By Christopher Elliott Travel columnist
Tribune Media Services
updated 2/14/2008 9:20:01 AM ET 2008-02-14T14:20:01
TRAVEL TROUBLESHOOTER

Q: I’ve been trying to get a refund for two unused international airline tickets from United Airlines for the last nine months, without success. I could use a hand.

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My wife and I wanted to celebrate our 50th wedding anniversary with a trip to Russia and Finland last year. I booked the airline tickets directly through United Airlines and paid $5,964. When I made the reservation, I asked about United’s cancellation policy and was told that if I decided to change my plans, I had a year to make a new reservation after paying a change fee.

Several months later, we sold our home and moved to Tucson, so we postponed our trip to Europe and eventually made new reservations. But as it turns out, we couldn’t make that trip, either. My wife had to be hospitalized shortly after we rebooked the tickets. She died a few days later.

I’ve asked United for a refund and have provided it with documentation of my wife’s death. It has sent me two flight certificates for the domestic portion of the trip, but has denied my request for a refund. I believe I’ve complied with all of United’s rules. Anything you can do would be greatly appreciated.
— Robert Maddocks, Tucson, Ariz.

A: I’m sorry to hear about your wife’s passing. When something tragic happens to one of its customers, you expect an airline to act in a compassionate way. But nine months of stonewalling and a series of “nos” is not compassionate. It’s callous.

While it’s true that most airline tickets are nonrefundable, airlines generally have exceptions for the death of a passenger. I can’t believe United sent you flight certificates. That suggests someone in the refunds department didn’t bother to read your letter. The airline should have refunded your money quickly.

But you could have probably avoided this nine-month odyssey, too. If you had to ask about United’s cancellation policy when you made your reservation, it probably means you were entertaining the possibility of postponing your trip. Why not buy travel insurance? Some policies allow you to cancel your trip for any reason and get a full refund.

You might have also considered booking your trip through a travel agent. A competent travel adviser might have found an air-inclusive package that would have saved you money. Plus, you would have been able to call on that agent when you were changing your tickets and then asking for a refund. Self-booking is fine for simple itineraries. But a 50th anniversary trip to Europe is unlikely to be a simple itinerary.

When it came to dealing with United, it’s obvious you were getting the runaround from lower-level employees who were probably just following protocol. I list the names, numbers and e-mail addresses of several high-level customer service executives at United and other major carriers on my Web site. I also offer important tips on how to get what you deserve during a dispute.

As I reviewed your correspondence with United, I think you might have done a few things differently. Airlines are responsive to short, polite letters. Your correspondence tended to be lengthy. Not everyone reads the entire e-mail — in fact, customer service agents often decide on a response after reading just the first few sentences of a complaint letter.

I contacted United on your behalf and the airline refunded both of your airline tickets.

Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine and the host of “What You Get For The Money: Vacations” on the Fine Living Network. E-mail him at celliott@ngs.org.

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