Next time an airline promises you a refund, you might want to ask, "How much?"
Gayle DeKellis forgot to do so when Aeroméxico downgraded her and her husband from business class to economy on a recent flight from Mexico City to San Francisco.
"We were assured by Aeroméxico staff that we would receive a refund for the difference between the first-class fare and the coach fare," says DeKellis, a psychologist in Berkeley, California.
It didn't happen. Initially, the airline balked, saying her fare wasn't eligible for a refund. Then it offered the couple $100 apiece, claiming that it calculated the refund based on fares on the day of their trip — math that worked to the airline's advantage because economy-class fares typically rise just before a flight departs.
By DeKellis' calculations, they were owed $416, the difference between economy class and business class on the day they purchased their tickets.
Airlines have never been quick to issue refunds, but they've become particularly reluctant in cases involving extras such as upgrades, luggage fees and seat assignments. Some airlines consider these fees non-refundable, no matter what happens. There are economic reasons for this hesitation, and, as always, other travel companies are following the airline industry's lead.
Bottom line for customers: Getting your money back doesn't mean you'll be getting all of your money back — at least for now.
An Aeroméxico representative said the carrier conducted an "extensive investigation" on DeKellis and her husband's tickets and determined that it had acted appropriately. But it agreed to process a refund of an additional $416 to honor the verbal promise made by one of its employees.
It's not automatic
In the case of canceled flights, federal regulations require airlines to refund the price of the ticket. But airlines don't do so automatically. Why not? There's a good reason: Most passengers on that canceled flight will still want to reach their destination, and the refund will go toward their new booking. So the policy at American Airlines, the world's largest airline, is that money doesn't get refunded unless the traveler specifically asks for it.
"If the passenger requests a refund due to a canceled flight, we will process that refund for the portion of the trip not used," says American Airlines spokesman Ross Feinstein. "But most travelers, when a flight is canceled, call us to look at other options."
Airlines are even more reluctant to issue refunds for fare differences or for so-called ancillary fees, which are not federally regulated — at least not yet. These fees are an enormous business, with North America's airlines reaping almost $11 billion in what are called a la carte fees in 2015 — a 24 percent increase over what was collected a year before. Airlines aren't keen on surrendering this revenue, because if you give up enough of it, there goes your profit.
In other words, they don't have to give it back, and they don't want to.
There's slow technology and foot-dragging
The mechanics of refunds are virtually the same whether it's a refund for a ticket or a fee, according to James Filsinger, the chief executive of the airline price-tracking website Yapta. There are some differences on the back end that should not affect the passenger. Ancillary charges, for example, are managed with something called an Electronic Miscellaneous Document, which basically means that a refund of those charges can appear in your account at a different time than an airfare refund.
One of the reasons fee refunds take longer is that the computer systems used to handle tickets are old and not up to the task. "They didn't anticipate the airline practice of extracting more fees for what some would consider basic, inclusive services, such as upgrades, preferred seating or checked baggage," Filsinger says.
But beyond technological failures, refund foot-dragging has always been a travel industry tradition. Now it seems to be getting worse, and consumers suspect the companies are just playing a waiting game, hoping their customers will eventually give up and go away.
Related: 12 dirty tricks to save money at Disneyland
12 dirty tricks to save money at Disneyland (GOBankingRates.com)
How to wrench your refund from the airline
1. Take Advantage of Disney Employee Perks
Disney gives its employees free tickets every year. If you know someone who works for the company, then “it can’t hurt to give them a call and see if they have any leftover tickets,” said Leslie Tayne, head debt attorney and founder of the Tayne Law Group. Otherwise, tap your friends and family to see if they know a Disney employee, run an ad on Craigslist or place a post on your social media accounts.
If you can't find tickets, you might still catch a break. “Sometimes Disney workers can get you discounts instead," Tayne added. For example, 12 percent off park tickets and 40 percent off Disney Resorts.”
