A week of volunteering in Kenya nosedives because of air ticket error

When Kristina Aubert tries to check in for a flight, she finds that her name is misspelled on her air ticket, costing her a week of volunteering as a nurse in Kenya. Are her travel expenses gone forever? Or can our own volunteers help her recover them?

Question: I’m a student nurse. This winter, I was excited for the opportunity to be a volunteer nurse in Kenya on my spring break through an organization called Love Volunteers. I worked during my two weeks of winter break to save $800 for a round-trip ticket on Air Canada, which I booked through the travel website eDreams, and $500 for Love Volunteers registration fees. I also paid $50 for a travel insurance policy with Allianz.

My flight from Chicago to Nairobi, Kenya, via Toronto and Frankfurt, Germany, was scheduled to depart on a Saturday at 8 a.m. Since I was traveling overseas, I arrived at the airport at 6 a.m. with more than enough time to check in. When I went to the kiosk to print my boarding pass, I was instructed to go to a check-in desk as there were difficulties printing my pass. At the check-in desk, I was informed that I could not get on my flight because eDreams had printed my name as “KRISTINAAUBERT KRISTINAAUBERT” on my boarding pass, which did not match my passport.

I was then instructed to call eDreams and see if it could fix the spelling on my boarding pass. When I called eDreams, I was told that its booking department staff wouldn’t be in until Monday and I would need to call back then. EDreams’ agent told me that it could change the name on my boarding pass on Monday, for a change fee of more than $500.

I could not rebook my flight on that Monday as I wouldn’t get into Kenya until Wednesday and I would need to return the following Saturday at the end of my spring break. I told eDreams’ agent that I would not be rebooking my flight and requested a refund. Although I booked a nonrefundable ticket, I thought eDreams would allow an exception given that it was responsible for the boarding pass error. But I was wrong.

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EDreams’ agent told me that it would not refund my airfare, but it would graciously waive my flight cancellation fee. I sent numerous emails to eDreams’ customer service and filed claims against the company. All it would do for me was refund me $115 in airport taxes. I was out nearly $700.

I reached out to Love Volunteers in hopes of receiving my registration fees back, but I was informed that it does not refund fees due to travel mishaps. I was out another $500.

Then I filed a claim on my Allianz travel insurance policy. Two weeks later, I received an email from Allianz explaining that its travel insurance contains “fine print” indicating that it does not cover misspelled names on boarding passes. I’m still trying to figure out what exactly travel insurance is good for if it cannot cover something like this.

I do not understand how a company error like this put me out nearly $1,200. Could you help me? — Kristina Aubert, Chicago, Ill.

Answer: What a sad spring break for you — not to mention the people in Kenya who could have benefited from your nursing skills.

But what’s truly unfortunate is that while eDreams and Love Volunteers bear some responsibility for what happened to you, so do you.

You’re correct that eDreams should have issued your ticket with your name spelled correctly. And a $500 change fee is exorbitant!

But it was your responsibility to make sure that your tickets were booked in the same name that appears on your passport. Apparently, your name error was caused by a glitch in eDreams’ website when you booked the ticket. Had you reviewed your flight information before clicking the “Purchase” button on eDreams’ site, you might have caught this error.

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Even if that wasn’t possible, you should have done so on receiving your flight confirmation email and immediately notified eDreams of the problem, so that eDreams could fix it and issue you a new ticket in advance of your departure day.

And, of course, you were not due a cash refund for a nonrefundable ticket. EDreams’ terms and conditions indicate that “Refunds are processed according to the Refund Policies of the Travel Supplier(s) concerned.”

Air Canada’s International Tariff indicates that for unused tickets:

For nonrefundable tickets, the unused value may be used toward the purchase of another ticket within a year from date of issue if ticket is fully unused or from first departure date for partially used ticket, subject to any fee or penalty contained in applicable fare rules and subject to customer cancelling the booking prior to departure.

But that’s only useful to you if you could reuse the value of your ticket within a year. If that’s not the case, then, unfortunately, the cost of your ticket is gone.

