How Alamo, Marriott, and Southwest waived change fees and saved a vacation

Ben Cooperman’s New England vacation ended suddenly, but there was a silver lining, thanks to Alamo, Marriott, and Southwest, which waived change fees for him in an unexpected gesture of goodwill.

If they hadn’t, his family could have been stuck with hefty change fees — the inevitable result of his family’s last-minute itinerary changes.

“Most of your columns deal with traveler problems and I just want to tell you about a recent trip with positive outcomes,” Cooperman says. This is what the Good News Guy lives for.

“While enjoying our trip, my kids and I, unfortunately, had to return earlier than planned from a different airport to accommodate a family emergency,” he went on. “This could have been a disaster but overall ended well.”

Family issues aside, the disaster to which Cooperman refers would have been the fee free-for-all from the stacked layers of last-minute penalties and change fees Alamo, Southwest and Marriott could have imposed as part of his customary contractual agreements.

We’re talking hundreds of dollars in penalties.

The rules are clear with Alamo, Marriott and Southwest

For better or worse, travelers agree to the change fees and cancellation penalties during the purchase transaction. And they really have little choice when every company does it. While not pleased, Cooperman expected them.

Alamo is clear about its across-the-board $50 cancellation fee with less than 24 hours notice. Some online car reservations offer a lower rate, but with a more restrictive cancellation fee. Almost all companies add yet another fee when returning the car to a different location, as Cooperman did. This fee can vary so wildly, one frequently doesn’t know it until such a rental is executed or tracking down a knowledgeable customer rep.

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As do many other hotels, Marriott charges a one-night’s stay to the credit card used to hold the reservation if canceled less than 48 hours prior to check-in. Again, some online reservations offer lower rates with a more restrictive cancellation policy.

Southwest already has a reputation as one of the most lenient airlines, which is not surprising given the airlines’s no-change-fee policy. Some might say Cooperman was fortunate to get last-minute seats on the day he needed them at any price. Yet Southwest remains competitively priced.

Waived change fee

“Alamo not only waived their cancellation fee and allowed us to return the car to a different airport,” he says, “but they provided a partial refund. Southwest switched our flights without any penalty and even had a partial credit left over. With less than a day notice, Marriott canceled with no change fee.”

Yet our forum is awash in fee backlash. Fees, fees, and more fees — but very few fee waivers.

In fairness, the travel industry, as any other business, needs to balance profit maximization with equity and goodwill to maintain a loyal long-term customer base. And without some disincentive, cancellations by simply indecisive and tentative travelers (as opposed to those with true emergencies) increase the cost of doing business.

Is that actually the case when hotels and airlines deliberately overbook?

To ensure planes are at full capacity, airlines regularly bump fliers, enticing volunteers to fly later with complimentary future travel fare vouchers in addition to their purchased fare — or they may simply remove them. If you’re stuck in another place when a hotel does it, you’re at its mercy. And a reservation doesn’t even assure overbooking immunity with a car rental agency. (It’s still funny.)

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At what point does a practical response to free market forces by a business become gouging?

While this may be a chicken/egg debate, an ever-increasing plethora of traveling customers ensures that canceled hotel rooms, car reservations, and aircraft seating are usually re-sold. And a short-notice airfare purchase can be the most expensive. In some cases, profits from fees may exceed those from the actual contracted service.

Waived change fees = good news?

Is Cooperman’s experience really good news when things go well and a company is just being nice? Or is it a testament to mediocre expectations? The Good News Guy has repeatedly wrestled with this topic about others, including Marriott’s Renaissance Philadelphia Airport Hotel, Air New Zealand, and his very own experience at the JFK Fairfield Inn.

It may appear that Cooperman lucked out, but not so fast. He also showed how it never hurts to ask — nicely.

Part of the ask is owning your part in the predicament. It’s giving those who can help a chance to do so.

You just might be surprised.

Perhaps, if we take a moment to say “thank you,” this kind of thing will happen more often. Even the biggest companies can be starving for a kind word. It makes them more likely to pay it forward for the next person.

“My thanks to the incredible customer service from Alamo, Southwest, and Marriott,” concluded Cooperman. “It was not only easy to get them on the phone. But they were understanding, accommodating, and provided either a refund, credit or no penalties.”

While Cooperman’s adventure didn’t end well, his family’s experiences with a car rental, hotel, and airline did. Three out of four isn’t bad.

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Cooperman’s exemplary experiences shouldn’t be that big of a deal. But they were, and they should not go unacknowledged. Maybe this will help.

Andrew Der

Der is an environmental consultant and travel journalist specializing in water science, nature, eco-travel, and cultural destinations

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