They rescheduled his flight – why don’t his bags fly “free”?

Here’s an imponderable travel question: Is a “free” checked bag transferable to another airline?

Specifically, if your flight is canceled and then rebooked on a different airline — in other words, if the carrier endorses your ticket to another airline — should that endorsement include the ability to check a bag free?

That is the question confronting Rick and Carole Sheviakov, who recently flew from San Francisco to Seattle on United Airlines. The return flight was canceled, and United rebooked the couple on an Alaska Airlines flight.

The Sheviakovs have a Mileage Plus Explorer card, which gives them a “free” checked bag. I put the term “free” in quotes because the Sheviakovs paid for the amenity with an annual fee and by heavily using the card. There is no such thing as free. But I digress.

“A customer service rep assured me that any fees would be reimbursed and noted it in the file,”  says Rick Sheviakov.

It didn’t happen.

The Sheviakovs had to pay $50 for their “free” bags on Alaska Airlines. They didn’t mind because they had verbal assurances from the Seattle representative, a woman named Diana, that they would be covered. They assumed that would mean they’d receive a $50 check.

Instead, they got this:

It is unfortunate that we were unable to reschedule you on the next available United operated aircraft. We realize that as a United MileagePlus Explorer Cardmember you were exempt of the baggage fees when traveling on United. Unfortunately, when travel is on another carrier, the baggage policy of that airline applies.

You are a valued MileagePlus member and we appreciate your business. It is never our intent to inconvenience our passengers. I regret any misinformation you were given concerning reimbursement of the baggage fees paid to Alaska Airlines. However, I’m unable to refund charges collected by another airline.

In recognition of our appreciation and as a goodwill gesture, I will send you a $100 electronic travel certificate to be used toward a future ticket on United. The terms and conditions of the certificate will be sent from a different email address within 3-5 business days.

(At this point in the story, I usually offer a word or two about the hazards of loyalty programs and the evil of affinity cards. I don’t want to disappoint you, so here it goes: Mileage-earning credit cards turn otherwise rational consumers into clueless lemmings, forcing them to spend money they don’t have in order to collect rewards that quickly expire. They should be banned by law, along with all ridiculous loyalty programs.)

The Sheviakovs appealed, of course. To which United said:

I regret you’re dissatisfied with our response and continue to be
disappointed with United.

You asked us to reexamine your request, and we have done so. All things considered, we do support our earlier decision. The $100 certificate was intended as compensation to offset your out of pocket baggage expenses along with a gesture of goodwill to provide you with a chance to experience the service you deserve. While I understand you do not feel it is meaningful given your circumstances, I hope you will accept it in the spirit in which we have intended.

We appreciate your understanding and will do our utmost to make your future contacts with United satisfactory in every respect.

I’ll take that as a hard “Nyet.”

But still, it raises the question: When an airline endorses a ticket to another carrier, how much of the ticket should it endorse? Should it cover the “ancillary” purchases, such as luggage fees or Wi-Fi?

That’s actually an interesting discussion.

If Sheviakov had purchased a bag, United would probably reimburse the cost. Then he could just take the money and pay for his bag to be transported on Alaska.

Then again, if he’d been flying on an airline that offered a bag as part of its fare, like an international carrier or Southwest, and his ticket were transferred, would it also cover his checked bag? Probably not.

There’s also this: United gave him twice what he was asking for in vouchers. No, it’s not the same as money, but it’s better than nothing.

For the rest of us, this is nothing more than a cautionary tale about the “benefits” of affinity cards. Airlines, and the credit card companies with which they’re in cahoots, love to take your hard-earned money, but when it comes to giving it back, they’re not as enthusiastic. Think about that the next time you give all of your loyalty to one airline or one credit card.

The loyalty only goes one way.

Did United offer the Sheviakovs enough compensation?

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or check out his adventures on his family adventure travel site. Contact him at Read more of Christopher's articles here.

  • Matt

    The biggest issue is the verbal assurance that their bags would be free. That is a problem and I assume is why they got a decent resolution (twice as much credit as they paid) although that really depends if they would have the chance to use the credit. If they do, sounds fairly good.

    I’d agree that they did already pay for their free bag on United (via the card membership fee and spending). But sounds like they are also getting some value back making their participating in the FF program fairly rational.

