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Today, I want to share a story from TPG reader Heidi, who got stuck with an extra stop on her flight after misunderstanding the cancellation policy. Here’s what she had to say:
I was recently planning a last-minute trip to Asia, and spent a few days watching airfare as I figured out my plans. During that time, the $620 non-stop SFO-PEK United flight I had my eye on shot up to $800, so feeling a bit panicked I booked a flight on Hainan Airlines with a connection in LAS for $470. I figured I could always cancel if the United flight went back down in price within 24 hours, which is exactly what happened later that day.
Avoiding the stress of connecting and being able to fly with a familiar airline is worth $150 to me, so I called Hainan to cancel. Unfortunately, I learned their free cancellation policy only applies more than seven days before the flight, and I had missed that deadline by only a few hours!
I thought I’d still be protected by DOT regulations, so I hung up and did some research, thinking I could send a copy of the regulation to Hainan along with my cancellation request. Only then did I realize that the DOT 24-hour cancellation policy also only applies to flights booked seven days or more before departure. After some back and forth with Hainan, I was told I’d have to pay a $450 fee to change my flight, so I gave up and kept it.
I really felt my mistake on the day of departure, when I got to the airport and found out my flight to Las Vegas was canceled, and the Virgin America staff couldn’t help me since I hadn’t booked with them. After calling Hainan and being transferred several times, I was told they could rebook me on a United flight if I emailed them a photo of the airport departures screen showing my flight was canceled. I found that pretty odd, but I eventually got my confirmation just a few minutes before check-in closed. Luckily I made that flight and my connection in Las Vegas without an issue.
In the end all my mistake cost me was unnecessary stress and some additional travel time, but it was a reminder to double check airline cancellation policies before booking. It also reinforced that customer service makes a big difference when things go wrong, and paying more for that can be worthwhile.
The Department of Transportation’s 24-hour cancellation policy is a valuable asset for anyone flying in the US. It’s handy if your plans are uncertain, when you want to jump on a heavily discounted fare, or just to remedy any mistakes made during booking, as you’re entitled to a full refund within that period. The policy makes an exception for flights booked less than seven days in advance, but many airlines go beyond the DOT requirements and don’t penalize you for canceling closer to departure. As Heidi pointed out, it’s a good idea to verify your airline’s policy before you buy, and the same goes for hotel bookings.
Heidi’s other point is also helpful: Don’t underestimate the value of quality customer service, especially when you’re traveling abroad or on a complex itinerary. A major carrier with a global network and operational redundancy is better equipped to accommodate you when things go wrong. That said, low-cost carriers often rate highly in customer satisfaction, so don’t assume legacy airlines offer inherently superior customer service.
I appreciate this story, and I hope it can help other readers avoid making the same mistake. To thank Heidi for sharing her experience (and for allowing me to post it online), I’m sending her a $200 airline gift card to enjoy on future travels, and I’d like to do the same for you. Please email your own travel mistake stories to firstname.lastname@example.org, and put “Reader Mistake Story” in the subject line. Tell us how things went wrong, and (where applicable) how you made them right. Offer any wisdom you gained from the experience, and explain what the rest of us can do to avoid the same pitfalls.
Feel free to also submit your best travel success stories. If your story is published in either case, I’ll send you a gift to jump-start your next adventure. I look forward to hearing from you, and until then, I wish you a safe and mistake-free journey!
Featured image of Rome courtesy of Stephan Zirwes via Getty Images.
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