Help! My airline charged me for a car seat — and it’s keeping the money

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By Christopher Elliott

There are certain items for which domestic airlines will probably never charge, like strollers and child safety seats. Cashing in on babies is just seen as tacky by most airline passengers. So when Continental Airlines inadvertently billed Greg Sykes for his child’s car seat, he expected a quick refund.

That didn’t happen.

I was as surprised as Sykes by this, because I had begun to believe Continental’s customer service was head and shoulders above the other legacy carriers.

Here’s Sykes’ story:

Recently, my wife and infant son traveled with Continental Airlines from Detroit to Houston and back again.

We were charged for a car seat on the departing trip, even though the published Continental policy was to not charge for a car seat when it is the first or second piece of luggage. The car seat was checked as my son’s only piece of luggage (even though our son is less than two years old, we purchased his ticket for the luggage allowance and for the additional space on the plane).

The skycap in Houston realized that the car seat charge was in error and prevented a repeat charge on the return trip.

When I contacted Continental I was told that the situation needed to be resolved before the flight occurred. So, I can either not pay the charge and not travel with my luggage (the carseat) or I can pay the charge and live with it. I’ve sent Continental an e-mail regarding this situation but I don’t expect to receive any response.

Please let others know just how intractable and absolute Continental personnel can be. Maybe someone else will remember to print a copy of the airline luggage policy, or other relevant policy, and can resolve these little situations by using the company’s own words. Hopefully, this experience can help prevent anyone else being blindsided by company personnel who don’t know their company’s policy.

Southwest Airlines is dedicated to the highest quality of customer service delivered with a sense of warmth, friendliness, individual pride, and Company Spirit. We are committed to providing our employees with a stable work environment with equal opportunity for learning and personal growth.

Let’s have a look at Continental’s rules on car seats:

One of the following infant articles may be carried on board, in addition to the maximum carry-on baggage allowance:

Diaper Bag

Small Collapsible Stroller (space permitting)

Government-Approved Child Seat (infant carrying seat or car seat)

Strollers and Car Seats as Checked Baggage

Continental accepts one stroller or one car seat in addition to a customer’s baggage allowance. When checked as baggage, all oversize and overweight charges will apply. First and second bag fees do not apply to either a stroller or a car seat. Continental is not liable for damage to strollers. Excess Valuation may not be purchased for strollers.

Here’s the whole policy.

I don’t understand why Continental wouldn’t just refund the luggage fee if it admits the charge was an error. So I asked the airline. (Related: My airline ticket is “illegal” and all they’re offering is a voucher.)

A spokeswoman contacted me, and assured me the case had been solved.

“It appears that he was incorrectly charged,” she told me. “Our customer care department contacted Mr. Sykes and refunded the charge.”

Here are a few observations

When Sykes said, “I’ve sent Continental an e-mail regarding this situation but I don’t expect to receive any response,” he may or may not have been correct. (Airlines may charge more for young passengers, prompting families to seek alternatives, while parents receive new tools to reduce in-flight conflicts.)

Here are some Continental contacts, and if you don’t hear back from them in a week, you’re probably correct — you won’t hear back from them at all. (Here’s everything that you need to know before planning your next trip.)

The airline was correct to suggest Sykes deal with the refund while he was still at the airport. It’s always better to take care of a customer-service problem right then and there. But that was no excuse to keep this customer’s money.

Airlines insist that we follow their rules to the letter. It isn’t unreasonable for us to expect them to follow theirs, too.

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on X, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter.

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