A problem with your reservation? Maybe your travel agency should pay

Ivan Cholakov / Shutterstock.com
Ivan Cholakov / Shutterstock.com
When Jennifer Forbes and her husband checked in for a recent flight from Richmond to Freeport, Bahamas, they discovered that there are worse ways to start a vacation than having an invalid ticket.

Much worse. The airline on which they had reservations, Bahamasair, didn’t even serve Richmond.

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“We had non-refundable hotel reservations,” says Forbes, a homemaker who lives in McKenney, Va. “But we had no way to get there.”

Forbes had booked her vacation through an online travel agency called Hotwire, which offers customers steep discounts in exchange for not telling them the exact airline or hotel they’re booking until they’ve made their reservations. And all reservations are final and non-refundable.

But Forbes’s problem repeats itself every day — usually on a significantly smaller scale — in the world of travel. And it raises the question of what a travel agency is obliged to do when something goes terribly wrong with a booking. “My phone calls were met with cool indifference,” remembers Forbes. “Bahamasair could only refund us the ticket price.”

Hotwire, which had sent her an e-mail before the trip assuring her that she didn’t need to re-confirm her booking through Bahamasair, seemed equally unsympathetic. A representative scolded her for failing to phone the airline to confirm her flight, despite the e-mail assuring her that she’d be fine.

So the Forbeses insisted that the agent find a way to get them to the Bahamas, checked into a hotel and then flew to the Bahamas the next day on a flight booked and paid for by Hotwire. Between the hotel and a car rental, they racked up an extra $700 in expenses.

“Bahamasair decided to discontinue service to her origin airport between the time she booked and the time she was scheduled to travel,” explained Hotwire spokesman Garrett Whittemore. Although the airline notified Hotwire of the change, Hotwire didn’t tell Forbes about the cancellation because of a “human error.”

“Jennifer is a Hotwire customer and therefore should have been notified of the change as part of our process,” Whittemore says.

No one knows exactly how often an error like this occurs. Airlines notify online agencies such as Hotwire through a reservations system, and those notifications should then be passed along to the customer.

In the early days of online travel reservations, these interfaces were notoriously buggy, and agencies would routinely send customers to the wrong airport or hotel. But these specific problems are now fairly isolated.

That’s the good news. The bad news? As before, there are few rules in place to ensure that the travel agency, online or otherwise, will fix the problem. Hotwire’s terms specifically state that the company offers no warranties of any kind, “either expressed or implied,” for the travel products it sells. In other words, it didn’t have to fly Forbes and her husband from Richmond to Freeport, as it did. Nor was it required to offer her a $50 voucher by way of apology, which it did when she returned. Hotwire did both those things in the interest of good customer service.

Travel agencies, and particularly “brick and mortar” agencies, promote themselves as trusted intermediaries between the traveler and an airline, a cruise line or a hotel. “An agency won’t make a reservation on a flight that doesn’t exist,” says Steve Loucks, a spokesman for Travel Leaders, which operates a system of full-service travel agencies in the United States. “And if by chance they do, they won’t leave you hanging.”

A travel agent will “have your back” when a flight is delayed or canceled and will figure out a way to recover your vacation quickly, he says. For major errors, reputable travel agencies also carry so-called “E&O” — errors and omissions — insurance that can cover any unanticipated expenses associated with a mistake.

But E&O policies shouldn’t be the first remedy for a wronged customer, according to several experts. The policies are basic business liability insurance, with high deductibles, that are meant to be used only when an agency is being sued. In other words, the mistake would have to be so serious that a customer takes an agent to court, in which case the agency would file a claim under its E&O policy, say agents.

Before suing an agency, you have numerous other options. Pleading your case with the company and the airline or hotel you were booked with is the best first step. Forbes had persuaded Hotwire to cover her replacement flight from Richmond to Freeport, something it technically didn’t have to do. She continued to apply pressure. I’ll tell you how she fared in a moment.

Several states, including California, Illinois and Florida, have laws regulating travel sales. Perhaps the best known is California’s “seller of travel” laws, which includes a restitution fund for victims of a booking gone awry, according to John Pittman, the vice president of industry and consumer affairs for the American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA).

He recommends finding the relevant government regulator and filing a complaint if an agency won’t help make a situation right. “That may help push the needle a little,” he adds.

If the agency is an ASTA member, you can also file an ethics complaint against it or take your case to the local Better Business Bureau, both of which may prod the agency to do the right thing. All that, he adds, ought to be unnecessary. A competent agent should know how to fix a situation such as the one Forbes faced.

In the end, Hotwire did more than just pay to fly the couple to the Bahamas.

After I contacted the online agency on her behalf, a company representative called Forbes. “They couldn’t have been nicer or more responsive to my concerns,” she says. Hotwire refunded the $700 in additional expenses Forbes had incurred and offered her a $400 credit to make up for her lost vacation day.

If only every booking blunder had such a happy ending.

Should a travel agent pay when something goes wrong with a trip?

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150 thoughts on “A problem with your reservation? Maybe your travel agency should pay

  1. Hotwire’s terms specifically state that the company offers no warranties of any kind, “either expressed or implied,” for the travel products it sells. In other words, it didn’t have to fly Forbes and her husband from Richmond to Freeport, as it did.
    Even though a company disclaims any warranty, it still must deliver the goods or services contracted for. At the very least, hotwire is responsible for a refund of the purchase price. That may not be much comfort as the price for the tickets may have increased.

    1. I was hoping you would comment on that clause. Many clauses like that one are not enforceable. With a clause like that, it seems they are trying to say the only thing they have to do is to collect your money and nothing more. I doubt that a court would accept that as an excuse for not providing the service paid for.

      1. That’s what some attorneys would have you believe. I think it’s there to trick the lay person. What it actually means is that the quality of the goods or services is not guaranteed. It does not, in any form, shape, or size, relieve the merchant from delivering the agreed upon goods or services.

        1. Hotwire doesn’t own the airline ticket, but served as an agent in the selling of it. If indeed, a ticket was issued, then Hotwire does not hold the money for that ticket, as all tickets are reported once a week to ARC. Hotwire has to send a request for the refund, which the ticketed passenger qualifies for due to the cancellation of the flights, to ARC, which then sends the request to the carrier. This refund can take several weeks, it isn’t immediate.

