Why a luggage delay does not entitle you to a ticket refund

Erin Hill is invited to be a bridesmaid in her friend’s destination wedding in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Air traffic delays cause her to miss her original flight to St. Thomas. Sympathetic to Hill’s situation, United routes her through Miami on another carrier. Arriving in St. Thomas that same night, she can still be in the wedding the next day as planned. But Hill’s luggage doesn’t make the trip. She’s forced to borrow clothes from her friend and misses participating in the wedding. Now Hill wants a full refund. Will our advocates be able to help her get it?

Hill’s story about missing her friend’s wedding is sad, indeed. But unfortunately, what airlines are obligated to provide once a consumer purchases a ticket is an area where emotion isn’t part of the equation. Hill, on the other hand, was very emotional about the situation, “Over a year ago, I was invited to be a maid of honor in one of my best friend’s weddings in the US Virgin islands. I booked and departed United Airlines on April 27, 2017. Considering this was my first flight, naturally I was filled with anticipation. What I expected and hoped to be an enjoyable initial aircraft experience turned out to be a complete hellish and dreadful nightmare.”

Thus began Hill’s long, explicit and emotional plea to United Airlines that she forwarded to our advocates seeking assistance. “Originally, my flight was set to depart Raleigh-Durham (RDU) on April 27 at 7:00 a.m. to Newark, N.J. I would then board another United Airlines plane to St. Thomas with an expected arrival time of 1:26 p.m. However, once on board the flight from RDU to Newark I was told that take-off would be delayed due to heavy air traffic in Newark. My plane sat delayed on the runway in RDU for approximately 30 minutes.”

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As a first-time flier, Hill had no idea of the ripple effect those 30 minutes would have on her carefully planned weekend. When she arrived in Newark, a United customer service representative informed her that her flight had already left to for St.Thomas and that United didn’t have another flight leaving until the next day.

United took pity on her situation, (probably encouraged when Hill “began to cry hysterically”) and routed her on an American Airlines flight arriving at 8:40 p.m. instead of 1:26 p.m. The United representative assured Hill that her bags “were already en route to St. Thomas and that they would arrive before [she] would. [She] could pick them up in St. Thomas once [she] arrived.”

Hats off to United for stepping up to assist a customer in obvious panic and dismay. While missing some of the planned festivities, Hill would still arrive in time to be a bridesmaid in the main event. Hill was sure the nightmare of her first flying experience would have a happy ending when she touched down in St. Thomas and claimed her luggage.

You guessed it — when Hill arrived in St. Thomas, she didn’t find her luggage, as United assured her she would. She didn’t even find a person at the United baggage claim office in St. Thomas. Tired of waiting for someone to help her, she went to the American baggage claim office. Her bags weren’t there either, but the American representative attempted to trace their whereabouts. By 11 p.m., Hill was informed that her bags never left Newark.

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Hill proceeded to file claims and fill out forms for her missing luggage, She was assured by American and United that her bags would be placed on the next day’s flight and she could pick them up at 1:26 p.m., roughly 90 minutes before the bride was scheduled to walk down the aisle.

Bottom line, on the day of the wedding, despite numerous phone calls, broken assurances, desperate waiting, crying and hysterics, Hill’s luggage didn’t arrive until 11:45 p.m. So no bridesmaid dress, and one less bridesmaid. Fortunately, the bride provided Hill with an outfit appropriate for the occasion so she could attend the wedding.

Even a novice traveler like Hill might have asked what she should do about essential items, clothing and toiletries that were missing because of the baggage delay. Likewise, United and American both should have explained that she was entitled to reimbursement of expenses under the Montreal Convention for clothing and essential items because her bags were delayed. But few airlines, if any, willingly assume liability for passenger reimbursement.

The Montreal Convention applies to baggage transported between two member countries. It says, in part

In the carriage of baggage, the liability of the carrier in the case of destruction, loss, damage or delay is limited to 1,000 Special Drawing Rights [about $1,365] for each passenger unless the passenger has made, at the time when the checked baggage was handed over to the carrier, a special declaration of interest in delivery at destination and has paid a supplementary sum if the case so requires. In that case the carrier will be liable to pay a sum not exceeding the declared sum, unless it proves that the sum is greater than the passenger’s actual interest in delivery at destination.

We encouraged Hill to post her story in our help forums, which are monitored by advocates and industry experts. She may get further advice there. Unfortunately, because Hill didn’t declare any additional value, she isn’t entitled to anything, especially not the full cost of her ticket, the cost of her bridesmaid dress and accessories or punitive damages as she’s requesting. We’re going to tag this one as a “case dismissed” and hope that Hill has learned a valuable lesson for her future travels.

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Chip Hiebler

Chip enjoyed a successful career in the IT field. Now he's retired and splits his time between experiencing destinations and cultures beyond his home in Baltimore and generally having fun. He currently supports the mission of Elliott.org as the co-director of the research department.

