Travel Troubleshooter: United cancels for weather 2 days in advance, cuts refund in half

Q: While I was visiting Los Angeles recently with my husband, I received an email from United Airlines that our flight back to Cleveland in two days was canceled because of "severe weather conditions in our route network." We were scheduled to fly to Chicago and then Cleveland, but we were rebooked home through Newark with 36 minutes between connecting flights. We later discovered others on the flight got their original schedules back, thanks to their travel agents. Because I had booked online at United.com and had no travel agent, I spent nearly four hours on the phone, much of it on hold, trying to get our original flights.

I was told at various times (a) the flight was full or (b) the flight was canceled or (c) we could take a red­eye. I even tried tweeting United, a method that had worked before, but after one initial promise to look into it, that, too, ended in nothing but a cut-and-paste "we'll get back to you shortly" response. Further frustration occurred because my husband is quite claustrophobic on planes, so we always pay for seat upgrades to get more legroom. No one seemed able to guarantee that - except on the red-eye, which would get us in an hour and a half before Monday classes we had to teach. At that point, out of curiosity, I checked United.com to find that not only were the flights still scheduled, but our very seats were available, exit row and all. So we paid $1,273 to book and get back what United had canceled and to get home as we had planned, thinking it couldn't be that hard to get refunds. After dutifully filling out the forms for a refund, I received two payments of $369. That's less than half of the price I paid for the original tickets. United offered no explanation, even when I asked. By my calculations, United owes us $534 more. Can you help me get a refund?

- Candace Perkins Bowen, Stow, Ohio
A: You're right, the cancellation two days before your return to Cleveland looked a little questionable. And given that United still operated your original flight as scheduled, I think your suspicions were justified. You're also right that a travel agent might have fixed this for you. You know the saying, "Without an agent, you're on your own?" Maybe this is a case in point. United certainly didn't help you with fixing your direct booking. Let's go straight to the rules, which state that United can do whatever it wants and you have virtually no recourse. I'm not making this up. Rule 24 of its contract of carriage - the legal agreement between you and the airline - states that schedules "are not guaranteed and form no part of this contract." Further, the airline may "substitute alternate carriers or aircraft, delay or cancel flights, and alter or omit stopping places or connections shown on the ticket at any time."

Put differently, United didn't even have to offer a bogus excuse about weather. It could have claimed the cancellation was due to an alien invasion - or said nothing at all. You would have been stuck with its new schedule. Because it says it can, that's why. Now, just because United can do this doesn't mean it should. If the "weather" cleared up and it could operate your original flight, it should have accommodated you on that original flight.

I think buying a new ticket was the right move. A little risky, but right. You deserved to be on that flight, particularly if United had the gall to offer tickets for sale. When you book a round­trip ticket, not all of the segments are valued the same. There are various factors involved in pricing an airline ticket, such as fare class purchased and taxes. Turns out that the first refund covered only one of the tickets. Another refund, which will cover the full amount of the second ticket, is in process and should reach you by the time you read this. United also sent you two $200 vouchers as a "goodwill gesture," which will more than make up for the lost money.

Christopher Elliott's latest book is "How to Be the World's Smartest Traveler" (National Geographic). You can get real­time answers to any consumer question on his new forum, elliott.org/forum, or by emailing him at chris@elliott.org