Two funerals, a middle man, and a missing refund

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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).

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.

So I ask you:

Do online travel agencies have any value?

View Results

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Jessica Monsell

A former legal professional who has helped hundreds of clients fight the airlines and the government following aircraft accidents. With years of research on aviation operations and the travel industry under my belt, I help the little guy win. More importantly, I love to solve a mystery. I have lived in Asia and Europe but I now call Charleston, SC home.

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  • DChamp56

    I voted yes, but only to get the best prices before I call a live Travel Agent. Then I ask if they can meet/beat that price.

  • Alan Gore

    This is exactly the sort of round trip that could have been booked directly. Getting an agent, especially an online “agency” involved just makes everything more complicated.

  • AAGK

    Research value. That is it.

  • jeanneinVT

    I’m not sure that I understand the survey question. The survey question is whether travel agencies have value, but the title of this article is “Should I Take This Case?” The final paragraph doesn’t indicate whether a decision has been made to take the case or not. I would vote “Yes” for you to advocate this directly to Travelocity, as I think that 2 months is enough time to wait, since United already issued the refund to Travelocity.

  • Jeff W.

    Use them for research.

    However, some people like bundles. Everything in one place. And sometimes you can get a deal when you combine things — sorta like a cable bundle.

    But I find the customer service aspect of an OTA lacking and when things go wrong, they are not much help.

    But for a simple flight reservation, go to the airline directly.

  • Tricia K

    There was a time, when travelocity and Expedia were fairly new, that using them was often cheaper than what you could get any other time. I started with Travelocity and switched over to Expedia for most of my travel but still used a travel agent for certain trips. These days, I do just as well to book directly with an airline on their website, although I almost always look on the Expedia app first. I do use them for hotels when it is truly the best price (again, I check around) but not if I have to pre-pay. In all the time I have used them I have only had one bad experience with Expedia and I eventually won out (quite honestly I rarely lose–I’m very good with a paper trail or dates and names of people I spoke with and what they said). I have also been treated quite badly by a travel agent or two — I think the most recent one made a huge mistake when she blew us off after we asked for help planning a ten day trip to Hawaii (the budget was 10k so she lost that commission). What bothers me here and on the forums is the tendency of the sometimes smug comments telling someone they got what they deserved for using an OTA. I’m not getting into a war of words with someone I don’t know, but you have to ask, is the point of this site and the forums to help people or chastise them when they use Expedia or don’t know to buy travel insurance? I certainly didn’t appreciate the snide remarks I got when I posted a story on the forum after Chris asked me to post it there.

  • RBXChas

    I used Priceline for the first and last time last summer to book a room at a Sheraton hotel for a business trip for my husband. I paid Priceline to reserve the room, then the hotel charged the card that my husband provided upon check-in, too. When I called them on it, they apologized and refunded the money relatively promptly, but it was still legwork that I shouldn’t have had to do.

    When the double-charging for the room occurred, I started Googling a bit and found that it’s not uncommon. If the company with which you booked your room doesn’t pay the hotel by the time you check in, the hotel may charge you – and not at the rate you paid with Expedia or Orbitz or whatever but the hotel’s regular rate, which could be much more. If the booking company never pays them, then unless you can recover from the booking company, you’re out of luck.

    Long story short, no, I don’t think they’re worthwhile except for price-matching.

  • Tricia K

    Maybe it’s because I had gold status with Expedia, I’m not sure, but an Expedia agent stayed on the phone with me for a few hours in wee hours of the morning when a monsoon overtook NYC, stranding my daughter and her college roommates who needed to get back to Ohio quickly after spring break. The agent was able to find a flight that got them in just an hour later than their original flight rather than fly them to Kentucky. The Expedia agent was on hold with Delta for a good portion of that time and she kept checking back with me.

  • Nathan Witt

    The value of OTAs is aggregation of results. Sure, there are other services (like Kayak) that’ll do it for you, too, but it’s much easier than searching AA, then Delta, then United, then whatever regional or low-cost airlines serve the particular route you want. And once you’ve got the Expedia results in front of you, the level of knowledge and sophistication sometimes required to duplicate the itinerary with each individual service provider may be beyond some consumers’ capacity or willingness. And sometimes there are actual, significant savings to be found through OTAs. How much of a discount would make YOU willing to risk it?

  • NavyRNRet

    I guess I’ll find out in September if OTAs have any value. I booked a trip to London on Expedia. I liked the savings from booking flight and hotel together. I also got travel insurance so hopefully all goes well.

  • jim6555

    I also voted yes. I too use these agencies to find the best prices, but then book on-line with the airline / hotel/ car rental company’s website. I guess that I should be grateful to those simple-minded people who give their money to online travel sites and many times get inferior service. Without their support of Expedia, et al, it would be more difficult for me to find the information that I need.

  • I’ve booked many a flight with OTA’s and have yet to have a problem. Or maybe I’m just too “simple-minded” to know the difference. Really..comments like yours are unnecessary.

  • jh

    Yes but it is very limited. Don’t trust them!

  • Maxwell Smart

    real living travel agents have fares that online agencies don’t get access to.
    But why are there ANY refundable fares at all ?

  • Maxwell Smart

    suggest maybe talk to a live agent 1st.
    Agents can find things stupid computers can’t.
    eg. Having a stopover en route between USA & Australia at peak times, can sometimes save you $1000/person, which more than pays for the stopover.
    Search engines, can’t search these things. Too hard for them.

  • Lindabator

    And I can “bundle” those items, and you only pay a deposit, with final about 60 days prior to departure. And I can pricematch any OTA, but can also advise when their option does not really work well – and I AM available 24/7/365!

  • Éamon deValera

    Convenience of using online agencies appears to be a factor. Convienence is often expensive. Sure it may be less convenient to go to the local brick and mortar travel agency, but when you do you’re not dealing with phone trees, bored clerks and unconcerned refund desk jockeys.

  • Éamon deValera

    I’ve found DL sometimes has better fares on its site (restricted to its site) than some fare aggregations.

  • taxed2themax

    I vote yes…. because I don’t think these kinds of sweeping all-or-nothing statement are not, or can not be correct.. I think that *some* bookings are better if done directly.. I also think that some other types of bookings may be better/easier if booked by an/thru an agent.. but I think IF you do choose to use an agent – be that an online-only or physical presence agent, you as the buyer need to know exactly what the agent can or will do, and what they can’t or won’t do. Along with that, agencies need to be clear on what they do and charge, and where their liability ends.
    I also think that this answer depends on the specific customer… some people need or want that type of agent service– for whatever reason… so, I think agencies and agents DO serve a useful purpose — but I think it’s not a one-size-fits-all kind of answer.. it will depend on the travel in question and what kind of a buyer are you.

  • judyserienagy

    There is no case. She’ll receive the refund when Travelocity issues it, just a matter of time.

  • judyserienagy

    They have great value as a RESEARCH tool. Nothing else. Millions of dollars worth of travel are booked through OTAs every week; most people have positive experiences. But the trauma of having to deal with an OTA in the event of trouble is absolutely not worth the few dollars you might save by booking through them. Travellers just don’t know this.

  • cscasi

    So a Travel Agent or Travel Agency does not use computers when looking for flights with stopovers; instead just waving a magic wand and “poof” there it is??

  • cscasi

    Never miss a chance to pitch your services! That is initiative! :-)

  • cscasi

    Because some people demand them; especially business people who have to change their schedules at a moment’s notice and because, if they work for a business/company, many times they demand that they buy those type of tickets.