          1. But the contract is between the customer and the travel agent, no? I would think that the customer gets the refund from the travel agent, then the travel agent fights with the airline.

          2. Not sure what your answer means in relation to my question.

            In just about every other business relationship that I can think of where there is a “middle-man” – this is what I would call a travel agent – if the middle-man presents a set of criteria and guarantees and then fails to delivery – despite that fact that these guarantees rely on a third party to fulfill – the airline, in this case – it’s the middleman’s responsibility to deliver the item and then go fight the third party to get reimbursed for his outlay to the customer. This is just good customer service. if nothing else. “Sorry, I can’t live up to my end of the contract because someone else didn’t live up to there’s” is not acceptable.

          3. When an agency issues an airline ticket, we don’t own the ticket. The airline owns the ticket and all monies for that ticket goes through the Airline Reporting Corporation. We don’t have the money for that ticket in house. We have request, on your behalf, a refund via ARC to the carrier for the refund. We always recommend that you purchase your ticket with a credit card, as that also gives you a back protection should something go awry.
            In this case, the carrier is still flying, and according to rules, if they cancel, a full refund with no penalty is required if no reaccommodation is offered and taken. The refund, if a credit card is used, comes from the carrier to the card you used. If you paid cash/check, then the carrier sends a message to ARC that the funds are deposited in the agency’s account and then the agency can issue a check for the refund.

          4. I guess we’re going to go round and round on this and just not agree. Just one more instance where the travel industry doesn’t adhere to “normal” business practices.

            Who did I give my credit card to? The airline or the travel agent? If it’s the travel agent, then the travel agent needs to make this right. If his “supplier” – the airline – screws up, it’s up to the travel agent to make it right Stupid me, I still think that this is the way to do business; not to fall back on excuses and finger-pointing.

          5. The travel industry has numerous unique and weird rules. Lord knows I’ve commented on them regularly. This however is not one of them. Consider purchasing insurance from your insurance agent. If the insurance company ultimately denied a claim, no one would go after the sales agent who sold them the policy. Yet, its the sales agent that you gave your card to, its the sales agent who sold you the policy. Its the sale agent who signed the purchase agreement.

          6. I understand your confusion. A travel agency doesn’t own the product that they are selling. We are an agent for the airlines, a consultant for you in handling your travel plans.
            I once had a client pay cash for a hotel room in Las Vegas. He canceled his trip and wanted his money back today. Couldn’t do that and he made a stink about it, but that isn’t how this industry works. You pay cash, we pass that on to the vendor. You cancel, we get the money back from the vendor when we receive it.

          7. It depends on who charges your card. Did the agency charge or did the airline charge? Many agencies don’t charge your card, the supplier does. But as long as you use a c.c. You have a chargeback option if you don’t receive the service you paid for. A credit card (not a debit card) should ALWAYS be used when booking travel to protect yourself. And you should make sure the suppliers charge your card, not the agency. Almost every time a travel agency goes out of business you hear about clients who’s vacations weren’t paid for. If the supplier charges your card then you know the party that needs to be paid was paid.

            A good travel agency offers customer service you don’t get with OTA’s and should automatically start looking at other options for you.

          8. Good point – we would have know immediately when the airline cancelled the flights, would have submiited the refund request, and then looked at alternatives to fly them there.

          9. You give it to the airline – THEY charge it, they issue the ticket, they have control over it. WE facilitate the purchase, but are NOT the owner of said ticket.

          10. That’s actually not correct. A “middle man” can be either an agent of the principal or a reseller. If the middle man is an agent of the principal, then its the principal who generally bears responsibility, not the agent. There are numerous loopholes but that’s the general law of agency. Now, if the travel agent is acting as a reseller (consolidator) then it becomes the principal and should assume liability.

          11. And thats the difference between an OTA and a traditional agent. We’ve been contacted by people who have used an OTA and had flights canceled and all they received was an email from the OTA saying the flight was canceled. No assistance to help rebook. Then they want us to fix it.

            Had they booked through a traditional agent, the agent automatically looks for another flight to rebook. Or GOOD ones do.

            You get what you pay for.

          12. The difference is the service you receive. Yes they are both agents, but one provides you with service and starts immediately looking to rebook your flight and the other provides you with info that your flight has been canceled and leaves it up to you to figure it out.

          13. But we DON’T own the airlines – granted, my agency and I would do what it takes to fix the situation, but we cannot FORCE an airline to fly you there. And since they only legally have to offer you a refund, that is what legally we have to process for you. The fact that we go above and beyond is something only appreciated when things like this go wrong.

      2. Actually, same terms as the airline – she would only have gotten a refund from them, and that is what she would have been entitled to. (so if she booked directly with the airline, they would have made no other arrangements in that case). Why my clients prefer knowing I handle these things.

  2. First off, the CA Seller of Travel Law restitution fund is for CA residents only. Also, the company you purchase your travel fund has to have a CST# in order to apply for the money. So if you are a CA resident, to get this consumer protection, make sure every travel company you purchase your travel from has a valid CST#. You can verify it online with the State Attorney General’s website and search for the Seller of Travel link.
    Since the carrier for the OP ceased operating from Richmond, she is entitled to her money back from the carrier. Hotwire should have notified her of her canceled reservation and assisted her with new flights. Hotwire isn’t responsible for any increase in airfare, so the OP can either decline the new options or take them.

      1. Yes. But since the carrier only stopped service from their ticketed city, Hotwire sends a request for the full refund to ARC which then obtains the refund from the carrier. If the carrier stopped flying all together, filed for bankruptcy protection, then the CA fund would come into play if no other methods, like their credit card protecting them, worked out.

        1. My response was only in regards to the Seller of Travel portion of your message. I was only providing links to the law and Hotwire’s registration number.

    1. “First off, the CA Seller of Travel Law restitution fund is for CA residents only.”

      According to the AG’s website…

      “By state law, the refunds apply only to claimants who were located in California at the time of the sale and must be filed within one year from the scheduled date of travel completion.”

      You only have to be in the state when you made the purchase, not be a resident.

      1. According to the website,

        “The Act applies to all purchases made from sellers who are located in California, as well as purchases by persons located in California from vendors who sell or offer to sell from locations outside the state.”

