Q: We took our two young boys on their first plane trip to Colorado for my 40th birthday. My husband wanted to celebrate with a trip, so we booked tickets with Spirit Airlines.

Our overall experience with the airline went well. However, on our return home, the plane from Denver to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., was full. When we checked in, the ticket agent asked us if we would be willing to give up our seats. As an incentive, the airline offered us a flight out the next day, a hotel for the night, a $28 voucher for dinner at the airport and a free flight for all of us, anywhere that Spirit flies, as long as we book the flight within 60 days of issuance of the vouchers.

My husband and I were so thrilled to be offered a free flight. We accepted with no hesitation.

We have contacted the airline on at least six occasions by phone and even have gone to the airport to try to utilize our vouchers. The most recent attempt, I was on the phone with an agent for two hours trying to book a date and a destination.

Every date and destination that was worth a trip, given the children’s school schedules, was blacked out. We tried everything. The only opportunity was a weekend trip to Boston, and then when I went to book it, the taxes were over $600. I was so upset and felt completely duped by these supposed “free” tickets.

I wrote a letter to Spirit, and the airline responded with new vouchers with an extension on the booking date. I was met then with the same limitations and frustrations as before, and have had no resolution. We were basically fooled. I don’t feel that the airline should have told us that we got free tickets anywhere it flies and then not honor them.

 

A: Spirit should have warned you that seats were subject to availability, and that you would have to pay taxes on the fare.

Most airline vouchers last a full year, not two months, which means Spirit’s vouchers may be difficult to use. That’s something you should have carefully considered before accepting the offer.

Let’s talk about overbooking for a second. Virtually every airline sells more seats than it has available, expecting that some passengers won’t show up. But when everyone does, airlines have to start asking for volunteers.

Here’s a tip: Don’t take the first offer. Under federal law, if you’re involuntarily denied boarding, you’re entitled to cash and a seat on the next available flight. And that cash can easily be turned into an airline ticket.

By the way, Spirit should never use the word “free” to describe the vouchers you received. If you have to pay money to use it, then it isn’t free.

I contacted Spirit on your behalf, and it worked with you to find an available flight for your family.

 

Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine. Read more tips on his blog, elliott.org, or e-mail him at chris@elliott.org.