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Plane Talk: Public Charter Flights

Charter flights can provide excellent value, and they often operate nonstop in markets where scheduled flights would be less direct. In addition, many charters don't have all of the restrictions of scheduled-service discount fares, e.g. advance-purchase, stay over a Saturday night, stay no more than 30 days, etc. Finally, most charter fares aren't "capacity-controlled" like scheduled-service discount fares; every seat on the airplane is usually available at the advertised fare. "Public Charters" can be purchased from a tour operator, a travel agent, or sometimes directly from the airline.

If your flight has been arranged by a club or other organization for its members, it may be what is called an "affinity" charter flight. These charters generally do not carry the consumer protection provisions of Public Charters. Be sure you know what kind of charter flight you are purchasing.

A Public Charter may include only the flights, or it may be sold as a complete package, including hotels, guided tours, and ground transportation. Either way, your rights are spelled out in an "operator/participant contract" that you have with the charter operator. The operator or your travel agent should give you a contract to sign at the time you purchase your trip. Read it before you pay any money.

DOT Rules

The Department of Transportation requires charter operators to disclose certain information in their contract about the restrictions that they impose and also rights that you have under our rules:

  • You usually pay penalties if you cancel. The closer to departure you cancel, the bigger the penalty. Most scheduled-service discount fares are non-refundable, but allow you to re-use the ticket at another time for a fee of about $50 to $75; charters may or may not permit this. On some charters, if a substitute can go in your place you only lose a $25 fee.
  • You can buy trip cancellation insurance. These policies usually provide a refund in case you must cancel due to illness or death in the family. Your travel agent or tour operator can tell you how to buy the insurance and what health conditions it does or doesn't cover. Charter cancellation insurance often won't pay you if you must cancel because of a preexisting condition.
  • The charter operator or airline can cancel a Public Charter for any reason up until 10 days before departure. Your flight might be canceled if it doesn't sell well or for some other reason. This is a risk you take in return for a low fare. (During the last 10 days before departure, a Public Charter can be canceled only if it is physically impossible to operate it.)
  • All charter flights and ground arrangements are subject to changes. Signing a contract does not guarantee that your fare won't be increased before departure or that the itinerary won't change. But, if there is a "major change" in your flight or tour, you have the right to cancel and get a penalty-free refund.
  • Major changes include:
    • A change in departure or return city (not including a simple change in the order in which cities are visited).
    • A change in departure or return date, unless the date change results from a flight delay. (However, a flight delay of more than 48 hours is a major change.)
    • A substitution of a hotel that was not named as an alternate hotel in your contract.
    • An increase in price, if the total of all increases billed to you is more than 10% of what you originally paid. (No increases are allowed during the last 10 days before departure.)

Dealing with Cancellations

If your charter operator notifies you of a major change before departure, you get a full refund if you decide to cancel. If you choose not to cancel, the operator is not required to make partial refunds. However, if you don’t find out about a change until after your trip has begun, you can reject the changed flight or hotel, make and pay for your own alternative plans, and insist on a refund for the original component when you get home. If you decide to accept a change in date or city, keep in mind the effect it will have on any connecting scheduled-service arrangements you may have made, particularly if your scheduled-service fare restricts your ability to make changes.

  • Public charters can be sold on a one-way basis, but no "open returns" are allowed on round-trip public charters. Be sure you have a specific return date, city, and flight, so you won't be stranded.
  • The charter operator has to take specific steps to protect your money. The operator must have a surety agreement, such as a bond, and must usually have an escrow account at a bank that holds your money until your flight operates. If your money is going into a charter escrow account, the bank will be named in your contract, and the check that is sent to the charter operator should be made payable to that bank. (If you are using a travel agent, it’s OK for you to make your check out to that agent; the agency will make its check payable to the escrow account.) Identify the departure date and destination on the face of the check. If you pay by credit card, the charter operator is required to ensure that your payment is deposited in the escrow account. If a charter operator goes out of business you should contact the surety company or bank identified in your contract for a refund.
  • You alone are responsible for knowing if you need a visa and passport for your trip. You can be certain of the visa and passport rules of the countries you plan to visit by calling or writing their embassies in Washington, D.C. or their consulates in some major U.S. cities.
  • If your luggage gets lost during your tour, there may be a dispute over who is liable. The charter airlines process claims for bags that were lost or damaged while in their possession. If it is not clear where the problem occurred (e.g. between the airport and a hotel), the operator and the airline may both decline liability. To cover yourself, find out if your renter’s or homeowner’s insurance policy covers losses that happen when you're away from home. You might also ask your travel agent if there’s a one-shot baggage insurance policy available to cover baggage problems while you are on your charter trip.
  • Your charter may be delayed. Last-minute schedule changes and departure delays of several hours are not uncommon on charters. A flight can be delayed up to 48 hours before the charter operator must offer you the option to cancel with a full refund.
  • Charters and scheduled flights operate independently of each other. If there's a delay on the scheduled flight connecting you to the city where your charter departs, causing you to miss your charter, you lose your flight and money. Charter reservations are only good for one flight. If you miss it for any reason, you're probably out of luck. Check with the charter operator to see if he has another charter flying to your destination.

If your charter is late returning and causes you to miss a scheduled connecting flight back to your home, you have to pay your own expenses while you wait for the next connection. You may also have to pay a higher fare to switch to another scheduled-service flight if you were ticketed at a discount fare. Bottom line: leave plenty of connecting time between charter and scheduled flights when making your arrangements.

Check-In Process

Your baggage can’t be checked through from a scheduled flight to a charter, and vice-versa. You have to claim your baggage and re-check it yourself. When planning a charter, allow plenty of time to check in at the airport from which your charter leaves, or from which you have a connecting flight. On international trips, remember that you may encounter delays in Customs.

You might find seating space for your charter plane to be more crowded than you're used to. In addition, "load factors" are usually higher, which means less chance of an empty middle seat next to you if you’re traveling alone. The low charter rate depends in part on spreading costs over a large number of people with virtually all of the seats being filled.

  • Check-in deadlines are lengthier on charters than on scheduled-service flights. Three hours is not unusual for an international charter.
  • If a charter flight hasn’t sold out shortly before departure, the operator can sell seats at bargain basement prices to latecomers. Some who have paid the regular price well in advance may object, but should realize that the operator's alternative may be to cancel the flight altogether for economic reasons.
  • Charter rates are relatively low, but might not be the cheapest fare to your destination. Ask your travel agent to compare fares on scheduled and charter flights for you.

Charters offer nonstop flights for an affordable price. They can be a wise travel investment if you can be flexible in your travel plans. Just be sure you know the conditions for the trip you're buying before you pay for it.

Updated: Tuesday, February 19, 2013