Tick tock! Your ticket credit’s gone — and you may be a scammer

OK, let’s see if we can get this straight: If you cancel your nonrefundable airline ticket, how long do you have to rebook?

• A year from the day you booked it.
• A year from the day of your cancellation.
• A year from the day you were supposed to fly.

Give up?

Please meet our latest victim of this confusion, Adriana Gores. She booked a flight for her daughter on Virgin America last January to fly from New York to San Francisco for $718. And then the price fell.

I thought I was being responsible by buying my tickets relatively early for a trip in April. Imagine my disgust when two weeks later they announced a fare sale.

I immediately called up Virgin to complain and after being told there was nothing to be done about it I went ahead and canceled the original reservations and rebooked the tickets at the new fare of $578 for two round trip tickets. Even after the change fees, there was still a $60 credit which they put in my Elevate account (opened for the purpose of this trip) along with a $20 bonus for my troubles.

Virgin America’s terms are clear. It doesn’t offer refunds when prices fall, at least according to its Contract of Carriage (PDF).

A few months later I went to book a flight home for my daughter and went to the Virgin America Web site to use my credits. When I logged into my Elevate account neither of the credits were there. I called to find out what had happened and the women I talked to assured me that they would be posted by the next day. When they still weren’t there I didn’t have it in me to deal with it that day and I went ahead and booked her ticket home on a different airline.

About a month ago, my daughter decided she wanted to come home for a longish weekend for personal reasons. I thought what better time to use the credits than for a quick trip like that. The credits were still not there. I called Virgin Guest care and they unceremoniously informed me that the credits expired after one year and I was stone out of luck.

I had a long and fractious conversation with the man at Guest Care who insisted that the women I had talked to several months before knew what she was doing and would not have neglected to tell me the credits would expire. He also said since the expiration date had passed he couldn’t even “get in the system” to verify my story. He was, essentially, accusing me of trying to scam Virgin out of $60 — insinuating that I had used it already and was trying to reuse it — and assured me that he could “see” the credits had been there even though I insisted they never were.

Virgin America’s contract says you have one year from the time of cancellation. But if Gores didn’t see the credit the first time she tried to use it, her best bet might have been to e-mail the airline instead of calling. E-mail works better, because it creates a permanent record and allows you to avoid unpleasant “he said/she said” arguments with customer representatives.

I contacted Virgin on Gores’ behalf, and it returned the credit.

Airlines have gotten clever about their definition of “year” and how they represent it to customers.

Maybe it’s time to adopt a uniform policy that is clearly disclosed, rather than buried in the fine print.

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