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Travel Troubleshooter: A United front wins against an unclear ticket policy

Were they going to lose their $3,000 tickets?

Q: My husband and I paid $3,000 for round-trip tickets on United Airlines last year for a flight from Washington to Zurich, Switzerland. We also took out a travel insurance policy. Because of a post-surgical medical issue, my husband could not travel. At that time, we contacted United and were told  we could reuse the tickets as long as we flew before Dec. 24, 2017.

We are now planning a trip abroad for this December. My husband called United to rebook our tickets. Much to our shock, the agent told my husband we had to fly before Dec. 24, but we had to have booked our tickets by July 19, the one-year anniversary of our initial purchase date.

We were not told that at the time of this discussion, but the agent would not budge. Essentially, he said: "Too bad. It's our policy." We both have been frequent United fliers for more than 10 years; my husband for more than 15 years, and he has racked up approximately 500,000 miles.

We have tried to resolve this by contacting United, including an email to the CEO, but to no avail. We can't even get anyone to discuss the matter with us. It sickens me to think we simply gave $3,000 to United, and it sickens me even more that the airline won't compromise on this. Even if the one-year-from-date-of-purchase rule applies (which, again, we had no idea of), we called less than two weeks after that. This, coupled with our frequent-flyer status and the fact that the agent with whom we discussed the rebooking policy last December did not mention this policy creates a situation that we feel United should at least compromise on, especially since it currently is rated the second-worst airline in the country. Any help or advice you can give us would be most appreciated.

— Susan Chibnall, Fairfax, Va.

A: I'm sorry your tickets expired before you could use them. United should have told you about the deadline. Instead, the representative you spoke with either wasn't clear or you didn't understand what the employee said.

I'm a little bit surprised you weren't aware of the policy, which is an industry standard. You and your husband are frequent United customers, and this can't be your first canceled flight. Still, the burden was on the airline — not you — to be clear about the rules. If an employee told you that you had a full year, United should have been true to its word. You shouldn't have to research an employee's promise to ensure that it's the truth.

You say you reached out to United's CEO, and though that's a good strategy, you might first try a few lower-level contacts who have more direct control of customer-service issues. I list their names, numbers and email addresses on my consumer-advocacy site:

After I provided you with additional contact information, you got in touch with the right person at United. Not only did the airline allow you to use your tickets, but it also connected you with a ticket agent who helped you book your trip to Switzerland. The agent was gracious, calm, polite, and reassuring, you told me. "Truly excellent customer service." That's what I like to hear.

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,, or email him at