        But the refund appears to require you be located within CA.

        1. Yes, it is a consumer protection for CA residents. With the use of the internet, as a travel consultant, we only use companies that are registered with this law as then our clients are protected and guaranteed a refund if a vendor goes out of business or doesn’t come through with what a client paid for, especially if the arrangements were paid for with cash.

          1. You seem to keep missing the part that it is *NOT* restricted to only CA residents. It covers anyone who made thw purchase while in CA or it was made through a business that is located in CA.

          2. No, you must be a CA resident, not someone from NY who is staying in LA wanting to take a last minute trip to Hawaii.

          3. Read the link again… http://oag.ca.gov/travel/consumer

            “By state law, the refunds apply only to claimants who were located in California at the time of the sale and must be filed within one year from the scheduled date of travel completion.”

            It says it applies the claimants who were located in California at the time of the sale. It doesn’t say only California residents located in California at the time of the sale.

            Also refer back to the quote from Carver…

            “The Act applies to all purchases made from sellers who are located in California, as well as purchases by persons located in California from vendors who sell or offer to sell from locations outside the state.”

            Again, purchases by persons located in California, not just California residents.

            That New Yorker staying in LA who wanted to take the last minute trip to Hawaii would be covered by the law if they made the purchase while in LA.

          4. Go ahead and try to use the law. Many have and you have to be a citizen of CA, hence ‘located’ in CA. I admit that the law is not clear and I have worked with State Attorney General’s office on certain parts of this law and getting the wording clearer. You should have read the first edition of this law. It was awful and has been reworded several times.

          5. No, you already showed the wording. ‘Located’ is the word that is confusing, but according to what I have been told, and I have spoken to the department several times. you have to be a CA resident. This is a CA consumer protection law, not one that protects people outside of CA. Now if you want to call them and verify it, do so.

          6. From the Webster Dictionary….

            Definition of LOCATE
            intransitive verb
            : to establish oneself or one’s business : settle
            transitive verb
            : to determine or indicate the place, site, or limits of
            : to set or establish in a particular spot : station
            : to seek out and determine the location of
            : to find or fix the place of especially in a sequence : classify

            Where does it say located means a resident of? I think the word “Located” is pretty clear in its meaning of not restricted to a resident of the State.

            Please cite a case where the courts have interpreted the word Locate to mean only residents. Just because you have been told (told by whom?) that it is restricted to residents, doesn’t make it true. You are the one insisting it is only for residents so it is upon you to prove it, not for me to have to call and verify it.

          7. Call the office and ask your questions. I know how the fund was used when a vendor closed up and refunds were covered. I already said that the word locate is confusing. We have been told this fund is for citizens of CA, but if this was tested in court, I don’t know how it would go. Those who wrote the law did a crappy job and the office has admitted that to me. They keep making adjustments to the wording to make it clearer, but they still have more to do.

          8. The fund was set up for residents. That is what we have been told. It is a consumer protection law for CA residents. That is what we have been told. That is all I can tell you as the whole thing is poorly written and when I have had a question pertaining to it, I call, I don’t rely on the website and the wording. I already told you that the word locate is misleading. What more do you want. I’ll be happy to give you my first born…please 🙂

          9. So in other words, you can’t back up your claim. You want us to take the word of someone who admitted they took the word of someone that their EU261 claim wasn’t valided while actual court cases says it should have been.

          10. You are the one that needs to get over themselves. Your the one wanting us to take your word with no proof while the published information says the opposite.

          11. If I am wrong, then prove it to me other than showing the definition of the word locate. I have been dealing with this law for years, but have already admitted to you that there are issues with it in the wording. They changed part of it due to my contact with them. I have been told by the department that it is a CA consumer protection law. If I am incorrect, then by all means share this so we can all get better educated. The ball is in your court and we await what you find out.

          12. I’m not the one claiming a word doesn’t mean what it definition means. You are. It is your claim that it is for residents only while the information on the AG’s website only has location as a requirement. It is up to you to prove your claim. “I’ve been told” is not proof. It is hearsay.

          13. Ed, for a travel agency located outside of California to sell to California residents, they have to apply for a CA. Seller of Travel certificate and I believe a bond as well. The law is for the benefit of CA residents. Stop trying to split hairs. You seem to enjoy being argumentative all the time.

          14. I am not splitting any hairs. The law, as written, is not exclusively for the benefit of CA residents. The law is very clear when it says the consumer only has to be located in CA when the purchase is made. Bodega is trying to make a claim, and it seems you are too, that it is only applicable to residents of CA and I have only requested he provides proof other than “I’ve been told”. Would you care to provide some reference to the residents only claim? If requesting someone to backup a claim that is opposite than the official statements is considered by you to be argumentative, then I am going to be argumentative whenever someone makes unsupported claims.

          15. A press release on the law:

            The most comprehensive regulatory measure on the travel firms in the nation, the current law–which was a three-year test–requires anyone selling air or sea travel to California residents to register with the attorney general’s office, pay a $100 annual fee and provide consumers certain disclosure notices. Additionally, those firms in California participate in a $1.2 million consumer restitution fund, paying annual assessments that cover losses consumers incur due to failures of registered California companies.

          16. Just a point of clarification. You cannot glean the meaning of a statute simply by reading the statute and applying dictionary definitions. That would make it too easy 🙂

            The only way to know what the law means, and in particular what “located in California” means in this context, is to get either a California Appellate level court case or a federal court case interpreting California law.

            The specific concepts of who or what is located within the state as well as residency has been the subject of intense debate, the most recent being online retailers and especially Amazon. The debate being whether Amazon was required to collect local sales tax on its sales.

            Having said that, I have no idea what the law is on this issue. I don’t have any travel related resources. Next time I’m in the library I’ll check if I remember.

          17. “The only way to know what the law means, and in particular what “located in California” means in this context, is to get either a California Appellate level court case or a federal court case interpreting California law.”

            And that is all I have been asking for. Some sort of reference to the legal definition. All the references I have read on the AG’s site never mentions it being limited to only CA residents. These “I’ve been told” type references have no weight. I can easily say that “I’ve been told” it is not limited. That doesn’t hold any water either.