If you find someone who's willing to hook you up, they're likely going to want some cash in return. Remember to be discreet, because profiting from employee perks could get that person fired.
Photo credit: Lauren Elisabeth/Shutterstock.com
2. Join the Crew for Disneyland Savings
You might not find it among traditional Disneyland insider tips, but you could save money by getting a job with a Disney company. You'll get free admission to the theme parks, plus in-park employee discounts.
If you're working solely to save money at Disneyland, keep the job only as long as you need the perks. When they don't benefit you anymore, just quit.
Keep in mind that quitting abruptly might prevent you from getting rehired. But if you give proper notice, you'll probably be eligible for rehire and have the opportunity to pull this stunt again.
Photo credit: Ken Wolter/Shutterstock.com
3. Exploit Local Disneyland Offers
Disneyland offers special rates to locals. Currently, Southern California residents can get a two-day pass for $149, whereas a normally priced two-day pass runs about $195. Saving $50 per ticket is a big deal, especially when you're traveling with family.
Inquiring minds might want to know whether the promotion for locals operates on an honor system. The answer is no. Proof of residency is required for purchase and admission.
That means if you're old enough to wield an ID, don't expect to slide by. But since Southern California residents can buy up to five promotional-rate tickets, if you find a local who is willing to be a temporary foster parent, you can pass your kids off as theirs long enough to get the little ones through the gate.
Photo credit: Antonio Guillem/Shutterstock.com
4. Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up
Children under age 3 get into Disneyland free, and children under age 10 get a discounted rate. If you have kids who can pass for a younger age, you could conveniently forget a birthday or two has passed, and save yourself some money. However, plans like this can meet an embarrassing demise when children aren't hip to what's going on, and a savvy staff member asks the child for his or her age.
Photo credit: Halfpoint/Shutterstock.com
5. Gain Admission via Timeshare
The deal with timeshares is if you're willing to bear a presentation and aggressive sales pitch, you usually get a gift. Find one that offers Disneyland tickets, and you can get into the park for free.
“You may need to sacrifice a couple hours of a day to view a unit, but it could land you two to four free tickets to the park,” said Edwin Cruz, owner of Prosperity Financial and Insurance. “At over $100 per ticket, you’re technically getting paid to view the [property], he added.
Photo credit: Anze Bizjan/Shutterstock.com
6. Get a New Credit Card
Before you go to Disneyland, consider getting a new credit card. Some offer savings on merchandise, food, tours, combination passes and even spa treatments. In addition to discounts, the Chase Disney Premier Visa Card is currently offering a $100 statement credit to new users who spend $500 in the first three months.
But after your trip, remember your original intent for opening the account. Don't get attached to the new plastic and run up unnecessary debt. These cards often have annual fees and steep interest rates. “So I would recommend that you cancel the card before the year is up,” said Cruz.
Photo credit: Hamik/Shutterstock.com
7. Bring a Costume
For kids, dressing up is a big thing. They'll often wear costumes to character-themed events, and it makes for great picture-taking when a child and a character are dressed alike, Tayne said.
However, Disneyland gift shops aren't a good place to outfit your kid, because costumes can range from $75 to $100, she added. If you're traveling with a child under age 12, buy a Disney character costume before you go to Disneyland.
Gift shops are also not a good place to get caught with a new Disney outfit in your possession that you can't verify. If you buy Disney gear in advance and bring it along, be careful to avoid any shoplifting confusion.
Photo credit: gpointstudio/Shutterstock.com
8. Bring Snacks
The ice cream, pretzels and other snacks at Disneyland might be tempting, but they can also be budget-busters. Since guests are allowed to bring backpacks and small coolers into the park, you could lower your in-park eating cost by bringing your own goodies.
Be aware that Disneyland does reserve the right to refuse you entry, or prohibit you from entering with certain items. If your food raises a red flag, you might have to leave it in a locker outside the main gate.