  • KanExplore

    If they said it would be covered, then it should be. Get it in writing. I’ll be off a few days. Headed to Curacao for a few days R & R with these ridiculous loyalty points that CE says should be banned because I’m not smart enough to use the program intelligently. And of course my baggage will be free too because of the credit card I got, whose mileage bonus more than paid for the trip as well as the card covering the bag. Since the first year fee was waived, I guess I’m out $0 so far, and that’s really too much to pay for this kind of trip, I suppose. Too bad I’m not smart enough to pass up these horrible loyalty programs and stay home this winter. Back on Monday.

  • Tom McShane

    I hope you enjoy your trip, Kan. You do realize that this post reads like one of those My neighbors aunt’s ex-husband makes $88 an hour working from home and just bought a spiffy Oldsmobile things often seen on comment boards.
    I’m afraid the unfortunate part of the internet is getting to us all.

  • Alan Gore

    Probablythe most we can hope for in a case like this is return of the first carrier’s fees, which in this case were included in the loyalty arrangement. And if someone makes you a promise next time, get it in writing.

  • Matt

    Tom, seems right on target to me, it was responding directly to the article and wasn’t pushing a link.

  • Don Spilky

    I voted No, Not because I feel they should be given MORE compensation, but different compensation. They booked on AA in part because of the “free” checked bag, if AA decides to cancel their flight and rebook them on some other airline without this perk, then AA should reimburse their fee for cash, not a useless travel voucher that they will then need to pay more in fees to redeem.

  • Jeff W.

    They spent $50 for free bags, which they should not have and got a $100 travel voucher for the inconvenience. So they doubled their money. Yes, it is a travel voucher. But they are United credit card holders. So they will be flying United again — otherwise why would you bother with a UA credit card?

    Also one clarification. Even the domestic carriers allow for free bags when flying international, including United.

  • Charles Owen

    At this point in the story I usually respond. “…forcing them to spend money they don’t have in order to collect rewards that quickly expire” Forcing them? I do have the United card. The current balance is zero. I haven’t used it in months. Are the United police going to come and get me? I have it mainly for the bag benefit and the early boarding.

    As for “quickly expire”, how do you define quickly? United is 18 months after the last activity. If you do anything they reset the clock. My wife has some miles on United that were about to expire, so we ordered Time magazine for 500 miles. Resets the clock. Delta miles don’t expire.

  • Bill___A

    I used to be anal about getting every benefit and wanting everything to be “exactly right”. Later in life, i learned not to “sweat the small stuff”. Agreements aren’t perfect. Arrangements aren’t perfect. I budget for things that could happen and am prepared at times to spend nominal amounts of money in order to avoid grief.

    Although it is my opinion that probably this benefit should be transferred, I also realize they don’t have the mechanism or arrangement or even will to do it, so it is not something I would make a big deal about. As to loyalty programs, if you find it is worth it, go for it, and if you don’t, then do not…like anything it is a decision pertinent to your own situation.

  • ctporter

    This was an interesting question. Since United (UA) and Alaska (AS) are not code share partners nor in the same alliance I thought it was really great that UA put them on the AS flight rather than make them wait for a next available UA flight. But the down side to that is that since the baggage fees are based on the originating carrier (in this case it was AS) the only way to get a “free checked bag” is to follow rules from AS. So, should UA have paid not only for the tickets but also the baggage fees? I thought that the double value vouchers was a very nice touch, they could have just offered the check bag fee value. This is a good example of a downside to unbundling.

  • James

    The problem with suggesting certain ancillary benefits being transferred if the ticket is rebooked is that many of these benefits may not even be transferable. For example, a seat reservation or priority boarding is unlikely to make sense for a transfer. On the other hand, a pre-purchased (not special order) meal or bag (and in this case, I’d view it as a ore-purchased bag, as you note, these things are not “free” so a purchase was made for the bag to be carried) if it exists on the new flight, should be transferable. Even if it means just reimbursing for the checked bag.

  • MarkKelling

    So what was more costly for the traveler: paying for the bag check or waiting for the next available UA flight they could get them on?

    I would have been completely satisfied if UA did the same thing for me because I got where I wanted to go and needed to be without an excessive delay. The $100 flight credit should be useful to any frequent flyer especially one who has the airline credit card.

    And no, the items you may be entitled to on one airline either because you are a high level frequent flyer or have the credit card that provides those benefits should not transfer to another airline. First off, the other airline may not even offer those benefits to their own flyers. Second, I doubt there is any way for a ticketing agent at one airline to do any more than simply purchase the ticket on the other airline.

    And Mr Elliott, It would be nice if instead of the random jabs at “ridiculous loyalty programs” you could post an article with details on why you consider them “ridiculous” and what we could do to avoid those specific programs. If such an article has been posted by you already, please provide a link. Maybe if a concise reasonable discussion was posted many of us would be swayed to agree with you.

