A runaround instead of a refund from United

If the price of your flight falls after you book it, you should be able to get a partial refund. At least that’s what Sarah Boardman thought.

Boardman booked a round-trip flight to Italy through Expedia, departing on Swiss and returning on Lufthansa, for $1,275. Five days later, she received an email from Expedia indicating that the price of her trip was now $812.

So Boardman called Expedia to request that she be charged the lower price and refunded the difference. But Expedia’s agent refused to make the change and referred her to United Airlines, the airline on which she was ticketed. This was Boardman’s first notification that her flights were codeshared on United — “not a choice I would knowingly make,” says Boardman.

Boardman’s case offers insights into the crazy world of airline pricing and customer service. It shows that when airlines don’t believe they have to accommodate requests from passengers, then they won’t, regardless of what their agents claim. And airline codeshare practices, where one airline operates another airline’s flight, add another level of confusion and opacity to their customer service.

Boardman spoke to several United agents, none of whom was willing to change the price of her tickets — and at least one of whom cut off their phone conversation. She finally reached a supervisor who offered to change the price of her flights to $918 and issue her a coupon for $350 for another flight on United within a year. The supervisor promised Boardman that the coupon would be sent to her within five days.

Related story:   These travel agents go above and beyond the call of duty

When no coupon arrived, Boardman followed up with further contacts with United agents who recognized that she was due a coupon from United. One said that he was sending Boardman the coupon immediately; instead, he sent Boardman a copy of the itinerary for the trip. Another told Boardman that the coupon would be emailed within 14 days, but he had no way to expedite it.

Boardman might have utilized our company contacts for United, but she has turned to our advocacy team for help.

Boardman asked that the lower price of $812 be applied to her reservation and the balance refunded to her credit card; if that wasn’t possible, she wanted the coupon without further delay.

Expedia should have notified Boardman in the original process of booking her reservation that her flights were codeshared on United, and it should have helped her change the price of her flights when she requested its assistance. But referring her to United for the coupon is consistent with Expedia’s terms of use:

You agree to abide by the terms and conditions of purchase imposed by any supplier with whom you elect to deal, including, but not limited to, payment of all amounts when due and compliance with the supplier’s rules and restrictions regarding availability and use of fares, products, or services. Airfare is only guaranteed once the purchase has been completed and the tickets have been issued. Airlines and other travel suppliers may change their prices without notice. We reserve the right to cancel your booking if full payment is not received in a timely fashion.

As for United, its contract of carriage is silent on whether or not travelers could get the prices of their flights lowered, but it provides that:

For Tickets eligible for refunds … UA will upon the Passenger’s surrender of the unused portion of a UA issued ticket or voided Ticket, refund to the Passenger as follows:

If no portion of the Ticket has been used, in accordance with these rules, the refund will be an amount equal to the total fare and charges paid….UA will issue refunds for eligible tickets within seven (7) business days for credit card purchases and twenty (20) business days for purchases made with cash, check, or other forms of payment.

Boardman finally received the coupon from United. But she should have received it within the five days promised by the agent to whom she spoke, and certainly within the seven days promised in United’s contract of carriage.

Related story:   My flight home from Hawaii was canceled. Why?

Our advocates are wondering if the coupon is enough compensation, given the delays and runarounds Boardman endured to get that promise from United. Boardman doesn’t plan to fly United again and thinks that the coupon will eventually go to waste.

And Expedia should have helped her get the coupon. If a travel agency notifies its customers that the prices of their trips have fallen, then it should stand by its customers and not blow off their requests for assistance in getting refunds of the overpaid prices. It should also let its customers know when their flights are being codeshared, so that they can decide for themselves whether or not they want to fly on the airline that is actually operating the flight — and respect their decisions not to fly that airline if they make that choice. Expedia’s lack of notice to Boardman that her flight was codeshared complicated an already difficult situation.

Should we take Sarah Boardman’s case?

View Results

Loading ... Loading ...

Jennifer Finger

Jennifer is the founder of KeenReader, an Internet-based freelance editing operation, as well as a certified public accountant. She is a senior writer for Elliott.org. Read more of Jennifer's articles here.

  • AAGK

    “Not a choice she would knowingly make.” But she knowingly made the bad choice of Expedia.

    As for the fare drop, my understanding is that it is generally honored after a change fee, usually depriving the pax of any real benefit anyway. That’s lousy but it sounds like they are actually hooking her up with the real fare difference- so long as the coupon arrives. Why does she need it in 3 days? Her demands seem unreasonable. Take the case if the thing doesn’t arrive in 6 wks.

  • CC

    Just looked up on the Expedia website – there’s a Lufthansa flight to Rome and under the Lufthansa logo it is clear as day (Operated by United). On the way back, there’s a SwissAir flight, under which it reads, Operated by United.

