Travel hacks: Ways it pays to read the fine print

Welcome to Cheapflights

The simple way to find cheap flights and hotels from all your favorite travel companies

Fine print – the tiny legalese that appears just before you click to book a trip, check a bag or use a credit card or you suddenly hear about in the event of a long flight delay or an overbooked flight – is often seen but not read. But taking the extra time to read the tiny terms and conditions can put money in savvy travelers’ pockets.

Embedded in the fine print may be things like extra charges, included services, refund and compensation policies, expiration dates, limitations and more. While it may seem tedious, the fine print provides valuable money-saving travel opportunities at every step of your trip.

The fine print on airline fine print
Credit card fine print
Fine print when booking
Ways to lose your reservation
Baggage fine print
What to know when traveling (especially when things go wrong)
Making a claim

The fine print on airline fine print: Contracts of carriage

For air carriers, the fine print is called a “contract of carriage” and contains important rules and provisions like check-in deadlines, refund procedures and the airline’s responsibility (or lack thereof) for delayed or canceled flights. Each airline may have its own rules, but there are some commonalities outlined in the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Aviation Consumer Protection Division’s “Fly Rights: A Consumer Guide to Air Travel,” a consumer guide to air travel that offers guidance on airfares, tickets, delays, cancellations, baggage and more.

For quick reference, here are the links to each major U.S. airline’s contract of carriage:

Alaska Airlines
Allegiant Air
American Airlines
Delta Air Lines
Frontier Airlines
Hawaiian Airlines
Southwest Airlines
Spirit Airlines
United Airlines
Virgin America

Travelers who are flying domestically in the U.S. may find all of the contract terms that affect the airfare on or attached to the ticket at the time of purchase. Some airlines provide “incorporate terms by reference,” which means the rules aren’t provided with the ticket – they’re in a separate document on the airline’s website and available wherever the carrier’s tickets are sold. If the airline offers its rules incorporate terms by reference, it must provide a written notice with each ticket letting the consumer know this and mention that the terms may include liability limitations, claim-filing deadlines, check-in deadlines and other key terms. If the airline doesn’t provide its incorporate terms by reference, passengers are not bound by the rules.

The U.S. Department of Transportation prohibits airlines from changing terms in the contract after tickets are purchased “if the change will have a significant negative effect on you.”

If you are flying internationally on a U.S. carrier, the airline must keep a copy of its tariff rule wherever the carrier’s tickets are sold. No matter who you fly or where you go, travelers should not be afraid to ask questions about a carrier’s rules and the terms of the contract of carriage. If anything is unclear or you’re unsure, ask.

Credit card fine print

The Credit Card Accountability Responsibility and Disclosure Act of 2009 provides rights to consumers. Buying plane tickets with a credit card provides certain protections under federal credit card laws and also offers travelers more leverage and perks.

Know the perks of your card: Many credit cards offer travel reward programs that allow cardholders to earn free flights, hotel stays, car rentals and vacation packages. While each travel reward program is unique, most work by offering points or miles for every dollar charged to the card. These can then be redeemed for free travel rewards within the credit card’s network.

Know the annual fees: While the thought of travel freebies is enticing, travelers should keep in mind that many credit cards with these programs charge annual fees, which may or may not make the travel rewards worthwhile. These cards tend to have substantial interest rates, as well, so it’s worth paying off the balance each month to earn travel rewards without extra costs.

Know your options: Because every card offers different rates, fees and travel rewards, there is no one-size-fits-all credit card for travelers. Choosing the right card for you will depend on your travel preferences and spending habits. Be sure to weigh your options and know the benefits and drawbacks of the card you choose.

Know your deadlines: If you purchase plane tickets with your card and a problem arises, keep in mind that the legal deadline for disputing a credit card charge is 60 days.

