When Jennifer Forbes and her husband checked in for a recent flight from Richmond to Freeport, Bahamas, they discovered that there are worse ways to start a vacation than having an invalid ticket.
Much worse. The airline on which they had reservations, Bahamasair, didn’t even serve Richmond.
“We had non-refundable hotel reservations,” says Forbes, a homemaker who lives in McKenney, Va. “But we had no way to get there.”
Forbes had booked her vacation through an online travel agency called Hotwire, which offers customers steep discounts in exchange for not telling them the exact airline or hotel they’re booking until they’ve made their reservations. And all reservations are final and non-refundable.
But Forbes’s problem repeats itself every day — usually on a significantly smaller scale — in the world of travel. And it raises the question of what a travel agency is obliged to do when something goes terribly wrong with a booking. “My phone calls were met with cool indifference,” remembers Forbes. “Bahamasair could only refund us the ticket price.”
Hotwire, which had sent her an e-mail before the trip assuring her that she didn’t need to re-confirm her booking through Bahamasair, seemed equally unsympathetic. A representative scolded her for failing to phone the airline to confirm her flight, despite the e-mail assuring her that she’d be fine.
So the Forbeses insisted that the agent find a way to get them to the Bahamas, checked into a hotel and then flew to the Bahamas the next day on a flight booked and paid for by Hotwire. Between the hotel and a car rental, they racked up an extra $700 in expenses.
“Bahamasair decided to discontinue service to her origin airport between the time she booked and the time she was scheduled to travel,” explained Hotwire spokesman Garrett Whittemore. Although the airline notified Hotwire of the change, Hotwire didn’t tell Forbes about the cancellation because of a “human error.”
“Jennifer is a Hotwire customer and therefore should have been notified of the change as part of our process,” Whittemore says.
No one knows exactly how often an error like this occurs. Airlines notify online agencies such as Hotwire through a reservations system, and those notifications should then be passed along to the customer.
In the early days of online travel reservations, these interfaces were notoriously buggy, and agencies would routinely send customers to the wrong airport or hotel. But these specific problems are now fairly isolated.
That’s the good news. The bad news? As before, there are few rules in place to ensure that the travel agency, online or otherwise, will fix the problem. Hotwire’s terms specifically state that the company offers no warranties of any kind, “either expressed or implied,” for the travel products it sells. In other words, it didn’t have to fly Forbes and her husband from Richmond to Freeport, as it did. Nor was it required to offer her a $50 voucher by way of apology, which it did when she returned. Hotwire did both those things in the interest of good customer service.