Although the big Thanksgiving storm didn't disrupt air travel as much as many expected, a lot of travelers were still inconvenienced -- some seriously, some only slightly. And although that storm is history, winter is just beginning, and you may well face similar situations, somewhere in the country, over the next three to four months. So in advance of any immediate threats, you may well want to consider what happens -- and what rights you have -- when an airline announces massive pre-emptive cancellations in advance of a storm.
Pre-emptive cancellations are increasingly frequent as airlines strive to manage their planes and flight personnel more efficiently -- and to avoid the huge fines they pay if they strand you on the tarmac for more than three hours. Airlines establish their advance cancellations on an ad-hoc basis -- not fixed rules -- and policies vary in important details. Moreover, although you have a right to a full refund, with no penalty, airlines vary in their approach when you want to rebook your canceled ticket without either a change penalty or an increase in fare. Here's how they are likely to react if future cancellations follow the Thanksgiving storm pattern:
Dates covered: Most advance cancellations applied to flights on either the one day or two days when the storm was expected to hit the affected area.
Rebooking dates: Typically, you had to arrange your replacement seat within 24 hours of the cancellation to avoid a ticket change fee.
Alternative flight dates: The travel "window" for no-fee, no fare-change alternative flights varied a lot. Some lines allowed you to fly a day before the cancellations; others didn't. Some limited your replacement trip to as short as two days after the cancellations; others gave you up to four days.
Fare guarantee: Some lines, including JetBlue, guaranteed a replacement seat without a fare difference, but American, Delta and United did not. American specifically required that, over Thanksgiving, replacement seats must be in the same "inventory," meaning that if your original fare was in one of the lowest fare categories, you had to find a replacement seat in the same low-fare category -- which could be impossible over a busy holiday.
Alternative destination: If you were flying to or from a metro area with multiple airports, such as Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco or Washington, you could book a replacement seat in/out of any of those area airports. But you couldn't switch to a nearby different destination city -- Milwaukee for Chicago, for example, or Philadelphia for New York -- without paying a change fee and a fare difference.
Round-trip tickets: If your canceled flight was the return portion of a round trip, you could reschedule without fees or extra fare within the airline's stated limits. But if your canceled flight was the outbound portion of a round trip, and your return date fell outside the rebooking window, you could face penalties if you wanted to delay your return. Most airline fine print was silent on this point, but US Airways told me that, for example, if you had a canceled Washington-Boston round-trip ticket leaving on Nov. 26 and returning on Dec. 2, and the best replacement outbound seat you could find was on Dec. 1, you could not extend your stay past that date without paying a change fee.
Hotels: If you prepaid a nonrefundable hotel room -- through Hotwire or Priceline, for example -- each hotel decides whether to allow you to change dates without forfeiting your prepayment. Both Hotwire and Priceline told me that if you call, their customer service agents will try to negotiate something for you, but with no promises. Both agencies also recommend buying travel insurance.
As for planning a future winter trip, Southwest's no-change-fee policy and JetBlue's relatively lenient requirements add to the many good reasons to favor these lines. But even on Southwest you might face a fare change on a replacement flight.
(Send e-mail to Ed Perkins at firstname.lastname@example.org. Perkins' new book for small business and independent professionals, "Business Travel When It's Your Money," is now available through http://www.mybusinesstravel.com or http://www.amazon.com)
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