Flying is an investment. With the average domestic airline ticket costing about $350, according to 2016 data from the U.S. Bureau of Transportation, not everyone can afford to fly. And then when airlines tack on extra fees or intentionally mislead you into spending more than planned, those lies can lead to larger travel costs for you.
Ticket and gate agents might sometimes hide what’s really happening from travelers to keep them from constantly asking questions about flights or delays.
“People assume that a gate agent is kind of sworn to tell the truth, maybe they are under oath or something like that,” says consumer advocate Christopher Elliott, who writes a weekly travel column for The Washington Post called “The Navigator.” “The truth is, they're going to tell you whatever they need to tell you in order for you to get off their backs.”
Sometimes airlines are trying to cover their own costs.
“If they do lie to customers, it is, in one way or another, to save money. This could be by avoiding vouchers for hotels, food, customer relations, compensation for oversold flights, et cetera,” says Joel Smiler, the hotline director at FlyersRights.org, a nonprofit airline consumers organization.
Here are five lies your airline might tell you.
1. "The delay is because of weather."
Airlines often will blame weather when it’s not the problem or is only part of the problem. This is because they aren’t liable for weather delays, but are obligated to compensate flyers if there is a mechanical issue or if a crew times out.
“If it’s a weather delay, they don’t have to do anything,” Elliott says.
This is why weather is blamed so often. The airline does not have to give you vouchers for hotel rooms or a meal, which could cost you a couple of hundred dollars if a weather delay requires you to catch another flight the next day. If you miss events at your destination, such as tickets to a sporting event or concert, those won’t be reimbursed.
“Based on the calls and emails that we get, weather is blamed in a vast majority of flight delays,” said Smiler.
However, only about 32% of flight delays in the United States in 2016 were actually due to weather, according to Bureau of Transportation Statistics.
2. "The best we can do is try to get you on our next flight."
The trick here is in the definition of “best.”
The best-case scenario for the airline when your flight is delayed or canceled is that you wait around until they can place you on another flight, wasting your time and sometimes costing you money in unused hotel rooms or reservations.
If the delay was due to a mechanical issue or a crew timing out, you are entitled to compensation for meals and accommodations. If your flight was canceled, you can push and demand a refund or an endorsed ticket on another airline.
“Airlines are required to refund your fare if flights (are) canceled. You don't have to accept coupons, and can fly another airline rather than wait for the next flight on the canceling airline,” says Paul Hudson, president of FlyersRights.org.
This happened to Hannah Fenster, who was flying from Washington, D.C., to Cedar Rapids, Iowa, in 2014. She missed her connecting flight in Chicago due to a delay of her previous flight, and the gate agent told her that there were no more flights to Cedar Rapids leaving the airport that day.
“I was desperate to get to my conference in Cedar Rapids, so I looked at the departures monitor and noticed another flight leaving on a different airline,” says Fenster, now a graduate student and bookshop employee in Georgia. “Maybe because I was fighting tears, or maybe because I was very young, they gave in. They did not, however, admit that they had ever given me false information.”
3. “We’ve got the lowest airfares you’ll find.”
Be wary of any airline claiming to give you the same services as other airlines at a lower cost.
“Don’t book until you’re absolutely sure what you’re booking,” Elliott says.
Even big-name airlines will quote surprisingly low costs for seats and then tack on extra fees for things you may have assumed were included. Bags and confirmed seating often are among the added costs.
“They know that a lot of people are going to assume that that will be included and won't pay attention to the fine print, and they’ll end up at the airport, saying, ‘Oh, I want to bring my bag,’ and that’ll be an extra $35,” Elliott says.
Airlines can charge fees to print your boarding pass, if you have a carry-on bag, and even if you pay by credit card. In 2015, airlines based in North America charged $10.8 billion in extra fees, according to IdeaWorksCompany, an ancillary fee consulting company.
Read the fine print to make sure you know what you’re getting when you make your reservation. That is the only way to avoid these charges.
“If you have a budget, and you want to stay on budget, just make sure you’re not doing anything that might incur an extra cost. Don't travel with a bag, don’t make any changes to your ticket, don’t order a meal,” Elliott says. “You’re just getting a seat, and knowing that will help you a lot.”
4. "You'll get the seat you want."
Many airlines require passengers to pay extra (anywhere from $5-$25 a seat, depending on the airline and when you select your seat) for confirmed seating in advance, which, especially for larger parties, is critical if you want to sit together.
While gate agents may tell you that you will be able to sit together without confirming, sometimes that’s not the case.
“You have airlines asking you to pay extra for seat confirmation. If you’re a family of five, that’s a lot of money,” says Elliott, who as a father of three has had this problem when flying with his family. “You’re standing there and they say, ‘Don’t worry, we’ll find seats for you,’ and you end up sitting 30 rows away from your family.”
This also applies to nonrevenue flyers (passengers who are flying for free because of discounts or connections with the airline, such as family members who are employees) who aren’t guaranteed a seat, or passengers hoping to upgrade, which would usually cost $50-$300 depending on the flight and seat. A gate agent’s assurances that you’ll be seated where you’d like may not mean much.
5. "It’s only a 15-minute delay."
This is probably the most common lie gate agents tell, Elliott says.
“It’s possible that it’s only a 15-minute delay, but usually there’s another announcement 15 minutes later that your flight is going to be delayed another 15 minutes,” he says. “It’s what’s called a creeping delay.”
This announcement strategy is largely to keep passengers from growing antsy and constantly bothering the gate agent during the delay. During the delay, you may spend more money on coffee, snacks, and drinks at high-priced airport venues, as well as on magazines, which can cause your travel costs to creep up as well.
“The gate agents know exactly what’s going on, and they choose to, not necessarily lie, but to withhold information from you,” Elliott says.
Tips to fly stress-free
1. Know what you’re buying up front. Read the fine print so you know what you’re paying for and aren’t surprised by extra fines.
2. Don’t do anything that might incur an extra fee. If you can, avoid checking a bag, which can cost $25, or changing your ticket, which usually costs around $200 for domestic flights. Be flexible about where you sit (some seats are cheaper than others) and bring your own snacks, which can save you cash, too. Snacks purchased on planes can range from $5 for a bag of chips to $3.50 for bottled water.
3. Know when the airline owes you. If your flight is canceled, you’re entitled to a refund, and if there is a delay that’s the airline’s fault, they owe you compensation for food and accommodations.
4. Be nice to your gate agent. A smile and kind words might not get you anything, but if an opportunity arises for an upgrade, the gate agent might be more likely to give the free or discounted reward to a friendly customer instead of a demanding one.
MagnifyMoney is a price comparison and financial education website, founded by former bankers who use their knowledge of how the system works to help you save money.