Know your rights, and the rules, to avoid airline hassles on vacation

April 10, 2017, 11:31 AM · How can you get the best deal on the best flight to Orlando, or wherever your theme park travels take you? As with most things in travel, the key is to avoid a disaster, first, then work on getting better value for your money.

That disaster scenario is on many people's minds today, following the viral spread of a video showing United Airlines brutally removing a passenger who'd refused to give up his seat after the airline tried to bump him from his flight. Unlike most involuntary bumping, this passenger already was assigned a seat and had boarded the plane before the airline sought to deny him the seat for the flight.

What can you do to avoid getting in a bad situation with airline travel, especially at the airport when you're ready to fly? The obvious first answer is never to physically resist a request by an airline or airport employee or law enforcement or security personnel. Even if you're right and they're wrong, physical resistance immediately puts you in the wrong... and gets you really, really hurt. So don't do that.

The second answer is to come prepared for a worst-case scenario. Start by knowing your rights as an airline passenger. Everyone who flies in the United States should read and bookmark the U.S. Department of Transportation's Consumer Guide to Air Travel. This page offers great advice for finding the best airfares on the best flights to suit your needs. It also details your rights (or lack of them) if the airline delays or cancels your flight, or bumps you from a flight because it sold too many seats.

Basically, you have no rights to any compensation if your U.S. domestic flight is delayed or cancelled, beyond a refund of the ticket in case of cancellation without a rescheduled, replacement flight. In the United States, you are entitled to compensation only if you are bumped from a flight without your consent.

In that case, if the airline can get you to your final destination within an hour of your original arrival time, you are owed nothing. If you are delayed less than two hours, the airline must pay you 200% the price of your ticket segments to your final destination that day, up to $675. If you are delayed more than two hours, the airline must pay you 400% the price of your ticket segments, up to $1350. If you make alternate transportation to get to your destination instead of taking a later flight, you also are due a refund of the ticket, on top of the compensation.

Airlines can offer you whatever they want to entice you to voluntarily give up a seat you've bought and checked in to. But in all my years flying, I've never seen an airline offer passengers four times the airfare, in cash, plus a later flight. Airlines typically offer vouchers — not cash — and the use of vouchers often is so heavily restricted that passengers find they can't use them on any future flights they'd like to take before the vouchers expire. My advice? Never take the offered compensation to get bumped from a flight. You are owed more for that inconvenience.

Once you learn your rights, take the next step to protect yourself by knowing the rules you must follow to get onto your flight and your final destination. First, make sure that you are booking your ticket to the correct airport on the correct date. Don't be that guy who wants to fly to Sydney, Australia and ends up in Sydney, Canada.

If you are flying to a city with multiple airports, make sure you know which one your flight is for. Many times, cheaper tickets are for far-flung exurban airports many miles from the attractions you want to visit. If you have the extra time and can get a cheap ride in from that airport, those deals can be worth it. But be sure to factor in that expense when comparing airfares on flights that get you to a more convenient airport. Do the same when comparing flights that include free checked or carry-on bags with ones that will charge you for those. Consider on-time percentages for various flights, too. (That's covered on that excellent DOT page, linked above.) It's always better to fly early in the day, and on non-stop flights, to minimize the chance for delays.

Once you are ticketed, every airline has multiple deadlines you must meet before allowing you admission to its airplane. First, you must check in for your flight by a specified time before its scheduled departure. If you are checking bags, you must present them to the baggage counter by a certain time. And you must by physically present at the gate and be ready to board by a certain time — typically 10-30 minutes — before your flight is scheduled to leave. All of these deadlines will be written somewhere on your confirmation after you buy a ticket.

None of these deadlines are negotiable, and if you miss them, the airline can call you a no-show and cancel your ticket. Avoid that disaster by checking in for your flight online — you can do this up to 24 hours in advance, so you've got no excuse. Then make sure that you get to the airport in time to get through whatever line there might be to check bags and still meet that deadline. If you do that, then don't dawdle in getting to the gate, you should make that deadline with time to spare.

