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Consumer Rights: Lost Luggage to Canceled Flights

When you buy a $25 toaster you get a booklet of directions and a warranty; buy a $1,000 airline ticket and you get neither. But airline tickets do come with a guarantee of sorts; you just never see it. It's usually called something like the "terms of transportation" or "contract of carriage," and, combined with industry-wide regulations called the Domestic General Rules Tariff (DGR-1) and the Fare Rules, it tells you what your rights are in case something goes wrong -- lost luggage, missed connections, and so on. Airlines are supposed to give you a copy of their statement on request, according to Terry Trippler, who has just published a summary of the codes called, appropriately, Airline Rules Guide. But while you're waiting to receive your very own copies of all these documents, here are some of the most common things that go wrong and what your rights are.

Stranded overnight? You may be on your own. Many people think that if an airline strands them in a distant city owing to weather or mechanical delays, the FAA requires the carrier to feed and house them. In fact, no law requires this; it's entirely up to the airline on a case-by-case basis. Most rules state that airlines have no liability whatsoever if the delay is due to weather or air traffic, but they will try to help in other circumstances.

Non-refundable tickets. To cite one example, US Airways' terms of transportation flatly state: "No refunds will be made for 'non-refundable' tickets." However, according to DGR-1, if an airline cancels or even delays your flight for any reason or if a late flight makes you miss a connection, you're entitled to a full or partial refund of the fare paid. If you're over 62, British Airways will refund a non-refundable ticket with no penalty.

Canceled flights. If an airline cancels your flight for any reason, it will probably offer you a seat on the next flight out. But what if the next flight doesn't suit your schedule?Most airline rules specify that if the delay wasn't due to a strike or other force majeure, you're entitled to take the next flight out period, even if it's on another airline. If you've bought a coach ticket and only first class is available on the next flight, you're entitled to that, too.

Lost luggage. If you start out on a U.S. airline, then connect to a foreign airline overseas, and somewhere along the way your bags are lost, you might assume you're entitled to claim up to $1,250, the maximum baggage liability for U.S. airlines. In fact, the international limit of $9.07 per pound applies, and you must make your claim against the foreign carrier.

Delayed luggage. Let's say you arrive in Las Vegas for a three-day hiking trip in the Grand Canyon but your bags don't. No law requires the airline to reimburse you for replacement gear, but most airlines will spot you a reasonable amount. United, for instance, will treat a delay like a loss (up to $1,250 in compensation), according to its rules. Just save receipts.

Fare decreases. After you buy a ticket, the fare goes down. Are you entitled to a full or partial refund?Airlines are not in sync on this issue. Some will charge you $50 to reissue the ticket but will give that back to you in the form of a future travel voucher if you agree to take the entire refund (reissue fee plus fare difference) as a voucher. British Airways, on the other hand, extends a full refund with no change fee.

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