  • KanExplore

    About 80% of my comment was removed.

  • Tom McShane

    They surely did. And it was the part I was commenting upon. As Emily Litella used to say ‘Nevermind’
    Sheesh, a guy can’t even shill for his pet cause anymore.

  • Carchar

    I had a similar situation on United. I was flying from Washington to Miami. I went to check my larger bag, no charge because I was at gold level. I had to change in Newark, which was undergoing extensive renovations, and was to arrive at my final destination after 11:30 p.m. The agent looked at my ticket and proactively suggested that I would be better off not flying through Newark, and possibly missing my connection, that day. She told me she could put me on an American flight that flew directly to MIA. It would get me in at 8 p.m. I agreed and as I was walking to check my bag at AA, it occurred to me that I’d probably have to pay a baggage fee. I did. At the time it was still $25 and I paid it. My economy seat had no one else in the row, so I was probably more comfortable than I would have been on the United flight. I figured it was money well-spent to get to MIA earlier without the EWR hassles. As it turned out, a couple of tornado sightings closed MIA and delayed flights right after I landed. The Sheviakovs should be content with their travel certificate.

  • Tom McShane

    Be warned, Don. The Bat Signal has been lit. The loyalty loyalists and voucher lovers are out in force on this one.

  • Matt

    Too bad, your comment was edited. From my perspective it seemed responding to the material in the article.

  • Éamon deValera

    I think the card’s annual fee is greater than the bag fee. I understand the principle of the thing, but I’d be OK with a voucher for $100 especially if I was a UA FF.

  • Patrica

    Whew! Another reason I’m glad I read these columns… Fair warning, a situation I had not thought of. Thanks!

  • 42NYC

    I think luggage policies should carry over btw airlines (whether you already paid for a bag or you have a free bag due to status or a credit card), it would be great if UA and Alaska could talk to each other so the ticket included a free bag (presumably at a discount rate, as i’m sure the airlines give each other decent deals for taking their passengers due to IRROPS and not charging the full walk-up fare).

    I know people would prefer cash than “airline dollars” but assuming the OP flies UA at least a couple of times a year (which is likely given that they have a UA credit card) they will have no problem using that voucher for a future flight.

    Other than getting cold hard cash I dont know what else the op is really looking for here.

  • 42NYC

    i’m certainly a ‘loyalist’ on this page at least. I agree that cash is preferred since, well, its cash. That said, i’m assuming the OP flies on UA at least once or twice a year (as they have the UA credit card) so is it really a terrible inconvenience to have the $100 voucher to be used on any flight in the future??

    Yes, cash is always better but its $100 were talking about. If it was a refund of a $6,000 international biz class ticket refunded with an airline voucher i’d be more vocal about demanding cash. But $100 (which i appreciate means more to some than others) hopefully isnt the difference between them paying their bills and getting foreclosed and they should be able to use it soon.

  • 42NYC

    im with you on not sweating the small stuff, but i think the bigger picture is the large multi billion dollar airline vs the individual passenger. How many times does this happen in a year and how many of those times does the passenger just have to ‘eat’ the extra cost.

  • Tom McShane

    Over on Consumerist they are reporting on a Frontier flight that keep pax on flight for just under 3 hrs, refused to let them use the toilet, gave them vouchers for an already full hotel, then said they would offer those travelers vouchers for future Frontier flights.
    If one used that voucher, would it be sorta like a horse running back into a burning barn?

  • BMG4ME

    Oh Chris, you’re a great friend and advocate but I don’t think adding your views on loyalty programs added to the story! Anyway in my opinion if they are entitled to free baggage on the original airline they should be entitled to the same allowance on the new airline.

  • judyserienagy

    Bad stuff happens sometimes when you travel. Common sense tells you that your UA card won’t result in a free bag at another airline. Why are people always fussing about these little things and expecting compensation? You got home on time? Excellent. Would you rather have waited several hours or overnight to fly on a UA flight with no charge for your bag? You paid for a bag on Alaska. What’s the big deal? You received a nice certificate and you don’t think it’s enough? Really, people, have a look at the big picture, stop snivelling about the small stuff.

  • DChamp56

    I keep saying, there should be a law. If you pay in cash, you get cash back, not vouchers.

  • Hajime Sano

    Out of curiosity, what would’ve happened if they were an elite member? I’m a United Million Miler (lifetime Premier Gold), and wonder if I would’ve been reimbursed for my bags if I’d been put on another airline.

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