Dear Tripped Up,
This past June, my wife and I, along with two of our children, flew from our home in India to the eastern United States to see family and visit Universal Studios in Orlando, Fla. The trip included three domestic flights over five days on Frontier Airlines: Philadelphia to Orlando, Orlando to Atlanta, and Atlanta back to Philadelphia. The total cost for four people on three flights was an affordable $939.75, including a $99.99 “Discount Den” membership on Frontier. (We also spent $1,269.52 on tickets at Universal.) But our first flight was delayed and eventually canceled, and Frontier’s staff told us the next available flight was three or four days later — too close to our return flight to India. We were given a QR code at the Philadelphia airport to file for a refund, which we did for all three flights. But all we got was an email with a credit worth $339.92 and good for three months, plus four additional messages with a $100 voucher for each of us. Since Frontier does not operate in India, the credit and vouchers are useless. I fought Frontier through my Discover card, but lost. (Meanwhile, Universal reimbursed us in full.) Can you help? Hari, Bangalore, India
The federal rule on flight cancellations in the United States could not be clearer. According to the Transportation Department’s website, “A consumer is entitled to a refund if the airline canceled a flight, regardless of the reason, and the consumer chooses not to travel.” Fast-expiring travel credits are not an option.
Frontier’s initial email to you, on the other hand, could not be murkier. You read the email and interpreted it as a partial, useless credit. You forwarded it to me, and I came to the same conclusion.
Yet it turns out the email was trying to inform you that a refund was coming. I learned this after consulting Jennifer de la Cruz, a spokeswoman for Frontier.
The email presented what turned out to be a chronological list of transactions related to your reservation, sent with no introduction or explanation. First, there’s a “Payment: Discover” for $439.91, dated on May 18, the day you made the reservation for the first leg and joined the Discount Den. Next comes the confusing “Travel Credit,” for -$339.92 on June 29, three days after your canceled flight. This transaction includes bullet-pointed instructions on how to redeem the credit, along with other conditions.
Then comes three more confusing transactions: the first, dated July 2 — the day after you received the email — was a “Payment: Credit File,” whatever that means, for $339.92; the second, labeled “Refund: Discover” for -$339.92, also on July 2, with the word “pending” in tiny, light blue letters; and finally, there’s a “Purchase Total” of $99.99.
“I can certainly appreciate them being confused based on the initial credit showing up first within the chronology of the email,” Ms. de la Cruz wrote to me.
Though at first she told me this list was auto-generated by your refund request, making me fear that thousands of Frontier customers were similarly baffled by other cancellations, she later told me this was a human error.
“Normally a customer would not receive an email delineating the process the agent took to initiate the refund,” Ms. de la Cruz wrote. Apparently, by using the QR code you were given at the airport, you triggered a manual review process that was then flubbed. If you had instead filed for a refund using the email Frontier sent you around the time your flight was canceled, she said the process would have been more straightforward. You seemingly had no way of knowing this.
When we later went through your Discover statement together, it turns out you were indeed refunded $339.92 for that first flight.
But about the remaining $500 or so for the other two flights, which you filled out separate refund requests for? And should that $99.99 membership be refunded as well?
This is where things get more complicated. Since you booked each of the three one-way flights separately, rather than as one itinerary with one reservation code, the federal rule about cancellations technically applies only to the first one-way flight. This is why I urge people to use the “multicity” feature on airline booking sites.
Alas, as with a handful of other U.S. carriers, there is no such option on Frontier’s site. When I tried to make a multicity reservation through Frontier’s online chat function, customer service told me I had to create separate one-way reservations, just as you had. (You can make such a multicity reservation through an online travel agency, or O.T.A., but that introduces a third party into your booking, adding another layer of customer service to deal with.)
So that left you out about $600, at least at first. Six days later, on July 7, Frontier did refund you $327.92 for the Atlanta-to-Philadelphia leg — presumably because whoever handled the “manual” process realized your flights were tied together. I can see why you didn’t spot these refunds immediately on your statement, since the disputes you filed with Discover led to a series of back-and-forth charges that ended up being very unclear.
Ms. de la Cruz said not refunding your $171.92 for the outstanding flight was a mistake. “This is our fault and we sincerely apologize for the misunderstanding,” she wrote.
You have now been refunded the $171.92, but Frontier did decline to refund your $99.99 membership, since it is good for the year. That is understandable, but frustrating for someone who lives outside the country.
There is still one pressing question here: Why was Frontier unable to get you on another flight for “three or four days?” My initial reaction was that Frontier must not offer frequent flights between Philadelphia and Orlando, and I was going to warn readers that booking tightly scheduled trips on infrequently flown routes could be a recipe for disaster. But no, Frontier typically runs seven flights a day between the two cities.
Instead, it turned out your flight was on June 26, the day that thousands of flights in the United States were canceled because of severe storms. (I wrote about another canceled flight that day, one that stranded a troop of Boy Scouts in New York City, in a separate column.)
That means you were largely the victim of extremely bad luck, exacerbated by a couple of other factors — first, your high-risk strategy of booking three flights so close to one another during a once-in-a-lifetime trip; and second, poor customer service, which can be the part of the get-what-you-pay-for trade-off of booking with a budget carrier.
It’s also worth noting that Frontier is one of the four airlines — along with Allegiant Air, Southwest Airlines and Spirit Airlines — that do not rebook passengers free of charge on other airlines, according to the Department of Transportation dashboard created for consumers. But on an unusual day like June 26, I’m not sure that would have done any good. Your family’s dream of visiting Universal was dashed more by fate than by Frontier.
If you need advice about a best-laid travel plan that went awry, send an email to [email protected].
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