Should a Ukrainian Family Be Forced to Pay Thousands in Change Fees to Avoid Travel to Russia?

Several folks — with varying perspectives — sent me a link to a story about a Ukrainian woman whose family has a trip planned to Europe this summer. She wanted to change her tickets to cut out the visit to Russia given current tensions there, but Finnair directed her to the online agency she bought the tickets from to make changes and the online agency wanted several hundred dollars per passenger to make the change.

Marina Spor, 45, was born in the southern Ukrainian city of Kherson, about an hour and half drive from the Crimean peninsula. She immigrated to the United States with her parents at the age of 7.

Spor’s husband is of Norwegian stock, so the couple thought it would be fun to let their kids get a taste of their roots with a “heritage” trip to Europe this summer.

They still want to make the trip and still plan to cross the ocean both ways on Finnair. They just figure they’ll remain in Norway and do Russia some other time.

…Spor’s not asking Finnair to cancel the family’s entire trip. She just wants to eliminate the Moscow-Helsinki leg of her family’s planned return to Southern California. They’d like to fly straight home from the Finnish capital.

Spor booked the trip for $5,610.96 in early February, about a month before Russian troops started taking control of Crimea.

The original itinerary entailed flying from Los Angeles to the Norwegian town of Stavanger with a stopover in London. The family then planned to fly on Aeroflot from Oslo to Moscow, stay in the Russian capital a few days and head home on Finnair via Helsinki.

…Spor was expecting at least a modicum of flexibility on Finnair’s part, so the carrier’s $2,818.24 in change fees and ticketing costs was a bit of a shock.

Here’s the State Department advisory with urges caution.

I’m actually torn on this situation and would love reader opinions. Finnair is enforcing its fare rules. The family wanted a waiver of those rules given the geopolitical situation.

It doesn’t appear that there’s any sort of industry-standard waiver, that Finnair simply isn’t choosing to offer itself, for Russia travel. Delta had a Kiev, Ukraine waiver for travel through March 25, but it required travel to commence by April 13. And there was no Russia waiver.

There’s always geopolitical risk in international travel, and it’s not entirely clear to me that it ought to be the airline that should bear the cost and risk rather than the passenger choosing to travel to a given part of the world.

Should Finnair have waived the change fees? Does it matter that the family would still be taking Finnair flights, and fewer of them, so the change wouldn’t entail any cost to Finnair? Or should the ticket rules simply be enforced? What do you think?

Ultimately Orbitz (parent of Cheaptickets) got them the change at no cost. But I’m not sure, should they have?

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. @Greg – at first I was confused by your comment and then I realized that my post got cut off, I was writing it on a flight with gogo internet and I thought I saved it with the final paragraph noting the outcome but I didn’t. Thanks for the flag. I’ve gone back through and edited the tense of a couple of words for clarity as well.

  2. Whilst Finnair has ‘made good on it’ no doubt due to the publicity.

    Whilst I sympathise with the Ukrainian family and am glad that Finnair has helped them, in general and this will sound harsh I believe this is what travel insurance for, now if their insurance company refused to pay out for the additional cost, I would have said that is wrong.

  3. innair deserves the bad publicity it’s getting. The treatment the family got until this became a “story” is pretty awful. If AY thought they were being scammed they could have asked for copies of passports or birth certificates, which show the city of birth.

  4. I’m glad Finnair was able to bend the rules. I have a soft spot in my heart for them from years ago.

    I’m not sure that travel insurance would have worked in this case, unless they canceled the *entire* trip because of a covered reason. Unclear whether a state department warning is in this category. In fact, they may be double screwed in this case because travel insurance benefits are typically not available if your government has recommended you not go to the destination.

    Anyway .. it’s good that Finnair finally came through. Too bad they lost goodwill in getting to that point, though.

  5. On what grounds would they be entitled to a fee-free change of itinerary? That they no longer like Russians and therefore don’t want to visit Russia? When they booked the trip, the whole Revolution V2 was already underway. They’re not planning on traveling to any location that’s affected by the military action in Crimea, there’s been no report of Americans of Ukrainian descent having any trouble in Russia. Afraid I don’t get it.

  6. Of course Finnair should have waived the change fees, and it’s disgraceful that they had to be shamed in public before they did the right thing. There’s really no excuse for charging people fees to avoid a situation where they could be placed at genuine risk. As Rob pointed out, travel insurance doesn’t seem to cover this, does it? Indeed, why *should* insurance pay when it’s a situation where the airline has sold a ticket that has become potentially dangerous to use as written? I think Finnair can somehow survive without gouging this family with added after-the-fact fees, don’t you? This amount of money makes no difference to the airline, yet it seems like it would wipe out the entire family budget for things like being able to stay indoors and eat food during the trip. So you know? I honestly don’t see where there are two sides to this question.

  7. A similar thing happened to a friend of mine with a Norwegian travel agency. The name was inputted incorrectly upon ticketing (first name and last name reversed). Despite numerous attempts at simply getting this changed, both the airline (SAS) and the travel agency (Seat 24) refused all attempts and withheld approx $1,000 in fees upon cancellation. (The original ticket cost was approx $2,000). He still can’t get any resolution from the agency. Any advice on this Gary?

