They stepped up to the plate and overpaid for my hotel — now what?

sf airportDale Nielsen did everything he could to confirm his Delta Air Lines flight from Los Angeles to Honolulu. He booked the trip through an online agency that offered a notification of flight schedule changes. He called his airline.

It wasn’t enough.

Nielsen’s flight got changed, leaving him and his wife to spend the night at an airport hotel. Who should — and shouldn’t — cover his expenses?
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Travelocity offers an “unprecedented” new price guarantee — should I switch online agencies?

bills2If you’re confused about the online travel agencies’ service and price guarantees, take a number. So am I.

After this morning’s announcement that Travelocity would make an “unprecedented” addition to its so-called Travelocity Price and Service Guarantee, I’m more befuddled than before. Even reading Dennis Schaal’s insightful analysis of the news, and its provocative kicker (“Orbitz, now it’s your move) leaves me scratching my head.

Service and price guarantees are seductive lures for online shoppers. But in my experience, they’re either so vaguely-worded that a successful claim is close to impossible, or they come with so much fine print that even an army of lawyers can’t take advantage of them.

Is this more of the same? How does this guarantee differ from those offered by Expedia and Orbitz? And should you consider switching to Travelocity?
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An “unfortunate lag” delays refund by half a year — how do you speed things up?

error messageMarko Grdesic contacted me in April because Travelocity owed him $4,747, but there was no sign of the money. I assumed a polite inquiry would shake it loose. Wrong.

Grdesic just got his refund. The story of how the money was taken and then returned more than six months later contains some valuable lessons for you do-it-yourselfers who book your own airline tickets. And yes — there are ways of accelerating a refund. I’ll get to that in a moment.
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Which air travelers do you dislike the most?

The ones that smell bad, according to a new poll by Travelocity. Fellow travelers with poor hygiene were called the “most disliked” in the survey, with a total of 45 percent of respondents calling out the unwashed masses.

A close runner-up — no pun intended — were air travelers who are “coughing and sneezing” (30 percent) followed by large fliers (15 percent).

Perhaps the biggest surprise: Who wasn’t on the list.
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Travelocity’s Mahl: “In a perfect world, a guarantee like ours wouldn’t be necessary”

GinnyMahl_082609Ginny Mahl is Travelocity’s vice president of sales and customer service — the woman behind the online travel agency’s vaunted Travelocity Guarantee. I asked Mahl about getting the best customer service from a travel Web site, and how her company is doing its part.

Travelocity seems to be doing well despite a depressed travel industry. How has good customer service contributed to your company’s recent performance?

Thanks, Chris, for the vote of confidence. Our customer service team has come a long way since introducing the Travelocity Guarantee four years ago and by remaining committed to its principles, I think we’ve helped the company’s bottom line. Plus, our ongoing investment in training our agents on how to best support customers through all kinds of scenarios has paid dividends.
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A bankrupt airline ruined my honeymoon

ataQuestion: I’ve been trying to get this issue resolved with Travelocity for more than six months, with no luck. We booked our honeymoon flight to Hawaii on ATA Airlines, but 10 days before our trip we got a call saying that the airline had gone out of business.

A Travelocity representative assured us we had been rebooked on new flights and that everything was taken care of. Needless to say, on the morning of our honeymoon, we had no tickets. The airline we were supposed to have been rebooked on, Delta Air Lines, was adamant that it wasn’t giving us any tickets. And a Travelocity representative kept telling us everything would be fine and they were “working it out.”

Nothing was worked out. We had to buy another set of tickets to keep our trip.

I’ve tried calling Travelocity customer service and was promised over and over that someone is looking into it, that they will call. They don’t. They keep asking for more time and keep telling me my request is on “urgent” status. I’ve sent them more than 65 pages of documentation by mail and fax. We’re out more than $4,000 for the airline tickets and an extra night’s accommodations and transportation expenses. Enough is enough. Can you please help us? — Kim Ryan, Phoenixville, Pa.

