Bargain air fares may be nonrefundable these days -- but that doesn't necessarily mean you'll lose money if you can't use the ticket.
Stephen Bladen Douglas of Bowie purchased two such tickets last month for a trip to San Diego to visit relatives. But just before he was to depart, the friend who was to go along got a contract for the sale of her house, and the pair had to cancel the trip. They might have been stuck with the two round-trip tickets -- and at $298 each, it would have been a considerable loss. Instead, they placed a classified ad in the newspaper and managed to sell the tickets for their asking price.
This "hidden market" in nonrefundable air tickets, as a spokesman for one U.S. airline has dubbed this use of classifieds, appears to be flourishing across the country. It is a phenomenon created by U.S. airline fare policies, and has appeal for both buyers and sellers: Travelers who can't use the nonrefundable tickets are delighted to be able to sell them rather than lose money, and buyers often can find bargains in the last-minute sales. A recent ad offered a round-trip ticket to San Diego over Labor Day weekend for only $250.
Many nonrefundable tickets are sold among friends and business associates. But others are listed in the classified ads of community and college newspapers. Locally, The Washington Post and the City Paper regularly carry such ads, as do such other metropolitan newspapers as the Baltimore Sun, Philadelphia Inquirer and the Chicago Tribune. Some offers are for round-trip tickets; others are for one-way tickets only (practical for a college student heading back to school, for example).
A recent Sunday Post classified section had about 60 individual ads, offering tickets to such diverse destinations in the United States as Boston, Boise, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Denver, Kansas City and Aspen. (The market in nonrefundable tickets is limited almost exclusively to U.S. destinations.)
Not surprisingly, the airlines are unhappy about the hidden market -- and do what they can to thwart it -- usually by confiscating tickets they discover have been sold in this manner. The airlines assert that their tickets are not transferable, and thus selling a nonrefundable ticket is a breach of the contract under which it was originally purchased.
"We know this happens," says Neil Monroe, a spokesman for Delta Air Lines, one of four major airlines contacted whose policy it is to confiscate tickets.
"We do not approve of it," says Tim Smith of American Airlines. "If we find out about it, we'll revoke the ticket."
As a practical matter, however, some airline spokespersons acknowledge that the possibility for discovery is slim. "We exercise vigilance," says one who asked not to be identified, "but we don't check IDs of everyone."
Equally important, no federal regulation prohibits travelers from buying or selling nonrefundable tickets, according to Tim Kelly, a spokesman for the Department of Transportation's Office of Congressional, Community and Consumer Affairs.
However, the airlines are required by law to compile an accurate list -- by name -- of everyone on each flight. As a standard practice, the list is obtained from tickets collected from boarding passengers. The airlines contend that they cannot assure the accuracy of the list because hidden-market tickets don't carry the name of the person actually traveling. Kelly acknowledges this is a sticky point for the airlines and suggests that they might resolve it by finding an alternative way of listing boarding passengers.
Whatever the outcome of the problem, it does raise an issue both sellers and buyers should consider: What if the plane crashes? Since the buyer is traveling under the seller's name, presumably the seller's next of kin would be notified of injury or death -- an unpleasant shock for family and friends until the matter is sorted out.
Since airlines can -- and sometimes do -- lift hidden-market tickets, it is important that anyone buying such a ticket be aware of all the risks. The buyer, not the seller, is the one who faces the possibility of having a ticket confiscated. (Conceivably, the airlines might sue the seller for breach of contract, but this has not been a policy they have pursued.) On the other hand, buyers are in a very good position to bargain for a better price as the departure date for use of a ticket approaches. Many ads carry the letters "OBO," meaning "or best offer," which is an invitation to bargain.
For obvious reasons, there are no figures on how many travelers are able to sell nonrefundable tickets in the hidden market. I contacted half a dozen people who advertised tickets in the Post classified ads of Sunday, Aug. 12. Five people (or their answering machines) said the tickets had been sold, and the sixth thought she had a likely prospect. She had received 10 calls after her ad appeared.
When checking the ads -- listed under the heading "Tickets" in The Post and other newspapers -- you also will find other air travel offers, and it is important to distinguish between them. Some offers are from travelers who have received vouchers for free travel -- perhaps because they were bumped from a flight. Others come from coupon brokers who purchase mileage award coupons earned by frequent travelers, cash them in for tickets and sell them to bargain hunters.
If you are exploring the hidden market, you should be aware that vouchers and coupon broker tickets tend to give travelers more flexibility since -- unlike nonrefundable tickets -- they can be used for trips anywhere in the United States on whatever departure dates you choose. Because of this, however, they tend to be more expensive than nonrefundable tickets, which must be used for a specific destination at a specific time. Broker or voucher tickets often are a bargain only to business travelers who must depart on a moment's notice and can't take advantage of advance purchase fares.
