Q: Two college roommates and I booked a cruise through Celebrity Cruise Lines. We did everything as suggested — booked through a travel agency, had Celebrity book the airfare and took out insurance. When we arrived in Charlotte for our connecting flight, US Airways said there was a mechanical failure and they needed 20 volunteers. They did not get their 20, so two of us did not have seats for the smaller plane they brought in. The one who had a seat was not going without the other two, so they took her seat and gave it to a family of three that did not have a cruise ship to get to. The airlines could not get us down to San Juan to leave with the ship. The best they could do is get us to the first port of call, which was two days later. It was hell for the next two days! We asked for the luggage to go to the ship so we were without it for those two days. The most US Airways will offer is a $300 voucher. The insurance only paid for the minor things and reimbursed for two days of the cruise. It seems a really unfair amount from US Airways considering what we went through to get to the port and the bad taste it put in our mouths for the cruise. Is $300 the most an airline can offer for supposed mechanical failure? They have told us that this is the best they can do and Celebrity is only offering a $100 onboard credit. Any recommendation for getting more from them?
A: Had you not booked as you did and taken out insurance, you would have had to buy a last-minute fare to the next port of call at considerable expense, and there would have been no compensation at all for your missed days, so smart move. Normally, if you're bumped from a flight like this you're entitled to compensation, with a few exceptions. According to U.S. Department of Transportation rules published on its website (http://airconsumer.dot.gov/publications/flyrights.htm#overbooking), the compensation maximum is $1,300 if the airline arranges substitute transportation arriving at your destination more than two hours on a domestic itinerary or four hours on an international one. And you get to keep your original ticket and use it on a future flight. But there's an unfortunate — and frankly unfair, I think — exception to the rule, especially if the delay was caused by a mechanical failure: "If the airline must substitute a smaller plane for the one it originally planned to use, the carrier isn't required to pay people who are bumped as a result. In addition, on flights using aircraft with 30 through 60 passenger seats, compensation is not required if you were bumped due to safety-related aircraft weight or balance constraints."
And it looks like US Airways substituted a smaller plane in this case. So really, US Airways wasn't required to pay you anything at all. What you should have done, in addition to buying insurance, was to arrive at your embarkation port (San Juan, in this case) at least a day (or preferably two days) early. I've seen this sort of scenario happen all the time (most recently, to my mother-in-law on a cruise from Miami through the Panama Canal, and she had to cancel the entire cruise; luckily her insurance reimbursed her for the full cost). I'm taking a cruise from Edinburgh to Paris this summer on Azamara Club Cruises, and I plan on arriving in London at least two days before sailing. That way I'm pretty sure I won't miss the boat.
George Hobica is founder of the low-airfare listing site Airfarewatchdog.com.
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