An “unfortunate lag” delays refund by half a year — how do you speed things up?

error messageMarko Grdesic contacted me in April because Travelocity owed him $4,747, but there was no sign of the money. I assumed a polite inquiry would shake it loose. Wrong.

Grdesic just got his refund. The story of how the money was taken and then returned more than six months later contains some valuable lessons for you do-it-yourselfers who book your own airline tickets. And yes — there are ways of accelerating a refund. I’ll get to that in a moment.

First, let’s hear from Grdesic:

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Global Rescue -- Global Rescue is the world’s leading provider of medical, security, evacuation and travel risk management services. Founded in 2004, Global Rescue has exclusive relationships with the Johns Hopkins Emergency Medicine Division of Special Operations and Elite Medical Group. Global Rescue provides best-in-class services that identify, monitor and respond to client medical and security crises. Learn more about Global Rescue.

I paid for a set of multi-destination tickets and we wanted to change one of the dates on a flight from Chicago to Washington. When I was on the phone with the Travelocity agent, I thought I agreed to a $300 fee. Instead my credit card was charged $4,747, since they re-issued all the flights again, and this included a transatlantic flight.

The agent was nice but her English was not all that great. We did not understand each other, and I guess I should not have agreed to what she offered. I asked that she send me an e-mail with the numbers. An e-mail arrived, but without numbers. This flight would have cost not more than $200 to $300 if we bought the tickets separately, as we ended up doing.

Alright, let me just jump in here. When it comes to rescheduling flights, changing dates is almost always the less desirable option. Why? Because an airline will charge a change fee, plus a fare differential, driving up the cost of your trip. You’re better off taking the credit and booking an entirely new flight.

Eventually, they offered that if I cancel the remaining flights I would get a refund, which I agreed to. The refund was to appear on my credit card in one to two billing cycles. I re-arranged my travel plans and bought the tickets I needed elsewhere.

After that, I tried to get an e-mail confirmation that a refund will indeed be placed. I did not get it. Instead, I got a “past dated” receipt. I called the Travelocity agents again to check what that means. They said that this is the only kind of e-mail they can send and that they do not send e-mail confirmations that specify that a refund will be placed.

But I was repeatedly re-assured that my refund has been placed and that I will receive it.

Long story short, the refund didn’t come in one to two billing cycles. Or three. Travelocity eventually told him it was “unable to refund” although it didn’t explain why.

What now?

Well, the Transportation Department says you should get your refund within seven days.

Payment by credit card provides certain protections under federal credit laws. When a refund is due, the airline must forward a credit to your card company within seven business days after receiving a complete refund application. If you paid by credit card for a refundable fare and you have trouble getting a refund that you are due, report this in writing to your credit card company.

However, most have interpreted that rule to apply only to refundable tickets. Quite a loophole, isn’t it?

I suppose it’s possible to argue to your airline and travel agency that the rule should be applied to all tickets. Heck, even citing the rule may be helpful in speeding things up. I can’t guarantee it.

The other way of accelerating a refund is through your credit card company. Invoking the Fair Credit Billing Act, which protects you from fraudulent purchases or “charges for goods and services you didn’t accept or weren’t delivered as agreed,” might persuade your credit card company to issue a refund long before your airline or agency gets around to it.

I think the bottom line is simple: Your agency took the money in a few seconds. Why shouldn’t it return it in a few seconds?

Travelocity took considerably longer than that. I heard from the agency only last week. A representative sent me the following update:

It took way too long, but good news on this one – the customer did receive a refund for both tickets totaling $4,747. From what I can tell, there was just an unfortunate lag in our dealings with United to see this one through.

I’m happy Grdesic got his money back, but troubled that it took so long. If this ever happens to you, consider applying a little pressure to your agent or airline in order secure the prompt refund you deserve.

(Photo: Sea Turtle/Flickr Creative Commons)