Why won’t United Airlines honor its fare guarantee?


Chuck Barnes tries to invoke United Airlines’ low fare guarantee. But it doesn’t quite work the way he hoped it would. Is he out of luck?

Question: I made a reservation on United’s website from Tampa to San Francisco for a total price of $180. After completing the reservation I looked up the same itinerary on Orbitz. Much to my surprise, it was $10 less than the price I had just paid on United.com.

United offers a low-fare guarantee. I read the low fare guarantee page to confirm that it covered my fare discrepancy and then I called the United reservations number. The agent I spoke with was polite, but insisted that I had to find the lower fare online at United.com only — Orbitz did not qualify.

But that’s not what the fare guarantee says. I referred her to the page, and she asked if I would “hold.” I waited 20 minutes and then called back from a different phone. An agent said I could cancel the flight if I wanted to, but I said I was interested in the lower fare guarantee.

Finally, I was connected to a supervisor who stated that the time he looked (now over 45 minutes from my booking and Orbitz fare difference) the lowest fare he could find was $177 and he would be happy to refund me the $3 difference. I declined, stating that I felt the delay that has occurred allowed for a fare change. I feel United should honor the lower fare guarantee. Can you help me? — Chuck Barnes, San Francisco

Answer: At the time you booked your tickets, United’s “low fare” guarantee said if you purchased tickets through its site (which you did) and found a published retail price online that’s $10 or more lower (which you did), then United would refund the difference and give you a $100 voucher toward a future flight.

But you have to mind the small print. In order to invoke the fare guarantee, the fare must be found on the same itinerary, same day, same cabin. That’s more or less an industry standard, and yes, it makes it difficult to make a successful claim.
I’m not a big fan of guarantees like this. It’s often impossible to invoke one because of all the terms and conditions. You’re better off finding a great fare than suffering buyer’s remorse followed by the agony of filing a claim that may or may not be successful.

One other observation: All this for $10? The amount of time you spent pursuing this claim — well over an hour — is probably not worth your time. I imagine you have better things to do.

If you weren’t getting anywhere by phone, you could have contacted someone higher up at United. Here are a few executives.

I asked United to review your claim. An airline representative contacted you, apologized for your experience and offered you a voucher for $150, which you accepted.

  • JoeInAtlanta

    I don’t understand why you’re belittling Mr. Barnes for trying to force an airline to keep its promises. This use of time may have only been worth $10 (initially) or $150 (ultimately) to him — but it was extremely valuable to the rest of us in showing that United Airlines is making empty promises — and not even training its customer service staff to be aware of those promises, let alone giving them the tools to honor the commitment.

    I think you owe Mr. Barnes an apology for trivializing his efforts to bring light to a shady practice at United Airlines.

  • rg

    Isn’t it $10 PLUS a $100 voucher? That seems worthwhile to me.

  • Melissa

    I agree. It was the principle of the thing.

  • BobChi

    They make the guarantee to give assurance to people that the lowest prices are indeed at their website – so people will go there, avoiding a need for the carrier to pay commissions. I suppose the low fare guarantee usually is valid, but things can happen, and if they are caught not having the low fare, they certainly should be accountable.
    I doubt it happened here, but some people do consistently put effort into gaming the system – seeking out mistakes before even booking in the first place in order to get the benefits of a best price guarantee.

  • Bobby Trif

    I agree with joe. It was only an hour of time because of a horrible customer service experience. $10 + voucher is worth the 5 min the adjustment should have taken!