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Why booking flights without wiggle room doesn't pay

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Reuters

You're planning a special trip to meet old friends.  How much travel time should you give yourself to ensure you don't miss the reunion? What happens if you have an airline voucher that's set to expire but can't take the time to travel? We answer these and other nagging questions about air travel.

Q: I had a seat on Alaska Airlines to Oakland leaving Portland at 2:45 p.m. and arriving Oakland at 4:47 p.m.  I was flying down for a Bruce Springsteen concert.  If you’re not a fan, you could be forgiven for saying, 'Oh, a concert.'  But this is an important part of my life.  I have seen about 200 shows over 35 years.  Tickets are very hard to come by. 

I was meeting friends from London, Barcelona, Indianapolis, Boston, New York and throughout California.  People I only get to see on such occasions.  The only reason for this flight was to see this show and be with those friends for the experience. I paid $360 for my seat. At 2:45 they announced the plane would be delayed.  The flight was canceled and I missed the concert, which was to begin at 8 p.m. I’m sure Alaska will throw me a bone, like some miles.  But what am I entitled to in this situation?

A: Because your flight was severely delayed, you could have decided not to fly at all, asking Alaska for a full refund of the fare paid, even on a non-refundable ticket. Alaska may indeed offer you a voucher or whatever, but you won’t get back the value of the experience or the money you paid for the concert. What I don’t understand is why you played it so close, planning to arrive at the Oakland airport just three hours before the concert. Since this was an important event, you should have left earlier in the day or even the night before. Hundreds of flights are canceled or severely delayed every day, and that’s just the way it is. I give this advice to anyone who needs to be on time for an important event—a cruise departure, a funeral, a wedding, important business meeting, or a Bruce Springsteen concert. Assume that your flight will be delayed or canceled and be sure to get there the day before or at least in plenty of time.

Q: I have an airline voucher that I cannot use before it expires.  Is it possible to book a flight and then cancel and somehow receive a new voucher to be used at a future date?

A: You can book a flight using the voucher before it expires and then you’d have up to a year from the ticket issue date to change the flight, if necessary. However, most airlines will charge a change fee, typically $150 on United, American, Delta and US Airways. There’s no change fee on Southwest, but you’d pay any applicable fare difference.

Have a question about travel or airfares? Send your questions to questions@airfarewatchdog.com and we may answer them in this column.

George Hobica is a syndicated travel journalist and founder of the low-airfare listing site Airfarewatchdog.com.