Look for hidden insurance coverage: Some credit cards include travel insurance (cancellation insurance), reimbursing you when you use the card to book your trip, but cancel it prior to departure for certain situations like getting sick. Some credit cards also offer primary or secondary auto insurance if you book your rental car with their cards. The insurance typically is limited to collision damage and theft protection and doesn’t usually cover personal injury or personal liability (though your auto insurance or health insurance likely does). The advantage of a card that offers primary auto insurance is that you can report any accidents directly with the credit card company, bypassing your insurance company, which means your auto insurance rate won’t increase. More commonly, credit cards offer secondary auto insurance that should pick up where your primary insurance leaves off. When you apply for a credit card, ask what coverage, if any, is included.

Don’t pay double: Don’t pay twice for services or miss out on reimbursements. Read the fine print for your credit card and its award programs. For example, many American Express Premier Rewards Gold Account members may receive up to $100 per year in statement credits towards purchases like like checked bags, in-flight meals and airport lounge day passes.

Get your credit when credit is due: Airlines must forward a credit to your card company within seven business days after receiving a completed refund application; however, the credit may take a month or two to appear on your statement. If you paid by credit card for a refundable fare or a flight the airline canceled and have trouble getting a refund, report this in writing to your credit card company. If you file a written request within 60 days of being billed for the flight, the card company should credit your account even if the airline doesn’t. In some cases, tickets purchased overseas in foreign currency can only be refunded in that same currency and country due to foreign government monetary restrictions. Keep this in mind if you are considering buying a ticket in a foreign country.

Avoid conversion fees: If you opt to book your tickets in a foreign currency as a way to save on airfare, make sure your credit card doesn’t charge a foreign transaction fee or currency conversion fee. Similarly, be aware of the fee when making in-flight purchases. With the wrong credit card, you will likely incur a separate fee for each transaction in a foreign currency, meaning, if you’re traveling on an international carrier, that glass of wine or headset on the plane (and every purchase on your vacation) may come with a hidden cost.

Fine print when booking

Boarding pass
Always read the fine print. (Image: Anna O’Brien, PASSENGER TICKET & BAGGAGE CHECK via Flickr CC BY 2.0)

The deregulation of airlines in the late 1970s means that travelers have many options for air travel and how to book it. But, buyer beware, sometimes convenience comes with extra (hidden) costs, which vary by airline.

Watch out for booking fees: Some U.S. carriers like Spirit Airlines and United Airlines charge for booking tickets over the phone, while others like American Airlines charge for booking in person at ticket offices or airports.

Take your time to think (and shop): Many airlines will hold a reservation for 24 hours without payment. Others require payment at the time of reservation but provide a full refund if travelers cancel within the first 24 hours.

Don’t pay to rebook because of inclement weather: If a flight is canceled by the airline, then re-booking fees are waived, particularly when there is severe weather.

Don’t make mistakes: Many fares have a penalty for changing flights or dates. Travelers may also have to pay for any difference in airfares if the original fare-type is not available on the new flight.

Understand travel insurance: If you think your plans might change, consider paying extra for travel cancellation insurance. Trip cancellation insurance covers travelers who may have their trip canceled or delayed and often includes coverage for additional situations, like lost luggage, trip delays and trip interruption. Some trip cancellation insurance policies will cover your travel companion, too. Some credit cards include travel insurance, but make sure you read the conditions carefully. Companies like AirCare offer flight insurance starting at $34 for domestic flights and pays passengers for when a flight is delayed or stuck on the tarmac or when your luggage is lost.

Ask about new sales: After you buy your ticket, check with the airline or travel agent once or twice before departure to check the fare. Fares change all the time, and, if the fare you paid goes down before you fly, some airlines will refund the difference (or give you a transportation credit for that amount).

Watch out for extra charges: Watch out for miscellaneous charges like those for printing out a boarding pass at the airport (Spirit Airlines charges $2 per pass for this) meals, headsets, pillows, etc.

Ways to accidentally lose your reservation

Just because you paid for your ticket and confirmed your reservation doesn’t mean you can’t lose your reservation. Here are some of the most common ways to accidentally lose your reservation or booking and how to avoid them.