If you find your flight is delayed, and that's going to cause you to miss a connection, don't just queue up to wait in a long customer service line at the airport. Call the airline's customer service number while you wait in that line. Sometimes, the phone reps can get you rebooked before you get to front of the queue. Being on the phone and in line gives you two chances to connect with an airline rep, instead of just one.

Your third option is to use the airline's lounge. Now, if you're not flying first or business class and don't have elite status with the airline's frequent flyer program — or you are flying from a smaller airport than doesn't have a lounge — you won't have access to that facility. But if you are traveling through a larger airport, most airlines will sell you a day pass to use their lounge, which might have free food and wifi in addition to comfortable seating, clean bathrooms and — this is the important part — customer service agents who can make magic happen. If you are looking at a long delay, a day pass to the airline lounge might be a good investment in getting access to the customer service you need... or at least a more comfortable place to wait if no one really can help you get on an earlier flight.

My wife and I also have airline-branded credit cards that we use when we book on those airlines. That gives us free checked bags on flights, access to earlier boarding groups, better frequent flyer benefits, and free or discounted lounge access. (I also suspect that moves us down the 'hit list' for involuntary bumping, as well.) The relatively high annual fees on the cards can be a reasonable trade-off for these benefits if you fly even once a year.

Pack your carry-on or personal bag (the one that will fit under the seat in front of you), with enough essentials to get through a couple days of airport delays or time at your destination without your checked luggage, in case the airline loses it. You don't want to be left helpless without your bags.

Finally — and if you follow no other advice I give you, do this — approach every airline or airport employee you encounter with a smile and positive attitude. No matter how badly things go, a smile and friendly tone gives you a much better chance for getting help than being surly. I've gotten better flights and upgrades when people in front of me have been told "there's nothing we can do" simply because I employ my best Disney Cast Member sweetness every time I speak with a gate agent or flight attendant. No one wants to help a jerk. So don't be one.

Seriously, go read this:

Replies (26)

April 10, 2017 at 11:43 AM · "No one wants to help a jerk. So don't be one."

A million times this.

April 10, 2017 at 1:10 PM · I wouldn't be so down on compensation for giving up your seat. My wife and I were scheduled on a flight to Las Vegas and they were looking for volunteers to take a later flight. The later flight was to land just 2 hours after the originally scheduled flight, and they were offering a voucher for another domestic flight as compensation for getting on the later flight. We took the deal and ended up in Vegas only about 90 minutes after we had originally planned that didn't affect any of our activities, and we were able to use the vouchers for round trip tickets to Seattle (nearly $1,600 worth of tickets). The only tricky part about redeeming the vouchers was that the flights had to be done in person at an airport so the voucher could be presented when finalizing the booking (don't think that's required anymore).

I could see how some small-print limitation would dissuade someone from wanting to take a voucher, but my opinion is that if going on a later flight doesn't dramatically affect you, it's totally worth it. Obviously, you want to get all of the details up front before giving up your seat, but I think it's only fair that if you can delay your arrival a few hours to make sure another traveler can get to their destination, it's not only a great deal from a financial point of view but also from a human point of view, because you're helping someone.

April 10, 2017 at 1:14 PM · While your suggestion never to resist an airline employee or law enforcement officer is the correct advice, in this case, I fully believe this doctor is going to win a lawsuit against United so big that he'll likely be able to buy the company. This situation, which was well documented by almost everyone on the aircraft, displays some of the poorest decisions I've ever seen an airline and its security officers make in regards to paid customer treatment and I don't think anything this person signed or agreed to in purchasing a ticket is going to stop a judge and a jury from making a statement in compensatory damages.
April 10, 2017 at 2:36 PM · Robert, another thing about being bumped from a flight involuntarily is that the airline must give you cash (200% < 2hrs, 400% > 2 hrs).
April 10, 2017 at 3:50 PM · I know this wont help the American Audience that this place tends to get.. but the European Union has very strong pro-consumer rules when it comes to delays, or being refused boarding.