          18. But that’s kind of the point. What you read on the website is extremely confusing. I think we’re we getting sidetracked is that one could reasonably assume that you can parse a statute like you would a regular sentence. One cannot.

            Where does that leave us?

            Bodega has been a travel agent for innumerable years. And while we disagree often, that experience is valid. Plus Bodega has been in contact with the Attorney General’s office, which is the office charged with enforcing the law.

            Accordingly, my inclination would be to give Bodega the benefit of the doubt, and if someone wanted to dispute her understanding of a travel law, it would be up to that person to show where Bodega is wrong.

            Now, if we had a statute that was unambiguous then I would agree with you.

          19. But my parsing is not of the statute itself, but of the description on the AG’s website, written in plain english to be parsed as the regular sentence like it is written. In the FAQ page, it says, “The Act applies to all purchases made from sellers who are located in California, as well as purchases by persons located in California from vendors who sell or offer to sell from locations outside the state.” That seems pretty clear, in plain english, it is not restricted to residents of the state. Now while Bodega is a travel agent, his “I’ve been told” proof it means something else does not give me enough confidence that what they have been told is correct given the statement from the AG’s office.

          20. I appreciate your point. However, the AG’s website is quoting almost verbatim from the statue so from my perspective it’s the same thing.

          21. A separate trust account can be used in lieu of a bond. In essence all monies we collect from sales in California are deposited first to this trust account until it can be paid to the travel supplier. We’re not supposed to use that money for anything else.

          22. To sell travel to any resident of CA, you have to register with the State Attorney Gerneral’s office and get a CST#. With the internet, there are SO many companies that are not doing this but any consumer can turn the information over to the State and they will go after them.

          23. bodega3 I don’t know if you are still following this thread or will even acknowledge this if you are. You asked me to provide proof other than the definition of the word locate. Okay. I wrote to the AG’s office and here is their reply (yeah, took them awhile to respond)…

            EdB Sep 2

            to sellers.travel ([email protected])

            I am trying to get a clarification of who is covered by the seller of travel laws. The AG’s website states that the consumer must be located in California. Is that any consumer in California or only residents who are in California at the time of the transaction?

            Sellers Travel ([email protected]) 1:53 PM (1 hour ago)

            to me

            Thank you for contacting the California Attorney General’s Office with your Seller of Travel question.

            We believe you are asking about that portion of the statute that deals with the Travel Consumer Restitution Fund. Business and Professions Code section 17550.37 states that a “person aggrieved” as used in this article means a person located in California at the time of purchase. It does not mean that they are required to be a resident of California.

            We hope this information has been of use.

            California Seller of Travel Program
            Office of the Attorney General
            300 S. Spring St., Suite 1702
            Los Angeles, CA 90013
            (213) 897-8065

            Emphasis added.

            So, according to the AG’s office, it is NOT restricted to only residents.

          24. bodega3 I will try this one more time. Not sure what happened to my other posting. It was awaiting moderation and it has disappeared but I haven’t gotten an email from the mods saying it was deleted like we are suppose to get. So here it is again.

            “The ball is in your court and we await what you find out.”

            Okay. Here is what I found out from the AG’s office,

            “Thank you for contacting the California Attorney General’s Office with your Seller of Travel question.
            We believe you are asking about that portion of the statute that deals with the Travel Consumer Restitution Fund. Business and Professions Code section 17550.37 states that a “person aggrieved” as used in this article means a person located in California at the time of purchase. It does not mean that they are required to be a resident of California.

            We hope this information has been of use.

            California Seller of Travel Program
            Office of the Attorney General
            300 S. Spring St., Suite 1702
            Los Angeles, CA 90013
            (213) 897-8065

            So there is what I found out. According to the AG Office in charge of enforcement of the fund, it is NOT limited to only residences.

          25. Seems the link may be causing the moderation. So here it is without it.

            @bodega3:disqus I will try this one more time. Not sure what happened to my other posting. It was awaiting moderation and it has disappeared but I haven’t gotten an email from the mods saying it was deleted like we are suppose to get. So here it is again.

            “The ball is in your court and we await what you find out.”

            Okay. Here is what I found out from the AG’s office,

            “Thank you for contacting the California Attorney General’s Office with your Seller of Travel question.
            We believe you are asking about that portion of the statute that deals with the Travel Consumer Restitution Fund. Business and Professions Code section 17550.37 states that a “person aggrieved” as used in this article means a person located in California at the time of purchase. It does not mean that they are required to be a resident of California.

            We hope this information has been of use.

            California Seller of Travel Program
            Office of the Attorney General
            300 S. Spring St., Suite 1702
            Los Angeles, CA 90013
            (213) 897-8065″

            So there is what I found out. According to the AG Office in charge of enforcement of the fund, it is NOT limited to only residences.

          26. With apologies to Cool Hand Luke, “What we got here is a failure to communicate.” This is just recreational arguing for EdB. Nod and smile, Bodega; nod and smile. 🙂

          27. Excuse me? Bodega made a claim and I asked him to provide proof, of which he cannot not. I provided what the AG’s website says about the law and all he can say if for me to provide proof he is wrong. I guess what the website says isn’t proof enough but we are suppose to take his hearsay as proof it is wrong.

            He keeps repeating his mantra, “that is what I have been told” without providing any information as to who told him that. Could very well be the people who are telling him that are wrong. That they want it to be only for residents.

          28. Can you EVER let an argument go? You’re right. I agree that you’re right. Everyone on the site agrees that you’re right. OK? For God’s sake, let it go.

          29. EdB – you need to back the &*&* off on this. bodega3 seems to be very clear in what he’s saying; the law is worded in a confusing manner. He acknowledges that. But, he also has “guilty knowledge” of what the law is ACTUALLY USED for. He says that there’s a problem. Throwing dictionary definitions at the law will get you nowhere.

          30. It is only bodega3’s claim that it is confusing. He has provided nothing to back up that claim. I provided a link and quote from the AG’s website that is perfectly clear that it applies to consumers located in California, not residents only. He claims the location word is confusing yet provides nothing to backup this claim other than his word, which at least for me, is not nearly enough to counter what the AG says. I simply asked him to cite anything to back up the claim, something he has continued to refuse to provide. He even admitted he didn’t know how a court would rule. So it is a pretty bold statement to claim with nothing to back it up.