Forgetting the 24-hour cut-off: Many airlines allow you to hold a reservation for 24 hours without paying. If you forget to pay for the booking before the 24 hours is up, your booking will be canceled.

Failing to reconfirm reservations: On international trips, some airlines may require you reconfirm your onward or return reservations at least 72 hours before each flight. If you don’t, your reservations may be canceled.

Not checking in early enough: Passengers must meet the airline’s check-in deadline by checking in with the airline within the airline’s stated times. Some airlines require passengers to be at the ticket or baggage counter by a certain time while others require passengers to get to the boarding area by the stated time. Some airlines require that time deadlines at both the ticket or baggage counter and boarding area be met. For domestic flights, air carriers generally require passengers to be at the departure gate 10 to 30 minutes before scheduled flights, but deadlines can be longer. For international flights, air carriers generally require passengers to be at the departure gate up to three hours before scheduled departure, but deadlines can be longer.

Missing or skipping one of your flights: If you are holding confirmed reservations that you can’t or don’t plan to use, contact the airline. If you don’t, the airline will cancel all onward or return reservations on your trip. Check the fine print when reserving your ticket because some airlines require the first segment to be flown in order for the remainder of the trip to not be automatically canceled even if the airline is notified ahead of time. Similarly, if you’ve booked a ticket with a layover and only plan on using a portion of your trip, be prepared to forfeit all onward and returning trips booked as part of the same reservation.

Baggage fine print

baggage tags
Don’t get stuck with baggage fees. (Image: Dominick, valencia airline baggage ticket art installation on fence 1 via Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0)

The chances of your baggage getting lost in transit is on the decline. The rate of mishandled bags was 5.73 bags per 1,000 passengers in 2016, down 12.25 percent from the previous year and the lowest ever recorded, according to Baggage Report 2017 by SITA, a specialist in air transport communications and IT solutions. If the rare and unfortunate event occurs, be sure to report it as soon as possible when you arrive at your destination. Insist the airline create a report and give you a copy, even if they say the bag will be on the next flight. Note: If you miss the airline’s check-in deadline, the carrier might not assume liability for your bag if it is delayed or lost.

Check for charges for your carry-on: While most airlines still allow passengers to bring one bag plus a personal item like a backpack, laptop case, umbrella or coat, some airlines like Frontier Airlines, Spirit Airlines, American Airlines (Basic Economy ticket holders only) and United Airlines (Basic Economy ticket holders only) charge to bring carry-ons. An exception to this are mobility aids and assistive devices as outlined in the U.S. Department of Transportation’s New Horizons: Information for the Air Traveler with a Disability.

Check if there are charges for checked baggage: Depending on the airline, class of service and route, you may have to pay to check your luggage, even the first bag. There can also be extra charges if you exceed the airline’s limits on the size, weight or number of the bags (or all three). On some flights between two foreign cities, your allowance may be lower and may be based primarily on the weight of the checked bags rather than the number of pieces. Ask your airline about the limit for every segment of your domestic trip if you are flying different airlines and for every segment of your international trip even if you are flying the same airline, especially if you have a stopover of a day or more.

Know what you can check for free: Assistive devices like walkers and wheelchairs are generally checked for free as are strollers and car seats. Special liability requirements apply to the domestic transportation of assistive devices used by passengers with disabilities, so if your equipment gets damaged en route, report it right away.

Know what happens if your cargo is damaged: If your suitcase arrives smashed or torn, the airline will usually pay for repairs. If it can’t be fixed, you and the airline can negotiate a settlement for the airline to pay the suitcase’s depreciated value. Note: if you have packed your suitcase to the seams, the airline may let you know at check-in that your suitcase might not survive intact and may require you to sign a statement that you are agreeing to check your over-stuffed bag at your own risk. Even if you sign the form, the airline might still be liable if exterior damage is caused by the airline’s negligence.

