Can this trip be saved? Paid twice for a flight home, but they refunded the wrong ticket

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By Christopher Elliott

Refund cases are in a class by themselves, when it comes to frustration, but this one probably deserves its own category. It comes to us by way of Ann Vaninetti, who recently took a cruise with her husband, Dave, in Brazil.

“Great cruise,” she says. “Until we got to the airport for the return flight.”

She explains,

United Airlines wasn’t able to print out a boarding pass and wouldn’t honor our tickets purchased by our travel agent through AAA.com to fly home from Sao Paolo to San Francisco. We were then forced to purchase new tickets at a cost of $2,833.

Lost in translation

They later asked United for a refund, and it credited their accounts for the wrong tickets. But United refunded the second half of their original roundrip tickets, leaving them holding the bag on the more expensive one-way fare they had to buy at the last minute.

To understand why United might do that, it helps to know a little bit about the circumstances of their cancellation. The tickets had been booked through a travel agent on Mexicana and then transferred to United. When they tried to print a boarding pass, a ticket agent in Sao Paolo said something was wrong.

He said there was a glitch in the system and when we were issued the boarding passes for our first flight from SFO to LAX, it locked the reservation.

He said to be patient and he would fix it – the codes needed to be changed. He then came back about 30 minutes later and said that the travel agency did not cancel the Mexicana portion of the trip and re-issue it under United Airlines. He would re-issue the tickets.

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He then came back and said they were having problems (they never had an issue like this before) and were going to call the United Airlines Help Desk in Chicago for assistance.

But the “help” desk couldn’t help them at that hour, and they suggested she call back the next day. But Vaninetti didn’t want to wait. (Here’s our guide to booking an airline ticket.)

We were told by the United Agent there were only two flights to the United States a day from Sao Paulo: one to Chicago at 11 pm and one to Washington at 11:50 pm. Since there weren’t any United Airlines Agents at the counter until 7 pm and after already standing and waiting 2 ½ hours, we were not confident that the issue would get resolved the next evening.

Ticket TurmoilSo the Vaninettis bought a new ticket. When they arrived in San Francisco, they took up the matter with the airline’s service desk. (Related: Can United Airlines charge me $425 for a canceled flight during the pandemic?)

They were unable to help us at all and said to contact United Airlines Passenger Refunds. It seems like United Airlines is trying to place the blame for this problem on the travel agency (AAA) saying that they messed up. However, I logged into the United Airlines website several times, and I found the reservations as the travel agent booked them. There was no indication on the United website of any problems with the tickets.

Here’s where things stand: United refunded the wrong tickets. Their credit card company has refused to help them with a dispute. Their travel agent is working with United, but is getting nowhere. The flights took place in January, and United still has their money.

Refund roulette

Unfortunately, this kind of thing happens all too often. If you were working in the refunds department, and had the choice of refunding $1,094 — that’s the value of two return segments on the original ticket — or $2,833, which one would you choose?

I would get involved in this right away, but two things make me hesitate. First, they have a travel agent at AAA who is still working on this refund request. And second, it’s United. Since the merger with Continental, they have not given me the time of day. I’m willing to try.

Should I give the agent more time to figure this out, or do my advocacy team and I step in now and try to fix this?

Update (4/21): I contacted United, and it has fully refunded the tickets and added 10,000 miles to each of their Mileage Plus accounts as a gesture of goodwill.

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on X, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter.

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