By Travel columnist
updated 5/9/2005 5:21:03 PM ET 2005-05-09T21:21:03

First Doug Marek’s plane from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., is delayed. Then he misses his connection to Aspen, Colo. Then he hits an elk on the drive to the ski resort. Then his luggage goes missing and is eventually lost. Talk about the ski trip from hell. The question is, what does United owe him for the mess? Free tickets? Vouchers? Or cash for the lost luggage? Find out.

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Q: My friend and I were scheduled to fly to Aspen, Colo., from Fort Lauderdale for a ski vacation recently. Our outbound flight to Denver boarded on time, but then we sat at the gate for more than an hour.

The flight attendants and the pilot made several announcements that the reason for the delay was that they were having trouble filling the water tanks on the plane. We were also repeatedly assured that if the delay caused any passengers to miss connecting flights, United would take care of us in Denver.

It didn’t. We missed the last flight to Aspen, and when we went to the service counter for help, an agent told us that all of the next day’s flights were overbooked. Not only that, but her computer now showed our flight from Fort Lauderdale was delayed because of weather – meaning there would be no hotel, refunds or even an overnight kit.

Fortunately, our baggage had made the connecting flight, and we were told that our belongings would be waiting for us in Aspen.

We decided that instead of taking our chances on getting on a flight the next day, we would try to get to Aspen that night (we were paying for a condo whether we used it or not). We were able to get on the 10 p.m. Colorado Mountain Express shuttle, which cost $106 each, for the four-hour drive to Aspen.

A little more than three hours into the drive, two elk jumped in front of the van. We hit both of them. One ran off, but the other one fell over and eventually died. The police came and we had to help drag the now dead elk off of the road so that coyotes wouldn’t eat on the road and be struck by other vehicles.

The next morning we waited for our luggage to be delivered. When it didn’t show up by 11 a.m., I called baggage services again and waited for an hour on hold, before I was again assured that our luggage would be delivered shortly. After four days of repeated phone calls to the airline, we were told to file a lost luggage claim.

We never saw our luggage again.

When we arrived in Fort Lauderdale, we filled out the lost luggage forms (by the way, the agent commented that she remembered our outbound flight because “it was the one that they couldn’t load water.”)

Since returning, I’ve attempted to contact United repeatedly for our luggage and compensation for the flights. United sent us two coupons good for $100 off future flights and offered a refund of the $85 each for the flight that we didn’t make from Denver to Aspen. But we haven’t gotten anything for our luggage. Can you help me?

— Doug MarekPalm Beach, Fla.

A: Wow, talk about a ski trip from hell.

There are actually three separate issues here. First, there is the question of a mechanical delay versus weather delay. Under United’s Contract of Carriage — that’s the agreement between you and the airline — you would be entitled to compensation for a problem related to loading the water tanks. But if thunderstorms delay your plane in Fort Lauderdale, all bets would be off.

United’s computer showed your delay was weather-related. If the Denver customer-service agent had bothered to make some inquiries, she would have quickly established that your delay was mechanical, and you would have at least covered your hotel expenses and offered you a meal voucher.

Second, there’s the elk thing. That’s just bad luck. And you seem to have had a lot of that on your trip. The best I can hope for is that your luck will change and that you’ll win big on your next Vegas vacation. (But that’s beyond the scope of my influence, unfortunately.)

Third, the luggage. United really dropped the proverbial ball — or should I say, bag? — for you. But generally speaking, I wouldn’t say the carrier was any more negligent than its competitors. In fact, according to the Department of Transportation, United misplaced 5.78 bags per 1,000 during the month that you traveled, which is actually below the industry average of 7.88 per 1,000.

However, under United’s contract you are owed compensation of up to $2,800 per passenger for lost or damaged luggage. And it seems that even though the airline compensated you for the flight you couldn’t take, it should still process your luggage claim.

I’m not sure if United planned to deny your luggage claim or not. But after I shared your sad story with my airline contact, it promptly cut you a check for $4,200, which in my experience is a pretty generous settlement.

Personally, I don’t think it was my involvement, or the delay or even the lost luggage, that made United pay up. I think it was the elk. No one should have to do that on their ski vacation.

Christopher Elliott is National Geographic Traveler's ombudsman and a nationally syndicated columnist who specializes in solving your travel problems. Got a trip that needs fixing? Send him a note or visit his Web site. Your question may be published in a future story. Want to sound off about a story? Try visiting Elliott's forum.

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