Think twice before booking your next airline ticket online. Your itinerary could come with costly restrictions you don't even know about.
That's what happened to Addison Schonland, a frequent traveler based in Washington, DC, when he tried to upgrade his airline ticket from San Diego to London. "When I tried to use my miles to upgrade, I was told that the ticket wasn't upgradeable because I bought it online," he says. "[To upgrade,] I'd have to buy another, more expensive ticket-offline."
Schonland admits he should have known better. As an airline analyst for PA Consulting, he's watched the airlines quietly create a second class of Internet-only fares, with restrictions that customers often don't discover until it's too late.
Airline contracts only mention the Internet when referencing Internet-only fares. For example, when American Airlines says offline customers "will be offered the lowest available fare," it excepts "exclusive Internet-only fares." But recently, some customers have been told that their online tickets are not refundable to the same extent as other tickets, and in some cases, can't be exchanged-not even for medical reasons.
How do you avoid buying a restricted ticket? First, be wary of extra-cheap online tickets, which are usually tickets that would otherwise go unsold. Airlines sometimes make these tickets ineligible for frequent flier mileage or prevent buyers from making changes once they've been booked. Also, ask about any additional restrictions before you buy. Each ticket comes with fine print that isn't included in the airline contract or displayed online when you buy. Calling for clarification can save you aggravation-and money.
Christopher Elliott is a writer and commentator and the editor of www.elliott.org.