Air Canada’s International Tariff also provides that:

As a result of the United States Transportation Security Administration’s (TSA) secure flight program, Air Canada requires all passengers flying to, from, via or over the United States, for non-domestic flights, to provide the following secure flight information at time of booking:
a) Full name as it appears on the passport (mandatory);
b) Date of birth (mandatory);
c) Gender (mandatory);
d) Redress number (optional, if applicable).

Failure to provide secure flight information at time of booking may result in the booking being canceled. No compensation will be given for bookings cancelled as a result of failure to provide secure flight information on time, but cancelled bookings may be refunded subject to applicable fare rule.

So, Air Canada exempts itself from liability for not allowing you to fly because of the name error on your ticket. And, unfortunately, Allianz is not going to waive its policy terms for you. Insurance companies rarely, if ever, pay claims that are excluded from coverage in their policy terms — no matter how fine the print.

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But Love Volunteers’ response was the most disappointing. A volunteer coordinator responded to you that it will not assume any responsibility for errors by another company, and that because you canceled your trip with so little notice, there’s nothing it can do for you. It may not be responsible for helping you with a refund of your airfares, but it should have refunded the $500 registration fee, given that you were not able to volunteer with its organization. Sticking to the letter of its policies and refusing to refund the registration fee to you was really not cool.

Our response team reached out to eDreams on your behalf, although we were not hopeful of securing any helpful response. But eDreams, “given [this] rare instance of human error,” apologized for the error, agreed to process a refund of $564 to you for your airfares, less the taxes that you had already been refunded, and offered you an additional compensation voucher as a gesture of goodwill.

We also reached out to Love Volunteers, which is not willing to issue you a refund for your registration fee but will allow you to apply it to another placement until March 2018. However, you responded, “After this experience, why would they expect me to wish to plan another trip with them?… I will never plan any volunteer trip or recommend any future volunteers to this organization.”

Unfortunately, that’s the best resolution we can get for you. I’m sorry that we couldn’t get your registration fee back in cash.

Jennifer Finger

Jennifer is the founder of KeenReader, an Internet-based freelance editing operation, as well as a certified public accountant. She is a senior writer for Elliott.org.

  • SirWIred

    I don’t blame the volunteer organization for not refunding the fee. It is unlikely they would have been able to re-book the slot, so it’s not unreasonable to say nothing could be done. Really, the offered resolution of a future trip credit isn’t bad at all.

  • Bill___A

    Good work Elliott. Although this is unfortunate, in flight tickets and in nursing, everything must be done correctly and double checked.

  • Dutchess

    “After this experience, why would they expect me to wish to plan another trip with them?… I will never plan any volunteer trip or recommend any future volunteers to this organization.”

    Uh, why? Because they bent their rules for you and will allow you to apply it to a future term. This is a charity after all.

  • Kerr

    Unless that fee covered food/lodging/transportation/etc., it seems a bit excessive for a volunteer organization. I have to pay $500 to help you?

  • John Baker

    @Kerr82:disqus My kids’ school requires background checks for volunteers at $150. I really don’t see any difference especially if they were providing food and housing

  • Food, lodging, and transportation are usually the majority of travel costs for a volunteer activity. There wouldn’t be activity costs as the activity is volunteering.

  • SirWIred

    Well, apparently the OP thought it provided decent value for the money. It may be an organization that coordinates volunteer efforts, but the people that are employed by the organization don’t necessarily (or even often) do so for free. And maybe it included room/board/transportation within the country, maybe not, I have no idea.

  • BubbaJoe123

    Here’s an alternative suggestion: rather than spending $1200 to travel to Kenya so Kenyans get the services of a student nurse for a week, donate the funds to a Kenyan hospital so they can hire locally. Kenyan nurses, per a quick google, make something like $300/month. Instead of a week of a student nurse, Kenyan patients could have had four months of a trained nurse’s services.

  • Alan Gore

    This case is a trifecta of travel fail. She volunteers to go to Africa at her own expense to offer nursing services, and the charity charges her $500 for the privilege of receiving a donation of an expensive professional skill? Which they don’t even give back if she can’t make her flight? Then she books through an OTA on Air Canada. Since she appears to be a newbie traveler, the charity at least should have pointed out the importance of exact name matching and told her about the 24-hour correction window.

