This traveler has bigger problems than she realizes

Patricia Dougherty searched for “American Airlines” on her iPhone so she could buy seats from Philadelphia to Barcelona. Then she called the phone number that came up first in the search results.

“It sounded like it was American,” she told us. “They said there was a long wait time, but in a few seconds someone picked up and I booked my flight. When I received my confirmation via email, I noticed that my tickets were booked through cheapticketsfares.com, but the airline was American. I purchased two for a decent price — $612 roundtrip each, plus a $120 booking fee. The booking fee was not included or discussed during the phone call. ”

“At this point I discovered I had been slammed,” she adds. “And when I called cheapticketsfares.com, they told me a big fat lie — that frequently when American has too many calls they use cheapticketsfares to book.”

“Slamming” is an illegal practice, in which a subscriber’s service is changed without their consent. Dougherty wasn’t “slammed” here. She was, however, made to believe she was booking directly with American, and, moreover, working with a company that used a derivation of the well-known travel provider cheaptickets.com.

This story contains more lessons than a fifth-grade grammar book, and good advice about how and how not to book airline tickets.

Dougherty realized she had made a mistake and needed to confirm with the airline that the reservation she had made was real.

Dougherty called American’s reservations number, and the representative said they did not have the same airfare or dates available for purchase. “I asked American if I would have a problem,” Dougherty said. “The representative said that we are not American customers until our boarding passes are available and then all communication or issues will be taken care of through American. At this point we become their customers.” The representative also assured Dougherty that they would honor her reservation.

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Two months after purchasing the tickets, Dougherty contacted us to find out if she had to buy trip insurance through cheapticketsfares.com, what recourse she had if her flight is cancelled or changed, and if cheapticketsfares.com is a reliable company.

Let’s take those questions one by one.

First, you can purchase travel insurance from any vendor for any itinerary. Restrictions apply, but you can get answers to most of your questions about how to purchase travel insurance on our website.

With regards to Dougherty’s concerns about trip cancellations or changes, she got the answer to her question already. Once she printed her boarding pass, Dougherty would be subject to American Airlines’ Conditions of Carriage.

However, we don’t think cheapticketsfares.com is still in business. Dougherty certainly received a legitimate-looking confirmation from them via email. However, this confirmation drew a couple of red flags: Her name was spelled “Pattie Ann” Dougherty, and the company was registered in New York City. However, a search of the New York address listed on the email does not list that company. And a call to the associated 800 number was answered with a recording, “No one is available to take your call. Please try your call again later.” Moreover, a Google search for the company turns up other nonworking websites. Interestingly enough, the search results also listed a residential address in Chalfont, Pa., about three miles from my house, as their offices.

A check of the company’s Facebook page shows the same phone number but no recent posts. The page also lists the company as an “Airline Industry Service,” located in Wilmington, Del.

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Elliott.org consumer advocates are a persevering bunch. Tempted by the thought that this story could be taking place in my backyard, I put on my “investigative reporter” hat and “cased” the address in question — less than a 10-minute drive from my house.

What I found surprised me. The person who answered the door said he was a high school teacher and had no knowledge of cheapticketsfares.com. He was shocked when I showed him that his home address was the result of a Google search for the company. I asked him if he was new to that address. He responded that he had lived there for only nine months and that the previous residents were doctors and a military officer.

So what was cheapticketsfares.com, and how did they get involved in Dougherty’s case? They most likely acted as a travel agent or trip consolidator, by making the reservation on her behalf or by purchasing tickets in bulk from airlines at a discount and then reselling them directly to travel agents and consumers like Dougherty. Unfortunately, that company apparently was out of business. The company most likely was piggybacking off the name of the reputable online travel agency cheaptickets.com.

And what of the name discrepancy on the reservation? Dougherty reported it to the company right after she made the reservation but she was waiting for the change to be made. That would have presented a big problem for her since the names on her boarding pass and passport had to match exactly. Dougherty didn’t seem overly concerned about the problem until our advocate explained how most airlines and online travel agents make a traveler pay a change fee and a fare differential in these situations.

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Dougherty confirmed with our advocate that her passport lists her name as “Patti Ann,” a different spelling from the one on her original confirmation. But the good news for Dougherty — a recent check of her itinerary on American’s website showed that the company did indeed update her name on her reservation.

Regarding the $120 that appeared to be a booking fee, the charge actually was for taxes that were billed separately from the fare.

We reminded Dougherty to make sure her passport is valid for at least six months after completion of her travel. She is satisfied that she has valid tickets on American and she will be more careful next time that she makes ticket reservations.

Now, Dougherty is concerned about traveling to Barcelona because of the recent terrorist attacks. That we can’t help her with.

We recommend that all travelers to try to book directly with a travel provider, or, if you’re an inexperienced traveler, please consult an experienced, legitimate travel agency to do the work for you. If you’re not sure about the reputation of a travel company, do a little research and remember that if there’s a problem, we’re always here for you.

Mark Pokedoff

Four-time Emmy-award-winning television sports production specialist and frequent traveler. Longtime freelance writer and travel blog enthusiast. Proud papa of four amazing kids who have been upgraded to first class more than all their friends combined. Read more of Mark's articles here.

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