Five Things You Don't Know About Your Airline Ticket
You probably think of your airline ticket as nothing more than that: A piece of paper that gets you onboard a plane and onward to your destination. But that simple definition belies the complex rules and restrictions hiding in the fine print. You're better off thinking of your ticket as a contract, thick with legalese and subtitles, between you and your airline.
Here are five things you may not know about your airline ticket, and the ways in which they can have a major impact on your travels. Some of this might seem obvious at first glance, but the devil is in the details. (Editor's note: Delta's contract of carriage is used extensively in the following text, but this should not be taken as an indictment of Delta. All airline contracts of carriage are virtually identical.)
You Aren't Guaranteed Travel. Early on in Delta's contract of carriage, one finds this disconcerting bit of text:
Rule 3: Schedules and Operations
Delta will use its best efforts to carry the passenger and baggage with reasonable dispatch. Times shown in timetables or elsewhere are not guaranteed and form no part of this contract. Delta may without notice substitute alternate carriers or aircraft, and may alter or omit stopping places shown on the ticket in case of necessity. Schedules are subject to change without notice. Delta is not responsible or liable for making connections, or for failing to operate any flight according to schedule, or for changing the schedule or any flight.
Taken at face value, this makes the so-called contract between you and Delta seem rather ... not guaranteed. Now, this comes early in the contract, and much that follows describes how Delta will (or will not) deal with many of the circumstances mentioned here. Still, the basic gist of this paragraph is true, as most travelers can attest: Don't believe you're going somewhere until you get there. The takeaway is that you should always prepare for the worst, and make sure you know how to contact the airline and any other providers, such as a hotel or cruise line, where reservations could be disrupted by flight troubles.
You Aren't Guaranteed a Seat. One of the circumstances alluded to above is overbooking, that irritating industry practice of selling more tickets than there are available seats because, in Delta's words, "passengers with confirmed reservations on a flight sometimes fail to show." At this point, it's fair to wonder why it isn't adequate to simply sell all the seats on a given flight, and why airlines are allowed to sell more seats than they have. But the unfortunate fact is that they can, and often do. Can you imagine showing up to a baseball game with tickets in hand, only to be told the game was overbooked?
The result is bumped passengers, some of them voluntary and some of them not. The Department of Transportation (DOT) requires airlines to provide compensation and alternate travel for both voluntary and involuntary bumpees.
You Can Be Kicked Off a Plane. We've covered this before, but it's worth mentioning again that there are several ways passengers can get themselves kicked off a plane. Barefoot passengers, drunk and/or abusive passengers, foul-smelling passengers, or passengers who refuse to buckle their seat belt can all be removed from the plane. Passengers who refuse to comply with security searches, whose border crossing papers are inadequate, and who fail to provide identification may never make it on in the first place.
Most reasonable people won't ever find themselves forced off a plane, but it does happen. Every few months we hear about a mother with children or an overweight passenger who is escorted off a plane in a humiliating spectacle. We'd all like to think it could never happen to us, but just in case, it's useful to recognize the various boundaries that could, perhaps unwittingly, be crossed.
You Can Get a Refund, Sort of. There are two kinds of refunds, voluntary and involuntary. Voluntary refunds apply only to refundable tickets, and amount to the full value of an unused ticket or a prorated portion of a partially used ticket. However, even nonrefundable tickets can be refunded under certain circumstances.
Basically, if an airline cancels your flight, or kicks you off for one of the reasons listed above, you're eligible for a refund or some other form of compensation. Force majeure events, cancellations due to mechanical issues, and schedule irregularities that result in canceled flights are all cases where airlines are required to provide a refund or credit toward travel at a later date. Often the airline will encourage you to accept a flight credit rather than forfeit cash, but it's generally up to the customer.
Changes in schedule can result in a refund as well, though in these cases you have less control over whether or not a refund is issued. If the airline thinks it can reroute you in a reasonable manner, it will do so. Of course, your idea of "reasonable" may be quite different, and in that case politely requesting a refund in lieu of a long, pointless flight might be wise.
Your Ticket is Not Transferable. Unlike those baseball tickets mentioned above, you can't resell your airline ticket. Why? The industry says it's for security reasons: Who's to say you're not buying the ticket for someone on the no-fly list? It could also be argued that the rule is all about forcing you to buy new tickets when you simply want to give a ticket you've bought to someone else. Heck, even fixing a typo in the name on a ticket can be a tedious process, and will typically cost $100 or more.
But with all this non-transferability, you might assume that lost tickets aren't that big of a deal. Say you leave your ticket behind at an airport bar—it's not like anyone else can use it, right? Unfortunately, airlines don't really care if you lose your ticket, and if someone did try to use your lost ticket, the airline will just confiscate it and likely offer you nothing. With unused tickets, most airlines simply require you to purchase a new ticket to replace the lost one. Some, like Delta, will reissue a partially used ticket for a $100 fee.