The Travel Troubleshooter: Hey, what happened to my ticket refund?

Question: My wife and I planned a trip to Antigua this summer and purchased round-trip flights, hotel room and a kayak excursion through Expedia in December.

Everything was a “go” until we received a call one day in early April from an Expedia representative informing us of a change to our American Airlines flights. American had apparently changed quite a few flights to the island and, unfortunately, none of the changes worked for us.

The Expedia rep said that if we chose not to accept the changes for the flights that we could expect to see a full refund due to an “unacceptable” involuntary schedule change by the airline. After getting the rep to verify that we could cancel the hotel, excursion and flights at no charge, I authorized them to go ahead and cancel the trip completely.

The rep was able to instantly provide a refund for the hotel and kayak trip, but advised that the refund for the flights would take between four to six weeks to go through.

Six weeks later, having received no refund, I checked with Expedia. It informed me that it had already given me a refund, but it turns out it only was referring to the first refund. I emailed Expedia back to let it know that it got the wrong refund, but have not received a response yet. It concerns me that no one can seem to tell us when we will ever get the refund or why it has been held up for so long.

I am at my wits’ end with Expedia, Chris. Can you please help me get this resolved? My wife and I would be so grateful. — Dan Lachapelle, Sudbury, Canada

Answer: I wouldn’t be so quick to blame Expedia. Airlines are known to drag their feet when it comes to refunds, and my initial reading of your problem suggests American might have something to do with the delay, too.

This is a common problem. You buy your tickets through an agency, and the agency takes your money. But if you want a refund — or something else, like a name change — then the agency defers to the airline.

If you paid the agency, why can’t the agency just give you a refund?

I’ve been covering the travel industry for years, and I still haven’t heard a reasonable answer to that question. I’m told that it’s technology or policy or even tradition that keeps your money from flowing back in your direction promptly. Either way, it seems the only beneficiaries are the companies that get to keep your money for two to three billing cycles. It shouldn’t be that way.

Expedia should have been able to refund your entire purchase and then retrieve the money from the airline. Instead, it made you wait. And when you made inquiries, it told you the check was in the mail, and when you followed up, refused to answer.

For what it’s worth, I think your refund would have come — eventually. But you’ve been more than patient. You can find the names of Expedia’s executives on my new customer service wiki, On Your Side and appeal your case to someone higher up the food chain.

I asked Expedia about your refund. It contacted you and admitted losing the information for your flights and refund. You received a full refund for your trip.

(Photo: l co nti/Flickr Creative Commons)

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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  • sirwired

    DOT complaints are always called for in the case of delayed airline refunds.  The DOT takes such complaints quite seriously.  Even in this case, where the refund eventually showed up, a complaint about the delay is still called for.

  • Ira Rosen

    Having read this blog for quite some time, I’m distressed by this kind of situation.  One of the regular “mantras” is that using a travel agent will be to one’s advantage in dealing with these kinds of issues.  Clearly, this is not the case.  Expedia seemed to have little interest in assisting until the issue became public.

    The bottom line seems to me to be that no matter how you purchase airline tickets, you’re pretty much at the mercy of the entire travel industry if something happens.  The agencies won’t take responsibility, the airlines hold your money, and the little guy gets screwed.

    A refund is a refund – if it takes longer to get it than to have the original charge goes through, notifying the CC company and getting ready for a battle seems the only path to expect…

    How sad.

  • Arizona Road Warrior

    Expedia isn’t a “travel agent” in my eyes…they are a booking site. 

    The customer service departments (i.e. call centers) for most of these online booking sites are located in India or the PI.  They are basically script readers.  Most of the employees working in these call centers have never been on a plane, have traveled outside of their country, etc.

  • BillC

    Why do these companies always need to be contacted by an ombudsman before they do what they are supposed to do?

    Why does it it take weeks and not minutes to process a refund once it is approved?

  • Mbods2002

    Yet another reason not to use Expedia…when will the learn?

  • Mark K

    It always amazes me that these companies “lose” your information but then  amazingly find all of it when someone who can provide publicity about the situation gets involved.  I just don’t understand how they think that a customer will just give up and go away if they stall long enough, especially if the money owed is more than just a few dollars.  I guess they believe they have enough customers that losing a few when these incidents become public knowledge doesn’t matter.  All I know is if the company I worked for took this approach we would be out of business very quickly.