          31. I realize that this isn’t “normal” contract law, but it was my understanding that, if a law is not clear as written, judgement usually falls against the writer of the law.

          32. That doesn’t make and sense.

            Any ambiguities in a contract is construed against the drafter. That’s a true statement. I have no idea what you’re trying to say.

          1. So I was intrigued by the discussion. I don’t have access to my primary sources, but a search of the internet shows some contradictions. The claim form discussed physical presence with the state of California at the time of the purchase. Other sites suggest that the protection is for California residents.

            Both Bodega and Edb have points on their side. However, one minor point. A dictionary is only useful for defining tangential terms in statutory construction. For major terms, it doesn’t even make the prima facie case.

  3. Under French law the travel agency has sole responsibility for the out come of a trip that is bought through them. It doesn’t matter if they have disclaimer clauses or not. Such clauses are illegal, and as such are null and void under the law.

    The customer doesn’t have to know anything about the travel agency’s suppliers. This in my opinion is how it should be. For a non satisfactory execution, he just has to deal with the travel agency through negotiations or he can sue them.

    If the travel agency feels that it is one of their suppliers faults, it is up to them to deal with their suppliers as they see fit. The customer has nothing to do with that; consumer protect laws oblige.

    I know that some other European countries work the same way.

      1. I’m happy that’s not the law here. A travel agent’s commission is insufficient to justify the enormous financial risk that they may incur due to no fault of there own.
        In California, if the travel provider goes belly up, and the travel agency can demonstrate that it paid the defunct travel provider, the claim is with the defunct provider.
        Now, if the travel agent was acting as a reseller, then they should be responsible.

        1. It is certainly not the fault of of the client so why should he pay? He is not the professional.

          Consumer protection laws over here tend to be written to protect the consumer, not the professional.

          One good example of that is EU261. Alot of the clauses in the airline’s CoC would be declared null and void.

          1. I agree that it is faulty, but it is better then the CoC’s as written for none European airlines, or airlines not taking off from or landing in the the EU.

            I never had to use yet, nor have I ever been in a circumstance where I would have had to use it before it existed. It came close once. I was flying Boston -> Paris on TWA, returning to Paris so I was in the middle of my trip. The plane was canceled in St Louis due to mechanical trouble, actual there was another plane canceled also not sure of the reason. Since I was in the middle of my trip TWA put me up for 24 hours (until the next flight) and paid for my meals. There were however a number of people waiting to board whose trip began in Boston. Only those that lived more then 150 miles from the airport were taken care of, for the others tough luck.

          2. I did try to use it last year with Swiss Air. We were delayed for hours do to a mechanical reason which I though was covered, but my claim was denied. Reason? A mechanical issue isn’t uncontrollable and therefore not a covered reason for obtaining any compensation, except for meals.

          3. Excuse my French, but I think you got screwed by the airlines. There have been court cases where mechanical problems have been ruled to be covered. As a US expat living in France it would have been easy for me to threaten and/or take them to small claims court here. I suspect that they took advantage of you traveling through.

          4. I think we were screwed over, too. Our delay put us at a pretty hefty refund amount since we had flown business class and there were two of us.

          5. I agree 110%. The client absolutely should not pay. The payment should come from the principal. That’s basic US agency law. Now, if the travel agency is acting as a reseller, then the travel agency becomes the principal.

          6. Yes that’s right. Just because an agency is given the ability (or permission) to PRICE a ticket on a net-net basis does NOT mean they are “reselling” the ticket.

          7. I don’t know what a net-net basis means.

            Traditionally an agent is a fiduciary of the principal. That means the agent owes the highest duty of loyalty. The agents compensation is a commission and can be a fixed amount, a contingency, or some combination of the two depending on the circumstances and legal framework.

            What would be almost universally prohibited in an agency relationship is an arrangement where the agent’s compensation is effectively the mark-up. Eg the wholesale price of the a widget is $100. The agent can sell it for whatever he wants and gets anything above the $100.00.

            Such an arrangement would generally destroy the agency and make the agent a principal and personally liable for any breaches of the contract.

            Of course, travel laws operate in the twilight zone so YMMV 🙂

          8. There are some fares (i.e. bulk, private) where the airlines allow some agencies latitude to determine the final selling price which appears on the ticket (record) although it may print BULK on the actual ticket itself. But the issue in the OP’s case has nothing to do with pricing. It has to do with duty to provide UP TO DATE and TIMELY FLIGHT or ITINERARY CHANGES.

          9. But the issue in the OP’s case has nothing to do with pricing.
            No one is saying it is. The discussion on prices was merely to illustrate the difference between an agent and a distributor. Contrary to the assertions of several posters, an agent is generally not liable for the actions or failings of the principal.

          10. The OTA is not responsible for the airlines not operating (NOOP), obviously (since it does not operate the flight).
            However, it is responsible to inform its customers changes to the itinerary and flight schedules since airlines do inform travel agencies about the status changes to their bookings.
            Carver, this is very simple thing. Hotwire screwed up.

            Also since I am not a lawyer I read NOLO for lots of legal issues:

          11. Once again, no one is denying that premise. You may want to read through my other posts. I have stated further down

            “The first is the original payment. Since the principal is holding it, it’s responsible to disgorge this fee as it provided no services.

            The second issue is Hotwire’s failure to notify the OP. Hotwire should be responsible for the reasonably foreseeable expenses that its failure to notify the OP caused.”
            NOLO is a great resource. I’m not sure what the relevance of it

          12. You need to read my other posts. I have stated plainly and unambiguously that since Hotwire erred, they are responsible.

            The larger issue that some of us have been discussing is who is legally liable should the airline fail to deliver, e.g. cancel the flight, go out of business, etc..

            Some have stated that the travel agent is primarily liable, should refund the money, then seek compensation from the airline. MarkieA based that position on the fact that customers give their credit card to the travel agent.

            Others have stated that since the TA is merely an agent, compensation must be sought from the principal directly.

            This can be a critical issue in litigation if one or more of the parties is either very poor or very rich.

