesn’t want passengers to abuse this “perk” so it adds, “PROOF OF DEATH MAY BE REQUIRED.”

Once your trip starts, you’re locked in.
Airlines love to slip this little clause into the fine print: “NONREF/CHGFEEPLUSFAREDIF/CXL BY FLT TIME OR NOVALUE.” Translation: If you try to make a change to your ticket after the first leg of your flight, you lose the ticket. And you have to buy a brand-new one. “The entire ticket is garbage,” says Bonnie Sherman, a travel agent based in San Diego, Calif. Most air travelers aren’t aware of this restriction until they try to make a change. By then, it’s too late.

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The clock is already ticking on your ticket.
Think you have a year to use your ticket if you decide to make a change? Think again. “The large print says that if you cancel a non-refundable ticket you have a year to reuse it, pay a change fee, and pay any increase in the ticket price,” says Bill Saavedra, a retired aerospace engineer who lives in Silver Spring, Md. “That’s wrong.” The small print actually says: “WHOLLY UNUSED TICKETS ARE VALID PROVIDED TRAVEL COMMENCES WITHIN ONE YEAR FROM THE ORIGINAL TICKET ISSUE DATE.” In other words, you have a lot less time to use your ticket than you think.

Here’s your nonexistent refund
If you buy a ticket, some tariffs promise a refund under certain conditions. You might find something in the fine print that says if a decrease occurs after a ticket is bought, “THE DIFFERENCE IN FARE MAY BE CREDITED.” The operative word here is “may.” Some airlines will charge a change fee and will issue the balance as vouchers, which is not at all what you would have expected. Bottom line: Don’t just read the tariff, but review the airline’s policies which can contradict or invalidate its rules.

So much for family values.
Bereavement fares, which are special tickets for family members of people when travel is due to “the death or imminent death” of a relative, are said to be on the verge of extinction. But they haven’t expired yet. There’s a catch, though. Airlines take it upon themselves to define what family is — and isn’t. The death in question must be of an immediate family member, which it says is a “SPOUSE/COMMON LAW-SAME SEX, CHILD/ADOPTED, STEP- GRAND- GREAT GRAND- LEGAL INLAW, COMMON IN LAW, DAUGHTER/SON/MOTHER/FATHER/LEGAL, INLAW, COMMON INLAW.” Did they leave anyone out? Well, yes. I wouldn’t be able to attend the funeral of my niece, nephew, aunt, uncle or godfather under this relatively narrow definition. Thanks for nothing.

Surprisingly, these are not exteme examples. For instance, look beyond the ticket tariff and at the commonly viewed and heavily trafficked Web site “The word ‘charge’ is mentioned 60,000 times [on the site],” says Seaney. “‘Collect’ is mentioned 25,000 times and ‘fee’ is mentioned 32,000 times.”

“And the more times they encounter a ‘charge’ and ‘collect’ in the rules, the angrier passengers become. That’s the real cost of the fine print to airlines, says Garth Corey, a consultant in Albuquerque, N.M. It’s customers like him who got burned by the rules and took their business somewhere else. “The airlines that do this will pay for their arrogance,” he says.

Every Monday, my column takes a close look at what makes the travel business tick. Your comments are always welcome, and if you can’t get enough of my column, drop by my blog for daily insights into the world of travel.

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