Booking an airline ticket online for the holidays? Read this first

stockholmHere’s a cautionary tale for anyone buying an airline ticket for the holidays, and a little advice: Pay attention your bank account balance. And be patient.

Kelly Lukanen, can I hear an “amen”?

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Lukanen recently tried to book a ticket from Minneapolis to Stockholm on Orbitz. Not only did the initial purchase fail, but she found $835 of her hard-earned money tied up in a mysterious transaction.

When I clicked the purchase button, my purchase did not go all the way through and I received a note to contact the airline directly.

I had never had this happen before. In any event, I proceeded and went to NWA.com and found a similar airfare and booked through them directly. Shortly after, I went to look at my bank account statement, and much to my surprise both transactions were listed as pending.

The Orbitz.com charge put me into the negative and I am currently at a negative balance.

Because I certainly cannot wait one to three days to have money in my possession, I called the bank to resolve this as soon as possible. I was told that they cannot help me and that the charge should drop off in one to three business days, but until then I do not have any funds available to me.

Here’s the thing: If Orbitz said the transaction didn’t go through, then it shouldn’t have gone through. But I’ve spoken with enough experts on reservations systems to know that’s not always how it works. Some systems continue to try to run the purchase even after kicking back a denial. Which is apparently what happened to Lukanen.

I was told that once the charge is dropped off, I will have to contact the bank directly to dispute any overdraft charges (unnecessary time to be spent by me). They stated the merchant can call directly to state the charge is not a valid charge. Wells Fargo provided me with their Merchant Assistance Authorization Removal number of 1.866.477.5518.

I called Orbitz and it took me several pushes of a button to finally receive a live operator. Once I finally received the operator, it was a man by the name of Rahid who answered the phone and did not have any interest in servicing the customer. What good is Customer Service if you cannot service the customer?

The gentleman took my credit card number down, and told me it was not a final charge and there was nothing he could do. I told him I understood it was not a final charge, but that it was pending and therefore putting my account into the negative.

He proceeded to tell me to call the bank, and there was nothing he could do.

Look at me. My eyes are rolling.

I asked to be transferred to corporate headquarters because the language barrier seemed to be a problem. This was not able to happen. The supervisor, however, did make an attempt at assisting me, but nearly two hours later, and me diligently trying to work through this and get my bank account back into a positive balance, I still do not have anything resolved and a negative bank balance.

I contacted Orbitz on Lukanen’s behalf, and a representative called her right away and ensured the first transaction was credited back to her.

But could this have been avoided?

I think so. The trick is to make sure you don’t use a debit card that’s near the credit limit, as Lukanen apparently did. That’ll ensure an accidental double-billing — they do happen — won’t put you in your bank’s bad graces.

She could have also waited a few hours before buying a ticket through NWA.com, just to be on the safe side.

I’m reluctant to blame Orbitz for this problem. Could it have managed Lukanen’s grievance better? Sure. But could it have prevented the double-billing? I’m not so sure. From what I can tell, this was one of those reservation system redundancy issues that just couldn’t have been predicted.

So, to all of you holiday travelers, here’s the takeaway from Lukanen’s cautionary tale: Mind your card and don’t be in such a rush to buy your ticket online when a transaction doesn’t go through.

(Photo: Claudio.Ar/Flickr Creative Commons)

Update: I’ve revised this post to reflect that Lukanen was apparently using a debit card, not a credit card. So to those of you confused by the initial comments, that’s why.

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