Depending on the delay you might have a right to refreshment, accomodation, messages being relayed, and even financial compensation. Usually the latter can be weasled out of in "extrodinary circumstances" - many airlines will try to claim their failure to maintain an aircraft is an extrodinary circumstance, but regulators have been quick to batter that one back.

EU rights apply when you fly out of Europe on any airline, or fly into Europe on an EU airline (that is the airline operating the plane, not the ones who sold you the ticket)... so if you're planning a Disney Paris flight, or a trip to Port adventura, or even perhaps Dubai or further, keep these rights in mind when picking your airline.

April 10, 2017 at 5:01 PM · To echo Chad's point, when flying internationally to or from the United States, if you have an option of flying a non-US-flagged carrier, well, that would be my preferred choice.

And to Russell's point, if carriers actually still offered ticket vouchers or unrestricted credit vouchers, I would endorse taking volunteer compensation. It's just that, in recent years, the industry trend has been toward offering highly restricted credit vouchers that cannot be used for many seats on many flights. Throw in expiration dates, and you might be volunteering for nothing in return. Play it safe and keep your seat. Then if you do get bumped, demand the cash you are owed.

Finally, the only way that doctor doesn't get rich in court is if United manages to assemble a jury of former U.S. airline, Lehman Brothers, Blackwater, and Pepsi executives.

April 10, 2017 at 6:49 PM · United didn't overbook. They wanted to accommodate their own employees to get them on the plane. The airline didn't ask for volunteers. They randomly booted off the passengers. Airline service sucks. United is one of the worse in service.
April 10, 2017 at 7:46 PM · United did ask for volunteers, but couldn't find enough at $800 voucher compensation. Reportedly, passengers did volunteer for $1,600 compensation, but a United rep laughed at them.

That's looking like it would have been an amazingly smart deal for United, now.

April 10, 2017 at 9:13 PM · The passenger was flying standby so it is a little different than most customers.

Still, United should have done a better counting job and should have called the Chicago police when the guy refused to move.

April 11, 2017 at 4:44 AM · Everyone is saying this is United Security, but if you look closely the second person who is there to remove him is clearly wearing a jacket that says police. Security can't just (legally) go around wearing something like that. Do we know if this was airport police in plain clothes? If it is, I think it changes the tone of this whole thing.
April 11, 2017 at 4:48 AM · United shouldn't have checked that many people in, and should t have let that many people through the gate... the number of errors made by them is excessive.

I'd rather walk than fly united - and I've said that before this situation.

April 11, 2017 at 6:41 AM · I wonder how they selected this particular passenger? United has the worst customer service of any airlines. They should have put up the money or had their employee's wait. I hope he sues them and gets rewarded heavily. The only way they will stop this behavior is if it hits their pocket book!
April 11, 2017 at 8:50 AM · Wow! Robert you aren't aware of what vouchers are. Other than an expiration date, in most cases a year from the date of issue, vouchers have no restrictions. They're same as cash. I accept them all the time from United Airlines. My personal favorite.

My father recently got a $1500 voucher to volunteer his seat out of Aspen, Colorado. I personally got $800 when weather imposed weight restrictions from the same airport in January.

Anthony- you should read up on the story before commenting. United did call the Chicago police. It was a police officer, not the airline that dragged him off. That officer has been put on leave.

April 11, 2017 at 11:35 AM · United's conduct was outrageous and I hope they get crucified in court. As to vouchers, my late dad - who was a frequent flyer and travel writer - usually went to the airport in the hope of being bumped from a flight in order to get either compensation or a voucher and on several occasions was successful. As to what Robert said about non-US flagged carriers, this raises an interesting point. I recently booked a flight on British Airways' website - as that's where my frequent flyer miles were - under the assumption that it would be as in the past, with an all-British crew on a Boeing aircraft and a meal option of Asian vegetarian. Well, the only flights that fit my schedule, despite being sold by British Airways, are actually operated by American Airlines - which means poorer customer service and an Airbus. I don't know what happened for this to be the case - is BA going under? - but I am not at all happy about it.
April 11, 2017 at 11:24 AM · As more details of this incident have slowly been released, it appears that United is not as out-of-line as initially portrayed. Did they handle the situation perfectly, no, but the sequence of events appears to be within the rules.