Airlines must pay if you wait (a long time) for delayed baggage: If you are one of the unlucky few whose bag goes missing and it takes more than a few hours to be found, most airlines will cover reasonable expenses incurred while the luggage is located and delivered to you. You may have to negotiate with the airline regarding how much is covered. The amount depends on whether or not you’re away from home and how long it takes to track down your bags and return them to you. If the airline does not provide you a cash advance, it may still reimburse you later for the purchase of necessities. Keep all receipts.

Beware of baggage delivery fees: Once your long lost luggage is found, don’t assume the airline will deliver it to your hotel or home for free.

Claim your lost baggage: If your bag is declared permanently lost, you will have to submit a claim, and airlines don’t automatically pay the full amount of every claim they receive. Be sure to double (and triple) check with the airline that all claims forms have been submitted because missing the deadline for filing it could invalidate your claim altogether. If your flight had a connection involving two carriers, the final carrier is normally the one responsible for processing your claim even if it appears the first airline lost the bag, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. Once you settle your claim with the airline, the airline may offer you a cash payment or free tickets on future flights. If you opt for the travel voucher, be sure to confirm any restrictions, such as blackout dates, destinations and voucher expiration.

Consider buying excess valuation: Airlines set a limit on the liability to delayed, damaged and lost checked baggage. The maximum liability is regulated by the U.S. Department of Transportation and it is adjusted every two years for inflation. The limit is currently $3,500 per passenger. For international travel, the limit is currently 1,131 Special Drawing Rights, a currency surrogate that floats daily. The international limit applies to domestic segments of an international journey. This is the case even if the domestic and international flights are on separate tickets and you claim and re-check your bag between the two flights. When your luggage and its contents are worth more than the limit, consider purchasing excess valuation at check-in. Excess valuation increases the air carrier’s potential liability; it’s not insurance.

Check your insurance coverage: If the airline’s settlement doesn’t fully reimburse your loss, check your homeowner’s or renter’s insurance; it sometimes covers losses away from the residence. Some credit card companies and travel agencies offer optional or even automatic supplemental baggage coverage.

What to know while traveling (especially when things go wrong)

Don’t lose your seat (or your cool). (Image: David Wan, Traveler via Flickr CC BY 2.0)

Making it to the airport means you’re  halfway through avoiding fine print fees, but there are still many details to pay attention to once you’re at the airport.

Overbooking is not illegal, but you may be compensated: Overbooking is not illegal and is actually quite common. Most airlines overbook flights to compensate for no-shows. JetBlue Airways advertises that it does not overbook flights, but the airline still reserves the right in its contract. In cases when overbooking results in there being more passengers than seats, airlines are on the hook for compensating passengers who are bumped, voluntarily or involuntarily, from the flight.

  • Voluntary: When an over-sale occurs, airlines are required to ask for volunteers to give up their seats in exchange for compensation, which is typically a travel voucher, free ticket, or gift card. The amount of compensation varies and is set by the airline. When a potential volunteer comes forward, the U.S. Department of Transportation requires airlines “to advise any volunteer whether he or she might be involuntarily bumped and, if that were to occur, the amount of compensation that would be due.” If you aren’t in a hurry to get to your destination and the deal offered sounds good, ask about restrictions on the transportation compensation like how long is the ticket or voucher good for; is it “blacked out” during holiday periods; and can it be used for international flights, before agreeing to the deal.
  • Involuntary: If there are not enough volunteers, then airlines resort to involuntary bumping. The U.S. Department of Transportation requires airlines to compensate passengers who are involuntarily bumped, with a few exceptions: when the airline must substitute a smaller plane or needs to bump folks due to safety-related aircraft weight or balance constraints and on chartered flights or scheduled flights with fewer than 30 passengers, international flights inbound to the U.S. and flights between two foreign cities. Each airline determines the order in which passengers are involuntarily bumped. Some airlines bump passengers with the lowest fares first. Others bump the last passengers to check in. Once you have purchased your ticket, the most effective way to reduce the risk of being bumped is to get to the airport early. For passengers in the same fare class the last passengers to check in are usually the first to be bumped, even if they have met the check-in deadline.