    As an IT person, I can imagine how the name error came about, assuming it wasn’t just a glitch on the eDreams site. She enters her full name in the First Name field, after which most sites will hold with a “Missing Field” flag because no last name was entered. If she responds by entering her full name in the missing field, then the full name gets accepted as both names. Most of the time this wouldn’t matter at the airport, since the name, squeezed-out blank and all, is obviously her. But it’s Air Canada. Don’t bother making a trivial correction when there’s a chance to poke fun at yet another passenger left sobbing at the gate.

  • Chris Johnson

    What kind of a charity is this, anyway? The only expense I ever incur when volunteering is the cost of gas it takes me to get to wherever I’m volunteering and I wouldn’t expect reimbursement for that. If they need peoples’ nursing skills so badly, this charity should be raising their own funds to cover all the volunteers’ travel costs to Kenya. If they don’t need peoples’ nursing skills that badly in Kenya and can get locals to volunteer, they shouldn’t be in the business of hawking $500 travel packages to people in the USA. I’ll add this to the list of charities I will never donate to or volunteer for. Also, if eDreams was truly at fault for screwing up her boarding pass, they should refund every penny of her airfare and a trip to small claims’ court should give her something for the money she lost by not traveling to Kenya (people have won cases against OTAs and airlines for costs beyond those of the airline ticket, i.e. prepaid vacation expenses when their screwups prevented them from traveling). I’ve occasionally used OTAs to book plane tickets but the horror stories I keep hearing makes me want to book direct with the airlines instead. I haven’t seen a huge difference between OTA and direct prices for airline tickets anyway.

  • Kerr

    Then what does the $500 cover?

  • Travelnut

    From the Love Volunteers website: http://help.lovevolunteers.org/article/40-why-should-i-pay-to-volunteer

    “Why should I pay to volunteer?

    “Good question! A lot of people are initially surprised when they realize they have to pay to volunteer. However, the cost of volunteering includes accommodation, food, transport and in-country support staff – basically everything you need to support you while you give your time and energy to a worthy service project. When you consider the costs you might incur at a hotel or eating at restaurants, the costs are minimal.

    “Plus, as Love Volunteers do not profit at all from our listed program fees you know that every penny of this fee is going to the local organisations and the people you yourself have chosen to support. Our local partners are grass-root organizations who, in many cases, are solely funded by volunteer fees, so for the concept to work fees are an essential element. Ultimately, it is a decision of where your money goes… to a hotel, or to a local family. We know which one we’d choose!”

    All well and good, but I would love to take a look at their income statement.

  • Kerr

    She did initially, but it sounds like her opinion about the organization is now different.

  • Mark

    Food, lodging, transport, materials

  • The food lodging and transportation costs. All of which can’t be recovered due to the late notification

  • Chris Johnson

    I would like to look at their income statement too. I even looked them up on Guidestar (a website which posts information about 501c3 non-profits including tax returns) after reading this story but could not find them. It turns out they are based in New Zealand so I guess they don’t file anything with the IRS.

  • Annie M

    Why don’t people READ their confirmations when they are received? Her heart was in the right place and I feel for her but didn’t the confirmation show her name printed twice? She could have had it fixed within 24 hours by making a phone call when she received the confirmation.

  • BubbaJoe123

    “the charity at least should have pointed out the importance of exact name matching and told her about the 24-hour correction window”

    Should they also have instructed her on the importance of using an alarm clock to make sure she woke up in time for her flight, and reminded her to put gas in her car? Would you also hold them liable if they failed to mention that she wouldn’t be able to go through security and fly nude, so she should remember to put on clothes before she left the house?

