Stranded by Southwest and Stuck With Unexpected Costs

Olivia Laskowski was in Nashville and expecting to fly home to New York on Dec. 27 when she received a text message from Southwest Airlines the night before that her flight was canceled. Four days and more than $600 later, Ms. Laskowski and her Siamese cat, Pretzel, were finally back home in Brooklyn.

The text message from Southwest contained a link where she could look into her other travel options. But when Ms. Laskowski, 25, tried to rebook with Southwest, the next available flight wasn’t until Jan. 11. She ended up purchasing a new plane ticket for $478 (including $125 for Pretzel and $80 for bags) through JetBlue that got her home on Dec. 30. Southwest has told Ms. Laskowski that she will be refunded for her original ticket, and she plans to submit her JetBlue receipt for reimbursement, too. So far, Southwest has offered her 25,000 points for her trouble.

“Sometimes you get extra expenses in life and you just kind of brush them off and they are what they are,” said Ms. Laskowski, who works as a marketing manager for Partners Coffee. “But it’s the type of money that I’d really like to get back because as a young person that lives in probably the most expensive city in the country, $600 does make a big difference to me.”

Southwest Airlines canceled thousands of flights in December as bad weather scrambled holiday travel plans for thousands of fliers. But while the other major airlines quickly recovered, inadequate computer systems at Southwest stranded many of its customers for days. Others rented cars to complete their journeys. Travelers also incurred debt from having to pay for unplanned meals, hotel rooms and tickets on other airlines. While the Southwest chaos has cleared up, many travelers are still dealing with the financial repercussions of having to make alternate plans to get home.

Pretzel.Credit…Desiree Rios/The New York Times
Ms. Laskowski ended up buying a new ticket on JetBlue for $478, including $125 for Pretzel and $80 for bags.Credit…Desiree Rios/The New York Times

Southwest is offering customers refunds and reimbursements on flights from Dec. 24 through Jan. 2 that were canceled or delayed more than three hours in addition to the 25,000 points for each ticket, Chris Perry a company spokesman, wrote in an email to The New York Times. The points are worth about $300 in flight credits.

But for Dan Hughes, 53, who was traveling home to Oregon after spending his 26th wedding anniversary in Nashville on Dec. 21, a refund might not be possible because his travel plans were outside reimbursement dates.

“You stranded me in Denver on the 21st,” Mr. Hughes said. “At this point, you’re saying, ‘No, you’re on your own until the 24th.’”

Mr. Hughes and his wife, who own a small pizza franchise, were scheduled to fly from Nashville to Denver and then connect to Portland. But their flight from Nashville got stuck on the tarmac in Denver for nearly two hours, Mr. Hughes said, and then he got a notification that their flight home was canceled. He booked one flight and then another on Southwest that were delayed and then canceled.

Finally, Mr. Hughes booked a trip on United Airlines to Las Vegas, which would then connect to Seattle. But he and his wife got stuck in Las Vegas. The couple eventually flew on a Southwest flight to Sacramento and then drove home to Oregon. They spent about $1,700 on the ordeal, and they still haven’t gotten their luggage back with Mr. Hughes’s breathing machine for his sleep apnea.

In addition, Mr. Hughes said, he and his wife incurred expenses at their restaurant because they had to pay employees to do their work when they couldn’t be there.

“I only make what my business makes, so it turned out to be more of a financial hit than we had anticipated, not including the extra expenses,” he said.

Dan and Nikki Hughes at home in Salem, Ore., on Wednesday.Credit…Leah Nash for The New York Times
Receipts for Mr. and Mrs. Hughes’s expenses and delayed baggage.Credit…Leah Nash for The New York Times

Suzanne Durham, 56, had to use her bonus to pay for the extra costs of her travel disruptions. When her flight from Boston to Nashville on Dec. 26 was canceled, she booked a new Southwest flight for the next Thursday and was able to move it to Tuesday. Still, she said, she worried it would be canceled (which it eventually was) and bought an American Airlines flight using nearly $1,000 in purchased points.

She ended up spending about $1,100 to $1,200 and has been reimbursed $183 for her return trip on Southwest. She also received the 25,000 points Southwest offered.

“I’m going to put my gym membership on hold for a couple of months,” said Ms. Durham, who does promotion and marketing for a record company. “I don’t like to have any debt.”

JR Jones, 29, planned to travel on Southwest from Sacramento to Seattle with his fiancée to see her family on Dec. 22, but their flight was delayed and then canceled. Southwest rescheduled their flight for Christmas Day, so the couple ended up renting a car for the 13-hour drive to Seattle. They hoped to fly back to avoid the long drive a second time.

Then their return flight on Dec. 28 was also canceled, and they had to get another rental car to make it back to Sacramento. The cost of the additional travel added up to about $1,000. For the canceled flights, the couple have so far received only flight credits from Southwest, in addition to 25,000 points. While Mr. Jones’s fiancée’s family was able to lend the couple about $500, they are hoping for a refund to pay them back.

“The rest of it is just going to come out of our wedding fund, and hopefully we can get it back before the actual wedding,” said Mr. Jones, who works for an environmental engineering firm. “Otherwise, we’ll end up putting a little bit of extra stuff on credit cards or something until we can recoup those costs.”

Michael Baxter at home in Tulsa, Okla. Mr. Baxter drove to San Diego after his flight was moved to Dec. 29 from Dec. 25.Credit…Chris Creese for The New York Times
Mr. Baxter‘s rebooked Southwest flight.Credit…Chris Creese for The New York Times

Michael Baxter, 47, was planning to go on a trip with his family to San Diego for Christmas. His 15-year-old daughter wanted to visit Legoland with her best friend, and the trip was her present. But when Mr. Baxter’s flight out of Tulsa, Okla., was moved to Dec. 29 from Dec. 25, he opted to borrow his sister’s Subaru and drive so his family could take the vacation as scheduled.

While Southwest offered to let him and his the family keep the second leg of their flight, they could not abandon their car. They have been reimbursed for the full cost of their flight. Still, the family spent over $500 on gas and had to book a hotel room on the way back, which cost around $400. The family lost $430 from missing the first night in a resort because of the long drive, as well as $130 on a car rental that was no longer needed.

Mr. Baxter and his wife are medical professionals and said that the costs wouldn’t have a big impact on their finances, but that the ordeal had taken a toll.

“It still hurts,” Mr. Baxter said. “My wife and I both basically lost two days of vacation.”

Mr. Baxter’s wife sent an email to Southwest explaining their situation and was told they would not be reimbursed for the additional costs. But now that the couple have calculated the full cost of the inconvenience, they are planning on contacting Southwest again.

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