  • KennyG

    Maybe I am missing something in this story, but a 30 minute delay caused her to miss her flight to St. Thomas it seems. There is no way anyone should book a connecting flight with only a 30 minute or so window between arrival and departure, especially at a busy flight hub like the NY/NJ airports. It seems from her story she was an inexperienced flyer, so perhaps that is understandable, but all the more reason to use a travel agent, especially since this was such a “momentous” trip in several respects. Certainly no excuse for the luggage foul up by the airline(s), but expecting a full refund, after she has in fact traveled there and back [or as Judge Judy would say, “eaten the steak”], is a bit over the top. But kudos to her for trying.

  • DChamp56

    When the trip is this important:
    1. Purchase Trip Insurance
    2. Go a day early


    I went to the UA website and the airline does indeed offer a flight with just 30 minutes between arriving from RDU and departing for STT–something that is just wrong for any of the three airports in this area. A travel agent or a more experienced friend could have helped her with booking and helped her avoid this disaster. A 30 minute connection in any of the NYC airports should not be allowed as air traffic delays are the norm there rather than the exception.

  • sirwired

    I’m with Kenny; if a 30-minute delay out of RDU causes you to miss your connecting (once-a-day!) flight, you booked waaayyyy too tight. While the Minimum Connecting Time in EWR on UA might be 40 minutes or something, booking that tight (especially through notoriously-congested NYC airspace) is begging for trouble. You are gonna get to where you are going eventually, because there are so many flights out of those airports, but you are going to miss the connection more often than not.

    (My home airport is RDU, and I’ve been on RDU-EWR lots; lets just say that when things get congested, a dinky commuter jet out of Raleigh isn’t exactly on the tippy-top of the priority list for a landing slot.)

    Also… if you gotta have it at your destination, carry it on-board. Unless this was the poofiest bridesmaid dress ever, it should have fit as a carry-on/gate-check.

    I hope this was a learning experience in more ways than one…

  • AJPeabody

    Carry on baggage with The Dress could have saved the day.

  • finance_tony

    I agree until the very last sentence.

  • Bill___A

    I get that it was her first flight, but was there no one she knew that could have helped her by making sure she booked enough in advance, put the dress in a carry on, and ensured there was enough connection time? Things go the way they go, and having an “important” event to go to or an “important” thing in your checked bag generally does not change things. I am sure she had a tough time and it was probably not pleasant for the airline staff to deal with someone who was hysterical and crying. She is lucky that they rerouted her to get her to the wedding, although it is unfortunate that her bags didn’t go there. In any case, she is not entitled to a refund of her ticket.

  • Annie M

    I was thinking the same thing. She should have used someone experienced to book her flights because she probably had a 45 minute connection – way too short for Newark.

  • Michael__K

    1. How would insurance have helped? The luggage and the clothes didn’t arrive in time, with or without insurance.
    2. She did leave a day early. And even if she left 2 days early (or more), there’s still no guarantee the luggage would arrive in time.

  • Michael__K

    There is no way anyone should book a connecting flight with only a 30 minute or so window between arrival and departure

    Agreed. So why do airlines sell connections that no one should ever buy?

    Incidentally, a 45 minute window between arrival and departure is just as problematic given a 30 minute delay. Because seats are taken away by the boarding deadline, which is 15 minutes before departure.

  • Lindabator

    she could also ship the dress ahead, ensuring it is there in time (work with a lot of wedding groups0

  • Lindabator

    another option is to ship ahead — when I work with large wedding groups, all but the bride like the idea

  • Bill___A

    I wonder how her flight was booked, seeing that it was her “first flight”. It is not a good idea to book online and “wing it” when it is your first trip, especially if to a wedding or similar event.

  • Alan Gore

    Why did being ‘out of uniform’ as a bridesmaid have to mean missing the wedding? Even the stuffiest wedding planners would understand under the circumstances. I once spent an entire ski week in Aspen without luggage under similar circumstances. Luckily I was there with a club, and could borrow clothing and spend the week on rented skis. My bags arrived on the last day.

  • sirwired

    They sell it because it’s possible to make the connection if everything goes correctly, and for some people that’s just fine. If you have a two-week vacation planned and can’t leave home any earlier (say, when you get off work), you might think it’s worth the risk you’ll miss a day in paradise.

  • Michael__K

    That still seems like a bad idea in the age of full flights and full hotels. Because if anything goes wrong, you may not get on the next flight either, which means there’s a strong possibility you will arrive later (besides incurring more incidental expenses and inconvenience) than if you booked with more of a cushion to begin with.
    I suppose it depends on the exact percentages and maybe there are routes/airports operating well below capacity in great climates where this might make sense. But EWR is the very worst ranked airport for delays in the US.

  • LeeAnneClark

    Personally, given the tight timeline, I would have brought it with me in my carry-on! ;-) I’ve had too many flight and baggage nightmares to have trusted it to the airlines.

    But she sounds like a young, inexperienced flyer, so I do take pity on her.

  • LeeAnneClark

    It didn’t. If you read the article, it makes it clear she attended – she just wasn’t able to be in the wedding party and fulfill her bridesmaid duties.

    “So no bridesmaid dress, and one less bridesmaid. Fortunately, the bride provided Hill with an outfit appropriate for the occasion so she could attend the wedding.”