  • Lindabator

    because SHE didn’t get what she wanted – when NO fault of theirs

  • Lindabator

    the charities provide housing, food and transportation for a VERY small fee – that $500 would be a LOT higher if she was paying out of pocket

  • Lindabator

    They provide food, housing and transportation for that fee – and $500 for a week is CHEAP

  • SirWIred

    Deciding they are no good because they won’t offer her a refund is a bit of circular logic:

    Volunteer Org: Even though you canceled so late, we are generously offering you a $500 credit on your non-refundable trip.
    OP: I don’t want a credit, I want a refund on my non-refundable trip because I’ll never use you again!
    Org: Why won’t you use us again?
    OP: Because you won’t give me a refund!

  • Kerr

    I guess whether she knew the $500 fee was refundable or not is the question!

  • MarkKelling

    Well, it’s not like they are staying in 5 star hotels and eating at Michelin starred restaurants nor are they in chauffeured limos.

    Most of these have you eating cafeteria style right beside the people you are there to work with and you receive a minimal, but filling and healthy, 3 meals a day. Your accommodations are usually dorm room style with multiple people in the same room and shared showers down the hall and you are lucky if they have air conditioning. Transportation is in un air conditioned buses. That $500 covers that but a portion is a donation to the local charity arranging your schedule while you are there. And your air fare, bus ticket, or whatever cost to get there and back is separate.

    I have done several of these types of trips and have enjoyed the experiences greatly. Unfortunately as I age they are becoming less possible for me.

  • MarkKelling

    Most people understand that any fees you pay toward a volunteer effort for a charity is a charitable donation and is not refundable any more than the money you drop in the collection at church is refundable if you stop going to that church, .

  • MarkKelling

    Sounds like a good option.
    If you want to volunteer, I’m sure you could find an unlimited number of hospitals right near your house that would be happy to put you to work doing any number of things. No real need to travel half way around the world unless you have some special medical skill that is in need there.

  • SirWIred

    If you look at the website for the organization, the $500 covers room, lodging, and transportation. It’s not just an administrative fee. (In fact, the organization claims that 100% of your fee goes to in-country expenses, and that they handle central administration through other funding sources.)

    It makes sense that they are not going to be able to recover those expenses for a last-minute cancellation.

  • Alan Gore

    I like seeing Airline Attitude displayed on the site. Kind of proves my point about an arrogant and uncaring industry without having to go searching for horror stories on other travel sites. This story wasn’t about being on time or trying to fly nude. It was about trying to get a minor name error corrected without having to scuttle an entire trip.

  • BubbaJoe123

    Huh? You just claimed that the charity shares the blame for not telling her about exact name matching and the 24 hour correction window. I didn’t mention airlines at all, just pointed out how bizarre it is to think that this medical aid charity had a responsibility to ensure that an adult had checked her airline reservations. They’re not the travel agent, or do you not understand that? Is there any party anywhere that’s not somehow at fault in your view?

    Regarding your “Airline Attitude” reference, I don’t have any connection to the airline industry. I expect my counterparty to live up to the terms of our contracts, and I take responsibility for living up to my end of the contract.

  • Mark

    I recently flew to Asia and my ticket had my first and middle name run together and truncated. There was no problem getting on the plane. Now I have another trip and my ticket reads the same way. Should I be worried? These “rules” are ridiculous. There’s no way that anyone with any brains would think that the ticketed passenger was anyone but Kristina Aubert. Are we the slightest bit more secure because she was denied boarding?

  • Alan Gore

    When I encounter a newbie in my business of residential IT services, I take it as an opportunity to educate that person in use of technology and create a customer who comes back again and again, even in hard times. I don’t have the luxury of going to Congress for a bailout during the next economic downcycle. In good times, I have to build loyalty by treating people as I would have them treat me.

    We’re travel nerds. So many people out there are not. This LW appears to be a naive young nurse who wanted to go to a developing country to do some good. And yes, any responsible charity hoping to get workers with professional skillsets to make an international journey at their own expense and pay them for the privilege on top of that has an obligation to warn their donors about those common travel gotchas that can unexpectedly ruin a trip – which in this case is not a weekend in Vegas, but travel to a developing country that most experienced travelers hesitate to take on.

    If you don’t want me to assume that you work for the airlines, then perhaps not gleefully dumping a truckload of snark on a poor woman who is not aware that a misspelling in your name is legal grounds for forfeiting your entire trip is in order.

