Opting in or opting out ... it's just so confusing

Travel Q&a Airline Fees

January 04, 2009|By CATHERINE HAMM | CATHERINE HAMM,LOS ANGELES TIMES

I recently traveled round trip from Los Angeles International Airport to Washington, D.C., on United Airlines. United told me I could print my boarding pass and pay the baggage fee online. I did that, but as I was making my selection, I had to opt out of several costly offers. When I returned from Washington, I asked the hotel concierge to print the boarding pass and pay the baggage fee. When I got home, I noticed that one of the pages the concierge printed was an acceptance of a $137 charge for United's Award Accelerator, which increases the value of flier miles. I called United's customer service reps, but they refused to cancel the charge. Can I get my $137 back?

Yes, but not because there are clear-cut good guys and bad guys here. There is some blame for all parties involved.

After successfully evading the charge when you printed out your own boarding pass on the first leg of your trip, you erred by not telling the concierge to be careful.

The concierge erred by accidentally obligating you to buy the extra miles.

And United slipped up by insisting that whatever the question is, the answer is no.

So whose responsibility is it, anyway?

Some people will say it the responsibility of United, which continues to find new and infuriating ways to wring revenue out of its customers (although United points out that one has to opt in to end up paying for those miles, not opt out, an important distinction).

In the end, United offered, as a one-time courtesy, to fix this for you. Another avenue might have been to dispute the charge with your credit-card company.

So what's the big deal if you actually got the miles? Tim Winship, travel editor at large for SmarterTravel.com and publisher of Frequentflier.com, thinks that, in most cases, you're probably overpaying for Award Accelerator miles.

"If you're really savvy and you know that you paid 3 cents a mile to earn [the miles] in the first place and therefore you also know you need to squeeze that or more from the value of your miles when you redeem them, then you can potentially come out ahead," Winship said. "But most people don't do the math."

And that, in my mind, tips the scales of the "who's-to-blame" equation. If offered the opportunity to err, I will almost always take it, especially if it involves money. And United, it seems clear, not only offers this opportunity but practically engraves an invitation to the erring party.

Catharine Hamm, Los Angeles Times

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