First, United should not have boarded the plane and then asked passengers to get off to make way for employees needing to travel to handle another flight. If a plane is boarding full with all passengers checked in, an airline should not be removing passengers from seats to free up space for other travelers.

Secondly, the staff on the airplane should have been a bit more friendly when soliciting volunteers to give up their seats. If they had been a little nicer, they might not have resorted to forcibly removing passengers. The gate staff were downright mean when they announced they would be selecting guests to leave the plane.

Third, from all accounts, it appears that the gentleman that was forcibly removed from the plane was on the standby list before given clearance to board, along with the other 3 passengers that voluntarily left the plane when selected by gate staff. Those four passengers should have considered themselves lucky to even be on the plane, because they didn't have seats until the boarding process began. Again, it was wrong for United to allow those passengers to board and then turn around and pull them back off, but if United had properly boarded the plane, those passengers would have still been sitting in the airport.

Additionally, the gentleman that was forcibly removed made it to his destination less than 2 hours later, so all the kicking and screaming was really for nothing.

Finally, everyone is pointing at United, when in reality the blame falls at the feet of the Airport Police that committed assault and battery. The agents shown dragging the passenger off the plane were not employees of United, they were airport employees (one of which has been placed on leave while they investigate). The airport staff were executing the requests from United, but the way in which the removal was performed should be at the feet of the airport, not the airline.

Again, I don't absolve United in any wrongdoing in this incident, and I don't condone the way this passenger was treated (nor do I condone the overbooking of flights). Could United have handled the situation better? Absolutely, but the real blame falls to the airport staff that actually committed the assault, not the United gate staff that were simply trying to free up space on the plane so another flight didn't get cancelled. This is yet another example of viral videos where people should reserve judgement until all of the information is available. Almost every one of these incidents are blown out of proportion because all of the facts and details are not known or taken into consideration after watching these salacious videos. Obviously what happened is not right and people have a right to be upset, but people need to consider all of the details of a situation before forming conclusions about an incident based on a couple of minutes of cell phone video.

April 11, 2017 at 11:33 AM · Russell said:
This is yet another example of viral videos where people should reserve judgment until all of the information is available.

How about No - United is not 100% at fault for asking a person to leave the aircraft, But the police do not have the right to smack this out of shape man in the mouth and drag him down the isle. He was no threat. So Yes the Video tells the story of unprovoked police violence.

They could have given him a Pepsi with Rohypnol...

PS - They broke the first rule of fight (flight) club.

April 11, 2017 at 12:37 PM · @Brian - But people are putting all the blame on United based solely on the video. However, after additional information has been provided, it has been reported that the forcible removal of the passenger was not executed by United personnel. Yes, it appears that the Airport Police overstepped their bounds, but they're as entitled as the rest of us to assumed innocence before being proven guilty. There are some other accounts of the incident that suggest that the passenger was being belligerent and making quite a scene when asked to leave the plane, which then made the Airport Police feel they needed to use force to remove him.

Whether they were right or wrong, that will be for our justice system to decide, but I think too many people are jumping to conclusions based on a moving image captured through a lens the diameter of a #2 pencil.

There have been riots and cities set ablaze and looted because of overreaction to viral videos. Just like any piece of evidence, it cannot be taken beyond face value, and must be combined with other sources to tell the whole story. The images can certainly make you angry, but we all need to take a step back and let the whole story unfold before forming opinions, and definitely before taking action or smearing/libeling persons or groups/companies. It has happened far too many times before that you'd think our society would have figured it out by now.

April 11, 2017 at 1:07 PM · Russell - How dare you assume the public or society can figure out anything. Have you met society? The irrational quick to judge morons of the world.