Photo credit: oliveromg/Shutterstock.com
9. Be Allergic -- to High Food Prices
Granola bars and carrot sticks have their place, but if you're going to spend the whole day in the park, chances are you're going want more than just snacks. Meals at Disneyland can add up quick. A family of four can save over $100 by avoiding lunch, according to Mike Scanlin, CEO of investment website Born to Sell.
The conundrum, for many, is how to avoid both starvation and pricey restaurants. One possible solution is food allergies.
Disneyland tries to prevent people from bring their own meals into the park. But if you have food allergies, you get an open invitation to bring your own meals, and you can eat them inside the restaurants.
Just be prepared that it might raise eyebrows if an entire family or group claims to be food-sensitive. You might still end up with an invitation to eat your personal food outside the gates.
Photo credit: Africa Studio/Shutterstock.com
10. Stick to Water
Forget spending money on drinks. Take a bottle with you, and enjoy free refills from Disneyland's drinking fountains all day.
If, for some reason, you can't get in with your bottle, ask for a free cup from one of the park's restaurants. Otherwise, buy the cheapest drink you can find and refill that from the drinking fountains.
Photo credit: sakkmesterke/Shutterstock.com
11. Take the Free Shuttle Service
Disneyland's parking rates start at $18, but that's a cost you might be able to avoid. Many hotels in the area offer free shuttle service to the park.
Call ahead and get the schedule. Near a departure time, show up, blend in and get in. Or, arrive a little early and befriend a bonafide guest who will vouch for you.
In the end, it might not work. In that case, the worst that's likely to happen is you'll get banned from that hotel's property. It's more likely you'll just be at the center of an embarrassing scene.
Photo credit: Roman Seliutin/Shutterstock.com
12. Recruit Disneyland Bunk Buddies
Disneyland hotels have a lot of amenities, but they're also pricey. For example, Disney's Paradise Pier Hotel has rooftop adult and kiddie pools and the twisting California Streamin’ waterslide. Right now, during off-season, rooms start at $259 a night, compared to numerous hotels less than a mile away listed at under $100.
Travel experts often advise Disneyland-goers to avoid getting sucked into the appeal of luxury, and stay in cheaper surrounding hotels. But if personal space isn't important to you, you can avoid overspending and sacrificing luxury. Just pack a lot of people into one room and split the price among the adults. However, it's important to remember that you run the risk of getting put out of the hotel if you're caught, or having your belongings stolen if you bunk with strangers.
GOBankingRates does not condone policy/law-breaking practices or unethical behavior. This article is meant to educate readers on the potential dangers of a deal that's too good to be true.
Photo credit: dotshock/Shutterstock.com
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Get the promise in writing
Problem is, this institutional resistance to refunds is spilling over to the rest of the travel industry. The case of Nancy Friedman comes to mind. She rented a condo in Santa Barbara, California, in December and paid the homeowner a $1,500 deposit.
Friedman could have paid $59 for insurance, but she's a careful renter and was sure she wouldn't damage anything. And she didn't. But after she checked out, the homeowner simply pocketed the deposit. "The property manager stopped answering the phone when we called," she says. She waited three months (and I had to get involved) before she received her $1,500 back.
At least Friedman didn't give up. And customers never should — to do so would just encourage this corporate mischief. Now, with the busy summer travel season around the corner, travelers can't just take a company at face value when they're promised a refund. The key questions are: When do I get the money, and how much?
And if possible, you need to get that promise in writing. My case files are filled with people who were made promises that the companies had no intention of keeping.
In the end, it may be up to the government to fix this, at least on the airline side. The latest Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization bill contains a provision that would require airlines to promptly and automatically refund any ancillary fees paid for services that the passenger did not receive on a scheduled flight, on a subsequent replacement itinerary or on a flight canceled by the passenger.
Expect more laws like it, stipulating exactly what an airline must refund. It's regrettable that regulation is necessary, but to the tens of thousands of customers who are at this moment still waiting for their money back, it's about time.