Answer: Travelocity should have issued a prompt refund for the new airline tickets you had to buy. Actually, it shouldn’t have come to this at all. As your online travel agent, it should have ensured you were rebooked on another flight — just like it promised.
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Here’s a “recovery” every bargain hunter is gonna love


Traffic to the three major online travel agencies — Expedia, Orbitz and Travelocity — is trending upward, as bargain-hunters snap up discounted airline tickets, hotel rooms and rental cars. It helps that the agencies eliminated some of their booking fees a few months ago.

Expedia’s bounce (in blue) is the most dramatic, with traffic levels markedly higher than it was at this point a in 2008. The other two OTAs (Orbitz in yellow and Travelocity in green) are holding steady, versus last July’s levels.

You might think that rebounding traffic would translate into an upward stock price. Not necessarily.
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No ticket, but they remembered the bill

gulfQuestion: I’m writing to you on behalf of my roommate, who is serving overseas in the Navy. She recently paid $1,767 for tickets from Bahrain to Atlanta for two weeks of R&R. Her online travel agency, Travelocity, had to issue a paper ticket because the two airlines she’s flying — Gulf Air and Delta Air Lines — don’t have a ticketing agreement.

But the tickets never arrived. She contacted Travelocity, which told her to buy a new ticket and file a lost ticket application. She paid for new tickets and flew back to the States. But when she asked Delta for a refund, they turned her down because she had gotten paper tickets through Travelocity.

After a few more phone calls and emails between her, Delta and Travelocity, she realized that no one was going to refund her money. So she disputed the charges for the first ticket on her credit card — and won.
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Now that’s a classy hotel: Banff Fairmont saves ruined vacation

fairmontJim Kohlman almost lost his entire vacation on a technicality. And he would have, were it not for the help of a hotel that understands the hospitality business.

Kohlman and his wife had booked a package through Travelocity that included flights, car rental, and a week-long stay at The Fairmont Banff Springs. But things took a turn for the worse when they checked in for their flight in Sacramento.
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The best things may come in small packages, but don’t call this gnome short

gnomeTravelocity’s Roaming Gnome needs no introduction. This summer, everyone’s favorite lawn ornament is embarking on what he calls the Summer of Possibilities tour to promote the season’s travel bargains. The gnome’s social media friends vote on his next destination, and away he goes. I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to interview the reclusive statue.

Q: I think I get it. It takes a gnome to remind us that there’s no shortage of deals this summer. Get it? Shortage?

Roaming Gnome: Oh, I get it alright. Very funny, Chris, but don’t you know that the best things come in small packages? Let’s see you try and fit snugly into the overhead baggage compartment, shall we? And besides, my pointy red hat adds at least another couple of inches to my height.
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Help! My online travel agent is AWOL

Question: I’ve been having some problems with an airline reservation, and was wondering if you could help me. I recently had to cancel a reservation I had made through Travelocity. I spent eight hours on the phone with their incompetent customer service agents trying to use the credit I received to reschedule another flight on the same airline.

Travelocity finally gave me a flight and a confirmation number, but when I checked the airline Website, it hadn’t been ticketed yet. I don’t want to get to the airport and find we have no tickets and can’t fly. I spoke to Travelocity about this again last night, and was promised an email “within four to eight hours” with a resolution. I haven’t received a response.

Travelocity has charged my credit card $2,700 for tickets I don’t have. I can’t deal with its customer service department again. I’m at my wits end. Help! — Martha Schmidt, Sykesville, Md.

Answer: Travelocity should have changed your reservation quickly instead of keeping you on the phone for eight hours. When it promised you a response within four hours, it should have given you one.

At this point in my answer, I normally outline Travelocity’s missteps and then suggest a few things you might have done differently. But let me start with you this time.

Based on your letter — the fact that you preferred talking to someone on the phone instead of dealing with a Website — I think you may have booked your airline tickets through the wrong company. Travelocity is an online travel agency. That means for best results, reserve your trip through

You could have canceled your reservation online by clicking on the “Your Account” link at the top of the home page, logging in, selecting “Check Current Reservation” and then clicking “Cancel Reservation.”

