Billed twice? There’s a fix for that, travelers

Mattes/Shutterstock
Mattes/Shutterstock
Glenn Rossi’s recent Avis car rental had him seeing double. Literally.

He’d prepaid for a vehicle in Vienna, Austria, through Expedia. When he picked up the car, Avis also swiped his credit card. Within a week of returning the vehicle, Rossi, a retired telecommunications consultant who lives in Kelkheim, Germany, saw two charges for 333 euros (about $460) on his MasterCard: one from Expedia and one from Avis.

He’d been billed twice for the same car.

“I sent my contract and payment records to both Expedia and Avis but still have no refund of my double payment,” he says.

Rossi’s experience is common in one respect: Small billing errors happen routinely when you’re on the road — a currency conversion error, a fee added to the final bill or a room charge that belongs to another guest. But in another sense, it isn’t. Double-billings are relatively rare. Fortunately, they’re also relatively easy to fix.

“Relatively” being the operative word.

Nick Hornberger, a Los Angeles attorney and expert on credit card processing, says that a clear-cut case in which a customer is charged twice can be remedied by filing a credit card dispute. Under the Fair Credit Billing Act (FCBA), you may challenge a billing error with your credit card company, as long as it’s done in writing and within 60 days of the credit card statement. “The card companies can be very aggressive and really go to bat for the consumer,” Hornberger says.

But not always. Sometimes, there are “bad guys” on the other end of the transaction who are trying to squeeze more money out of you, says Hornberger. And the law also has its limits: You can’t invoke the FCBA if you have a problem with the quality of a good or service unless the purchase was made in your home state or within 100 miles of your billing address. Even when it applies, the law doesn’t offer an instant fix. The FCBA gives a creditor up to a month to acknowledge your dispute and up to three months to credit your account, which can seem like half an eternity.

It’s impossible to anticipate a billing error. A MasterCard representative said that the best way to avoid having to pay twice for the same product is to monitor your monthly statements or to check your credit card account online.

“If cardholders identify a purchase they didn’t authorize, they should immediately contact the bank that issued their card and dispute the charge in question,” says MasterCard spokesman Seth Eisen. His company also offers a feature called MasterCard Zero Liability policy, which protects customers like Rossi against unauthorized and fraudulent transactions.

Some restrictions apply, though. An account must be in good standing; a cardholder has to exercise “reasonable care” in safeguarding the card from any unauthorized use, and may not have reported two or more unauthorized events in the past 12 months, according to MasterCard.

You’re somewhat likelier to be hit by a double-billing when you’ve prepaid for a travel product such as a rental car or a hotel stay. That’s what happened to Elaine Barrett when she paid upfront for a package tour that included a hotel stay in Chicago.

“I handed over the voucher and everything seemed okay, but when we received our credit card bill, we’d been charged a walk-in rate for three nights for the room we had already paid for,” says Barrett, who lives in Sydney.

The dispute wasn’t a slam-dunk, either. Initially, her credit card sided with her but then reversed its decision, taking the hotel’s side. Barrett enlisted the help of her travel agent — who failed to get a refund. Finally, she contacted Qantas Holidays, through which she’d booked the vacation, and got her money back.

Companies claim to do their best to prevent billing errors, particularly double-billings. For example, a site such as Travelocity has multiple systems that check for duplicate air reservations. “So if the name field in the booking matches exactly with another booking — the name, flight, date all match — we will reject the booking and have a customer agent look at it and call the customer to verify if there are duplicates,” says spokesman Joel Frey.

But the system has limitations. For example, Travelocity’s systems can’t catch the difference between a John Doe and a John A. Doe.

Orbitz has technology that catches a duplicate name on the same flight booking, which can easily happen when travelers click the “book” button twice when making flight reservations for a group. But it can’t catch a name on the same flight when it’s a separate reservation.

Determining what happened to Rossi’s booking wasn’t easy. Both Expedia and Avis agreed that the car rental company’s systems inadvertently billed him in Vienna. Although the rental took place last July, and Avis in August acknowledged that a “system error” had led to his voucher’s not being accepted, Rossi’s money hadn’t been refunded by October — an almost three-month wait.

After I contacted Avis to inquire about his case, a representative told Rossi that the company had first needed to confirm that he’d had a prepaid voucher with Expedia, but that it had been unable to do so in a timely manner. It promptly refunded his 333 euros.

Do travel companies do enough to prevent double-billing?

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at . Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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  • Asiansm Dan

    It happened to me once with the Hilton Hotel in Vienna.
    And I have a friend get double billing at another Hotel in Vienna too.

    It took 2 months before all sorted out.
    I think it’s a way hotel get free interest financing on our credit cards. And hoping some people give up the fight and cash the money.
    .

  • MarkKelling

    A double billing from the same merchant is relatively easy to correct. You can easily prove you only had one hotel room or one rental car and the merchant will (usually) credit you quickly.

    The instances cited here where a customer pays one merchant (the online travel company) for a product and then is billed by another merchant (the actual service provider) for that pre paid service is extremely difficult to sort out. Neither merchant will want to give up their money. And a credit card dispute will fail since both merchants will claim the charge is legitimate, especially if any or all have a signed authorization. Too bad ti takes public exposure before these types of issues can be corrected. Guess this is another reason not to pre pay for travel arrangements through online travel providers.

  • Merle Minda

    As I related on my blog, http://www.travelovereasy.com, I had the opposite problem. Reserved and pre-paid an automatic car in France only to discover that I had no automatic, no car and no reservation at my local pickup point. Just can’t take it for granted that your confirmation # and paperwork will stand up. I had to do a totally new rental, with a manual car, and make hundreds of deposits in Euros before I was able to move. Luckily for me, Auto-Europe refunded the entirety of the 2nd rental. Lesson? Be way of your confirmed reservation — check and double-check, on the phone or in person.

  • Blake Fleetwood

    Good reason for using American Express credit cards…. They are by far the best in giving an instand credit when a dispute comes up.

    Visa and MC, because they are owned by individual banks, are much tougher.

  • lost_in_travel

    If both charges are on the same credit card it seems it may be simpler to prove that the charges are duplicate. Much more difficult if one is on the MC and the other on Visa or Amex. I try to use one card for all of my travel plans even though I have others in my wallet.

  • Justin

    Begs the question. Europe tends to have stringent consumer protections. What legal recourse does the OP have against the TA or Avis? Clearly, sitting on his money 3 months is has created undue burden. I don’t know about the rest of the general public, but 330 euros (~500 dollars) isn’t chump change.

  • VoR61

    Apologies, Chris for posting this here, but over the weekend a change occurred on your site that has made it harder for me to view the newest posts.

    Using FireFox with NoScript installed, I used to see the comments listed without indentation and in chronological order (oldest first). This was handy as I could read all the newest ones without scrolling through every posting. If I wanted to reply or see them indented (not often for me), I switched to IE.

    Any chance this can be restored?

  • http://elliott.org Christopher Elliott

    I haven’t changed anything in my settings. This may be a Disqus issue that can be remedied by changing your preferences. Please let me know if that doesn’t work.

  • VoR61

    I checked all the available settings in Disqus, but nothing helps. FYI, this occurs in Chrome as well when ScriptSafe is enabled.

    Perhaps Disqus made a change …

  • Lindabator

    But when you book with Auto Europe – it takes 24 hours sometimes to get the car confirmed – and the page tells you that – a 2nd confirmation will be emailed with the actual vendor’s confirmation number. (Which is what I wait for before confirming with a client)

  • Merle Minda

    Right. Did all that, got the written confirmation, number and all — but still no car or even a reservation when I showed up!