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Christopher Elliott: Take along backup credit card on trips

  • Published Sunday, Feb. 6, 2011, at 12:04 a.m.
  • Updated Sunday, Feb. 6, 2011, at 12:25 a.m.

When my flight from Lusaka arrived in Johannesburg, I was forced to buy a new ticket to continue on to Cape Town. This was required because I could not provide the credit card I used to purchase the original ticket, which South African Airlines uses for identification. (I always travel with a different card, which has no fee on international transactions.)

The airline would not accept my passport, driver's license, or other credit card as valid identification. However, they did accept my other credit card to purchase a new ticket.

After two months of e-mails, meetings and phone calls with customer service and refund departments in Cape Town and Fort Lauderdale, Fla., I received a partial refund of the taxes on the original ticket. I know life isn't fair, yet I feel I should be refunded one of the two tickets I purchased. I only flew once; I paid twice! — Jennifer Alpaugh, Pacifica, Calif.

A: You're right; life isn't fair. But you still shouldn't have to pay twice for the same ticket. The South African Airways site is clear about its policy: If you're flying with an electronic ticket, "all you have to do is present an I.D. document and credit card (for authentication purposes) to the check-in agent and you will be issued with the normal boarding pass."

The question is: Was this requirement adequately disclosed? Based on your complaint, I would say not. It's possible the airline included this requirement in the fine print of your reservation, but was it conspicuous enough? (By the way, SAA isn't the only airline to have this policy, which is a precaution against ticket fraud. But the domestic carriers who used to do it have discontinued this rule, possibly because of complaints like yours.)

Traveling with a credit card that charges no foreign transaction fees is a terrific idea, but next time, you might want to take the other card with you — even if you don't plan to use it. You never know when your card might stop working (it happens) or get stolen. You'll be grateful for a backup, even if you have to pay those unconscionable foreign transaction fees.

It's not entirely clear to me why SAA would only refund the taxes on one of your tickets. Obviously, you're the same person, so you were essentially double-booked. The policy on the airline's website says nothing about refunds when you can't show a credit card, but it also doesn't say anything about getting no refunds, either, as far as I can tell.

I got in touch with SAA on your behalf. A representative contacted you immediately by e-mail and apologized for the delay in refunding your money. "Our refund staff is instructed to look at each situation on an individual basis," a representative told you. "When it appears the passenger has made an honest mistake, we are to provide the passenger with a full refund."

The airline blamed the partial refund on "an oversight" and refunded the balance of your ticket back to your credit card.

Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine and the co-founder of the Consumer Travel Alliance, a nonprofit organization that advocates for travelers. You ca n read more travel tips on his blog, elliott.org, or e-mail him at celliott@ngs.org.

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