Carmel Rawlins used an online travel agency (OTA) to book the cheapest fare for a one-way trip connecting through five countries on three different airlines. All the connections required collecting and rechecking bags. What could possibly go wrong?
Hers is a complex case involving technical issues between the OTA and an airline in the booking process, delayed communications across multiple time zones, banks in different countries, and differing refund policies between the OTA and an airline. It’s also a reminder that if you’re going to use an OTA for a complex itinerary, you have to be prepared for the unexpected.
Rawlins and her partner were in Panama and wanted to get to the Philippines before heading back home to New Zealand. The itinerary she booked online involved multiple carriers to get from Panama to Mexico, Mexico to the U.S., U.S. to China, and then China to the Philippines.
She used Kiwi.com, an OTA formerly known as Skypicker.
“Our unique flight search algorithm allows our customers to combine flights from airlines who do not normally collaborate onto a single itinerary, often resulting in significant savings,” its website promises.
The savings were important to Rawlins, who was traveling on a tight budget. She got Kiwi’s payment confirmation right away but didn’t realize that she never got a booking confirmation. That was when the problems started. Kiwi says there was a “technical issue” in the booking process that that kept the payment from going through to the airline. Kiwi’s agents kept trying to book the flight but were unsuccessful.
Then came the communication problems. Kiwi says that after 11 hours of ticketing efforts, they sent Rawlins an email about the technical issue. They say they considered phoning her but decided not to because of the six-hour time difference between Panama and their headquarters in the Czech Republic.
Rawlins says it was 14 hours before she learned about the problem. By the time she reached Kiwi by phone, the cheap seats were filled and the price for the remaining seats had gone up to a level she could not afford.
This was a major disruption to her plans. “The thing is, we had already booked our onward flight from the Philippines to New Zealand and our transport to get to Mexico for that date from Panama,” says Rawlins. “We had to figure out another way of getting from Central America to Philippines in the very small time frame we had.”
Because Kiwi could not book the flights at the promised fare, the agency offered to refund the 638 British pounds (about $807) she had paid for the tickets. They were honoring the promise made in the terms and conditions on their website. They also offered vouchers worth 50 euros (about $54) to both Rawlins and her partner for the inconvenience (not something we see too often in the complaints we receive).
She could have taken the refund as a credit to her Kiwi account to apply right away to other travel. However, she opted to have it transferred back to her original card. But, according to the OTA, that would take up to ten days because it involved banks in different countries. That became a factor in her next problem.
It turns out that she was still waiting on a refund from Kiwi involving another ticket purchased six weeks earlier. Kiwi says her refund was delayed because the OTA still had not received the refund from the earlier airline. So with the latest problem, her bank account was depleted. She turned to a family member, who transferred money to her account so she could buy new tickets.
Can you guess who she used for the new booking? Kiwi.com, which had yet another “technical issue” with an airline’s website.
This time it did not calculate the charge for checked baggage. So the amount she paid did not include baggage fees. Kiwi says that its agents found out about this only 18 hours before the flight. They emailed Rawlins to inform her but didn’t call because, again, it was in the middle of the night her time.
Rawlins says she didn’t learn about the baggage fee problem until she checked in for the flight at the airport and was told there would be an additional 72 euro charge per bag. That was money she didn’t have. Only then did she check her email to see that she had been notified by Kiwi that she would have to pay for the bags. The email promised to reimburse her for those charges. She says that had she known ahead of time, she could have left her baggage with a friend in Mexico to be shipped later. Instead, she had to abandon her bag and its contents at the airport.
She was enraged. But the way she handled things with Kiwi did nothing to help speed her refund. Rather than using the tips for resolving consumer disputes on our website, her emails to the company were angry, rambling rants. She “shouted” frequently using all caps and lots of exclamation points. There was even an F-bomb. It’s hard to imagine anyone on the receiving end of those missives wanting to help her.
So, after two months of getting nowhere, she asked for our help. Our advocate contacted Kiwi about Rawlins’ refund. After four weeks and no response from the agency, he reached out to them again.
This time, Kiwi replied and apologized for each problem, recounting each point where something had gone wrong. While still blaming those unexplained “technical issues,” the agency acknowledged that they could have done a better job of communicating with her. Kiwi promised to send her the previously offered refund and vouchers. They also offered her 72 euros for each of the bag fees she would have paid and an additional 200-euro voucher for future travel.
So in addition to the refund of the unused tickets, Kiwi offered her cash and vouchers totaling 474 euros (about $510). This was after more than three months had elapsed. While she had originally asked our advocate to help her get more than twice that amount, she accepted Kiwi.com’s offer.
But wait, there’s one more thing. Kiwi sent the 144 euro payment for the bags to an account that Rawlins had closed while all this was going on, so the money didn’t get to her. At the time of this writing, she is still waiting for that payment.