If you don’t want to do that, why not use a travel agent next time? Sure, a human agent might charge a booking fee, and may not always have the lowest price, but that person will be there when you need to make a change. You will almost certainly not have to talk to a company representative for eight hours.

That’s not to say anything Travelocity did was excusable. Its well-publicized “guarantee” would leave any reasonable traveler with the impression that problems are dealt with quickly. “If something isn’t right, don’t let it ruin your trip,” it says. “Call us immediately instead! We’re here 24/7 to work with our partners to make it right, right away. Our customer care professionals are ready to help.”

I guess it all depends what your definition of “right away” is.

I asked Travelocity to take another look at your case. When you first contacted Travelocity by phone to apply the unused tickets to a new itinerary, the company didn’t receive a confirmation from the airline. Travelocity rebooked a similar itinerary with nonstop flights on a separate reservation, which accounted for the delay. “In the spirit of the Travelocity Guarantee, we waived our exchange fees on both bookings,” a company representative told me.

“This is a disaster”

If you’re nervous about the recent swine flu outbreak and want to cancel an upcoming vacation to Mexico, you might want to read this before calling your travel agent.

In the last 24 hours, I’ve received several e-mails like the following one from reader Aaron Kyle.

I have booked a vacation package to Cancun from Phoenix through Travelocity and now need to cancel my trip due to the swine flu outbreak. I contacted Travelocity’s customer service department and they said that they needed to contact the hotel in order to see if a refund is available.

When I tried to contact the hotel myself, the Fiesta Americana Condesa said that I will need to get a refund through Travelocity! I am going around in circles trying to get a straight answer.

They didn’t allow the $100 shuttle fee to be refunded by Olympus Tours, and they said I will have to contact the airlines on my own to make changes.

This is a disaster….can you help?

Here’s the problem: As of now, the US government isn’t advising citizens to avoid Mexico. The US embassy in Mexico has limited hours, but there are no calls as of yet to avoid the entire country.

The United States has imposed no additional constraints or limitations on travel between the United States and Mexico. Travelers are encouraged to comply with suggestions by Mexican public health officials and to be alert to good health and sanitation practices.

Personally, I think it’s too soon to cancel a Mexico vacation unless you’re visiting an area that’s directly affected by swine flu. If the outbreak is contained, a trip to Cancun will probably be infection-free.

Travelocity is listing the airlines with flexible change policies on its site, but it isn’t saying what it would do to help a customer cancel a vacation. In fact, it would be impractical to allow customers to call off their vacations now, because travel agencies would then have to allow customers cancel trips to California, Kansas, New York, Ohio and Texas, where the swine flu has made an appearance.

The next 24 to 48 hours will be interesting. If swine flu is contained, we can all get on with our lives and continue traveling.

If it isn’t, then all bets are off. Everything will come unraveled, and even if you booked your vacation through an online travel agency, it’s hard to imagine a scenario where you won’t be forced to deal directly with each airline, hotel and car rental agency to negotiate a refund or a re-do.

When a hotel goes out of business, what happens to your vacation?

Here’s a problem many travelers are likely to face in 2009: a hotel that closes its doors because of the lackluster economy, taking your vacation with it. But it doesn’t have to end badly, the way it did for Michele Greer.

Greer had booked a vacation package at the Meridian Hotel in Las Vegas back in June through Travelocity. At least that’s what she though.

On Dec. 22, four days before we were to go, I found out that our hotel had not been operational as a hotel since July. The Meridian Hotel was still listed on my Travelocity itinerary.

This afternoon, after a week of phone calls and emails, Travelocity offered a full credit in an email for the trip. The charges are still in dispute, until credited, with my bankcard.

We were very disappointed to have our holiday plans canceled. We were fortunate that we we didn’t go to Vegas and find ourselves in front of a closed hotel. This shouldn’t happen to anyone.

No, it shouldn’t. I asked Travelocity about the case. Here’s its response:

Our records show that we did phone and leave a message with the Greers last summer when the hotel went offline. Still, we recognize that we should have gone to greater lengths to make sure that they were aware of what was happening.

