Q: I recently flew from Philadelphia to Tampa, Fla., with my family on US Airways. When we checked in, we found the flight overbooked by 13 passengers and the airline needed volunteers to take a flight the next morning. In exchange, they offered vouchers for flights anywhere in the United States.
I asked if we could use these vouchers to go out West during the holidays and the agents at the desk said that if we called in advance, it wouldn’t be a problem. I mentioned to them that we’d had trouble securing award tickets for that trip, but they told me these tickets weren’t the same, and that there were no blackout dates on them.
So we volunteered to take the next flight. We were sent to a hotel in a bad neighborhood, where we were afraid to leave the room to get something to eat. The sheets on our bed were so dirty that we slept in our clothes.
When we got home, I called US Airways to see if I could make flight arrangements from Tampa to Vancouver in December. It turns out there was no availability for voucher travel on those days.
I feel that I have been duped and my family taken advantage of by an airline that intentionally overbooked a flight. Can you help?
— James Alver, Tampa
A: If an airline representative told you that getting tickets to Vancouver wouldn’t be a problem, but you’re having a problem, then I would say there’s definitely a problem.
Did US Airways intentionally overbook your flight? You bet. Most major airlines do.
Air carriers run sophisticated programs that manage their seat inventory. These so-called “yield management” systems try to predict how many ticketed passengers will actually show up for a flight. Sometimes they get it wrong and allow more seats to be sold than exist on a plane.
For an airline, it’s a real balancing act. Sell too few seats and you’re unprofitable. Sell too many and you have to compensate bumped passengers with plane tickets and hotel rooms.
That would probably explain the substandard hotel, if not the semi-useless vouchers. But it wouldn’t account for the employee who promised you that the vouchers were easy to redeem. The person who told you that you could fly to Vancouver a few days before Christmas with these vouchers had to have known better.
You should have, too. What the US Airways agent told you was just too good to be true. And in travel, when you hear something that’s too good to be true, it probably is. You should have asked for details about the vouchers before agreeing to anything.
The terms and conditions of your vouchers are clear. There are blackout dates and other significant restrictions. If you had taken the time to read the terms, then you could have avoided that unpleasant extra night in Philadelphia.
I contacted US Airways on your behalf, and it took another look at your case. A representative acknowledged that the terms of your voucher “were not clearly communicated to you,” and offered to swap your current vouchers for coupons worth $200 — redeemable for any flight.
Christopher Elliot is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or troubleshoot your trip through his Web site,