A United Airlines error sent us on a one-way trip

When a nor’easter takes aim at Newark, N.J., Scott Goldsleger realizes that it will threaten his family’s vacation. Thinking fast, he calls United Airlines and successfully changes their flight so that they can escape before the storm. The problem comes when the family tries to return home from their trip. All signs point to a big United Airlines error that leaves them stranded in Costa Rica. Can we help?

Question

When we arrived at the airport in Liberia, Costa Rica, for our return flight to Newark, N.J., a United rep at check-in said we didn’t have tickets and told me to contact AMEX Travel. I called them and they put me on hold. There was no time to wait as the passenger list was about to be closed. I had to buy four tickets for the flight at $488 per ticket. I later contacted United Airlines about full refunds for four tickets but they only gave me partial reimbursements ($454) for two. I paid $1,953 for four tickets. The partial payments are not satisfactory to me. Can you please help with a refund? — Scott Goldsleger, Philadelphia

Answer

Sorry you were unable to resolve this at the United Airlines counter in Costa Rica, Scott. Unfortunately, United didn’t own up to its error and passed the buck to AMEX Travel.

Then, you had to jump through even more hoops when you returned home. The whole experience sounds as if it was more unpleasant than a root canal.

AMEX Travel told you that a United Airlines error had canceled your return flight when you initially changed the outbound flight.

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If you book through a travel agency, let it handle changes

You should not have contacted United directly, but we all learn from our mistakes, right?

Scott, here are some pro tips to file away in your mental cabinet so you can avoid this kind of nightmare on future flights.

If you use a travel agency, such as AMEX Travel, to book a flight, let them handle any changes to your itinerary. Do not go straight to the airline.

Also, it is better to communicate via email, rather than by phone, with travel agencies and/or airlines. That way you have a paper trail to support your argument that you are entitled to a full refund.

In this case, as you are painfully aware, a United Airlines error caused you unnecessary aggravation and expense.

Fixing this United Airlines error

Fortunately, you were familiar with Elliott.org. You contacted our advocate, Dwayne Coward, with your complaint concerning United’s inadequate reimbursement.

Coward also alerted our executive contacts, who help consumers resolve complaints with companies.

Coward suggested you first give United one final opportunity to resolve your case satisfactorily. He advised you to write a “polite and concise email” to United’s customer support/care email address about your situation. Then, give them at least three business days to respond.

For future reference, Scott, in the event you travel with United again and problems arise, here’s our link to our company contacts.

He got his money back

Four days later, you wrote back to Coward that this United Airlines error was resolved. The airline gave you a “full refund” for the tickets you bought because of the airline’s mistake. You added, “Thanks for the guidance and help you provided.”

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Michael Hinkelman

Michael Hinkelman is an award-winning journalist with more than 35 years experience. He has worked for daily newspapers in Atlanta and Philadelphia, most recently as a small-business columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News, before retiring in 2016. In 1993, Hinkelman won a prestigious Gerald Loeb Award for Distinguished Business and Financial Journalism for an investigation into the finances of the Atlanta Public Schools. In 2016, he was a lecturer in media relations at the University of Pennsylvania's Fels Institute of Government. Read more of Michael's stories here.

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