The refund is in process and we will also send the Greers a promotional code that they can use on a future trip. We’re, of course, sorry about this and hope we can take steps to win their confidence back.

That’s a nice gesture, but could Greer have taken any steps to make sure her Vegas vacation wouldn’t be ruined?

Actually, yes.

At a time like this, when the likelihood of a hotel bankruptcy is far greater than at any time in recent history, you can take some common-sense precautions.

First, phone the hotel immediately after your reservation, no matter how you booked it. Verify your confirmation number. If you want to be extra-careful, set up a Google Alert for your hotel. It will tell you when something changes with the property.

Finally, call the hotel directly at least a week before your arrival — just to be sure.

Greer was lucky. She bought a package through Travelocity, and she had also purchased insurance. Her entire trip was protected. This underscores the value not only of travel insurance, but also of buying a package through a travel agency or tour operator.

Spirit is gone – and so is my money

Question: After much work and desperation and reading your column faithfully, I have come to the conclusion that you are my only hope.

A few months ago, just before my wedding, my fiance and his best man went to Las Vegas for his bachelor party. He had purchased a package deal through Yahoo Travel that included a stay at the MGM Grand hotel and round-trip airfare on Spirit Airlines for both of them.

But when they got to the airport, there was no one at the ticket counter. After a little bit of research, they learned that there were no flights to Vegas on Spirit Airlines that night. When my fiance contacted Yahoo from the airport, they informed him that Spirit Airlines had stopped flying from Atlanta to Las Vegas. He was never told that or sent an e-mail regarding that fact.

He was told to pay for a flight on AirTran Airways to Las Vegas and they would secure his return flight. They told him that he would need to contact Yahoo Travel when he returned to get reimbursement for the plane ticket. They paid $539 for two one-way tickets.

Once he returned, he contacted Yahoo by phone and was given a case ID number. They told him to e-mail the information to them and they would get back in touch with him. He did just that. No one got back in touch with him, so he called again. Yahoo told him that they had to wait for Spirit Airlines to return the money to them so that they can return the money to us.

It’s been four months, and there’s no sign of the money. We could use whatever help and advice you can give to us. — Christina Stansbury, Columbus, Ga.

Answer: Yahoo Travel should have told your fiance about the flight changes.

When he made his reservation, he gave the site his email address and phone number. If he received an email confirmation from the online agency the first time, then it’s reasonable to assume the second email — the one saying his flight to Las Vegas had been canceled — made it as well.

Unless it was never sent.

I’m willing to bet it wasn’t. That’s because the domestic airlines, which are expected to cut their routes by an unprecedented 15 percent in the coming months, have been less than forthcoming about their flight changes. I can’t really blame them; it’s easy to forget something when you’re slashing your schedules every day.

All of which doesn’t absolve Yahoo of its failure to notify your fiance of his flight changes. Yahoo, whose reservations are handled by Travelocity, has the means to track schedule changes. Why are you working with an online travel agent in the first place? One reason is that you’ll be taken care of when something goes wrong.

Of course that doesn’t absolve your fiance of not checking with Spirit or Yahoo to confirm his flight. If he had bothered to call a day before he was scheduled to leave, Yahoo could have found another flight and prevented him from having to buy a new ticket.

At a time like this, when airline schedules are in a constant state of change, my advice is not just to call 24 hours before departure, but also two weeks before you’re scheduled to leave. Why? Because if your flight is rescheduled and you don’t like it, you can ask for a refund and still qualify for a reasonably-priced advance purchase fare. Try doing that a day before you leave, and you’re talking big bucks.

Yahoo was wrong to make you wait until it received its money back from Spirit. I’ve heard of airlines taking two to three months, and in extreme cases, up to a year, to issue a refund. Yahoo and Travelocity don’t want to give an airline an interest-free loan, but why should their customers?

You might have appealed directly to Travelocity when your first complaint got you nowhere. I contacted Yahoo Travel, which got in touch with Travelocity, which in turn offered your fiance an immediate refund of the AirTran ticket.