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Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Canceled class trip raises red flags


Q: I am a teacher at a high school in San Francisco that has lost $5,000 to Southwest Airlines. Our 12th-grade class did fundraising all year to raise enough money for a trip to Bahia de Los Angeles in Baja, Mexico, to stay at a marine biology lab owned by Glendale Community College. This trip was to allow the students to perform community service at the elementary school there, and for the sea turtle rescue station.

We booked seats as a group and per our contract paid in full by cashier's check for our 39 tickets. A few days later, a travel advisory was issued because of swine flu. Since these are minors on a service project, we felt we had to change our plans. Southwest would not refund our tickets, so we accepted our only alternative, to fly somewhere else of equal value. The only option was Las Vegas — not really a suitable alternative.

As time passed, and the restrictions eased, we asked if we could go back to our plan of flying to San Diego where we would pick up a bus to Baja. Southwest says it would not accommodate this request. We are dumbfounded. Can you help us?— Ellie Capers, San Francisco

A: Since when is Las Vegas an acceptable substitute for a volunteer vacation to a marine lab in Baja? Southwest should have found a better way of accommodating your class group.

Your case raises several red flags. The first is the cashier's check, which is pretty much the same thing as forking over cash. Wherever possible, you should be using a credit card, since it protects you in case something goes wrong (for example, the company files for bankruptcy or sells you defective merchandise).

When any travel company insists on payment in cash or as a cashier's check, don't walk — run.

Second, your experience isn't consistent with Southwest Airlines' way of doing business. At the time of your scheduled flight, Southwest didn't fly to Mexico, but this year it plans to begin offering flights through a Mexican discount carrier called Volaris.

Southwest is usually one of the most lenient airlines when it comes to rescheduling policies. Even when there's no imminent threat of swine flu, the airline allows passengers holding nonrefundable tickets to make changes without paying any fees, just a difference in fare; other carriers charge anywhere between $20 and $150 to change a ticket.

Given that Southwest is one of the more accommodating airlines, I have a difficult time understanding why the company would want to send a high school class of volunteers to Sin City. Maybe you were talking with the wrong person. Maybe you shouldn't have been talking at all — a letter or an e-mail (yes, Southwest now accepts those) could have cleared this matter up. Or should have.

I contacted Southwest on your behalf. The same person who had told you there was nothing that could be done for your class phoned you back and promised to come up with what she called a "creative solution." Southwest rebooked the class flights to San Diego, waived all fees, and even refunded the tickets for two students who decided to cancel.

Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine. You can read more travel tips on his blog, elliott.org, or e-mail him at celliott@ngs.org.

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