11:00 AM EDT, September 8, 2013
Question: My husband flew to Denver to participate in a bicycle trip around Yellowstone Park. The round-trip airfare was $422. He suffered a fracture of the pelvis. To get him home from Cody, Wyo., the airline charged us a total of $1,362. I am so stunned that I don't quite know what to say. To me this is a total rip-off, and I really need someone to explain to me why this is OK.
Anne L. Stowell
Answer: I can explain why this happened, but I cannot explain why it's OK unless I channel the greedmeisters at many U.S. airlines.
Here's the explanation for the what happened: Her ailing husband ran headlong into the disharmonious convergence of flying out of a regional airport and having to make last-minute airfare arrangements.
Flying out of smaller airports tends to be more expensive because there's less competition.
For instance, if I were to buy a round-trip ticket to Denver an optimal 45 days ahead of time, for an Oct. 23 departure, I would be looking at fares from $178. If I were buying it the day after I wrote this column, which was Aug. 31, the best fare would be $368.
Now let's look at Cody, Wyo. (Cody-Yellowstone). Best fare 45 days in advance: $264 with a stop. Best fare on Aug. 31: $706, with a stop. Cody, by the way, is almost 500 miles from Denver.
The situation was similar for another couple who wrote to me about the same time as Stowell. They flew out of Ontario to Richmond, Va., which is about 90 miles south of Washington, D.C., and needed to come home because of a medical emergency. Their combined tickets home cost them more than $1,500.
Besides the curse of a regional, less-fare-competitive market, the cost "is definitely related to the difference between leisure and business rates," said Rick Seaney, chief executive of Farecompare.com, which tracks airfare trends.
"Airline ticket pricing is typically based on advance purchase," he said. "But if you're buying at the last minute, the expectation is that your boss is paying for your ticket and can afford three or four times the fare."
When you change a ticket, you sometimes get tagged for the difference between what you paid and the new fare — plus a big, fat change fee (as much as $200 for a domestic ticket). Now you're in a world of hurt.
What, if anything, could have been done? One unexpected suggestion from Seaney: Be sure to ask about the cost of a first-class ticket. Sometimes it's less expensive.
Failing that, George Hobica, founder of Airfarewatchdog.com, which specializes in finding low fares, said your first move might be to throw yourself on the mercy of the airline. That, of course, would suggest that the airline doesn't have a "one size fits all" mentality. Some customer service reps can see beyond the rule book; others would rather not bend the rules, which is a nice way of saying they wouldn't have been A students in the customer-service class at the last minute.
If or when that fails, you may be stuck. But next time — if there is a next time — you might consider buying evacuation insurance. (Stowell says her husband is athletic and enjoys biking.) MedJet is probably the best-known service in the field, though not the only one. Besides short-term policies that cover the length of a trip, it offers a domestic policy for $185 that covers you for a year in the 48 contiguous states.
If you have a medical issue more than 150 miles from home, MedJet will take you to your local home hospital. These policies are offered for travelers younger than 75. Others are available for those older than 75.
"If you have a medical condition or prone to accidents or you're hiking or biking, it's a nice little insurance policy to have," said Hobica, who bought one of the longer-term policies.
Some travelers believe that anticipating trouble is asking for it. Worry, they believe, is just a prayer that something bad will happen. Maybe. But something worse that can happen is getting gouged for changing an airline ticket because you didn't plan your medical emergency. That, my friends, just adds insult to injury.
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