          13. I do not believe a travel agent is responsible for something it does not know or have any control of. If you ask me to book you tickets on AA and the GDS allows the reservation, takes your creditcard and spits out a ticket, then I have done my job correctly. If AA decides to go out of business a week later and I had no idea about it, then it ain’t my fault. I don’t have your money, the airline has it. There’s nothing in the agency contract that makes the airline liable to the travel agent either except maybe for unpaid commissions. So why the heck are you gonna sue me for, when I’m just as unpaid by the airline, too?
            If the airline cancels the flight, it has 2 options. Refund the ticket to the original FOP; or find an acceptable substitute. That’s not that complicated if fixed immediately. But if the travel agent does nothing about the problem, then we’re talking negligence and I assume there are legal consequences for that.

          14. So. I’ve opined pretty much what you stated. The agent is not responsible for the principals breach. That’s basic agency law.

            As far as the TA failing to help fix any problems that’s a different question. Far too complex to discuss here.

          15. It’s the last paragraph that is the crux of the matter.
            All hotwire had to do was reissue a ticket based on a NOOP flight.
            That is a very basic job of an agency. We don’t need a whole article to explain it.

          16. If a provider of travel, such as an airline, goes belly-up, SOMEBODY is going to take it in the proverbial shorts. No, it’s not the clients fault, but it isn’t the agent’s either. If it’s choice between driving every travel agency with pending travel on that airline going utterly bankrupt, and thousands of individuals each losing their fare, you can see why it’s the consumers that end up on the losing end.

          17. That is why it is so important to use a credit card and make sure the supplier charges your card, NOT the travel agency.

  4. There should have been an option to select maybe or sometimes. It would depend on the circumstances. In this case yes, although the OP should still have confirmed the booking anyway.

    Just be be clear it appears that the company was not responsive to her concerns but rather was responsive due to being contacted by Chris. The happy ending should have occurred without the involvement of a third party. We should never have even heard about this.

  5. “in the interest of good customer service.” I nearly spit out my coffee on that one!

    I doubt most online travel portals have any interest in “good customer service” beyond avoiding negative publicity when something like this happens. If this one had any interest in that, they would have contacted the OP when they found out of the discontinued service and provided options on how to make the trip still happen. But they were content, until Chris got involved anyway, to simply charge the OP more for the things necessary to eventually get them to the Bahamas. These expenses could have been mostly avoided if the OP had been contacted and alternate arrangements made. I’m not saying a travel agency should eat additional air fare costs when alternate arrangements need to be made, but by not contacting the OP sooner those costs were most likely much higher.

    The OP is not completely clear of any blame either. Did they not even attempt to look and see their flight was on time? I don’t care what my travel agent tells me when I book, I always at least glance and see that I am still booked on the flights I think I am. While it does not appear that Bahamas Air allows online check in, they do post their schedule. It would have taken only seconds to see there was no flight and the OP could have contacted their agent to correct the issue.

    From the article it appears the OP got both the original airfare refunded from Bahamas Air and the additional $700 from the agency. I guess this is fair for the frustration and lack of good customer service on the part of the agency.

    1. I have to respectfully disagree about the OP checking the flight. While it may be a good thing to do, especially during heavy or otherwise challenging travel conditions, I think it is perfectly reasonable for someone to believe that if there were problems they would have been notified.

      1. I understand your point. If someone is not a regular traveller, you probably expect your travel to go smoothly. Since I travel a lot, I have lots of times where things have not gone right so I guess it is my paranoia that makes me check.

  6. Thus far I haven’t voted on the poll because there’s no “it depends” option. If it’s the travel agent’s fault that the trip went wrong because of their negligence or other failure, then yes. But that’s not always the case. Sometimes the trip goes wrong for other reasons.

  7. I chose not to vote do the the wording of the question. “Should a travel agent pay when something goes wrong with a trip?”

    That is an overly broad question. The agent is just that, an agent of the supplier. In the case in the story, the agent was notified about the change in service and thus not rebooking them on a different flight was a mistake the agent made. Therefore they should be held responsible. In other cases, I have see travelers want their agent to refund the cost of their trip because they found a roach in the Caribbean open-air bungalow or something equally as stupid. In such cases, no, the travel agent should not pay. If you want us to vote on a story, make your question specific to the story, not generic to the entire industry for unspecified wrongs.

    1. In a case like this one, there are two separate issues that shouldn’t be conflated.

      The first is the original payment. Since the principal is holding it, it’s responsible to disgorge this fee as it provided no services.

      The second issue is Hotwire’s failure to notify the OP. Hotwire should be responsible for the reasonablt foreseeable expenses that its failure to notify the OP caused. I would put these expenses as:

      1. increased air fare cost
      2. additional meals
      3. Additional lodging
      4. telephone toll charges to get the mess straighted out.

      Those are the major ones that jump out to me

        1. rental car as well 🙂
          In law, these are known as reasonable foreseeable expenses that normally would be compensable absent a preemptive statutory or regulatory scheme.
          What would not be compensable would be things that are unique to you. The law school example of suppose you lost a business deal worth 1M, because of the delay. Is that compensable? Absolutely not.

  8. I didn’t answer the question because the circumstances behind each trip foul-up are different. Yes, I believe that travel agents need to be responsible when the mistake is theirs (as it was in Jennifer Forbes’ trip). However, there are times when the travel provider is at fault and the travel agent is totally without responsibility for the problem. An example of this is a travel agent booking a client into a hotel that is undergoing complete renovation causing excessive noise, lots of dust and making many of the hotel’s amenities to be unavailable to the client. If the hotel did not notify agents or post information on its website that the renovation would be taking place on the dates that the agent booked on behalf of the client, I don’t see how the agent can be held responsible.

    1. The travel agent is the professional, it is his responsibility to be aware of such problems at the hotel, not his client.

      If the client is making arrangements through a professional, it is for reasons such as the above, to be able to avoid such problems.

      So says the laws in most European countries.

      1. Travel agents books tons of hotels. I don’t see how they should be responsible for knowing all of the conditions at each hotel.

        1. The client certainly should not be. If the professional is being sold a bill of goods, it is up to him to take the necessary action. It is not the clients responsibility. Perhaps there should be professional organizations that help the professional under those circumstances.

          but it is definitely not a client responsibility, that’s why he used a professional.

        2. Maybe because they are the professional and are being paid to be aware of this information? It should be a standard part of their check list when booking all those hotels.