But in this instance, there is clear evidence of abuse. There will be a settlement and all parties will move on. I, myself will take the beating drag down the aisle for a cash considerations…. As you can tell I am not always 100 percent serious.

April 11, 2017 at 3:27 PM · I'll put the blame on united because this problem shouldn't have happened.

They should be better at people/resource management such that they don't just suddenly realise at the last minute, when passengers are already on the aircraft, they need 4 seats to reposition staff. Decent resource management would have lead them to that conclusion a long time before passengers even boarded the aircraft, at which point passengers could be stopped getting on at the gate - or perhaps even from checking in at all.

April 11, 2017 at 3:39 PM · Any conversation about airlines needs to include information about interline agreements. Interline agreements allow airlines to easily endorse tickets purchased on one airline to another one. They are pretty irrelevant most of the time, but can save the day during irregular operations (aka IRROPS).

Example: If you bought a ticket on Delta and something breaks (an airplane, a computer, the atmosphere over Atlanta), your ticket can get transferred to United. Of course, there needs to be an open seat on United. Still, it provides more options besides simply waiting for the next Delta flight.

The key here is knowing that some airlines do not have any interline agreements. So-called Low-Cost Carriers (LCCs) do not have them, including Frontier, Spirit, and Southwest.

If Frontier or Spirit cancels your flight, the best they will do is refund your money or put you on the next available flight. Remember, airlines like Spirit sometimes only fly to some destinations 2 or 3 times each week. That means the next flight with open seats might actually be 4 or 7 days later.

Although Southwest does not have interline agreements, they are a much larger airline with a good customer service record. (Spirit has 100 planes flying to 60 destinations. Southwest has 723 planes flying to 101 destinations.) If problems occur on Southwest, they are far better at getting their passengers to their final destinations.

April 11, 2017 at 4:51 PM · Calling BS on Many airline vouches are restricted, either by not allowing you to use multiple vouchers at once, or by not allowing voucher payment on certain flights, dates or fare classes. The game has changed over the years. I remember when compensation was an actual ticket that could be used to any destination, at any time. Those days are long gone.

Vouchers are not the same as cash, even if unrestricted. You can't use your airline voucher to make your car payment, for example, as you can with cash.

Airlines play the voucher game because they know a percentage of vouchers will go unclaimed, granting them "free" bumps. If people would work together and refuse these things, airlines would be forced to pay cash compensation, which would change the calculus for overselling and bring a swift end to this practice.

April 11, 2017 at 11:01 PM · The security officer involved with the passenger removal was
suspended. There was still a 3 hr delay of the flight so there was no gain from the situation for United who tried to get its employees to the destination.

"NEW YORK (REUTERS) - United Airlines sparked outrage on Monday (April 10) for the treatment of a passenger who was dragged off a plane the airline had overbooked, and one of the security officers involved in the incident was placed on leave pending an investigation."

"The Chicago Department of Aviation said in a statement that one of the officers did not follow protocol and added that he had been placed on leave pending a review for actions not condoned by the department."

April 12, 2017 at 1:17 AM · "There was still a 3 hr delay of the flight so there was no gain from the situation for United who tried to get its employees to the destination."

That's irrelevant. Had the security incident not happened, there wouldn't have been the delay.

April 12, 2017 at 2:49 AM · So United is not to blame for the security incident? They had absolutely no responsibility? The flight was not overbooked. If it was overbooked, United is no better. These incidents should be handled before people were seated.
April 12, 2017 at 6:16 AM · Just to weight in, I was recently given 1100 dollars by Delta to give up my seat, which came in the form of my choice (either Amex, Target, Best Buy, Royals Carribbean, or Delta gift card). I'm sure this isn't the rule, but I did end up getting a pretty sweet deal. So, it's not all vouchers and in my case, flying the next morning ended up being better for my travel plans.
April 12, 2017 at 6:49 AM · United is to blame. The root cause comes back to resource management. Had they planned to move staff with plenty of time and communicated it to gate crew, the security incident would not have occurred.

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