    Glad the refund finally appeared.

  • The Rat

    From the Expedia site:

    Registered seller of travel

    Expedia, Inc. is a registered seller of travel in California, Florida,
    Hawaii, Iowa, Ohio, and Washington under each state’s seller of travel
    regulations.

    California registration number: 2029030-50
    Florida registration number: ST-31901
    Hawaii registration number: TAR-5461
    Iowa registration number: 601
    Ohio registration number: 8789295
    Washington registration number: 601975803They are a travel agent, regardless of how you see them…

  • emanon256

    I am glad the refund finally happened.  I, however, blame Expedia.  The last time I used them, I had booked a flight which had a schedule change that would have caused me to miss my uncle’s funeral.  Fortunately I found another flight at a low price (not through Expedia)
     
    The airline told me they processed a refund to the credit card on file.  That was not my credit card, it was an account used by Expedia.  I contacted Expedia for several weeks and they finally told me that my ticket was non-refundable, so they could not refund me, even though the airline refunded them.  I filed a dispute with my credit card and won.
     
    Since this happened, I always book through the airlines directly.  I have had a few schedule changes that have resulted in me canceling my flight.  The airlines have always promptly processed a refund back to my credit card.  Usually within a matter of days.  One time Frontier didn’t after a week and I called them back and was told they lost my info.  Two days later the refund showed up.

  • Tony A.

    American Airlines does provide refunds under Rule 80. But, there is a catch – for all tickets priced at Published Fares, the refund must be processed with American Airlines directly and not through a GDS.
    Please read the rules here http://www.aa.com/i18n/agency/Booking_Ticketing/Reaccom/rule_240_80.jsp
    So the first step is to ask Expedia to provide proof they actually filed the proper request for a refund.

  • Tony A.

    Re:If you paid the agency, why can’t the agency just give you a refund?

    Elliott, after all these years you still don’t know how ticket distribution is done! MOST Travel Agents collect your credit card information only. Then they enter that Form of Payment information into a GDS so that ARC (owned by the airlines) can charge the card on behalf of the airlines. The travel agents do *NOT* have your money. ARC and airlines do.

    That said, if and when a refund is approved, it is refunded *ONLY* to the original form and source of the payment. In other words, it goes back only to the credit card of the original payor.

    For the nth time, TRAVEL AGENTS CANNOT REFUND YOUR MONEY FOR AN AIRLINE TICKET (unless you paid with cash or cash equivalent). It is the airlines (through ARC) that processes the refunds and puts the money back to your credit card (not necessarily the same amount you paid originally).

    You can blame the travel agent for NOT requesting your refund quickly or correctly. The rest of the blame lays with the airlines.

  • DavidS

    “If you paid the agency, why can’t the agency just give you a refund?”

    Generally because you did not pay the agency. The agency is just that…an agent. They process the transaction on behalf of the airline. In most cases check your credit card and you will see the charge is from an airline. If the travel agent gave you a refund, and then processed it through the airline, the airline will refund the original form of payment…your credit card. Now the agent is going to need to collect that back from you…not the business they are in!

    Wasn’t yesterday’s Air Malyasia issue an Expedia problem also? 

  • Lindabator

    Actually, Chris – you DON’T pay the agency — the payment goes directly to the airlines, so the agency doesn’t have any money to refund to you — they HAVE to go back to the airline for the refund, and the refund is applied to the original form of payment.  YOURS.  So Expedia doesn’t actually have the money.  Works the same with a brick & mortar.

  • emanon256

    Every time I have used Expedia, I get a charge from Expedia, not from the airline.  It has been a few years since I last used them.  So maybe it has changed.

    I have also used another agent a few times recently, she always charges my card.  I get a charge from her, with her company name on my statement, not from the airline.

  • http://elliott.org Christopher Elliott

    I would respectfully disagree. When I’m on a travel agency site buying a ticket, that’s who I’m doing business with, as a consumer. 

    I’m clicking the “buy” button on Orbitz or Expedia. That’s who I’m paying.

    Whether the charge eventually comes from the airline or not doesn’t really matter — the middleman bears some responsibility in the transaction. Otherwise, why go through an agent at all? Why not just book directly?

