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Sunday, November 25, 2007

RIGHTS AND REFUNDS

The Dream Trip That Wasn't

It's rare that CoGo takes up an entire column with one topic, but the case of an elderly Prince George's County woman who missed her cruise of a lifetime seems worthy of the space.

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Because of a missed airline connection, the 78-year-old woman, who lives on a meager Social Security pension, missed the Alaska cruise she'd spent 10 years saving for and dreaming about. Princess Cruises kept the $2,500 she had paid for the cruise and airfare, plus $559.80 the airlines refunded because the woman never took the flights to the cruise.

The woman didn't know until after she'd paid and her tickets had arrived that she was being sent to Anchorage in a roundabout way on three airlines, with three legs in each direction , says her daughter, who asked that her mother's name not be used because she'd "suffered enough, and I don't want people asking her about it and making her rehash it over and over." Seeing the difficult flight route, the daughter tried to talk her out of going, but the woman insisted she'd make the best of it.

The woman arrived at 6:30 a.m. at BWI Airport for the first of her May 19 flights to her cruise. She and an elderly friend got to Minneapolis just fine. But the Northwest flight to Seattle was delayed by mechanical problems , causing the two women to miss their connection to Anchorage .

In Seattle, Northwest agents urged the two women and about 25 other passengers to run and try to make an Alaska Air flight , the woman said. But that Alaska Air flight to Anchorage was full. So was the next one. Finally, the women were boarded on a third flight.

But after they'd settled in, an Alaska Air attendant told them they had to get off the plane because two of the airline's own passengers had just shown up. Two young people were so sympathetic to the elderly travelers that they offered to give up their seats, saying they lived in Anchorage and were in no hurry. But "the flight attendant was adamant that we should deboard the plane" and wouldn't allow the switch, the woman said. She wanted to call her daughter back in Washington but couldn't figure out how to use pay phones that required credit cards. She said two Alaska Air representatives refused to allow her to use company phones for a long-distance call. Moments later, the woman's traveling companion had an asthma attack.

Near midnight, the two finally made their way back to the Northwest terminal. Northwest offered to put them in a hotel and fly them to meet their ship at another port the following day."At this point my body was weak, I had a severe headache and was so tired and confused I could not think," the woman wrote to CoGo. "I would miss the glaciers, the part of the trip I was most excited about, and I was too exhausted mentally and physically to continue." Instead, Northwest flew them home without charge.

Since May, her daughter has been fighting for a refund of the air tickets. The woman finally contacted CoGo last month, saying she accepted forfeiting the money for the cruise but asking for help in recouping money for unused flights ."Please let me know if you think I am being unreasonable," she wrote in an e-mail. She added that she'd never again be able to afford an Alaskan cruise , but if she got her unused airfare refunded, she could take "some little trip."

Alaska Air media relations specialist Amanda Tobin Bielawski said she couldn't trace the specifics of why attendants wouldn't allow other passengers to give their seats to the elderly couple but added that, in general, they wouldn't do so because the displaced Alaska Air passengers would probably ask for compensation . (They would have been entitled to demand $200 for being bumped off a full flight.) She added that the woman had a return ticket from Anchorage to Seattle on Alaska Air and that the airline had refunded the $111 fare for the unused ticket in June. Turns out, though, that the money was sent to Princess.

A little more digging revealed that on May 24, United refunded $448.80 to Princess for the woman's unused return from Seattle.

But Princess spokeswoman Julie Benson said the woman will not get the refunds; Princess keeps the combined total of $559.80. The cruise line negotiates fares and special refund conditions with the airlines, Benson said, and the line's policy is an industry standard :"The cancellation penalty applies to the cruise, airfare, prepaid excursions and pre- or post-cruise packages." Because the woman hadn't bought travel insurance (her friend did), she gets nothing back. Benson said it would be unfair to other passengers to do something different for just one.

"Princess is adding insult to injury ," said spokesman Mitch Katz of the Federal Trade Commission. However, given that the line is upfront about its cancellation policy, this doesn't seem to be a travel fraud matter for the FTC, he said.

It's true that cancellation fees of 100 percent are an industry standard. But at Carnival, spokesman Vance Gulliksen said, although a cancellation close to the sailing date results in a forfeit of 100 percent of the payment, including airfare, "we will consider refunds on a case-by-case basis if there are unusual or extenuating circumstances."

Seems to CoGo that the issue is one for a congressional committee to consider.

In the end, the woman might be able to take "some little trip": Northwest, to show its concern about the missed connection, has decided to refund the woman her original Northwest fare of $386.32, plus a $200 voucher.

BARGAIN OF THE WEEK

The Park City Quick START Program -- and its free lift ticket to any of Park City's three ski resorts -- returns. With the promotion, skiers who fly into Utah receive a same-day lift ticket to Deer Valley, Park City or the Canyons, 30 minutes east of Salt Lake City. Visitors must present at the resort ticket window a boarding pass, photo ID and redemption voucher, available online (www.parkcityinfo.com). Deal is valid from opening day to Dec. 24, Jan. 2-Feb. 14, and March 24 to closing day. Park City and the Canyons are scheduled to open over the weekend if not sooner, weather dependent; Deer Valley is set to open Dec. 8. Daily lift tickets typically cost $78-$80. Info: 800-453-1360.

Reporting: Cindy Loose

Help feed CoGo. Send travel news, road reports and juicy tattles to cogo@washpost.com. By mail: CoGo, Washington Post Travel Section, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071.


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