If they didn’t tell me about this $200 change fee, do I still have to pay it?

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By Christopher Elliott

A few weeks ago, Chris Singh was scheduled to fly from Minneapolis to Norfolk, Va., on United Airlines to rent a vacation home. Unfortunately, Hurricane Joaquin paid the area a little visit, too.

“The area was flooded and my destination was a beach house that was right on the ocean,” he says. “It was foolish to go, so I canceled.”

Had United canceled his flight to Norfolk, then he would have been given a full refund. But it didn’t. His vacation home might have been under water, but not the airport.

“I called several hours before my flight to ask about refunds or credits and was told that I’d get a credit for my flight that was good for a year,” he says. “That representative did not tell me that I’d have to pay $200 for the privilege of using that credit in the future.”

The United rep should have disclosed the fee

The United rep should have disclosed the fee, of course. It may be well known to readers of this site, but remember, most Americans get to their destinations by car and darken the door of an airport only rarely. Back in the pre-deregulation days, people wouldn’t fly because it cost too much. Today, they don’t fly because of the high hassle factor. But I digress.

Singh sent an email back to United, asking for an exception. Here’s how it responded:

I am sorry you are disappointed with the decision to operate flights on October 1. Safety is our number one priority and we would never jeopardize the safety of our passengers and crew. Despite the weather conditions in some areas, we operated regular schedules for most of our destinations.

Although we had a waiver in place for the Bahamas due to Hurricane Joaquin, the flights you were scheduled for on October 1 and October 5 operated on schedule. We offer waivers when we need to cancel flights at a location due to extreme weather, but we never cancel flights if it is safe to fly.

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Our first priority is safety and operating our flight schedules for all of our passengers is equally as important. I am sorry for any confusion about this policy.

Let’s skip the whole double standard debate that inevitably arises. I mean, Singh canceled plans because of a circumstance beyond his control and has to pay $200, but if the tables are turned, United is able to cancel its plans without paying any kind of penalty. Fair? No. But let’s move on.

Do they have to pay the fee?

The question here is: if a representative didn’t explicitly tell a customer there was a fee, do you still have to pay it? And that’s a valid question.

It doesn’t matter that United’s $200 change fee is well disclosed on its site and that most air travelers know about change fees. What matters is that a representative omitted mention of the change fee when Singh called to cancel his flight.

“I find this policy absolutely crazy,” says Singh. “I realize it’s standard practice in the industry, but having a hurricane and a state of emergency being declared in the place you are flying to are clearly extraordinary circumstances.”

Yes, they are. And yes, it’s crazy that United would throw the book in his face. But that’s the airline industry for you. (Here’s how to get a refund on a nonrefundable airline ticket.)

Full waiver

United eventually agreed to waive half of Singh’s change fee. He’d like us to get a full waiver. (Related: Warning! Not all premium seats are created equal.)

I’m actually surprised the airline went as far as it did. Maybe someone over there felt guilty about the fees. After all, the change fees can negate the entire value of some United tickets, meaning that it’s not even worth calling the airline to cancel.

In fact, many unhappy customers don’t even bother. They’d rather the seat fly empty than allow the carrier to resell the seat and make even more money. What a strange world we live in.

I’m not really sure if getting involved would do much good, but I will if you ask me to.

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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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