  • Jeanne_in_NE

    You seem to be a very knowledgeable individual.  But I’m not a travel agent, so I don’t know what GDS and ARC stand for/do unless I Google them, which takes away from the continuity of your statements.  Would you please define the terms when you post for the first time on any topic?  Thank you.

  • Chicky

    Which has been my contention all along, Chris. LOL. If I bought my ticket on the American Airlines site, for instance, then they are solely responsible, squirm as they might. There’s none of this ping-pong, back and forth business.
    I’ve never found a travel package online that was so good that I’d risk my vacation money to book it through a place like Expedia. I’ve read too many stories like this one.
    It just shouldn’t take your intervention every time to get these businesses to do what they’re supposed to do, and in a timely fashion. Of course, then you might be out of a job. ;)

  • Ndonbrown

    Trust Expedia about as long as your mouse cord. I have dealt with CO numerous times on credits and refunds for changed flights and never had to wait more than a few days. Lost information indeed

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1556838763 Nancy Marine Dickinson

    I can’t stand these opaque travel sites.  I prefer the have a person on the other end of the line helping me or, alternatively, to deal directly with the airline.  So many airlines now have their own “travel agencies” to use Expedia or Travelocity is a huge mistake, particularly with a trip of a lifetime, as it seems this one might have been.

    In this case, it would seem the OP might have been better served to use a brick and mortar travel agency.  In the long run, it would have saved them having to cancel the trip as well as the headache of trying to get a refund.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1556838763 Nancy Marine Dickinson

    I would say Tony here should start his own travel ombudsman site.  I’m a travel writer and don’t know what the acronyms he uses means.  However, it’s been my experience with the human condition people who want to feel superior will use terms and acronyms others probably won’t know.

    I’ve used the opaque sites for travel about two times and both times the charge for the airline ticket came from the site, not the airline.

  • Dsimundson

    Chris,

    A travel agent is just that, an agent.  

    I have a homeowners insurance agent who sold me a policy. My premiums are paid to the insurance company, not the agent. If I have a claim, I expect him to work through the claims process with me to maximize my benefit. He has.

    When air travel was getting up to speed, the airlines did not have a way to get their product out to the consumer, hence the advent of the Travel Agent.

    Paying cash? The agent collects the money on behalf of the airline deposits it in the bank and forwards it to the airline.

    Paying credit card? The Travel Agent is not the merchant, they process the transaction for the airline but the money goes directly to the airline.

    Now with the internet, the airlines have found a way to market directly to the consumer via their own websites. Online ticket websites such as Expedia, draw customers because you can compare prices on multiple airlines at once and itineraries with multiple airlines.

    You may think that you are buying FROM Orbitz of Expedia when you click “buy”, but in reality you are buying a ticket THROUGH the website for that airline when you are buying a published fare. I have bought many tickets through various channels, and the charge always appears as the airline.

    Yes, the online ticket websites are a “travel agent” in the legal sense of the word, but generally do not provide the same level of service that a brick and mortar agency with a good reputation would. (Two days in a row of Expedia issues?)

    If I needed a shovel, I could go to Wal-Mart or my local hardware store that has been around for 50 years. If I have a question about the shovel, my Wal-Mart clerk probably wont know anything more than the price or information that is on the label. I expect my local hardware store will have much more information about the shovel and be able to sell me the right shovel for my needs in order to make me a loyal customer. If the shovel breaks, the stores will refund you because they have your money and can return the shovel to their supplier.

    A travel agent with a good reputation will advocate for you and explain the process to you. If not, find another agent or deal direct with the airlines for your purchase.

  • john4868

    Jeanne … In very generalities

    GDS = Global Distribution System … The computer system a travel agent uses to look up and make reservations (airlines, cruises, hotels, tours etc). Sabre and  Apollo brand names are two but there are others.

    ARC = Airline Report Commission … Is group that consolidates airline ticket purchases made throught GDSs and handles payment processing. ARC also handles fines that the airlines may pass down to TAs

    So when you “buy” an airline ticket from your local travel agent…
    1. They make the reservation in their GDS
    2. Most of the time, they then enter your credit card information into the GDS for ARC to process. So the TA never really has your money and doesn’t have any control over the refund.