Some airlines, such as American, have been much more aggressive in attempting to thwart the sale of frequent flier mileage. USAir will not only confiscate any tickets it discovers were obtained from a broker, says spokeswoman Nancy Vaughan, but also may revoke the frequent-flier privileges of the passenger who originally earned the mileage points and sold them to a broker. (An update on coupon broker tickets will appear in the Oct. 7 Fearless Traveler column.)
Among the considerations, if you are selling or buying a nonrefundable ticket:
All the major airlines offer nonrefundable fares, which usually are the cheapest fares they sell to any destination. Because of this, they are popular with travelers -- at least until an unexpected development forces a change in travel plans. Airlines generally make refunds on such fares only in cases of illness or death in the immediate family -- although other exceptions are possible.
Travel plans can change for any number of reasons, as travelers stuck with nonrefundable tickets can attest.
Among those advertising tickets in the classified ads last month was a Washington lawyer who had to cancel a trip to Austin because he couldn't get off work. He managed to sell his ticket quickly for his asking price, although the buyer had to accept the flight schedule already printed on the ticket -- departure on Wednesday and return on Sunday.
A new college graduate bought a round-trip ticket in Seattle to fly home to Springfield, Va., to visit her parents, figuring she would return to the Seattle area to take a job. While at home, however, she got a better job offer in California and decided to go there directly. Rather than lose the return ticket to Seattle, she decided to try to sell it. Initially, she asked for $225 but dropped her price to $150 when she got no takers. One problem, she found, was that most of the callers were male. They did not want to chance discovery by the airline by using a ticket with a female name on it.
The cost of the ad, of course, cuts into the amount a seller hopes to recover. The graduate student advertised two weekends in The Post, paying the rate of $18 for three days each time -- or a total of $36. (A Sunday-only ad is $16.10.) Whatever she makes on the sale, she says, is better than nothing at all.
Travelers unable to use a nonrefundable ticket should check first with the airline's consumer affairs office before attempting to sell it, says USAir's Vaughan. USAir, like other airlines, often will relax its rules if you have a good reason for not making a flight. Your best bet for changing a ticket is if you can stick with the same itinerary but fly at a later date.
For example, you plan a week's vacation in California months in advance. But just before departure, a crisis erupts in your office or a pet becomes seriously ill. In such situations, an airline probably won't refund your money but it may permit you to postpone your trip for a few weeks without imposing any penalty -- provided you fly to the same destination originally planned. "We work on a case-by-case basis," says Vaughan.
If you decide to sell through a classified ad, your best bet for a quick response is to include the date of departure and return, the price you are asking and whether the ticket is for use by a male or female. You may want to indicate you are open for the best offer, if the flight date is approaching. If possible, include a daytime and evening phone number. Also, you should be prepared to discuss delivery of the ticket. Do you take it to the buyer or vice versa?
Getting the price you originally paid for the ticket could be a problem. Competition exists even in the hidden market. In last month's classifieds, a one-way ticket from Washington to Denver was being offered at $90, $100 and $140 in three different ads.
To make the best use of the hidden market in nonrefundable tickets as a buyer, you will have to be flexible in your plans. Most tickets carry a specific departure and return date, which you must meet. The big attraction, of course, is that you may be able to find a cheap fare. A last-minute traveler, unable to qualify for an airline's advance purchase fare, may find the classifieds especially helpful.
The biggest drawback to using someone else's nonrefundable ticket is that you could lose it -- and the price you paid -- if the airline discovers the discrepancy. Discovery is always a possibility should a problem arise -- if the flight is cancelled, for example, or you miss the flight because of a delay in traffic.
Delta's Monroe also warns of unscrupulous offers involving the sale of stolen tickets or tickets that no longer are valid. "Someone could have bought a ticket on a credit card," he says, "and then cancelled the payment. He then goes out and tries to make a resale."
For protection, anyone buying a ticket on the hidden market should:
Know whom you are dealing with. Is the ticket offer legitimate? "When you are buying secondhand," cautions Monroe, "you're not buying something protected. What seems like a bargain may turn out to be very expensive."
Find out before you call a seller what the cheapest fare is you can obtain from the airlines. Special airline promotions may undercut the hidden market. Knowing the going price will put you in a better position to bargain for the best fare.
Before buying, weigh in your mind whether the savings you might reap is worth the gamble your ticket may be revoked. Is the worry alone worth it?
To help avoid discovery, make sure the ticket carries a name that is appropriate for your sex.
Remember that for most international destinations, you will have to show a passport. This increases the chances of discovery substantially. Airport security is particularly tight for transatlantic flights.
Consider carrying all luggage aboard with you. If checked luggage is lost, getting it back becomes complicated when you are using someone else's name. Here, too, you risk discovery. If you are on the outward-bound leg of a trip, you may lose the return portion of your ticket.