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On the Spot: Family emergency prompts costly flight change

When a ticket change from Expedia for Lufthansa costs more than the original fare, a customer goes to another airline. Can he recoup anything?

April 10, 2011|By Catharine Hamm, Los Angeles Times
  • On the Spot: A costly switch
On the Spot: A costly switch (Robert Neubecker / For The…)

Question: My wife's family lives in Poland. In February, we learned that her father had cancer, so she wanted to visit him. On Feb. 17, I bought a ticket through Expedia for a Feb. 25 Lufthansa flight. On Feb. 21, her family called to say he was deteriorating rapidly. In a panic, I called Lufthansa to try to change the ticket. Lufthansa said I should contact Expedia, but the Expedia agent told me it would be $1,200 more (including a $250 rebooking fee) for a ticket that originally cost me $816. It was cheaper to buy another round-trip ticket on another airline. I didn't cancel my original ticket. Is there any way I can recoup some of the money for the original ticket?

Casey Suchorabski

Bridgeview, Ill.

Answer: Airline travel and emergencies are not good bedfellows, so it seems doubtful, given this response from Jessi Grandinetti, manager, Expedia.com customer operations, that Suchorabski will see a credit for this ticket, never mind the money: "Cancellation and change policies are 100% dictated by the airline. The great majority of airlines do not allow credit for future use on an unused ticket if it is not canceled prior to travel. If it is not canceled prior to travel, the airline will often change the ticket status to 'no show,' and in those instances the ticket no longer has any value."

But George Hobica, of Airfarewatchdog.com, offered a ray of hope. "Whatever the airline's official policy, there's always the case-by-case basis," he said. Grandinetti concurred: "It's important for our customers to call us and allow us the opportunity to call the airline and advocate on their behalf, as sometimes airlines make rare exceptions." Although Suchorabski wasn't overwhelmed by the customer service he received from Expedia, that could be one last avenue to pursue.

If you find yourself in such a situation, know that many airlines have compassion or bereavement fares (Lufthansa is one of them) that offer some scheduling flexibility without the harshest penalties, but the price probably won't be as good as you might get on a low-cost, nonrefundable fare (which is what Suchorabski bought). For example, on Monday, I looked at a round-trip LAX-Frankfurt, Germany, fare on Lufthansa, leaving Monday, April 11, and returning April 20 and found a fare of $926. When I called Lufthansa to ask about a bereavement fare, the agent quoted me a fare of $1,305. If I needed a change, there was a $250 fee, but he said they would "see what we can do" because it was a bereavement fare. Also, Lufthansa required no documentation. Other airlines do; check websites or call directly. (You can find the list of airlines serving LAX at latimes.com/ultimateguide2011.)

Suchorabski acknowledged that he wasn't experienced at the travel game and was under duress to get his wife home before her father's death. (She made it.) Not all stress is bad, of course. "Essentially the scientific literature can't decide whether stress enhances or degrades performance," said Jeffrey Janata, an associate professor of psychiatry at University Hospitals Case Medical Center in Cleveland.

Scientific literature aside, I can say that dealing with travel providers doesn't fall into the performance-enhancing category — at least, not in my experience. If something stresses you, Janata suggested trying to "think our way through [the issue] and even try rehearsing" what you might say. And don't feel compelled to rush, he said. "Pause long enough to marshal your thoughts."

Hard to do in the swirl of crisis, but it helps you maintain a greater sense of control. That's a good companion to have when the world is too much with you.

Have a travel dilemma? Write to travel@latimes.com. We regret we cannot answer every inquiry.

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