    A TA could also process it as a “cash transactions” charge your card at their office and then received a bill from ARC to pay for the ticket. Few TAs do this because they get “stuck” with the CC charges.

    Either way … its the airline’s charge and they have to make the decision on the refund. The local TA doesn’t have control.

  • Tony A.

    Okay. A GDS (Global Distribution System) is a computer reservation system used by travel agents to book airline tickets. ARC (Airline Reporting Corp.) is the Billing and Settlement Plan (BSP) for the whole USA. So ARC can issue tickets on behalf of airlines and collect money for them.

    How this all ties up? When a travel agent makes a booking (a reservation or PNR), it does so using a GDS. The GDS is connected to most classic or traditional (not LCC) airlines’ own RES (Reservation) Sytems and Inventory Control Systems. So the GDS is like a man in the middle between the agent and the airline.

    The airline e-tickets that are issued using a GDS comes from ARC. ARC also does the collecting of money for the airline. ARC also does the reporting and accounting.

    The travel agent  generally has 2 options to pay ARC. Either they enter a credit card (usually the passenger’s) as form of payment; OR they pay with a CHECK. By check I mean agency check (not the customer’s check). The latter is commonly used when the travel agent wants to hide the PRICE of the ticket (printed as an image on the E-ticket Receipt) OR when the airline does not accept the credit card used by the passenger.

    Nevertheless, the typical airline rule is that refunds are only suppose to be returned to the ORIGINAL FORM OF PAYMENT USED. So for credit card payments, the refund MUST go to the original credit card used (even if that credit card is expired or closed).

    So the reason why a travel agent cannot fork out the refund monies is that they do not have it anymore after they pay the airline. There if NO GUARANTEE the airline will refund anything so travel agents cannot risk not getting paid by either party.

  • Raven

    It takes less than 1 minute for an airline to take your money from a credit card, so why does it take 4-6 weeks to get it back?

    Perhaps the airlines are doing this so that people will be less likely to dispute the charge. Isn’t the limit for doing so 30 days?

    Hmmm.

  • Jeanne_in_NE

    Thank you!

  • Jeanne_in_NE

    Thank you! 

  • Jeanne_in_NE

    I don’t think he’s using acronyms to be superior.  When people ask me about my research, sometimes I’ll slip and use terms like phenotypic plasticity (means that shapes and sizes in a species can vary just because that’s a normal range of variation).  Sometimes you just forget that your conversational partner doesn’t have the same background as you do. 

  • Steve R

    These kinds of issues are the ones that really make me hate companies. In this case, it’s 100% clear that the customer is entitled to a refund. Customers shouldn’t have to contact a consumer advocate just to get something they indisputably deserve.

  • Mark K

    I would think Expedia, Travelocity, et al, would use the CHECK option (or their own credit card number) and charge the customer’s credit card themselves.  Since the charge appears on your statement as from the online agency and not from the airline, it seems this is the way they do it.  A lot of the fares they offer, especially on the options where multiple unrelated airlines are used and hotels and other options are all reserved at the same time would seem to show up as multiple charges on the customers statement and it never does.  And I am sure the fares have to have markups they want to hide — how else do they make money?  It is also a convenient excuse when a refund is owed that it is the airline’s fault when it is delayed.

    I understand that a local travel agency would not choose the CHECK option so as not to get stuck with the loss of funds if the customer’s CC turns out to be bad.  But the online companies do so many millions of dollars per day in business a couple of returns probably don’t even show up in the overall budget.

  • bodega

    When you are told that it can take 6-8 weeks it is because agencies report all tickets, refunds, exchanged and new issues one a week to ARC.  ARC then takes care of getting the information to the carrier.  Depending on your billing cycle for your credit card, it can take one or two cycles to see it on your statement.

    Books close at midnight on Sunday and reports are sent on Tuesdays.  So from one minute past midnight on Monday morning to midnight on Sunday, any ticket is reported on Tuesday.  So a ticket issued on July 4th will not be reported until July 12.  An approval is obtained on your credit card for a ticket issue, so you will see action on the card if you check on it, but the actual charge does not come in until the carrier processes it.  I hope that clears things up for how this works on our end. 

  • Raven

    Sounds like an antiquated system y’all need to fix. I mean, I can return a $500 pair of shoes to a store and have a credit immediately.