  8. Alright, I personally don’t see any thread whatsoever to this family. In Russia they would be treated as American Citizens, since I believe that she had applied and was granted citizenship, since she came to the US at the age of 7 )). Secondly, she was born in Kherson, which is in eastern Ukraine, that Russia supports and sympathizes, and people living there feel the same way towards Russia. It’s not as if she was from Lviv, whose citizens were demonstrating recently in Kiev for change of the government, and by the way Lviv’s (Western Ukrainians) were actually fighting on Nazi’s side against Russians and other Ukrainians, who were trying hard and diying to defeat and push Nazi Army back to Berlin. Moreover her Last Name SPOR is actually a Russian word, that ironically translates as a “QUARREL” But that is besides the point! Just FYI. From all stated and mentioned above, PLEASE give me a break!!! There is NO and there would be absolutely NO Threat to them whatsover if they were to proceed and go to Russia as intended. It’s as safe there as it was a month, 3 months or a year ago! A different thing though could be expected if they would go to Ukraine, where there is still instability and high volatility. But they were initially going to travel to Moscow, where it’s been as quiet as it’s at Nantucket ) It actually raises one interesting question: Why a Ukrainian-origin spouse after being for 38 years away from her Motherland Ukraine would prefer to go to Moscow, Russia, then to visit her birth country. It just proves that she didn’t feel that it was unsafe to travel to Russia with the whole family from the beginning! I think there is much more to this story! More than likely, in my opinion, they decided in the last moment that they would like to make some changes in their travel itinerary and go see Paris or Berlin, and “do Russia some other time” as they’ve said in their interview themselves. All is pretty clear: they are just using the Russia’s recent activity in Crimea as an excuse to avoid high ticket change fees. I don’t see any reason, why Finnair was wrong when they first denied waiver of the ticket change fee, though I think that 2k is a steep fee for changing the ticket! Wonder where this family would really go, since I can bet 10k they won’t stay in Finland all that time that they had set aside for Moscow trip. Helsinki is quite boring and hotels are expensive, so it’s really not worth staying there for too long, and they had probably figured that out from reading the forums as well. I bet they will go to some Mainland European country, like Germany, Czech or France! In any case, they’re just lucky that they can use the coincidence of recent Russia’s actions to save 2k and that’s all ironically is THANKFULLY to Russia, that they are actually depicting as a dangerous country in this trip, though they saythat they will “do Russia some other time” Isn’t it controversial to say the least??? )) In my opinion it’s not any better than just a scam, or to say it in a nicer way they are acting as a REAL SEASONED SMART A..S ready to use any means & excuses to save a buck and not pay an airline!))

  9. Just like a few others above, I see no reason why Finnair should have done anything. There was no risk to the family since they are traveling as Americans and even if they were traveling as Ukrainians, they would be far from only ones and they all do just fine right now. So basically the family wanted to either a) get a free change for some other reason or b) get publicity for their cause of Russia vs. Ukraine.

  10. Russia is not in turmoil to such degree that travelers are generally unsafe going there, so I don’t see why a waiver of change/cancel penalties would ordinarily be due. Spor’s US passport would be good for travel to Russia with a visa and so absent an inability to get the appropriate travel docs due to reasons beyond her control, I see no need for a general waiver for Russian travel in these circumstances. If the Ukraine starts threatening to seize the property of Ukrainian-Americans who visit Russia or lock up Ukrainian-Americans for visiting Russia, then there should be a waiver and the US should start complaining about the new Ukrainian government instead of backing it with little reservation, especially as Crimea had been Russian until the Soviet Union’s premier and son of Ukraine gave it as a gift to Soviet Ukraine around 1954. Given the high proportion of pro-Russian Ukrainian citizens and the high proportion of anti-Russian Ukrainian citizens in the Ukraine, taking sides in the dispute and allowing for waivers like this based on political ideology or due to press coverage seems ridiculous. That said, given the level of anti-Russian sentiment or other sentimental ambivalence toward Russia in the EU (even before the Russian re-acquisition of the Crimea), can’t say I am surprised by Finnair doing what it did to just try and make the story go away.

  11. Interesting related thought, why wasn’t there any stink about airlines not refunding tickets in November of 2012 for people flying to Israel? Planes were less than half full from all the cancellations and there were actual rockets flying/exploding in parts of Israel. Now that was a bit more than just something to be “cautious” about.

  12. @Joe

    The “return” key is on the right side of your keyboard, above the shift key. Please use it at appropriate intervals.

  13. Wow!!! Can’t believe the number of absurdly verbose attacks going on here!!! Anger issues anyone??? So, someone else for a change got something from the airlines. At least that family actually paid money to an airline versus other people just churning credit card deals or buying US Mint coins or other rather nefarious activities to get free travel from the airlines. Don’t see anyone posting anything about that, do we???

  14. I’d be interested to know what resolution was provided for the tourist-heavy flights to Cairo shortly after the Arab spring.

    And for those adamantly opposed to any flexibility, it’s not clear to me what the airline is losing by waiving change fees. The customer is still flying with them, just on a different routing.

