Q. A friend recently purchased a non-refundable ticket from United to fly out for a conference. Many attendees, including my friend, were infected with a nasty intestinal virus, which prevented her from making her return flight. I called United on her behalf, and was told that they'd give her a $100 credit on the return ticket (even though the roundtrip ticket cost $325), which could be used any time in the next year. United would, however, charge $150 to use the credit!

And the cheapest return ticket would cost about $730. When I asked if United could discount the return ticket, the answer was an unencouraging, "No." The agent would not budge on the price, and we eventually gave up, and booked a much cheaper ticket through Hotwire.com, with travel insurance, for about $230 total.

Are airlines generally this unhelpful? I certainly could have transported my friend to the airport and put her on the plane, but thought it was not appropriate to expose a plane full of people to such a horrible virus. United's uncharitable response was a little surprising.

Any suggestions on how to better handle such a situation in the future?

A. With the exception of Southwest, which does not charge a fee for changing your travel date, yes, airlines generally are this unhelpful. With policies such as this, it's no wonder Southwest is actually making money while most of the other guys aren't.

This is why it's so important to shell out those few extra bucks for travel insurance, like Travel Guard, which would have covered all those pesky little nonrefundables in the event of an illness such as this. To what extent, of course, depends on your policy, so always read the fine print.

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