          1. A front line agent usually does do this. A portal doesn’t. But then, as a client, if you use a portal, all you are looking at is price, so service shouldn’t be expected.

          1. I would expect the travel agent to make reasonable inquiries. I don’t expect them to pick up a phone and call each hotel everytime they make a reservation.

            Perhaps on of the TAs can she some light on what is considered best practices when booking a hotel for a client so that their stay is enjoyable, and construction zone free.

            To answer the specific question, I would pay a travel agent to listen to my needs and make suggestions that satisfy my needs for the particular trip. For example, when I have court in distant locations, I want a hotel that is relatively close by so traffic isn’t much of a concern. I want one with robust internet, a business center, and 24 hour access to food as I might be up very late. Of those criteria, the business center is by far the most important.

        3. Correct, but a good agent will try and help the customer to get some compensation from the hotel if there are problems such as this. We had one of the biggest all inclusive hotels tell me in writing and to my face by the highest executives that there was no construction going on at a hotel I had clients traveling to when I had heard rumors there was construction starting. My clients arrived to find out the resort was being closed down for construction the last day of their stay AND the resort began closing activities and restaurants earlier in the week. They contacted me, I told them to take pictures and send them to me.

          I had done all I could as an agent before the clients traveled (i would have had them moved to a different resort if they told me the truth), going to those right below the resort owners who outright lied about no construction going on . I was able to get the clients several free nights when I was able to show them their own e-mails swearing there was no construction going on.

          Agents cannot be responsible for everything that happens but they can sure try and help the clients when they get back if something like this happens.

      2. If the hotel is thousands of miles from where the agent is located and does not publicize news of the renovation, how could the agent know about it? The renovation information would not be in any trade publications or on the web sites that agents use to get additional information about the properties that they book.

        1. So you’re saying that the client, who has paid the professional, should be responsible to find out this information? What’s the point of paying the extra costs for a professional to do the booking if you still have to do follow up?

          1. First off, let’s not compare online portals to front line travel consultants. As a TC, I am responsible to the client for what I sell to them. Always have. If I book through a vendor, my vendor usually keeps up with each hotel they sell but I check up on it as well. If a client requests a certain hotel, I will research it and pass on any information I find that could make them unhappy with their choice. A portal does not provide tis service.

          2. I think your response should be directed to jim6555 as your response reinforces what I was saying. The professional does this. Online places are not professionals as far as I’m concerned.

          3. EdB, you’ve missed the intent of my original posting on this subject. I’m trying to illustrate a situation where the travel agent does everything within reason to satisfy the needs of his or her client and should not be held responsible for the outcome since the hotel failed to disclose pertinent facts to the agent and to the general public. What the hotel did in this fictitious scenario is not ethical and borders on committing fraud.

          4. See my response above about a resort chain that out and out lied to me when I questioned whether there was construction going on for clients that were going to this particular resort. But what I DID do as a professional was to take it up and get the clients free nights when they got back – because I had e-mails that said there was no construction.

            And I actually agree with EdB for once. Online agencies are not professionals, they are order takers. So they don’t help travelers with things like this. But a professional agent should go to bat for the clients if they find out things like construction are going on.

            All of our clients are given our cell phone numbers when they travel and we tell them that if there is a problem they can’t resolve with management while they are at a resort or hotel, contact us so we can get it resolved for them while they are still there. They sure don’t get that with OTA’s. Coming home to complain but not saying anything at the resort does no good for anyone. Clients should try and obtain a resolution during the time they are there. We make sure we use suppliers that have 24/7 hotline numbers to call to resolve issues while a client is traveling.

          5. I do not believe that OTAs have any less legal responsibilites compared to a traditional travel agency. I have yet to read a law that says they ought to be given a pass for negligence. That kind of special law is reserved for too big to fail airlines and cruise companies 🙂 People get what they deserve so they should understand the meaning of cheap and DIY.

          6. TonyA you are absolutely right about OTAs having the same responsibilities as a traditional agency but the trade off with cheap prices is lousy customer service. Until something bad happens like this people need to realize they may pay a few dollars more with a traditional agent but they get someone who is there to help when things go wrong. DIY is not always a good thing and you get what you pay for.

  9. While I agree that Hotwire should pay for this unbelievable screwup, how on earth did this couple rack up $700 in ONE NIGHT by getting a hotel room and a rental car? And why did they even need a rental car for a one night stay?? They live about an hour from Richmond. One would assume they had either brought their own car to Richmond, OR they could have used a taxi or a shuttle to get to and from a hotel.

    They certainly took advantage.

  10. Of course the TA should pay if they make an error. But not confirming the plans directly? Dumb, no matter what your instructions are from the TA. Why people continue to book the cheapest alternative and then express amazement when they get no customer service is beyond me. Of course, customer service in the travel biz is subject to interpretation at all levels, isn’t it?

  11. I don’t get the comment about not reconfirming. A major reason to do this is due to schedule changes that you may not have been informed on…such as what the OP encountered. Even with GDS’, some messages don’t come through and with last minute changes by the carrier, we may not get it in time to notify passengers. I always tell clients to reconfirm by going online.

    1. I think that term -Reconfirm- is misused. The official meaning of that term is to contact the airline and tell them the pax is still intending to fly on their booked flights.

      It would be a whole lot different if the OTA said it is your responbility to check the status of all your flights and to deal with them accordingly. In that case, the OTA is purely a vending machine imo.

      1. We tell every client to reconfirm just in case we don’t get a notification of a schedule change…which has happened! I did an intra Asia flight recently with a carrier that isn’t ticketable in the GDS and reconfirmation was required.

  12. I am curious as to how they racked up $700.00 in expenses for a one night stay. There are hotels all around the airport, why would you need a rental car when there is shuttle service? And where did they stay that would cost that much for one night?

  13. the company should be liable for all the expenses and must a compensation payment. How come a company like this operate? tsk tsk tsk

  14. Chris, I absolutely agree that agents should pay up when they fail to do their most basic job and end up making the client worse off than if they had booked direct.

    It totally makes sense to “name and shame” Hotwire. Now, if only you can “name and shame” smaller agencies when they screw up; I know you’ve explained your reasons why you don’t, but I still don’t agree with them.

