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No refund? No excuse!

Hotwire and Priceline often give you the very lowest prices on airfare tickets, hotel accommodations, rental cars, and tours. But you don’t know the identity of the supplier or your flight schedule until after you’ve made an unconditional purchase (which is why the travel industry calls them “opaque” sites). For the most part, travelers understand and accept the tradeoff between uncertainty and low price, but sometimes they get caught in a bind—buying tickets or services they find they can neither use nor exchange. Here’s a case in point.

The wrong date

A reader writes, “I wanted to surprise my wife and adult kids with tickets to our nephew’s wedding in Israel. I purchased four round-trip tickets through Priceline. Although the Madrid connection made the trip less convenient than a nonstop, the price was right. My family surprise turned out to be a disaster, however, when I found out that I had been given the wrong date for the wedding. Priceline refused to allow a change even though the airline claimed that it could. I am now in for $3,500 worth of tickets and we will be flying while the wedding is taking place. Do you think that we could fly four passengers ‘standby’ simply by showing up at the airport a day or two earlier?”

Priceline’s hard line

Priceline takes a very hard line about exchanges: Once you buy it, you “own” it. The only cases I know where Priceline (or Hotwire) has offered refunds are (1) when an airline cancelled a flight and could not re-accommodate travelers on the same day, or (2) when a hurricane or other disaster has totally prevented travel. Both sites make this total nonrefundability pretty clear before you click the “buy” button.

Still, some travelers continue to believe that, in unusual circumstances, Hotwire or Priceline would be “reasonable” about an exchange. Sadly, they’re not, and for a reason. Should an opaque site start to allow cancellations and refunds, even for “good” reasons, suppliers would quickly stop selling through those sites. Total nonrefundability is essential to the opaque business model. I’m afraid I have to agree with Priceline’s decision in this case.

The airline option

Could our reader fly standby with wrong-day Priceline tickets? That’s really up to the airline. In theory, there’s no reason it couldn’t agree to a date switch—if not at the same price, maybe by collecting an additional payment. In any event, if our reader is to find any relief, it would be from the airline, not Priceline—after all, once the ticket is sold, Priceline is out of the loop. If I were in our reader’s shoes, however, I wouldn’t schlep the whole family to the airport, hoping for seats at an earlier date. Instead, I’d contact the airline’s sales office, in advance, and offer to negotiate a date switch, with some extra bucks as a sweetener. I have no idea whether that would work in this case, but it would be worth a try. Asking a travel agent to negotiate the switch might be a good idea—with a decent fee for the agent’s assistance.

Nonrefundability: Total and sort of

Travelers have enough trouble with pricing quirks without having to deal with “soft” definitions of “nonrefundable.” While almost all ultra-cheap airfare tickets are “nonrefundable,” some are more nonrefundable than others. With many, although you can’t get your money back should you cancel, you can retain the ticket’s dollar value and use it toward a future ticket. Most of the big lines charge a fee of up to $100 for such an exchange, but JetBlue charges only $20 and Southwest doesn’t charge at all. In the industry, that sort of ticket is called “reusable.”

Reusable tickets are common with most big domestic airlines. Other “nonrefundable” tickets, however, as well as some hotel and tour deals, are totally nonrefundable. Be especially careful with consolidator air tickets and some deeply discounted, advance-purchase hotel accommodations. As with the opaque sites, once you buy, you own the service, with no ifs or buts.

What to do

Instead of offering refunds, opaque sites sell “insurance” that repays the cost of purchases in the event you have to cancel. And you can buy comparable trip-cancellation insurance from third-party travel insurance agencies that covers just about any kind of travel service. But that insurance kicks in only for “covered” reasons, which include sickness, accident, calls to jury duty, and such. Specifically, it does not cover cancellation for business reasons or, as in the case of our reader, ordinary mistakes.

Insurance or no, you have to check the exact terms any time you consider buying a “nonrefundable” ticket. A reusable one may well be worth a substantial price premium.

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