The Airlines’ Unpublicized “Price Match Guarantee”

07/07/2009 | Permalink
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It's happening more and more these days: You buy your ticket and then the airline drops the fare. Here's how to get a refund on the difference (and what to watch out for when you do.)

It once was practically a law of physics that the earlier you booked a flight, the better the price you got.

This made great sense ... to the airlines. They knew that people naturally procrastinate and that business travelers often fly at the last minute. They maximized financial yield by riding those two trends.

Over the last year, however, that canon was turned on its head. With the economy souring, planes began leaving with empty seats, as business fell faster than the carriers could cut capacity. This was especially apparent during holiday times when families bought movie tickets instead of plane tickets and made their holiday visit to Grandma via Webcam.

As a consequence, last minute fares were slashed. And suddenly early bird buyers found late bookers getting a better deal than they did. To say many weren't happy was putting it mildly.

If you find yourself in that situation, take heart. There is a solution:

Refaring, Anyone?

The airlines don't publicize it, but many majors, and especially the legacy lines, have a "refaring" policy much like the price match guarantee offered in electronics stores. If you find a lower price after you've bought your ticket, the airline will refund the difference. However, the way that's done in practice varies by the carrier.

To get such a refund, the general rule is that you need to have purchased from the airline itself, either by phone or Web, or through a travel agent. (Online services such as Travelocity or Orbitz have their own policies.) Refund requests can be made either by phone or via the airline's Web site.

Look Out for Change Fees

The form of your refund also differs. Most airlines issue a voucher for future travel, but one refunds on your credit card. Also, some charge a change fee, which can be significant. Here's a summary of their policies:

Southwest: Once again the leader in pleasing the passenger. Refund is returned to your credit card, no change fee.

American, Delta, Continental, Northwest, US Airways: Voucher issued, but a change fee is charged. American's is a whopping $150.

United, Alaska, JetBlue: Voucher is issued, but there's no change fee.

AirTran, Frontier, Spirit, Virgin America: You're out of luck on these bargain carriers. No refund generally, though Virgin does allow cancellation of the original ticket and rebooking without a change fee, if the switch is made within 24 hours.

Given the size of some change fees (i.e. American), fliers should consider whether chasing a refund is worth the trouble. "For me, it's only worth it if I'm going to get at least a $100 voucher," says traveler Greg Davis, quoted in the Washington Times. But another traveler, Rich Szulewski, quoted in USA Today, found he saved $375 on his three-ticket purchase, even after Northwest's $50 per ticket change fee.

Transatlantic passengers might do the best on refunds as swings in currency exchange rates magnify their savings. "Some of the biggest fare drops have occurred on tickets originating in Europe, but issued in the United States" reports Times "On the Fly" columnist Nicholas Kralev. These tickets "are converted in U.S. dollars before issuance, and the dollar is [now] much stronger."

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