Two funerals, a middle man, and a missing refund

By | March 22nd, 2016

When Cynthia Williams needed to visit her ailing stepdad in Virginia, she bought tickets on United through Travelocity. Her stepdad’s sister, her Aunt Roberta, was going to fly out with her.

Much more quickly than expected, Williams’ stepdad passed away, and Williams ended up traveling from California to Virginia sooner than planned. Unfortunately, it was not to say goodbye, but to pay her final respects at his funeral.

Aunt Roberta couldn’t make it to the funeral, so United issued a credit that she planned to use at a later date. Then, in a second blow to the Williams family, Aunt Roberta passed away four months later.

If you’ve ever had the misfortune of losing a loved one, you probably know that the administrative hassles following someone’s death are unrelenting. They serve as a constant reminder that life is not tidy, nor is the business of closing out someone’s affairs.

But this situation shouldn’t be that tough. United has a policy allowing refunds when a passenger dies. In fact, United granted Williams’ refund request shortly after its submission.

So what’s the problem? Well, United refunded the money back to Travelocity, who has yet to issue the credit back to Williams. She has been waiting nearly eight weeks for the refund to which she already knows she is entitled.

Is Williams being unreasonable? Absolutely not.

But her case highlights a very real problem in the travel industry when a customer uses an online travel agency, such as Travelocity.

The company is happy to immediately debit your card to hold your reservation. But the moment you are issued a refund by the airline, hotel or other travel merchant, the refund process is slow as molasses. Because Travelocity is just a middle man, it has to wait for the refund from the airline before issuing a refund to you, which can sometimes take as long as one to two billing cycles (i.e., 30 to 60 days).

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This situation is not unique to Travelocity; it happens with most online travel agencies. In fact, a consumer whom I helped secure a refund three months ago is still being given the runaround by her online travel agency, being told she’ll have to wait another 60 days.

All of this begs the question — why use online travel agencies?

I have no idea. I travel for both work and leisure, and have never considered buying a travel package from an online travel agency. It has been my experience that airlines, hotels and rental car companies provide better service to customers buying directly from them. The reason? They can see in their computer system where you purchased your travel, by virtue of the fare code or other reservation notes.

When you deal directly with the company, should you need to make a change or cancel your reservation, they can help you directly, without saying, “You know, I would do it for you, but you bought with Travelocity, and they issued the ticket. Go ask them.” Happens every single day.

I have no doubt Williams will eventually receive her refund, but how long is too long to wait? When she asked for our help, she wrote, “Normally I would be more patient and persistent myself before asking for help, but I have had to deal with four deaths in my family since August, and really don’t have any energy to spare for an issue like this.” Fortunately, our advocacy team does have the energy.

Update: Two days after this story was published, Travelocity wrote to Williams to let her know that a refund of her aunt’s airfare had been approved by United Airlines and processed by Travelocity, but will post in one to two billing cycles, as is customary.

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So I ask you:

Do online travel agencies have any value?

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