What to do about the travel industry’s timeout clauses

A casual observer might have thought that Anthony LaMesa was booking a last-minute JetBlue Airways ticket from New York to Cancun, Mexico, on a whim, perhaps to escape the frigid winter weather.

Appearances can be deceiving, though. LaMesa needed to fly to Mexico for emergency dental care. But when he found treatment closer to home, he discovered that he couldn’t change his ticket.

“When I booked this ticket, I thought I had the 24-hour cancellation window for a flight, which has been publicized all over the news,” he says. He didn’t. The 24-hour rule has an important, but often unarticulated, catch: It doesn’t apply to flights booked fewer than seven days in advance.

LaMesa was stuck with his purchase, and when he asked to cancel the ticket, he says, he got an earful from JetBlue. When he talked to one call-center representative, she “condescendingly” told him that she, too, had been “stung” by not reading the airline’s terms and conditions. When LaMesa pushed, she turned aggressive, he says.

“I was literally interrupted and then screamed at in the most cruel and harsh tone imaginable,” he says.

The 24-hour rule exception makes some sense. After all, an airline ticket booked less than a week in advance and then canceled might not be resold. But the way that JetBlue and other airlines disclose that restriction doesn’t make sense. If you’re booking a ticket online through JetBlue.com, you have to click on a tiny “fare restrictions” link to see the disclosure. And passengers booking within the one-week window aren’t offered any additional warnings that the 24-hour rule doesn’t apply, which can easily lead them to believe that they have a one-day grace period, when in fact they don’t.

“Gotcha” clauses related to timing are a venerated travel industry tradition. The most common restrictions pertain to vouchers or ticket credits, often rendering them all but useless after days, weeks or months. To avoid these limits, you have to think like a lawyer and act like a marketer, minding the fine print and asking yourself, “How would I try to stick it to customers — and get away with it?”

One perennial complaint is the ticket credit expiration. It happened to Mazen Hamza, a professional dancer from Philadelphia, who recently booked a nonrefundable US Airways flight from Philadelphia to St. Maarten and then canceled it. An airline representative told him that he had a year to use the ticket, which was true. But it was one year from the date of purchase, not the date of the flight. Sometimes, agents offer an incomplete or misleading explanation, but a look at any airline’s Web site reveals that the clock starts ticking when the booking is first made.

Hamza argued that there’d been no disclosure and that if he’d known, he might have made a different purchase decision. The airline refused to extend his credit, citing the written restrictions on his fare. He appealed to US Airways’ customer service department. “They responded that due to the fare type, there was nothing they would do,” he says.

Of course, the airline industry isn’t the only business that sets a timer on its offers. Hotels and car rental companies routinely insert clauses that can render their products useless or unusable after a certain amount of time. In legal parlance, the inconspicuous disclosure is called a material omission, and the timed variety is particularly worrisome, because it can render an entire purchase worthless.

Attorneys like Stephen Barth are often caught in the crossfire between a hotel that wants to be open about its restrictions and a sales department that would prefer to bury the timeout clauses in a sea of fine print. “The marketing and sales people are afraid that with bold, clear disclosure, the sale might not happen,” says Barth, who runs the HospitalityLawyer.com Web site. “But full disclosure is the best practice.”

Experts say that the old saw “Nothing lasts forever” never rings truer than when it comes to travel. The clock is ticking from the moment you press the “buy” button, and when your time’s up, you’ll probably be left with nothing.

But it isn’t the only way you can get taken. Car rental companies, and especially discount agencies that offer low daily rates and then add fees and surcharges, are notorious for setting a strict timer on their reservations. Show up too late, and they’ll cancel your reservation and force you to pay a more expensive walk-up rate. Return the car early, and they’ll recalculate your rate, asking for more money. Keep the car an extra half-hour, and you’ll pay for another day.

The most egregious example of a timeout is the expiration of loyalty points and frequent-flier miles. But it’s all in the contract: Companies can change the terms of their loyalty programs whenever they want to, for any reason, and they don’t have to notify you. I’ve lost count of the number of travelers who’ve complained to me of being stripped of hundreds of thousands of miles with little or no warning and no way to recover them.

The only way to avoid trouble with an expiring offer is to pay close attention to it and to the fine print of the contract or terms of service. Your options for recovering the value of your ticket or any damages are limited, say experts like Barth. Under many state consumer protection laws, you can make a claim for deceptive trade practices and recover your attorney fees and often up to triple damages. But, says Barth, the damages are often small and not worth the time and financial risk for individual consumers to pursue. Material omissions may say more about a company than they do about your ability to do your due diligence on a travel purchase, he adds.

“Businesses that omit or hide it in the fine print, they don’t get customer care,” says Barth. “They’re thinking about the short term.” Over time, these solely revenue-focused airlines, car rental companies and hotels will suffer as customers abandon them in favor of companies that do care.

LaMesa’s case resolved itself in a curious way. He e-mailed me on a recent morning, asking for help, and concurrently called out JetBlue, cc-ing me, on Twitter (I’m at @elliottdotorg and JetBlue is at @Jetblue, if you want to follow along). LaMesa didn’t have a leg to stand on, in terms of the fine print — his purchase was completely nonrefundable.

But I responded publicly, saying that JetBlue’s alleged handling of his complaint — screaming at him on the phone — was very “un-JetBlue-like.”

JetBlue, which appears to be uncomfortable having customer service problems played out in the media, fully refunded LaMesa’s ticket.

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