    That’s why I wouldn’t take the case – it is clear before you make the reservation who the flight is with. Also, as she is using Expedia to purchase the tickets, I’d expect Expedia to advocate for her if she’s trying to get the difference refunded


    Did she book on line? If she did, she overlooked the details as Expedia clearly indicates which airline is actually operating a flight –as required by US law. (My TA has explained this to me for years) This information is also clearly spelled out on the confirmation she should have received after her ticket was issued. Expedia is not at fault for Ms. Boardman’s failure to pay attention to what is on the screen and her confirmation.
    Expedia should have helped her get the fare difference between what she paid and what the new price was. And United should have processed the coupon for the fare difference in a much more timely manner and without the intervention of a consumer advocate. They agreed to it and then dragged their feet, probably hoping the OP would get tired of chasing the delayed coupon.
    I do not believe she is entitled to any more compensation and it is unlikely that she will get any.

  • AJPeabody

    Please stop referring to Expedia as a “travel agency.” It is a ticket seller. Period.

  • Jeff W.

    While I understand the gist of the case, To whom are you directing your ire?

    Ms. Boardman used Expedia to book an international trip. Ok, not the best choice but I understand. Not knowing where she is coming from, but given that departure is Swiss and the return is Lufthansa, implies connections, that would require a domestic leg and an international. So the domestic portions would have been United and the international on the other carriers. Otherwise, you would have booked a direct flight on one the domestic carriers or Alatalia.

    I don’t buy the line that the code shares were “not a choice I would knowingly make.” I have booked on Expedia before and every single reservation and itenerary clearly indicates that a code share situation. That line is borne from frustration and/or sour grapes. The alternative is to have three or four reservations. One for Swiss, one for Lufthansa, and then another one or two for the domestic portion. There could have been a United logo there, but under the flight number would have been the words “Operated by so and so”. Works the same when you fly a regional. “Operated by Skywest” or whomever.

    So Expedia notified her of a price decrease. Great. Doesn’t Expedia have all those prices guarantees? But what happened? They punted to United. And while it took some time, United did offer her a credit. (And the price decrease could have been for a segment that was either Swiss or Lufthansa, which complicates things for sure.)

    I think United offering credit is fair. If you want the cash refund or upset with the amount of time it took, you need to complain about Expedia. They notified her of the price decrease and did not advocate for her. And Ms. Boardman does not have a credit card charge with the word United associated with it. The charge was made to Expedia and that is where the cash would need to come from.

  • sirwired

    “If a travel agency notifies its customers that the prices of their trips have fallen, then it should stand by its customers and not blow off their requests for assistance in getting refunds of the overpaid prices.”

    She probably set up a pricing alert, which did not automatically cease when she booked the trip. Why would Expedia assist her in getting a refund she wasn’t due? I’m not aware of ANY airline that issues cash refunds for price drops on non-refundable tickets. Most will issue a credit, some will issue one with the change fee (if any) deducted from it, others, like the old US (don’t know about the combined AA’s policy) made you pay the change fee in cash.

    How could she not have been aware she was flying United? I’ve never seen a website that didn’t make it pretty clear when you were getting booked on a code-share.

    And she didn’t “overpay” for the flight at all. After all, she thought it was a fair price when she booked it. Just because somebody else that is on the same plane paid less doesn’t mean you “overpaid”.

  • sirwired

    Expedia’s price guarantees don’t apply to price drops that happen a week after booking. (Maybe they do on hotels (I don’t know), but certainly not airlines.) I’m having trouble understanding why anybody would think she was due cash.

  • Lindabator

    any time you want to exchange a ticket for the lower fare, there is a change fee, and you get a voucher — but this is something Expedia should have handled for her (in fact, dollars to donuts the original voucher was emailed to Expedia as the ticketing agent). WHY use these guys?????

  • Lindabator


  • AJPeabody

    Dollars to donuts value ratio is reversed these days.

  • ArizonaRoadWarrior

    “If the price of your flight falls after you book it, you should be able to get a partial refund.”

    Using this logic…

    …if you sold shares of stock at $ 20 per share but the price went up to $ 30 a few days later….you should be entitled to get some or all of the $ 10 gain.

    …if you pump gas into your car at $ 2.00 per gallon in the morning but it is $ 1.95 per gallon in the evening, you should be entitled to the $ 0.05 per gallon refund.

    …if you refinance your mortgage (or a new mortgage) at 3% and AFTER your mortgage closed (the terms of most mortgages lock in your rate in case if it goes up or it can be lower if the rate goes down BEFORE closing) the Federal Reserve lowers interest rates causing mortgage rates to drop to 2.5%, you should be entitled to the 2.5%.

    But on the flip side, if the fare went up, should the OP pay more in order? The stock price went down? The price of gas went higher? Mortgage rates went higher? Of course, the argument will be “that was the price at the time of purchase; therefore, I should not pay more.”

