Warning: A connecting city is not the same as a stopover

Smart travelers know the importance of leaving plenty of time between connecting flights to protect themselves from problems caused by delays.

This traveler thought she was being smart by deliberately allowing 21 hours between connecting flights in Houston — and paying extra for her desired itinerary so she could visit a friend in Houston. What could go wrong? In this case, plenty, because she thought a connecting city and a stopover are the same thing. They are not.

Esther Joffe booked a trip from Tel Aviv to Indianapolis. It included connections in Paris, Houston and Atlanta. But a six-hour delay in Tel Aviv meant she would miss the Paris-to-Houston leg. So she asked Air France to reroute her. The new itinerary skipped Houston and actually got her to Indianapolis earlier than originally scheduled. But the shorter, more-direct flight did not make her happy.

I purchased a ticket from Tel Aviv to Indianapolis. My initial flight from Tel Aviv to Paris on Air France was delayed by approximately 6 hours because of an equipment problem. I was supposed to have a five-hour layover in Paris and therefore missed the connecting flight to Houston. Because there was no other good alternative to get to Houston with time to visit my friend, I had Air France reroute me to Indianapolis via Atlanta and skip Houston.

Because the delay caused her to miss her visit in Houston, Joffe asked Air France for compensation under EU 261, the European consumer protection law for air travelers. However, the airline cited the provisions of that rule as their reason for not giving her the 600 euros she wanted.

Our decision is in compliance with Regulation No 261/2004 of the European parliament. According to the regulation a passenger could be entitled to compensation when arriving at their final destination with a delay of more than 3 hours. In this instance the arrival to final destination was even earlier than the scheduled time of arrival … If there is no delay upon arrival at the final destination, passengers are not entitled to compensation and therefore we cannot agree to your request.

The Air France reply was correct. The airline held up its side of the deal, getting her to the destination with no delay. While EU 261 established rules for compensating travelers in the event of delays, cancellations and denied boarding situations, it has exceptions. You will find a detailed list of frequently asked questions about EU 261 on our website.

Related story:   No flight, meals, phone or bags from British Airways -- and no compensation

Although the airline denied her compensation request, Air France did offer her a $250 voucher for future travel as a goodwill gesture.

But she didn’t think that was enough. So Joffe contacted us for help. When our advocate looked at her ticket details, however, he noticed something important. It showed Houston as a connection, not a stopover. It’s an important difference.

A stopover is a specific destination, often booked as a multicity ticket. If you want to be assured of spending time in an intermediate location, that’s how you book it. However, what Joffe bought was a ticket from Tel Aviv to Indianapolis with plane changes in several cities. As our advocate explained to her, connection cities and times are never guaranteed and can be changed at any time by the airline. In his experience, the voucher is the most she can expect under the circumstances.

While he was unable to help her with the airline, our advocate did notice a detail that may provide Joffe an avenue for additional compensation. It appears from her ticket that she used a travel consultant to book the trip. One of the reasons we recommend using a travel consultant is for their expertise in booking these type of tickets.

If Joffe informed the travel agent that she wanted a stopover in Houston, the agent should have advised her about the difference in booking the city as a connection versus a stopover. Our advocate told her that if the consultant actually advised her to book this as a connection without warning that connections can be changed, then she might want to discuss compensation with the agent.

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Abe Wischnia

Abe started his working career as a television news reporter and newscaster before moving to corporate communications and investor relations. Now retired and having learned useful tips from Elliott.org, one of his volunteer activities is writing for us. Read more of Abe's stories here.

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