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Buying airfares: When cash is not king

If you have the choice, it's best to stick to plastic

David Armstrong,  Aug 18, 2008

Cash is king, the saying goes. As if to convince us of this, a press release came across my desk this week touting the ease of wiring cash to airlines to buy plane tickets. No easier way to pay your air fare, the release said. Safe, modern, convenient. No muss, no fuss.

Well, maybe. For some travelers — people who don’t have bank accounts, people without credit cards, people who are maxed-out on their plastic — paying cash is the only way to fly.

Some airlines — American Airlines, Continental Airlines and JetBlue Airways, for instance — allow customers to pay for a ticket with cash by wiring the money to them through Western Union.

Moreover, nearly all airlines allow travelers to walk up to their airport ticket desks at check-in, pull out a wad of bills and buy a ticket in person, though most walk-up fares are terribly expensive.

But for most air travelers, there is no good reason to buy plane tickets with cash — and several compelling reasons not to do so.

Chris McGinnis, who runs, said, “I honestly can’t think of any reason why it would be a good idea to pay for airline tickets with cash — you miss-out on too many benefits, from protection in case of bankruptcy to points or miles accrual ...”

Perhaps the most pressing reason not to buy plane tickets with cash in the understandably tense post-Sept. 11 era, is the invitation it issues to airport baggage screeners to regard you, the cash-flush flyer, as what law enforcement authorities call “a person of interest.”

You are likely to be flagged for extra screening, perhaps detained, your carefully packed luggage emptied and turned into a messy jumble. This, despite the fact that you showed your ID and patiently answered questions when you forked over the dough for your ticket. Doesn’t matter. There’s something suspicious about you.

If you compound your error by buying a one-way ticket, may the gods of flight be with you. I have purchased one-way airfares several times in recent years — always with a credit card — and I have been pulled out of the line for extra wanding and patting and gimlet-eyed inspection every time. There’s something fishy about one-way travel to the law-enforcement mind-set: Like maybe you don’t intend to come back — ever. If you also paid cash, that about cinches it.

Beyond security, what happens if the airline you gave your cold cash to files for bankruptcy or goes out of business entirely, as four U.S. carriers have done just this year? Do you get a refund?

It’s far from certain. Legitimate wiring services such as Western Union provide a record of your cash transaction, but its wiring fees are not refundable, and you have to go to the airline to line up for a refund. You are now a small, unsecured creditor. With no American Express, Visa or MasterCard there to refund your money, you go to the end of the line.

If you have a choice, stick to plastic.

If you have the choice, it's best to stick to plastic

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