Compensation details: How much compensation you are entitled to and how you go about getting it can vary by airline, but a few guidelines apply to all U.S. carriers. The U.S. Department of Transportation requires each airline “to give all passengers who are bumped involuntarily a written statement describing their rights and explaining how the carrier decides who gets on an oversold flight and who doesn’t. Those travelers who don’t get to fly are frequently entitled to denied boarding compensation in the form of a check or cash. Airlines may offer free tickets or dollar-amount vouchers for future flights in place of a check for denied boarding compensation. However, if you are bumped involuntarily you have the right to insist on a check if you want cash. Once you cash the check or accept the free flight, you lose leverage to pursue more money from the airline later on. If being involuntarily bumped ends up costing you more money than the airline will pay you at the airport, you can try to negotiate a higher settlement with the airline’s complaint department. If this doesn’t work, you can opt to not cash the check and take the airline to court.

To receive compensation, a passenger must:

  • Have a confirmed reservation.
  • Not have canceled the reservation,
  • Not have missed a reconfirmation deadline.
  • Meet the airline’s check-in deadline by checking in with the airline within the airline’s stated times.

The denied boarding compensation amount depends on the price of the ticket and the length of the delay. No matter what, passengers always get to keep the original ticket and use it on another flight. If passengers choose to make their own arrangements, they can request an “involuntary refund” for the ticket for the flight they were bumped from, essentially making it a payment for the inconvenience.

The following is a guide for compensation for passengers involuntarily bumped from a flight:

  • No compensation: The airline arranges substitute transportation that is scheduled to get the passenger to his or her final destination (including later connections) within one hour of the original scheduled arrival time.
  • Amount equal to 200% of one-way fare (up to $675): The airline arranges substitute transportation that is scheduled to get the passenger to his or her final destination (including later connections) between one and two hours of the original scheduled arrival time for domestic flights and between one and four hours for international flights.
  • Amount equal to 400% of one-way fare (up to $1,350): The airline arranges substitute transportation that is scheduled to get the passenger to his or her final destination more than two hours after the original scheduled arrival time for domestic flights and more than four hours for international flights or the airline doesn’t make any substitute travel arrangements.

If the ticket, like a frequent flyer award ticket or those from a consolidator, doesn’t show a fare, the denied boarding compensation is based on the lowest cash, check or credit card payment charged for a ticket in the same class of service on the flight. Passengers who paid for optional services like checked baggage and do not get them on the substitute flight or have to pay for them a second time on the substitute flight are required to be refunded.

Get compensation for canceled or massively delayed flights: Airlines don’t guarantee their schedules. Issues like bad weather, air traffic delays and mechanical issues can cause flight delays and cancellations. There are no federal requirements for what airlines do for delayed passengers. Airlines are not required to compensate passengers whose flights for domestic itineraries are delayed or canceled. Compensation is required by law on domestic trips only when a passenger is bumped from a flight that is oversold. Passengers may be able to recover reimbursement under Article 19 of the Montreal Convention for expenses resulting from a delayed or canceled international flight by filing a claim with the airline. Each airline determines what it will compensate passengers for meals, hotel, etc. Budget airlines like Frontier Airlines and Spirit Airlines do not provide any amenities for passengers except in rare circumstances. Other airlines do not offer amenities if the flight is delayed for reasons beyond the airline’s control, like bad weather.

