Help, my United Airlines flight doesn’t exist. How about a refund?

When Doreen Naumann tries to check in to leave Koror in the Republic of Palau, she discovers that her United Airlines flight doesn’t exist. But after Naumann has to spend an extra week on Koror, United won’t refund her additional expenses.

Question

I used Travelstart, an online travel website, to book a Pacific island vacation for me and my partner. I paid 933 euros ($1,148) for a round-trip ticket on United between Koror, Palau, and Yap, Micronesia, as well as for hotel and diving packages in Yap.

But when we checked in for our return flight, a United representative told us that the flight no longer existed. United had stopped operating the flight one month previously.

We had to stay in Palau for another week and lost our trip to Yap. In addition, I had to pay for a new airline ticket, hotel room, and rental car while we were stuck in Palau.

When I returned home, I called and emailed Travelstart and United to ask for refunds for the airfare and extra costs of my trip, but neither company will respond. Can you help me get them to refund my expenses? — Doreen Naumann, Mellieha, Malta

Answer

Losing an entire week because of a disappearing flight was expensive for you. Then you received the silent treatment when you asked for help. At the very least, Travelstart should have responded. The online agency should never have sold you a ticket on a United Airlines flight that didn’t exist.

There are a number of lessons in your story: Always check out the reputation of every company you deal with before making a booking. Always confirm flights before you leave on a trip. And avoid booking complicated trips, especially international ones, through online websites that sell deeply discounted fares. Use a reputable travel agent to book your trips.

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A world of complications

United Airlines flight doesn't exist

You had an especially complex travel situation. You’re a German citizen and your partner is French, and you live in Malta. Travelstart was founded in Sweden and is based in South Africa. And a German bank issued the credit card you used to pay for your trip. Trying to determine which country’s laws apply to your case is a mental exercise in itself!

A good travel agent could have helped navigate the rules and laws that apply to international trips and might have advocated for you with the companies whose trips and services you purchased. An agent could also have made sure you weren’t booked on a United Airlines flight that doesn’t exist. That professional could have helped you obtain travel insurance coverage for your trip.

Confirming your flights

Your case underscores the importance of confirming flights before leaving for the airport. Airlines reserve the right to cancel flights and change schedules, and United makes this clear in its contract of carriage:

Schedules are Subject To Change Without Notice – Times shown on tickets, timetables, published schedules or elsewhere, … are not guaranteed and form no part of this contract. UA may … delay or cancel flights … shown on the ticket at any time. …UA shall not be liable for failing to operate any flight according to schedule, or for any change in flight schedule, with or without notice to the passenger.

United won’t accept responsibility for not informing you that your flight no longer existed. You told us that you didn’t confirm your flight from Koror to Yap because you generally don’t confirm any flights. But had you done so before this trip, you might have learned that your United Airlines flight didn’t exist — and you might not have made the travel reservations on Yap that you lost.

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A stalled refund process

Every travel company requires customers who use travel agents to submit refund claims through their agents, and United is no exception. These include bookings made online. When you discovered that your United Airlines flight didn’t exist, you needed to start your refund claim process by going to Travelstart.

As you discovered after you finally returned home, Travelstart has a bad reputation. As of this writing, its rating averages two stars or less on travel rating sites like TripAdvisor.

Fortunately, you used a credit card to pay for your trip, which might have provided insurance coverage for your trip. It also could have allowed you to initiate a chargeback against Travelstart had Travelstart not agreed to help you.

Would Travelstart help?

After you asked Travelstart to refund your extra costs, it upheld its shaky customer service reputation by taking its time in assisting you. Travelstart promised to refund your airfares and other travel costs, but then reneged when you asked for a reimbursement for your rental car fee. Then its agents stopped communicating with you altogether.

You asked our advocates to help you recover your costs. (Our website features executive contact information for United Airlines; information for Travelstart is pending.) Our advocate, Michelle Couch-Friedman, suggested that you write to Travelstart to request refunds.

Getting a refund

After you contacted us, Travelstart notified you that it would reimburse you for your airfares that you couldn’t use as well as a portion of your extra expenses. You weren’t specific about which other costs Travelstart is refunding, but you are happy with this resolution.

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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. Read more of Jennifer's articles here.

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