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Originally published Tuesday, September 3, 2013 at 11:18 AM

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A problem with your reservation? Maybe your travel agent should pay

Virginia couple’s Bahamas vacation started badly when they found that their booked airline didn’t fly from their city.

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Agents usually have errors and admissions policies for mistakes which we all as humans... MORE

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When Jennifer Forbes and her husband checked in for a recent flight from Richmond, Va., to Freeport, Bahamas, they discovered that there are worse ways to start a vacation than having an invalid ticket.

Much worse. The airline on which they had reservations, Bahamasair, didn’t even serve Richmond.

“We had nonrefundable hotel reservations,” says Forbes, a homemaker who lives in McKenney, Va. “But we had no way to get there.”

Forbes had booked her vacation through an online travel agency called Hotwire, which offers customers steep discounts in exchange for not telling them the exact airline or hotel they’re booking until they’ve made their reservations. And all reservations are final and nonrefundable.

But Forbes’ problem repeats itself every day — usually on a significantly smaller scale — in the world of travel. And it raises the question of what a travel agency is obliged to do when something goes terribly wrong with a booking. “My phone calls were met with cool indifference,” remembers Forbes. “Bahamasair could only refund us the ticket price.”

Hotwire, which had sent her an email before the trip assuring her that she didn’t need to reconfirm her booking through Bahamasair, seemed equally unsympathetic. A representative scolded her for failing to phone the airline to confirm her flight, despite the email assuring her that she’d be fine.

So the Forbeses insisted that the agent find a way to get them to the Bahamas, checked into a hotel in Richmond and then flew to the Bahamas the next day on a flight booked and paid for by Hotwire. Between the hotel and a car rental, they racked up an extra $700 in expenses.

“Bahamasair decided to discontinue service to her origin airport between the time she booked and the time she was scheduled to travel,” explained Hotwire spokesman Garrett Whittemore. Although the airline notified Hotwire of the change, Hotwire didn’t tell Forbes about the cancellation because of a “human error.”

“Jennifer is a Hotwire customer and therefore should have been notified of the change as part of our process,” Whittemore says.

No one knows exactly how often an error like this occurs. Airlines notify online agencies such as Hotwire through a reservations system, and those notifications should then be passed along to the customer.

In the early days of online travel reservations, these interfaces were notoriously buggy, and agencies would routinely send customers to the wrong airport or hotel. But these specific problems are now fairly isolated.

That’s the good news. The bad news? As before, there are few rules in place to ensure that the travel agency, online or otherwise, will fix the problem. Hotwire’s terms specifically state that the company offers no warranties of any kind, “either expressed or implied,” for the travel products it sells. In other words, it didn’t have to fly Forbes and her husband from Richmond to Freeport, as it did. Nor was it required to offer her a $50 voucher by way of apology, which it did when she returned. Hotwire did both those things in the interest of good customer service.

Travel agencies, and particularly “brick and mortar” agencies, promote themselves as trusted intermediaries between the traveler and an airline, a cruise line or a hotel. “An agency won’t make a reservation on a flight that doesn’t exist,” says Steve Loucks, a spokesman for Travel Leaders, which operates a system of full-service travel agencies in the United States. “And if by chance they do, they won’t leave you hanging.”

A travel agent will “have your back” when a flight is delayed or canceled and will figure out a way to recover your vacation quickly, he says. For major errors, reputable travel agencies also carry so-called “E-and-O” -- errors and omissions — insurance that can cover any unanticipated expenses associated with a mistake.

But E-and-O policies shouldn’t be the first remedy for a wronged customer, according to several experts. The policies are basic business liability insurance, with high deductibles, that are meant to be used only when an agency is being sued. In other words, the mistake would have to be so serious that a customer takes an agent to court, in which case the agency would file a claim under its E-and-O policy, say agents.

Before suing an agency, you have numerous other options. Pleading your case with the company and the airline or hotel you were booked with is the best first step. Forbes had persuaded Hotwire to cover her replacement flight from Richmond to Freeport, something it technically didn’t have to do. She continued to apply pressure. I’ll tell you how she fared in a moment.

Several states, including California, Illinois and Florida, have laws regulating travel sales. Perhaps the best known is California’s “seller of travel” laws, which includes a restitution fund for victims of a booking gone awry, according to John Pittman, the vice president of industry and consumer affairs for the American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA).

He recommends finding the relevant government regulator and filing a complaint if an agency won’t help make a situation right. “That may help push the needle a little,” he adds.

If the agency is an ASTA member, you can also file an ethics complaint against it or take your case to the local Better Business Bureau, both of which may prod the agency to do the right thing. All that, he adds, ought to be unnecessary. A competent agent should know how to fix a situation such as the one Forbes faced.

In the end, Hotwire did more than just pay to fly the couple to the Bahamas.

After I contacted the online agency on her behalf, a company representative called Forbes. “They couldn’t have been nicer or more responsive to my concerns,” she says. Hotwire refunded the $700 in additional expenses Forbes had incurred and offered her a $400 credit to make up for her lost vacation day.

If only every booking blunder had such a happy ending.

Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine. His column runs weekly at seattletimes.com/travel and occasionally in print. Contact him at celliott@ngs.org.

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