  15. “And for those adamantly opposed to any flexibility, it’s not clear to me what the airline is losing by waiving change fees. The customer is still flying with them, just on a different routing.”

    Ummm, change in loading? If we are to extrapolate from your statement, all flying is same price, so airline shouldn’t care about anyone changing anything.

  16. They should’ve just flown into Russia the day before their flight from Moscow to resolve the stalement, then they don’t really need to spend any time there.

  17. Absolutely they should change for free. Rules should be broken when reason dictates it, and when it’s not otherwise opening the flood gates. In an age of algorithms and lawyers, one of the chief responsibilities we have as humans is to exercise compassion and reason in spite of such order. More compelling cases can be made still, but I’m honestly a bit concerned you’d hesitate in this situation Gary.

  18. While I think that the four-figure change/cancel/re-ticket fee from Finnair is CRAZY ridiculous (note that Russia’s Aeroflot only charged her $100), the family’s excuse of worrying about their safety doesn’t hold up.

    I have family in both Russia and Ukraine, so I know for a fact that Moscow (and the rest of Russia) is as safe as it was before a coup in Ukraine (for Americans, Ukrainians, or otherwise). Traveling to Ukraine would be a bigger concern but they aren’t going there.

    It actually is strange that this is being presented as a heritage trip since they aren’t going to her home city in Ukraine. Which is too bad for them, since US citizens don’t need a visa to visit Ukraine.

  19. WHAT!!!! When I first read this I figured 20 responses would say Finnair did the wrong thing. But when you fear for your life because of hatred because of your nationality, religion, race or sexuality you make choices not to go somewhere. I personally have crossed Russia, Jamaica Kenya and most of Africa, Iran, Iraq and Egypt when a country has laws that will put you in jail just for who you are you DO NOT go to that country.

    This women fears for her life, something that Fin’s do not understand and I guess many of the readers do not understand. This is the same as making a Cuban born American land in Havana. Do you know what they will do to this person at the airport? Then why risk it?

  20. @ TomRI — uhmm… why exactly would an American citizen born in Ukraine be afraid for her life in Russia? Millions of native Ukrainian citizens life and work in Russia or visit their relatives across the border every day.

  21. @TomRI

    Fear for life why, again? As Ivan already said, Ukrainians live and move about Russia just fine. Always have, nothing has changed. Where exactly is your fearmongering load of “information” coming from, exactly?

  22. Airlines are in the people business. If machines were right/best 100% of the time, there would be no need for pilots, reservation agents, supervisors, or mechanics.

    When passengers are wanting to fly LESS of their ticketed itinerary, and tell the airline in advance, why should they act like they’re completely throwing the whole ticket away and starting over?

    I seriously doubt that anyone commenting here hasn’t benefited greatly from an airline “waiving” rules of various kinds, whether because of elite status, knowing someone in the club, weather/operational delays etc. None of which are dictated by “rules.”

    When airlines make up onerous rules, it’s usually about trying to prevent business travelers who don’t care much about price from paying a lower fare. A reasonable person would happily accommodate this family’s request, if not for free, then a simple administrative fee.

  23. I can certainly sympathize with this family. We also have planned a trip to Europe this spring and are now trying to cancel one leg of this trip.

    Our family of four is faced with more than $2,000 in change/fare different fees as we try to follow US Department of State Travel Warning to avoid all unnecessary travel to Ukraine and avoid our leg trip to Ukraine on British Airways. Essentially, we are trying not to board a flight to Kiev on May 23 with a return flight on May 29, given that election in Ukraine is scheduled for May 25 and the situation, unstable now, will only get worse. So we are trying to keep four our of six original flights on our itinerary and British Airways quoted us $275 change fee and $400 in fare difference per ticket (!).

    The response we got from British Airways customer service is:

    “Dear Mrs xxx

    Thank you for coming back to us. We have received your email dated 16 April 2014. I am sorry to learn that you are unhappy with the change fee quoted to you our Reservations team to amend your booking with us. Please accept our sincere apologies.

    I would like to inform you that change fee have to take very many factors into account, however. Of course, the distance and type of aircraft are part of the equation, as well as our operating costs and customer demand for the destination in question on that day. There is also the fact that landing and navigation fees, and airport charges, can vary widely between different countries, and even between different cities in the same country.

    The change fee amount also depends upon the fare rule of your ticket. It became increasingly difficult for us to absorb the extra administration costs and other overheads when people book and then amend, and we now have no choice but to pass some of this on.

    Thank you again for getting in touch with us. I hope that I have managed to explain you the background.

    Best regards
    Mihir Banerji
    British Airways Customer Relations”

    All the facts listed are unfounded given that they will not incur higher landing or airport fees as our family boards 4 out of 6 flights… How ridiculous! We view this as an unfair treatment that customers are forced to repurchase tickets already in their possession when it’s a simple matter of not boarding certain flights for security reasons, officially recognized by the state where the flight originates and where the passengers permanently reside. It is unethical in that a family is unjustifiably penalized and is faced with more than a $2,000 charge, the passenger safety is compromised given the 5 week notice we intended to issue out of courtesy.

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