  • MF

    Self-righteous snark becomes you, sir…

  • jsn55

    Great outcome, Jennifer – I never expected the online booker to help at all.

    The organizer should be assisting volunteers with their travel plans, or at least steering them to a competent travel agent. Unless the $500 fee covered tangible things like food/lodging, it should be refunded as well.

    What an awful experience for someone who just wanted to lend her expertise in an area where it probably greatly needed.

  • Steven Reed Sr.

    When I was a volunteer for the Red Cross, it paid for us to travel to out of state disaster areas and provided their volunteers with food and lodging, even if it was an mre and a cot in a tent, not sure why this organization is charging 500 on top of the cost of travel, so not does not sound like a good organization to me but then again not sure what the OP knew about them prior to her volunteering

  • Steven Reed Sr.

    I checked the Love Volunteers sight at this link:: https://www.volunteerhq.org/affordable-volunteer-fees/?gclid=CjwKCAjwmK3OBRBKEiwAOL6t1M4xtHymplu7kC6gRxdTo9B8fmv5t-6iRR2MQiTNu65fel8SRac6KhoCOC8QAvD_BwE it shows what the fees are for Most affordable program fees
    Dedicated support from a volunteer expert
    Complete MyIVHQ account access
    Online volunteer training
    Comprehensive program guide
    Deals on flights and travel insurance
    IVHQ alumni membership
    and other stuff

  • Kerr

    Not sure “most people” is accurate. The OP was the one volunteering and she sure didn’t reach that conclusion.

  • SirWIred

    I’m sure the organization would love to have the trips available for free, but the money to pay for the in-country resources doesn’t come from trees, and volunteers are one place to get that money. This organization is hardly alone in charging for volunteering trips; it’s not an unusual or disreptuable way to raise funds at all.

  • KanExplore

    Undoubtedly they set up logistics based on a certain number of participants. Whether it is arranging for internal transport, lodging, supervisory and assisting staff, medical supplies, rental of facilities and their own overhead, just about everything has a fixed cost component that the reduction of one person won’t make go away. About the only thing the organization might save on is food. I cannot criticize them at all for not refunding the money, which they have probably already spent or committed by that time.

    The real incompetence was by eDreams, and yes, the traveler should have checked everything with a fine toothed comb in the confirmation email and/or clicked on a link, or gone back to the website to check everything. I don’t completely blame a young, inexperienced traveler for this, but it’s a lesson to be vigilant about everything. You’re spending a lot of money and investing a great deal of effort into making this trip. Take the time to verify the details.

  • KanExplore

    Many quality organizations do need this kind of help directly, but even if they could ramp up staff locally for something like an excursion to a remote village to provide medical services, which is what these projects likely are, the key is the personal involvement. It simply will not happen that a student nurse sends $1,200 to a Kenyan hospital sight unseen, nor should she. But if someone goes personally she may become a lifelong supporter. Visitors become donors. People make initial short term commitments that become long term.

  • KanExplore

    Face it, anytime you ask for people to take responsibility for their actions, you’ll be accused of working for an airline. Happens to me frequently. Here I happen to think the bigger responsibility is with eDreams, secondarily with the traveler, with little if any blame to the airline or the charity.

  • KennyG

    Based on your logic I should probably sue Southwest Airlines for not apprising me of ongoing I95 construction which made me late for a meeting I flew to Florida for while I was in the process of purchasing my ticket online. After all, I am not a road paving nerd.

  • MarkKelling

    Then maybe I should have stated “Most people I know”.

  • The Original Joe S

    Great support for the OP!

  • joycexyz

    Good answer. The entire debacle was her fault for not checking the reservation. I’m getting pretty tired of people wanting to be compensated because they didn’t follow the simplest of procedures.

  • Chris Johnson

    Cheap for a real vacation. Not cheap for going somewhere to volunteer time and skills. Peace Corps and Red Cross volunteers do not pay these expenses if they have to travel to volunteer in distant locations. Before anyone calls me selfish, I have volunteered plenty at local homeless shelters and clinics preparing taxes for low-income people, all locally.

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