This is hands-down the most common question I get from travelers — not just air travelers, but all travelers — with the Transportation Security Administration's strict new Secure Flight requirements.
Airlines can change the name on a ticket easily. They choose not to. A reservations agent for a major airline said a name change is as easy as a keystroke, but most airlines want to charge for the fix.
It's not all bad news, though. An airline can still make a notation on your ticket for free.
Only one domestic airline, Allegiant, actually allows you to change the name on a ticket for free.
And if you work through a travel agency, your agent may be able to fix the ticket at no extra charge.
Can I get a refund on a nonrefundable airline ticket?
The short answer is no. It's a nonrefundable ticket. But if you inform your airline you won't be able to fly, you have a year from the time you booked your ticket — not the date of your flight — to use a ticket credit, minus a change fee.
Change fees can be more than the fare, however.
Airlines sometimes make exceptions to their nonrefundability rules when there's an emergency, disaster or a death in the family.
Do I need a passport to visit Canada or Mexico?
Yes. Either a passport or a Passport Card, according to the State Department. Get a passport. (Washington state residents can get an enhanced drivers license or an enhanced ID card. Go to www.dol.wa.gov/ for more information.)
Do I have to pay a resort fee at my hotel?
Only the most dishonest hotels charge mandatory resort fees, which supposedly cover everything from an in-room coffeemaker to beach towels.
Mandatory resort fees are nothing more than hidden room-rate increases, and you shouldn't put up with that.
If the fee was clearly disclosed when you booked the room, and again when you checked in, then pay it.
If it wasn't disclosed, then I know of a credit card company or two that will be happy to refund your money in a dispute.
How do I get a bereavement fare?
Don't even try. Bereavement fares used to be offered for airline passengers who had to buy an expensive walk-up fare when a relative died.
But some business travelers got smart and began claiming they had a death in the family to get the reduced prices. So airlines pulled the plug on the special fares.
You're better off trying to bid for a fare on Priceline or Hotwire, or asking your travel agent for an inexpensive consolidator fare.
My travel insurance claim was turned down because of a pre-existing medical condition. What now?
Most travel insurance companies have a clause in their contracts that says if you had a condition before your trip, and it caused a cancellation, they won't pay your claim.
A claims adjuster doesn't have to be particularly insightful to find something in your past medical history to give the insurance company an excuse to turn down your claim.
On appeal, more than 90 percent of travel insurance denials are overturned. So it pays to ask again.
I've spent hours on the phone with my travel company and I'm not getting anywhere. What do I do?
Send an e-mail. Airlines, hotels and car rental companies outsource their call centers to countries where no one speaks English, or where the English they speak can't be understood by anyone here.
E-mails can be escalated to someone in the States, and those get real results.
Can a car rental company charge me for damage I'm not responsible for?
Yes. But it needs to prove the damage occurred while you were renting the car and that they paid for the repairs afterward. And that can be difficult.
Most bills from car rental companies don't show anything, and neither do their follow-up letters.
If you copy the state insurance commissioner on your replies that politely inquire about your responsibility, chances are your car rental company will give up and find someone else to bother.
Can I call 911 if my flight is stuck on the tarmac and I want to get off?
I wouldn't. Tarmac delays are a small but serious problem.
Last month, the Department of Transportation ordered airlines to let people off planes delayed on the tarmac after three hours.
Calling 911 or faking a heart attack is unnecessary.
You're better off letting flight crews and government oversight do its jobs. And if you're stuck for more than three hours, phone the airline, airport, DOT — or your favorite reporter.
Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine. You can read more travel tips on his blog, www.elliott.org or e-mail him at email@example.com.
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