    The bottom line is that pricesfaresinterest ratesetc. goes up and down and no one can predict the future.

  • ArizonaRoadWarrior

    I am with you about understanding why anybodly would think that she was entitled to the lower fare. If the fare went up, do you think that the OP will pay the difference in fare to the airline?

    I am wondering if these people just keep all of their receipts and go back to the storesbusinesses…days, weeks or months later when an item on their cash register tape goes on sale asking for a refunddiscount?

  • Chris_In_NC

    Huh???? I’m so confused.

    Who are you upset at? Are you upset at …
    1) United because they “dropped” the fare from $1275 to $815 and feel that she is entitled to the price difference?
    2) Expedia because they there was inadequate “disclosure” about the Codeshare flight?
    3) Expedia because they sent a fare alert, which somehow gave the OP the perception that she was entitled to the difference in fare?
    4) Expedia because they didn’t “assist” the OP in obtaining the fare difference?
    5) United because they “took too long” to process a voucher for the fare difference?
    What exactly is there to mediate and what the heck does the OP want or expect?

    Personally, I don’t believe the OP was ever entitled to a refund of the fare difference. Everything else is such a trivial complaint that I am speechless. Really?

  • jsn55

    It is surely news to me that I should get a refund if the price drops on the flights I booked. Really? Why would an airline do that? Unless, of course, she bought refundable tix.

    And … cue the chorus … booking on an OTA makes it very difficult to get help when you have a problem. A: read the screens, know what you’re buying and B: book direct.

  • Jason J Olson

    What I am curious about is this alleged notification of lower price – it is not the practice of airlines nor travel retailers to notify you after the fact when a price for your already purchased ticket had decreased. It sounds more like a separate thing going on – such that she setup some sort of monitor for that itinerary, or Expedia remembered she was searching for that flight (but didn’t keep track that she actually purchased it)…

    As a result, I think its somewhat dubious that the notified her about her purchased price was now available for less. And as other have stated you’ll pay a hefty change fee to get this exchanged to the lower price – which is among many of the reasons why its not generally practiced to notify passengers about lower prices on their ticketed airfare.

    Along that lines, I also question if it was an apples-to-apples comparison on that lower priced flight?

    Also dubious, as someone else mentioned was her being oblivious to the codeshare — it is most likely overlooked, and only became an “issue” after she discovered that minor disclosure of codeshare would cause her problems.

    In the end, it is unfortunate she was given the run around multiple times, however that wrong doesn’t justify or legitimize her claim to a reduced air travel because the price was lowered. I think the airline is going above and beyond to credit the difference in the form of a voucher, and that should be sufficient compensation.

  • Mel65

    Neither of the quoted sections in the article (unless I missed it since my espresso machine is on the fritz) references fare differentials, other than a blurb about prices may change. I’ve bought numerous tickets then had the fare go down, I shake my fist and say “dagnabbit” and forget about it. Nice of United to give her a coupon, I suppose, since it was a week later, and not like a day or two–although I don’t “get” the all-fired hurry to get it RIGHT NOW since I assume it couldn’t be applied to the current flight soooo….

  • Tricia K

    Am I missing something here? While retail stores often give you a price adjustment of an item goes on sale within a certain time frame after you buy it (usually 7-10 days), airlines don’t usually do it. Would you want them to be able to charge you extra if the fare goes up between your purchase and travel date? Expedia does have a price guarantee, but I didn’t know it ever applied to air fares. That said, if the airline agreed to it, they should have honored their promise.

  • Tricia K

    The price of gas climbed significantly after Hurricane Katrina, but it started falling 5-10 cents a gallon after things settled down. I bought gas for one price, went into the store to buy some food, and came back out 40 minutes later to see it almost 10 cents a gallon. I asked for a reduction, but they did not oblige, saying the price when you pump is what you pay. They asked if I would like them to add to my bill when it went up.

  • jim6555

    Even Southwest Airlines, which has some of the most consumer friendly policies in the industry, will not refund in cash when the cost of a ticket falls. They will however issue a credit for the fare difference that is good for one year from the date of the ticket purchase. To expect United to go beyond Southwest’s policy is unrealistic.

  • joycexyz

    She’d have been far better off booking directly with the airlines. Expedia? Good luck with that. Any savings are miniscule, the aggravation big time.

  • Blamona

    Month ago booked directly with United to Barcelona. Original $1250, dropped to $890 2 weeks later. I called not expecting anything, they asked if bought by travel agent or other sources. I said directly United, that I don’t like OTAs. They transferred me right away and before hanging up had $350 vouchers good for a year. She bought through Expedia, United not going to fix it. (And typical Expedia to pass the buck, so much for their advertising guarantees, worthless!)

Get smart. Sign up for the newsletter.