  • Travelnut

    I don’t understand why she couldn’t still be in the wedding party… the bride was a bridezilla who couldn’t handle everyone not matching, or the OP just felt too uncomfortable? I would hope, if I were the bride, I would make sure she knew I didn’t care what she wore, I was just happy she was there and participating. Even being in the wedding pictures – just something else to look back on in later years and laugh.

  • KennyG

    I should have put the hashtag #sarcasm for that last sentence…:-}

  • jsn55

    I expect that ‘legal’ connection time meant that an outbound delay would force a missed flight. It’s disgusting that the airlines do this to travellers. But even an inexperienced traveller should know to fly in the day before such an important event. Such a shame.

  • Chris_In_NC

    @sir@sirwired:disqus On a side note, I didn’t realize we shared the same home airport.

  • Harvey-6-3.5

    I’m sorry but this is not an “inexperienced traveler”, this is a never flew before traveler. She would have no idea unless someone told her. Someone who files rarely might have had some experiences with the airlines, but she had none. It is a shame, though.

  • greg watson

    Sounds very similar to a story that has already been posted. People need to learn to adapt & move forward. The claim details once made could be worked out later. The important part of this story is the wedding itself. Was she not allowed to be in the wedding party or did she choose not to be in it. Either way, it was ridiculous not to be in the wedding party. Seems somewhat childish.

  • Mel65

    She did fly in the day before. Her luggage flew in day of.

  • Mel65

    She was a day early. Her luggage was not.

  • Lee

    In this telling she was first the “Maid of Honor”, then the “bridesmaid” – not sure which. But, whichever, it is a shame the bride didn’t just let her be whichever it was, matching dress or not. That is the height of silliness, in my opinion –

    At least United made the effort to at least get her there so she could attend the wedding even if the bride wouldn’t let her still participate in the ceremony. (Gad – people can be superficial and petty, really).

    Hard lessons to learn as a first time flyer. I was amazed to read she was expecting an “enjoyable initial aircraft” experience in the first place. The misery of flying these days is hardly news to anyone.

  • Shirley G

    Yes, she should have gotten advice from a travel agent or seasoned flyer. Somehow she knew about this blog; I wonder if she knew before or after. If before, then she’s seen the stories about short connections. I just booked a trip and I had the choice between a 1 or 5 hour connection. Yes, 5 hours is horrible but guess what I picked? I don’t want to chance getting stuck overnight with only the hope of getting home the next day. And I wouldn’t fly the day before to a destination wedding and chance making the flight. And why did she check the dress? She could have brought it on board.

  • joycexyz

    And if she were the Maid of Honor, wearing a dress that didn’t match the bridesmaids would have looked planned. Either way, it’s a shame she wasn’t able to participate. Wonder whose idea that was? I hope it wasn’t the bride’s–good way to ruin a friendship. The OP herself may have felt she would spoil the effect. I hope she doesn’t dwell on this too long. Other things in life are so much more important.

  • Pegtoo

    My thoughts exactly. Are the pretty pictures more important than the person?

  • Pegtoo

    Agreed. sounds like she was pretty upset (finally hoping for her luggage 90 minutes before the ceremony)… she probably asked to be “excused” from the wedding party, but too bad the bride and others couldn’t reassure her that her presence was the important part.

  • cscasi

    “But kudos for trying?

  • cscasi

    They sell them because the DOT allows them to do that. Guess it would take a change to lengthen the time they are allowed between connecting flights, yo give the customers enough time to get to the next flight when these 20-30 minute delays happen.

  • cscasi

    Wonder what that would have cost?

  • cscasi

    That is what I was going to say. I know some brides want pictures that have to be just so. My son’s bride was like that. She wanted everything just so and spent an inordinate amount of the photographer and ensuring the bridesmaids’ dresses were exact and on and on. They even had cake tastings and went to three different ones (one was 160 miles from where they live and about 80 miles from where the wedding was held) to get the one she wanted.
    So, yes, I can say for her, the pictures were more important.

  • Patrica

    Me too! I’ve loved weddings that are happy, spontaneous, a celebration of two people committing to spend their lives together. It seems those that weren’t so “perfect” were the few that accomplished that goal of spending their lives together. I don’t know, but perhaps her histrionics may have been a factor in not including her. Just speculation I know, but she, enough already.

  • Patrica

    the one “she wanted” ???? ouch.

  • Extramail

    I would NEVER have put a bridesmaid dress in checked luggage. And, I don’t understand why she shouldn’t have still been in the wedding. So what she didn’t have in the same dress as everyone else? The best stories from weddings are ones that have a little kookiness to them. She’d be laughing at those pictures years from now.

  • Extramail

    Again, why couldn’t she have still walked in the wedding? I would have!

  • LeeAnneClark

    Well, it’s possible the bride didn’t want her standing up there in the wedding party without her bridesmaid dress. Personally I wouldn’t have cared if it was MY wedding, but…we all know some Bridezillas, right? ;-)

  • RightNow9435

    That was one of my first thoughts. Her friend should have still included her in the wedding.

  • RightNow9435

    yeah, doesn’t sound like the bride was really a good “friend”

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