By Anita Dunham-Potter Travel columnist
updated 1/30/2009 9:57:39 AM ET 2009-01-30T14:57:39

On a seemingly perfect cruise, retirees Sol and Arline Bernstein set sail on a November Mediterranean cruise on Princess Cruises’ Grand Princess. The couple was celebrating Sol’s 80th birthday in grand fashion by touring Europe’s most famous sites from Rome to Istanbul.

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But it all came to an unceremonious end after two weeks at sea when bad weather forced Grand Princess to delay docking seven hours at Civitavecchia, Italy — Rome’s homeport. The West Palm Beach, Fla., couple boarded a bus to get them to Rome’s airport. But they arrived too late for their flight home and the Delta Air Lines representative told the couple it would cost them $250 per ticket in transfer fees, plus the fare difference to get on flights the following day. What was the fare difference? A whopping $1,414 per ticket. Tack on several hundred dollars to stay in Rome an extra day and the Bernsteins were looking at over $3,000 in added expenses to their trip.

“Good thing we have insurance,” thought Arline Bernstein, who purchased a policy when she booked the cruise with Princess. “We’ll get reimbursed.” Unfortunately, the Bernsteins found out that policies don’t always cover everything, particularly exorbitant airline fees.

Trip coverage
Last July when the Bernsteins purchased their Princess cruise, they also booked their non-refundable economy class tickets independently through Delta at a cost of $924 per person, including taxes. Additionally, the couple bought Princess’s “Princess Travel Care” plan, a travel insurance policy handled through BerkelyCare for $199 per person. The policy would cover a montage of items, including trip delays.

Princess stated the reason behind the late arrival in Civitavecchia was due to weather. This is considered an “Act of God” according to its passenger contract, which means that they owe passengers no compensation. The cruise line did reimburse the couple $150, the cost of the transfers to the airport and the Bernstein’s insurance kicked in for the trip delay, but that coverage only went up to $500 per person. While the $1,150 was something, they were still out over $2,000 due to the fare difference. “We are senior citizens and cannot afford this extra expense,” says Arline Bernstein.

The Bernsteins wrote to Delta Air Lines and pleaded their case. After hearing nothing, they contacted me to help.

Crazy fee
Travelers with nonrefundable tickets who miss their flights may be in for an expensive surprise when they arrive at the airport — a change fee, plus any fare increase. However, airlines, at their discretion, can put latecomers on standby for flights departing the same day without additional charges. The so-called “flat tire rule” allows for exceptions due to problems outside passengers’ control, such as a car breakdown, traffic accident, etc.

Travelers affected by weather may also get rebooking relief. According to airline employees I spoke with, the decision to waive the change fee is then made on a case-by-case basis. For travel outside the United States, Delta’s change fee is typically $250, but can vary based on location and type of fare.

The Bernsteins pleaded their case; unfortunately, they weren’t given much assistance by Delta. The couple was not given an option by the airline’s agents beyond ponying up the change fee and fare increase of $2,829 to get on another flight the following day. It’s unfortunate that agents didn’t take the time to explore more options with the couple. There may have been a less expensive alternative.

It’s a recipe for disaster: a stressed elderly couple in a foreign airport being financially pummeled by an airline they held reservations on. It’s just absurd to charge a 75 percent fare hike, plus a change fee.

I contacted Delta to see what they could do. I spoke with Betsy Talton, a manager in the airline’s media relations department. While she did not comment on the Bernstein case she noted that the airline’s fares are influenced by a number of factors which can include date and time of travel, as well as when a ticket is purchased. “Delta’s fares are competitive,” she said.

How a $924.21 ticket that mushrooms into a $2338.71 ticket can be deemed “competitive” is beyond me.

Protect yourself
For all intents and purposes, the Bernsteins did everything right. They purchased adequate travel insurance and documented their grievances with the cruise line and airline. Perhaps the couple should have pushed harder at the time with Delta and should have spoken with a supervisor who was empowered to waive fees and make rebooking decisions. They could have approached other airlines to see if they would work with them to get a lower fare. Maybe they should have padded their trip in the end to budget extra time just in case.

Unfortunately they are the victims of angry seas and a raw deal by Delta. I can only hope after reading this Delta reconsiders their plight.

Sound off! Do you have a comment, an idea, a complaint or a problem for Anita to solve?Send her an e-mailand you might find yourself in her next column. And check out her blog, ExpertCruiser.com.

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