Q: I have an extremely complicated situation involving an airline ticket. Basically, circumstances beyond my control caused me to miss a flight and rebook another, and the airline refuses to refund me. I’m hoping you can help me get the refund I deserve.
From July 2014 to November 2014, I volunteered for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) at Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge, one of the most remote islands in the world. Midway is accessible only by chartered flights from Honolulu, which run once every two or three weeks. Volunteers are expected to get to Honolulu on their own, and then FWS arranges to fly them to Midway and back.
I knew the exact time period I would be on Midway, so I booked a four-part, round-trip ticket through a travel agency from Baltimore to Honolulu with a stop in Los Angeles. Then, four months later, from Honolulu back to Baltimore via Seattle. On my return trip, I had built in a five-day layover in Seattle. The ticket was purchased from United, although the return flights were on Alaska Airlines.
My return flight from Midway to Honolulu was delayed five days, causing me to miss my flight from Honolulu to Seattle. I called United to let it know I would miss my leg from Honolulu to Seattle and that I planned to buy a one-way ticket from Honolulu to Seattle.
But when I got to Seattle, my travel agent called to tell me that the portion of my ticket from Seattle to Baltimore had been canceled. So, I then had to purchase another one-way ticket from Seattle to Baltimore with a different carrier.
I contacted United, but it denied my refund, saying I was traveling on a restricted fare.
A: United is right, but the agent you spoke with when you called to cancel your ticket should have told you what would happen. When you miss one segment, an airline will cancel the entire trip. That’s an industry standard policy. If your ticket isn’t refundable, the airline gets to keep your fare.
If I’d made arrangements with United to catch the second leg of my return flight, I would have asked for written confirmation. Because — and you wouldn’t know this unless you’re an airline insider or a travel agent — the airline is going to cancel your entire flight.
I contacted United on your behalf. It agreed to issue a travel voucher equivalent to the value of the canceled flights. Thank you for your service.
Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine. Read more tips on his blog, elliott.org or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.