Travel Trouble: What good is a Spirit Airlines voucher if you can’t use it?
We recently took our two young boys on their first plane trip to Colorado for my 40th birthday. My husband wanted to do something special to celebrate and take a family trip, so we booked tickets with Spirit Airlines.
Our overall experience with the airline went well. The planes were on time, not too terribly uncomfortable, and staff were pleasant. However, on our return flight home, the plane from Denver to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., was full. When we checked in at the counter, the ticket agent asked us if we would be willing to give up our seats and take the next flight. As an incentive, the airline offered us a flight out the next day, a hotel for the night, a $28 voucher for dinner at the airport, and the most exciting incentive: a free flight for all of us, anywhere that Spirit flies, as long as we book the flight within 60 days of issuance of the vouchers.
My husband and I were so thrilled to be offered a free flight, considering how expensive travel is with a family and how this trip was indeed a trip of a lifetime for us. We accepted with no hesitation and returned home the next day.
Between me and my husband, we have contacted the airline on at least six occasions on the telephone and even have gone to the airport to try to utilize our vouchers. The most recent attempt, I was on the phone with an agent for two hours trying to book a date and a destination.
Needless to say, every date and destination that was worth a trip, given the children’s school schedules, was blacked out. We tried everything. The only opportunity was a short trip to Boston for the weekend, and then when I went to book it, the taxes were over $600. I was so upset and felt completely duped by these supposed “free” tickets.
I wrote a letter to Spirit explaining our situation, and the airline responded with new vouchers with an extension on the booking date. Excited and hopeful, I once again attempted to plan a trip for us. I was met with the same limitations and frustrations as before, and have had no resolution. We were basically fooled. I don’t feel that the airline should have told us that we got free tickets anywhere it flies and then not honor them. The saddest part is that my children were so excited for another family trip, and having to tell them that it wasn’t going to happen was really hard. Any advice or help would be greatly appreciated.
— Jill King-Fernandez, Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
A: Spirit should have warned you that seats were subject to availability, that you would have to pay taxes on the fare and that the vouchers expired in two months. By your account, the airline cautioned you only on the last item, which you didn’t seem to think would be a problem. But it was.
Most airline vouchers last a full year, not two months, which means Spirit’s vouchers may be difficult to use. That’s something you should have carefully considered before accepting the offer.
Let’s talk about overbooking for a second — also not a Spirit-specific problem. Virtually every airline sells more seats than it has available, expecting that some passengers won’t show up. But when everyone does, airlines have to start asking for volunteers.
Here’s a tip: Don’t take the first offer. Under federal law, if you’re involuntarily denied boarding, you’re entitled to cash and a seat on the next available flight. And that cash can easily be turned into an airline ticket.
By the way, Spirit should never use the word “free” to describe the vouchers you received. If you have to pay money to use it, then it isn’t free.
After you contacted Spirit, it agreed to issue less-restrictive vouchers — a reasonable response from the airline. Even then, you say you couldn’t find an available flight. That’s when you turned to me.
I think a brief, polite email to an executive at Spirit might have helped fix this. I list their names, numbers and emails on my consumer-advocacy site: http://elliott.org/company-contacts/spirit-airlines/.
I contacted Spirit on your behalf, and it worked with you to find an available flight for your family.
Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine and the author of “How to Be the World’s Smartest Traveler.” You can read more travel tips on his blog, www.elliott.org, or email him at email@example.com.