A failed case from the Twilight Zone of travel


Next stop ... the Twilight Zone. / Photo by Roadside Pictures

If there’s a Twilight Zone of travel cases, then Rochelle Dean has surely discovered it. And although I’ve done my best to help her, it looks like her recent vacation is still stuck someone between “solved” and “unsolved.”

Here are a few details: Back in February, she, a friend, her husband and her two teenage daughters were scheduled to fly from Missoula, Mont., to Los Angeles. She’d booked the entire trip through Hotwire, and the night before, Dean received an email that said she was all checked in for her flights and good to go.

But she wasn’t. On the day of her flight, she received another message from Hotwire that said her flight was canceled and that her new flight had left 29 minutes ago. Oops.

“The next possible flight out left Seattle at 6 a.m. the next day,” she says. “We had no choice. They re-booked us on that flight.”

Dean appealed to a Hotwire supervisor to help her fix the problem.

I explained our situation and let her know that I had a hotel room in LA that I can’t use and won’t get paid for, since I can’t give a 24-hour notice, and that I would have to get us a place to stay now in Seattle.

I told her I think it is only fair that Hotwire pay for both of these hotels.

The Hotwire supervisor assured her she’d take care of it, she says. She promised Dean pre-paid hotel vouchers, which would be waiting at the Alaska Airlines counter, and a $100 Hotwire credit to compensate them for the hotel room they couldn’t use.

Problem solved, right?

Not exactly.

“When we landed, we went directly to the Alaska counter and we were informed they knew nothing about it,” she says. “There were no notes in the system as Hotwire had promised.”

Dean called Hotwire back. It blamed the airline for the oversight. The airline blamed Hotwire. This went on for two hours while their valuable vacation time ticked away.

The Deans stayed at an airport hotel in Seattle at a discounted $59-a-night rate, courtesy of Alaska Airlines. But by the time the arrived in Anaheim for the first leg of their trip, they’d lost more than a day of vacation and run up a lot of expenses they didn’t plan for.

I feel that I so deserve to be reimbursed for my LA prepaid hotel we couldn’t use, the two hotel rooms we had to get in Seattle and the Disney park tickets as the whole thing was just a miserable fiasco from minute one.

I also feel like we deserve to be compensated for our meals, extreme emotional stress and our vacation time lost.

That’s a tall order but I thought I’d run this case by Hotwire, anyway. There were too many unanswered questions about Dean’s experience. Maybe the company could shed some light on this trip to the Twilight Zone.

It did.

Here’s what Hotwire had to say:

As you know, flight cancellations and departure time changes can happen with airlines occasionally, and they are always unfortunate. Those changes are handled directly by the carriers themselves, and we do our best to notify our customers as soon as we can.

In Mrs. Dean’s case, we didn’t receive enough lead time from Alaska Airlines to allow her to make the new flight option provided. Our alerts are processed through our automated system so they can go out in the most timely manner possible.

Unfortunately, the new flight option generated by Alaska wasn’t a reasonable one for the customer, so it made the process even more difficult. After hearing from Mrs. Dean about the error, her party was instead placed on the next available flight.

As a result of the flight change, Mrs. Dean and her party were forced to cancel the first night of their hotel at their destination, and instead had to book one in the layover city.

It’s important to note that neither of these hotels were booked through Hotwire, nor was the changed flight itinerary generated by Hotwire (this was a retail flight purchase). However, after hearing about the issues her party ran into, we issued a $100 HotDollar credit to use our site for the problems she experienced.

After contacting Alaska on behalf of Mrs. Dean, we also learned that Alaska did provide hotel vouchers for her party upon arrival in Seattle. These vouchers are generally good for one free stay at a hotel that the airline has a relationship with.

So essentially, the new hotel was indeed covered for the layover. These vouchers are handled by Alaska directly with the customer, and we did not state that Alaska would have notes in their system regarding the customer’s conversation with Hotwire. However, we did note that Alaska’s policy is to comp customers for these types of situations, which should be reflected in their system, and that’s exactly what happened.

I can completely understand the extreme frustration that Mrs. Dean is feeling. Unfortunately, because this was a retail booking, Hotwire didn’t control the ticket, nor did we receive the funds for that ticket.

However, because Mrs. Dean is a Hotwire customer, we bridged the conversation as best we could between the customer and Alaska. Eventually, Mrs. Dean worked with Alaska directly, and we continued to follow up with our contacts behind the scenes. We learned that Alaska acknowledged the issue and provided credits in the following amounts: $200 x 2 passengers, and $125 x 3 passengers ($775 total).

So in summary, Mrs. Dean’s party received $100 in credits from Hotwire, $775 in credits from Alaska, and hotel vouchers to cover her hotel in the layover city. Hopefully, this was a satisfactory outcome for Mrs. Dean, and her future travels with Alaska will be a much more enjoyable experience.

I checked with Dean to see if it was, indeed, satisfactory. She says part of what Hotwire told me is true. Alaska Airlines offered her friend and her a $200 flight credit and gave her husband and each of the two children a $125 credit.

“Does any of that make up for my lost day of vacation, the two hotel rooms I had to purchase, losing a most of our only day at Disneyland and doing the time we had in the amusement park on three hours of sleep?” she asks. “No, it does not, and I feel all of it was the fault of Hotwire.”

The larger question her case raises is this: If you’re booking a trip through a travel agent, what is it responsible for?

Hotwire has actually done more than many online agents I’ve worked with in the recent past. Some of these dot-com agents simply see themselves as helping facilitate a transaction, nothing more. Getting vouchers was a bonus for Dean. Hotwire could have simply let her fend for herself.

Where does an agent’s responsibility end and a supplier’s begin? Can that line be drawn, or is it different for every trip? And on which side of the line is Hotwire?

The answer awaits … in the Twilight Zone.

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at . Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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