  15. My real answer was it depends. In this case yes, Hotwire was responsible because they never notified the client of the change. However, with the online agencies, most will simply notify a client of the change and then it is up the the traveler to figure our how to fix it.

    Had this been booked by a home based or brick and mortar agency, the agency would have notified the client as soon as they received notice of the change AND helped the client obtain a new flight.

    That’s the difference between booking with the big OTA’s vs. a traditional agent. OTA’s are fine until there is a problem.

  16. The “vote” is way too broad. Yes, they should pay if it’s their fault. But “when something goes wrong with a trip” could be anything at all, rendering the vote meaningless.

  17. We, travel agents, do have a duty to care for you if you pay us to book tickets for you.

    In this particular case Hotwire (i.e. Expedia) made the PNR and is responsible to tell the passenger about significant status changes to the PNR. Assuming the change happened more than 7 days prior departure then here are the rules:

    A “travel itinerary change” refers to any change to the flight schedule (incl. schedule change involving early departure of a flight) that occurs more than 7 calendar days before the planned operation.

    Notification of such changes must be provided according to 14 CFR 259.5(b)(10).

    Notification must be provided in a “timely” manner.

    If the flight was cancelled within 7 days of departure, the rules are different …

    A “flight Status change” refers to any cancellation, diversion, or delay of more than 30 minutes that occurs within 7 calendar days of the scheduled operation.

    §Notification of such changes must be provided according to 14 CFR 259.5(b)(2) and 14 CFR 259.8.

    §The “30 minutes after carrier becoming aware of the information” standard applies.

    This is definitely a Hotwire FAIL if they did not notify the passenger of the flight NOOP (cancellation). There is no excuse for this lousy service. A travel agency MUST monitor and process their GDS queues and contact the passengers if needed. That’s all there is to doing a good job.

      1. Good question. Probably with respect to your money as payment for the correct booking, yes. But for after sales service, maybe not.
        Here’s what happens in real life. When an agency makes an air booking, the presumption is the airline will send messages regarding changes back to the agent and the agent must contact the customer to inform them and resolve the issue. By the very nature of my statement, it means that both the supplier and the customer is relying on the agent to perform. So, the agency is responsible to both parties.
        Many of the State law preemptions apply only to the airline. The travel agency can and has been sued in local courts for many different issues. In this case, the failure to promptly notify the passenger of flight cancellation and to inform them of their options. I do not take this issue lightly because I know the airline wont attempt to contact the pax directly unless the flight is departing soon. So how is a pax supposed to know something is wrong? Unless the agency that created has a T&C that required customers to do diy monitoring of their booking using the airline’s site and provided instructions on how to diy it, then the pax is in limbo.
        A smart TA will give the pax the PNR #, RLOC, eticket #, GDS link and possibly the airlines website, too, so the pax can check for themselves, in addition to the agency diligently working its message queues. But Carver, I must tell you that consolidators have told me that we are one of the few that follow up on the message queues as almost all their subs don’t. That’s why we have repeat customers.

        1. And we can only notify clients if the carrier notifies us, which occasionally has not happened. I remember when UA pulled their nonstop from SFO to MIA. I heard about it before I got the message in the GDS and had clients protected on new flights with AA so the clients could decide on the reaccommodating UA did to connecting flights or the AA nostop.

          1. Well UA can still fly the pax on a different flight and that decision can be done later. It’s not like they stopped flying to Miami altogether. I think in the OP’s case they were stranded.

          2. Yes, if the carrier still has flights to the destination, a passenger can pretty much name their schedule and routing, in most cases.

        2. ” I do not take this issue lightly because I know the airline wont attempt to contact the pax directly unless the flight is departing soon.”

          What if the passenger books through the airline’s website? Are they required to contact the passenger in this case?

          1. yes, but they generally just email – a lot of folks never check the spam for those types of emails, and completely miss them

  18. A good link to information on the Sell of Travel Laws in a condensed form, is given below, which is from a top travel lawyer in the US, Not all states have these consumer protection laws for travelers. The one in CA is for CA residents and any travel company selling to a CA resident is required to register and pay a fee. If you have your travel booked through these registered companies as a resident of CA, and something happens and you don’t get what you paid for, the State Attorney General’s office is there to assist you and if funds should be due to you, there is a restitution fund available when all else fails. ALL companies selling to CA residents are required to post their CST# on their web page and in any advertisement and you can go to the State Attorney General’s website and look up the company to see if they are registered. I have found many companies registered who do not post their CST# on their front page.


  19. This question is hard to answer. If the travel problem is not the result of anything the travel agency did or did not do, then the agency should not be held responsible financially. In this instance the problem was a cancelled service from a particular airport that the OTA chose not to pass along to the traveler. I always reconfirm my flights, and think the traveler should have as well, but the bulk of this problem was caused by the OTA’ s failure to communicate.
    But what if the problem is outside of what the travel agency can control? I had a friend pursue a claim against her travel agency because of a mechanical failure on a flight. A neighbor sued his agent for not moving him to another area of the Caribbean at agency expense when he called to complain about the tropical depression that formed while he was on vacation and caused 4 days of pretty steady rain.
    No one, be it an individual or a company, should pay-out for something that is beyond their control. The airline handled the compensation for the mechanical delay well. But what fault does the agent hold in this? And has the agent become God and now has control of the weather?
    The question is too generic to answer with a straight yes and no question.

  20. I am more concerned that there is a difference between an Online computer and a Brick and mortar agent. Hotwire freely admitted to a human error re: the airline. 100% “THEIR FAULT” for not advising the Forbes. According to their contract they are not responsible for anything except contacting the clients. We opened in 1957 and have seen 100’s of airlines go by the wayside. Not one of my clients have been stranded. We get schedule changes, re-routings, out of pocket costs, but they were not stranded. A law suit against Hotwire if they fail to make full restitution sounds great as they failed to communicate with the customer by their own admission. Your question of the day seems wrong.

    Do good ASTA travel agents take care of their client? YES NO
    Do clients have to jump through hoops when things go wrong online? YES NO

  21. Bad poll – too broad. We SHOULD pay for our errors, but not all errors are made by the agent/agency. Of course, we would do all necessary to remedy situation for the client, which is the difference with booking online, and with a true travel agent/agency.

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