  • bodega

    Because you THINK you are getting a better deal shopping it and buying it online.  They have you fooled!

    The middleman has their hands tied by the carrier as the ticket is the airline’s product.

  • Mark K

    It’s called float.  It means they are earning interest on the money.  So the longer they can hold on to it the better for them. 

    The 4 to 6 week time frame goes back to the days before credit cards where it could actually take that long for the refund check request to make it through all of the manual approval processes and end up on some clerk’s desk who entered the info into the computer (or actually typed it up before computers) to have a check printed up.

    The airline I deal with most has a 3 – 7 DAY official refund timeline for tickets purchased directly from them and most refunds appear in less than 3 days.  I can understand that dealing with a third party would add a few more days but the weeks they take is just unacceptable.

  • DavidS

    That’s because the store bought the shoes and resold them. They have your money.

    A travel agent is not selling something they own. They process the transaction on behalf of the airline, but don’t keep the ticket value.

  • john4868

    Or Raven its simply that you have to be much more deliberate on a refund than a charge.

    If I charge you too much, I just refund you with an oops. If I refund you too much, I have to pay the extra money to chase you to get my money back (if it even worth it).

    It just means that while most CSR can make a charge to your card, business tightly control refunds.

  • Mark K

    This still does not explain the 6 – 8 weeks for the credit to appear in your account.  We are not talking your STATEMENT, just the credit appearing in your ACCOUNT.

    Using your flow detailed above, a worst case scenario is if I am approved for a refund on a Sunday at noon, it would be 9 days until the report appears showing the credit would be available.  (Current Tuesday activity is already posted, the next Tuesday is 9 days out.)  Given that not every airline would look at this report immediately (especially the refund portion), I give them until Friday to wade through their portion of the report and notice I am due a refund.  At that point the refund to my credit card should be done immediately.  Where do the other 6 weeks come from?

    The company I work for moves billions of dollars per day among millions of individual customers.  The books close at 08:00 every day and reports are distrubuted not later than 12:00 the same day.

    Seems to me that ARC needs to modernize, replace what almost seems to be a manual accounting practice with a few fast computers, and move to a daily settlement process.  But wait, that wouldn’t benefit the airlines bottom line much would it? 

  • bodega

    It is out of our hands but the 6-8 week turn around comment is very common place in many businesses.  It allows for mailing billing cycles, so now that you can go online and see your statements, usually you see it earlier.

    BTW, ARC is owned by the airlines.

  • Raven

    BTW, ARC is owned by the airlines.
    ———–
    That explains it. The longer they hold our money, the less of a chance we have to get it back. 

  • Tony A.

    Nancy,
    I suppose you don’t write about the passenger airline industry a lot since you don’t know what GDS and ARC means. Anyone who sells airline tickets knows what a GDS and ARC is.

    A travel agent deals with the “human condition” day in day out. They usually interface with people face-to-face or by phone. An agent needs a GDS to make reservations and must ticket thru ARC to get the job done for their customers (real people).  It’s that basic.

    Good travel agents act as “advocates” for their clients. They do not need an ombudsman since they fix problems before they escalate and blow up.

    I don’t why you think I want to feel superior as I used terms which are usual and customary for the passenger airline industry. Perhaps you can go to Wikipedia and search ARC or GDS and learn something.

  • dcta

    Expedia and other agencies can process the refund immediately – sometimes though it may be two weeks before the credit card issuing bank actually gets the refund posted.  this sounds more like Expedia did not initiate the refund right away.

  • Tony A.

    Excellent Explanation by DavidS. However, some here refuse to understand the meaning of “Agency” as opposed to “Principal” in airline ticket sales.

    Also, while an Online Travel Agency (OTA) and your local brick-and-mortar travel agent are both agents for the airline, they provide service (or the lack thereof) very differently.

    Buying Online is self service. Buying from your local travel agent is full service.
    Buying Online is dealing with a machine. Buying from your local travel agent is dealing with a professional human being.

    Therefore, the pre and post sales service provided by travel agents (humans) is different from the one you will get when you buy online. If you expect to get the same service then you are mistaken. So many posts in this site are about lousy after sales service from OTAs.  It’s simple, you want real service, go find a good travel agent.

