Dear Tripped Up,
This past June, my wife and I, along with two of our children, flew from our home in India to the eastern United States to see family and visit Universal Studios in Orlando, Fla. The trip included three domestic flights over five days on Frontier Airlines: Philadelphia to Orlando, Orlando to Atlanta, and Atlanta back to Philadelphia. The total cost for four people on three flights was an affordable $939.75, including a $99.99 “Discount Den” membership on Frontier. (We also spent $1,269.52 on tickets at Universal.) But our first flight was delayed and eventually canceled, and Frontier’s staff told us the next available flight was three or four days later — too close to our return flight to India. We were given a QR code at the Philadelphia airport to file for a refund, which we did for all three flights. But all we got was an email with a credit worth $339.92 and good for three months, plus four additional messages with a $100 voucher for each of us. Since Frontier does not operate in India, the credit and vouchers are useless. I fought Frontier through my Discover card, but lost. (Meanwhile, Universal reimbursed us in full.) Can you help? Hari, Bangalore, India
The federal rule on flight cancellations in the United States could not be clearer. According to the Transportation Department’s website, “A consumer is entitled to a refund if the airline canceled a flight, regardless of the reason, and the consumer chooses not to travel.” Fast-expiring travel credits are not an option.
Frontier’s initial email to you, on the other hand, could not be murkier. You read the email and interpreted it as a partial, useless credit. You forwarded it to me, and I came to the same conclusion.
Yet it turns out the email was trying to inform you that a refund was coming. I learned this after consulting Jennifer de la Cruz, a spokeswoman for Frontier.
When we later went through your Discover statement together, it turns out you were indeed refunded $339.92 for that first flight.
But about the remaining $500 or so for the other two flights, which you filled out separate refund requests for? And should that $99.99 membership be refunded as well?
This is where things get more complicated. Since you booked each of the three one-way flights separately, rather than as one itinerary with one reservation code, the federal rule about cancellations technically applies only to the first one-way flight. This is why I urge people to use the “multicity” feature on airline booking sites.
Alas, as with a handful of other U.S. carriers, there is no such option on Frontier’s site. When I tried to make a multicity reservation through Frontier’s online chat function, customer service told me I had to create separate one-way reservations, just as you had. (You can make such a multicity reservation through an online travel agency, or O.T.A., but that introduces a third party into your booking, adding another layer of customer service to deal with.)
So that left you out about $600, at least at first. Six days later, on July 7, Frontier did refund you $327.92 for the Atlanta-to-Philadelphia leg — presumably because whoever handled the “manual” process realized your flights were tied together. I can see why you didn’t spot these refunds immediately on your statement, since the disputes you filed with Discover led to a series of back-and-forth charges that ended up being very unclear.