What you should know:

  • If the delay is excessive: You might try to book on another flight on the same air carrier, but you might have to pay a cancellation penalty or higher fare for changing your reservations. If you find a flight on another airline, ask the first airline if it will endorse your ticket to the new carrier; this could save you a fare collection fee, but there is no rule requiring them to do this. JetBlue customers whose flights are delayed due to a “Controllable Irregularity” are entitled to compensation good on future jetBlue travel that ranges from $25 to $200.
  • If your flight is canceled: Most airlines will rebook you on the next available flight that has seats at no additional charge. If the delay is significant, you can find a flight on another airline and ask the first airline if it will endorse your ticket to the new carrier, but there is no rule requiring them to do this. Customers on Delta Air Lines whose flights are canceled or delayed more than eight hours can choose either a replacement ticket to the final destination or reimbursement for the flight ticket. Customers are also provided food and drink, hotel accommodations where an overnight stay is necessary and two phone calls, faxes, or emails.
  • If your flight is delayed on the airport tarmac before taking off or after landing: The U.S. Department of Transportation rules prohibit most U.S. airlines from allowing a domestic flight to remain on the tarmac for more than three hours unless “the pilot determines there is a safety or security reason why the aircraft cannot taxi to the gate and deplane its passengers, or air traffic control advises the pilot that taxiing to the gate (or to another location where passengers can be deplaned) would significantly disrupt airport operations.” U.S. airlines must provide passengers with food and water no later than two hours after the tarmac delay begins for both domestic and international flights. Lavatories must remain operable and medical attention must be available, if needed.

Making a claim

Don't forget to claim it. (Image: Sean MacEntee, pens via Flickr CC BY 2.0)
Don’t forget to claim it. (Image: Sean MacEntee, pens via Flickr CC BY 2.0)

If you are in doubt about whether or not a fee is refundable or unsure what can be refunded, ask. Always know your rights. It’s your right to speak up and request to make a claim. Don’t rely on the airline to point out what can be refunded. Ask, and, if the answer is unclear, ask again.

Know which fees are refundable: Often, there are refundable fees, such as for a day-of-departure upgrade, that are reimbursable if the service doesn’t happen. Airlines must refund you the fees charged for optional services such as in-flight Wi-Fi or seat assignment fees that you are unable to use due to an over-sale situation or flight cancellation.

Know your deadlines: If you purchase plane tickets and a problem arises, keep in mind the legal deadline for disputing a credit card charge is 60 days. If your luggage is lost, each airline limits the amount of time you have to make a claim.

Know what to expect: The U.S. Department of Transportation requires U.S. airlines to provide information on how to file a complaint with the carrier. This information must appear on the airline’s website, on all e-ticket confirmations and upon request at any of the airline’s ticket counters or gates. Airlines are required to acknowledge a written complaint within 30 days and send a substantive response within 60 days of receiving the complaint.

Give the airline a chance: Give the airline a chance to resolve your claim, first at the airport and, if unresolved, in writing by emailing the airline’s consumer office at its corporate headquarters. Reaching out on social media will sometimes yield a quick response, as well.

Contact the U.S. Department of Transportation: If you have filed a claim with the airline, and the issue is not able to be resolved, contact the U.S. Department of Transportation. Complaints about airline service may be registered with the Aviation Consumer Protection Division at 202-366-2220 (TTY 202-366-0511).

Go to court: As a last resort, small claims court might be the answer. An airline can generally be sued in small claims court in any jurisdiction where it operates flights or does business. Contact your city or county office of consumer affairs or the clerk of the court to get started. You don’t need a lawyer and court costs tend to be low. For more information, consult the DOT’s Tell It to the Judge, a consumer’s guide to small claims courts.

Did we forget any money-saving tips found in the fine print? Share your own travel hacks in the comments.

Main image: iStockhoto/DavidHCoder

Travel hacks: Ways it pays to read the fine print was last modified: June 26th, 2019 by Lauren Mack
Author: Lauren Mack (163 posts)

Lauren Mack has traveled to 40 countries on five continents, including Cuba, New Zealand, Peru and Tanzania. For many years, she called China, and then Taiwan, home. Countries at the beginning of the alphabet, particularly Antarctica, Argentina and Australia are on her travel bucket list. Lauren is a multimedia travel and food journalist and explorer based in New York City.