  • Mark K

    I know it is not your fault that the wait is so long.  My point was the system appears antiquated and cumbersome to someone who deals with money movement, both payments and refunds, that happens within a single day every day.

    I have had nothing but good luck dealing with travel agents face-to-face and any billing/refund issues have always been resolved very quickly.  I still use them for everything except domestic air travel.

    Can’t say the same about online agencies.

  • weary traveler

    Because once they have your money, they have very little incentive to give it back to you quickly, unless someone like Chris shines a light on them and gets involved.

  • Wiegee

    Thank you for the proper perspective on this issue. I’ve been a travel agent for 27 years and I have given up trying to explain these simple facts to the people that need to know them.  There are times when an agency might step up and refund the passenger directly, but only after long negotiations with the airline in question to ensure that they will actually make the promised payment to the agency.  It happens rarely, but it is a possibility.

  • Douglas

    I’m sorry to see this happen to you, Dan, but I could have told you. On-line agencies are not in the customer service business in follow up to their travel industry activities. If they correspond at all with a hotel, airline, cruise line or other such company, it does so in a perfunctory manner and tells you to accept the response as a final decision. They are simply NOT traveler friendly, and any representation to the contrary is fantasy. By all means, the web is maybe the best source of information, but once you’ve found what you want book your travel with an established and reputable agent/agency that has clout with the company’s they book and really go to bat for their clients. You may not get every wish fulfilled exactly as you’d want, but you’ll have a much better shot at fairness and sense of satisfaction when you have someone on your side.

  • Tony A.

    I don’t know what the large OTA’s are thinking but I know that smaller travel agencies prefer to enter the passenger’s credit card as a form of payment because they (small travel agents) do not have a discounted merchant account. That is why small travel agents usually add 4% to the cost of ticket if they use their own merchant account. Be aware, most of these credit card transactions are CARD NOT PRESENT!

    Also to answer you about why travel agents do not use their own credit cards to enter as payment and get cash from customers – well, that’s not allowed by the airlines. CASH is CASH* and CREDIT is CREDIT and that follows all the way to any refunds.

    Furthermore, any chargebacks that may occur are also charged back by the airline to the travel agent. So you are wrong if you think travel agents can wash their hands on credit cards they enter as payments.
    And travel agents post a BOND with ARC so they just cannot run away.

    It would really be good if more people concerned with Airline Ticket issues learn the inner-workings of ticket distribution so that they can temper their ire against travel agents and airlines. Criticizing is easy, fixing a problem within the rules of the game, ain’t.

    *CASH is really settled using the agent’s (checking) bank account.

  • Sershev

    I had a refund due from Continental on ticket purchased directly from the airline for about two months before I had money back. I called one month after I requested refund and was told the check is in the mail. When I called two weeks later they told me there is no reccord I requested refund before. A few weeks later a credit appeared on my credit card.

  • Brooklyn

    How would it help to deal with a travel agent, especially a small operation? It’s highly unlikely that the agency would simply refund the cost of the ticket out of its own operating budget unless it was very large and had lots of spare cash. What we need is a binding regulation on this – i.e., how long the airline can make you wait for a refund.  Add it to the list…

  • DavidS

    A reputable travel agent would do the work the OP is asking Chris for help with. Since a travel agent does not have the money or operate the flights they have to work with the airline for assistance. Many travel agents have a long established personal relationship with a representative from the airline.

    A small agency is a small business. Most rely on good customer service for continued business. An online ticket website is all about volume first.

  • Guest

    Guys, guys! No need to fight here. :)

    If anything, all concerned parties (passenger, travel agent, ticket agent, etc.) ought to give their views on their side of the fence so others would at least understand. Maybe more importantly, do so in a way that helps the person relate.

    This is something I was once taught back in my travel agent days: not necessarily to use jargon since obviously the trained agent knows, but not the consumer. One challenge lays in explaining things in a way the consumer can understand, or can use jargon but at least give some terms people can relate to.

    Importantly, it’s hoped the airlines’ ticketing and billing process is understood. It doesn’t mean one has to appreciate or like that, though, and that’s fine.

  • Guest

    “It’s simple, you want real service, go find a good travel agent.”

    Or do it yourself, and learn as you go along. :)