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Update: The Ecstasy and the Agony of Flying Spirit

I found out from Spirit what I should do and (expensively) fixed my mistake. Solution below.

One of the things that makes our car-free life possible is living so close to Oakland International Airport. Not only can we bike over there to pick up rental cars, but flying in and out of this airport is a local bus or cheap cab ride away.

Not only do I like to fly out of Oakland, but I’m also super-frug. So naturally, when I found out that budget airline Spirit was flying from Oakland to Chicago O’Hare airport (near my parents’ home) for low prices, I became a fan. I’ve taken Spirit twice this year, the last time paying well under $200 per round trip ticket.

But this weekend I just had my first Spirit-astrophe. I’m writing about my stupid airfare booking screw-up mostly because I want to cry on someone’s shoulder, and I can’t write in to one of those airline problem solver columns because the airline didn’t screw up — I did. My secondary motive for writing this is that maybe someone out there can figure out something I can do to salvage the lost money in this situation, because I sure can’t.

Last week I booked five round-trip tickets on Spirit, to take my family on our annual summer trip to the kids’ grandparents’ homes in Wisconsin. The price wasn’t as low as I’d gotten on Spirit for past trips, but it was still lower than I’d seen on Southwest or other airlines, so I bit the bullet and bought the tickets. I even paid an extra $18 each, each way, to select a specific seat toward the front of the plane. When I flew alone with one of my kids, I didn’t pay to select a seat, and we ended up getting seated together fine. But now that my husband, a large man, is coming with us, I wanted to get the larger seats so I paid up.

It wasn’t until yesterday, 10 days after booking, that something hit me: I wasn’t supposed to buy five round-trip tickets, because two of my kids weren’t going to be with us on the outbound trip. My parents were picking them up earlier in the summer and taking them home on Amtrak. I’d goofed, big-time.

To compound my misery, when I went online to confirm that I’d made the boneheaded move I thought I’d made, I also noticed that the far had dropped significantly since I booked last week. In fact, if I were booking our trip today and I did it properly, i.e. without buying two tickets from Oakland to O’hare that we can’t use, our fare would be more than $500 less.

I can’t just rebook the correct number of tickets at the new, lower price, because, you guessed it, there’s a change fee of $120 per ticket. So if I were to cancel the whole 5-person trip, our change fees would work out to $600, just over what I would save by redoing it. I am not completely sure, but I think that if I cancel just one leg of the girls’ trip, the $240 change fee would be more than anything we’d get back.

So my questions are now:

1) Will you pass me that box of tissues? Because wasting $200-$500 really bums me out.

2) What exactly should I do now?

With question two, I’m concerned not only that there is some way of getting a refund I’m missing (probably not), but also that I am going to risk having my daughters’ return flights canceled. I called Spirit’s customer service number and waited on hold for a very long time to speak with a customer service rep, who as people on the Internet predicted, sounded like she was talking to me from a long way away and had a strong accent that made it a little difficult for us to understand each other. She agreed that I probably would not get any money back by canceling the first leg of the flight, but said if I did nothing that might be a problem when my daughters try to board their return flight. Her suggestion was to call Spirit a week before the flight to tell them the girls were going to miss the flight.

But online research shows that airlines routinely cancel return flights if you miss another leg of your flight. So I’m worried. Apparently I am supposed to get something in writing from Spirit that the girls can still use the second half of their tickets. I’ve emailed customer service, but if anyone out there has any experience dealing with Spirit’s reputedly difficult customer service system, I’d love to hear your advice.

So. Lessons learned? The biggest one I can claim is that I learned to effing pay attention to what I am doing and not mess up, but I guess everyone messes up every once in awhile. I was trying to be a good mom and get something taken care of, and I forgot an important piece of information.

The more useful lesson, I guess, is that bare-bones fares come with a big risk. I could have paid an extra $45 per ticket for Spirit’s flight change insurance, but with five tickets that seemed like a lot. I could have stuck with my old favorite airline, Southwest, which does not charge change fees. But the fare was a lot more this time around. So I guess I just have to accept that when you play with the fire of super-low airfares, even if you are careful, once in awhile you are going to end up sucking on your fingertips.

I feel a little better now! Not a lot.

Update: Spirit’s customer service told me via email that the first person I’d spoken to was indeed wrong, and I would need to cancel my kids’ entire flight and rebook the return flight. Today I called customer service and luckily reached a pretty savvy agent, who was able to do the cancelation and rebook without marking my kids as unaccompanied minors, since the re-purchased one-way tickets has them on their own reservation but of course we will be with them.
The bad part of all this is that I only got $36 of my daughters’ canceled flights back, and that only as a credit that expires if I don’t put it towards a flight within 60 days. The tiny sliver of good is that I don’t think they charged me the $15-per-ticket fee for booking on the phone rather than online, and they were able to salvage the seat reservations I’d already paid for for the girls.