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July 29, 2010

Reader asks for -- and gets -- $250 airline voucher

I got this thrilling email yesterday from Priya, a reader and fellow asking adventurer. Let me extract my favorite words in this post from the get go:
...on principle I figured, why the hell not try [asking].
Indeed! But enough from me. You should hear this straight from Priya. Here's her email to me.

Speaking of traveling and planes...

I've been meaning to recount another asking to you. Last Christmas a big snowstorm derailed my flight plans by a few days. I finally made it to the gate in DC when yet another delay meant I would either a) have eight minutes to make a connecting flight or b) be stuck overnight at O'Hare. But United's Best Employee Ever got me a ticket on a direct flight from a neighboring airport. One very expensive cab ride later, I was boarding a plane. In my jubilant state, I hadn't thought to ask Mr. Best Employee for a voucher or coupon toward the cab ride. But once I reached my final destination, I thought, why not? So I wrote United a long, colorful account of my experience, thanking Mr. Best Employee by name, and kindly asking for any sort of compensation.

It worked! They gave me a $250 voucher toward a ticket.

Fast forward to last week. I'm about to buy a ticket with the voucher but want to call my mom to check something quickly. When I click "Continue," the price that I had to pay jumped from $14 to $32. I was miffed, but I was still getting a plane ticket to NYC for the same price as a bus ticket. So I tried to let it go.

But I couldn't. And I thought, can I strike gold twice? I sent another e-mail, beginning and ending with a huge thank you for the voucher. But I also added that I didn't think it was fair that the exact same seat doubled in price over the span of 5 minutes. I recognize that my argument wasn't nearly as compelling as last time's, but on principle I figured, why the hell not try. If I look ungrateful or cheap, so be it. And on the off chance that United did actually give me the money back, well, I'd fly exclusively United.

I did receive an e-mail from United, but all it said was that my itinerary had been updated. I checked. The times were all the same, but unfortunately, so was my credit card statement.

But the whole thing was a revelation. As you know, retail and money askings are the most difficult for me. But this time, I, the consumer, felt jilted.I knew it was a long shot and I'm not surprised that they haven't obliged, especially considering that I had the voucher. But I did what I could. Nevertheless, I wouldn't have minded a response, even if it said, "Well, a large group of middle-schoolers suddenly decided Labor Day was the best time to have a history lesson on Ellis Island, so tickets for that flight were in higher demand, hence the price increase."

What were the magic words in her first letter, you're wondering? I was wondering the same thing, so naturally, I asked her to share. She sent me the first and second emails.


While I normally stay close to home during the holidays, I decided to travel by air this year to spend time with extended family. I hardly imagined what an adventure I'd have just making it to out there.

I was scheduled to depart on Saturday. The impending blizzard cancelled my Saturday morning flight, and my travel agent rebooked me onto a new flight departing Sunday.

The snow came, and came, and came, and cancelled the Sunday flight as well. After much searching, I found seats on a new flight.

As I sat at t he gate, I noticed that the flight kept getting delayed. When scheduled takeoff jumped from 7:05 to 7:56, I knew something was amiss. This couldn't have been catch-up from the snow delays, for from what I heard, flights had been moving smoothly all day.

After waiting patiently in line for about 30 minutes, I explained my predicament to a gentleman at the counter. It turned my connecting flight was the last flight of the day. Was I really about to become one of those holiday passengers, traveling alone and stranded in an airport in the middle of America, wanting nothing more than to greet my family as I'd planned to do two days earlier?

After some more searching, the representative told me there was a direct flight from a neighboring airport departing at 10:05. My heartbeat quickened. Two questions stood between me and unbridled relief. Were there seats on that plane, and did I have time to make it to the airport? The answer to both questions, thankfully, was a yes. I expressed my utmost gratitude to the representative, snagged my new boarding pass and sped off, my holiday plans salvaged.

I can't even imagine how much work went into fixing all the flight schedules the snowstorm disrupted, and I'd like to commend you for getting through it all. I'd also like to thank once gain the representative (I believe his name was Best Employee) for making it possible for me to spend Monday night with my family instead of a cold hotel room or vast airport terminal.

However, I didn't expect to have to take an $80 cab ride from airport to airport to do so. Although I'm grateful that everything worked out, I lost two days with my family because of all the cancellations.

I would like to request compensation for the $80 cab ride. I do understand that the snowstorm was out of anyone's control, but I had specifically planned my trip based on access to public transportation From Saturday to Monday, I had been scheduled on about seven different flights. I don't know what caused such delays on Monday's flight, but given the circumstances, going to the other airport was really the only way to salvage my situation.

I do hope you consider my request for remuneration. Please feel free to e-mail me or call my cell. Thank you very much and happy holidays!

Her second email:
Last December I received a courtesy voucher in response to travel delays incurred due to the December 2009 snowstorm. First, I want to thank you very much for giving me this travel voucher. I greatly appreciate it. This evening I redeemed it for a round-trip ticket. The original price I clicked on, around 8:30 pm, was $14.40 after the voucher was applied, but when I clicked continue, the site said that price modifications had bumped the price up to $32.40. I know that calculating flight fares is a complicated process, but I don't understand how in just a few minutes, the price more than doubled for the exact same ticket. I completely understand that, factoring in the voucher, the amount I paid was far less than the original price. However, I don't think it's fair that something that was valued at $14.40 suddenly went up to $32.40 in such a short amount of time. Would it be at all possible to adjust this ticket back to the price at which it was originally listed? Once again, I truly do appreciate your help and am grateful for anything you can do. Feel free to e-mail me or call me.

Priya's post-game analysis, included in her email to me:

I milked the first situation for all its worth -- crippling snowstorm, holiday spirit and the lonely girl who just wants to reach her family. It was a compelling story and I kept the tone light. The second one was less narrative and more straightforward. Maybe plain old unfairness isn't reason enough for them to give me the refund. Do you think it conveys a sense of entitlement? Is it too demanding? Do I come off sounding whiny? Like I'm throwing an e-mail tantrum? Did the fact that I had a voucher and still paid hundreds less than the actual price negate any right I had to complain?

I'd be interested to hear your/readers' thoughts...

My take?

Priya, you did great!!!! You identified an opportunity where it was far from obvious. You crafted a compelling letter. You persisted. You thanked people for being kind and rewarded their generosity by privately and publicly lauding them (in your letter and in your email to me, which is now a blog post).

As for the second letter -- it does come across as demanding, or more curt and businesslike, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. You did thank them and acknowledge how awesome their first response was. Here's what I like most about it: you took the risk. You tried. So what if it didn't work. You felt you were owed an explanation (at least that, if not the price difference as well) and you decided that your feeling is worth something: action. That's tremendously courageous. Over time you can work on figuring out what style to use for every situation and if there are ways to ask that don't leave you feeling insecure about your approach. But above all, it's fantastic you asked, not once but twice. It's great you felt your needs weren't being met. It's great you tried to resolve that.

I can't wait to read your next asking adventure. Thanks so much for sharing this story.

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