Seriously, how careful do consumers have to be?

Bryan Perilman shoulda known better.

He and his wife were flying from Fort Lauderdale to New York this summer on Spirit Airlines, but the their flight was canceled because of mechanical problems. When a representative offered to fly the couple on Delta Air Lines if they accepted a voucher, he should have known to ask: Is there a catch?

“A Spirit representative offered us two free round trips each,” says Perilman. “More than fair, we thought.”

But they thought wrong.

“She did paperwork, handed us a voucher for two free round trips each, and hustled us out, telling us to hurry over to Delta, which was a hike away. She told us to run, since the bus that goes round the airport would be too slow. We ran,” he says.

When he had time to review the vouchers for their “free” flights, he discovered the restrictions, and there were a planeload of them. The vouchers were applicable to the base fare only, didn’t cover fuel costs, taxes, baggage, and, of course, their Spirit $9 Club membership fee.

No problem, he thought. He could work with that. So he called Spirit to redeem his “free” flight for a flight from Fort Lauderdale to Pittsburgh for Thanksgiving. Spirit told him he couldn’t, even though there were plenty of open seats on the flight.

“The telephone agent said that vouchers were treated like mileage tickets and were very limited, especially on holiday periods,” he says.

Needless to say, Perilman felt betrayed, and Spirit didn’t seem to care. His complaints about the restriction of the “free” vouchers were initially ignored, which is when he turned to me for help.

My first reaction – other than the fact that Spirit is really stretching the definition of “free” with these vouchers – is that Perilman shouldn’t have fallen for this, and no doubt wouldn’t have if he hadn’t been rushed. He’s a lawyer, and if anyone should know that the devil’s in the details, it’s him.

And that begs the question: How careful do you have to avoid getting scammed?

A few weeks ago on my consumer advocacy site, a reader complained about a credit card that offered “free” checked bags. Some commenters pounced on him for daring to gripe about the terms and conditions of the card, branding him a dummy for not paying attention.

Let’s just say it was a lively debate.

But as I started reading the conditions of other consumer products, even those beyond travel, I noticed they’re filled with traps and “gotchas” that we often don’t see coming. Indeed, that the companies must know we won’t see coming, and fall for them.

Who is responsible when we get stuck with a worthless voucher? The company – or the customer?

I’m not fond of the term “the customer is always right,” but in this particular case, it’s a fitting phrase. My well-meaning critics seem to believe it’s on us when we fall for an offer like the Spirit voucher, but I beg to differ.

How careful do we have to be? Is it really reasonable to expect Perilman to stop the ticket agent and review the terms of the scrip, line by line, possibly missing his flight? To what extent should he have relied on the verbal assurances of the Spirit employee?

If you think it’s Perilman’s own fault for falling for Spirit’s empty promise, that’s OK. It seems many of my readers, corporate America, and the court system agree with you.

But I don’t feel in the least bit guilty about tilting at this windmill. Call me naïve, but I think the verbal assurances of an employee should match the fine print. You shouldn’t be able to call it a “free” voucher and then say, “Psych!”

It’s just not right.

Based on Perilman’s story, I felt this was a case the Transportation Department’s Aviation Consumer Protection Division should consider. He contacted the DOT, described what had happened to him, and eventually heard back from someone at Spirit at a higher level.

“In order to volunteer a seat on a flight, a customer must sign the Volunteer Acknowledgement Form, which is included in the Future Travel Voucher Pamphlet,” the representative noted. “A signature indicates that a customer understands the conditions under which he/she agrees to volunteer.”

DOT declined to get involved because it doesn’t regulate vouchers.

I’m disappointed with the government’s decision. While it may not have the specific authority to regulate a voucher, it does indeed have the ability to stop an airline from making false or misleading claims.

I side with the victims like Perilman. We shouldn’t have to hire a contract lawyer to decipher an offer.

Not on Spirit. Not on any airline.

Who is responsible when we get stuck with a worthless voucher?

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