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.

“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?

View Results

Loading ... Loading ...

Underwritten by

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by AirportParkingReservations.com

With nearly 20 years in the industry, over 128 airport covered in the U.S. and Canada, and over 1,000 Hotel and Parking Partners-we provide travelers the best options on how to get to the airport when flying. Whether you want to; drive yourself and park near an Airport (Airport Parking), stay the night before your flight at an airport hotel and leave your car (Hotel and Parking Package), or take a shared Shuttle/Private Car/Limo to the Airport- we got you covered. The best deals can be found online, and booking a reservation has never been easier. You can explore all of our options by visiting us at AirportParkingReservations.com, ParkSleepFly.com, AirportParking.com, and ShuttleFinder.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Cavalry Travel Insurance

Cavalry takes the worry of out travel by providing 24/7 access to medical and security professionals combined with the best medical evacuation and security extraction services. Cavalry gets you home safely when you need it most. Learn more at Cavalrytravelinsurance.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Seven Corners

Seven Corners has helped customers all over the world with travel difficulties, big and small. As one of the few remaining privately owned travel insurance companies, Seven Corners provides insurance plans and 24/7 travel assistance services to more than a million people each year. Because we’re privately held, we can focus on the customer without the constraints that larger companies have. Visit Seven Corners to learn more.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Sodexo North America

Sodexo North America Sodexo North America is part of a global, Fortune 500 company with a presence in 80 countries. Sodexo is a leading provider of integrated food, facilities management and other services that enhance organizational performance, contribute to local communities and improve quality of life for millions of customers in corporate, education, healthcare, senior living, sports and leisure, government and other environments daily. Learn more at Sodexoinsights.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Travelex Insurance Services

Travelex Insurance Services is a leading travel insurance provider in the United States with over 55 years combined industry expertise of helping people dream, explore and travel with confidence. We offer comprehensive travel insurance plans with optional upgrades allowing travelers to customize the plans to fit their needs. Compare plans, get a quote and buy online at Travelexinsurance.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by AirHelp

AirHelp is the world’s leading flight delays compensation company, helping passengers apply for compensation following a delayed or canceled flight or when boarding has been denied. It is AirHelp’s mission to fight for passenger rights by holding airlines accountable for flights disruptions that are out of passengers’ control. AirHelp has already helped 5 million people, taking the stress out of applying for compensation and making it as hassle-free as possible for travelers around the world.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Allianz Travel Insurance

The Allianz Travel Insurance company has built its reputation on partnering with agents all around the world to provide comprehensive travel insurance for their clients. Contact Allianz Travel Insurance for a comprehensive list of coverage.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Chubb

Chubb is the world’s largest publicly traded property and casualty insurance company, and recognized as the premier provider of insurance for successful individuals and families in the U.S. and selected international markets, offering coverage for high-value automobile, homeowners, recreational marine/aviation, valuables and umbrella liability coverage. As an underwriting company, Chubb assesses, assumes and manages risk with insight and discipline, and combines the precision of craftsmanship with decades of experience to conceive, craft and deliver the best insurance coverage and services to individuals, families and business of all size.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Fareportal

Fareportal’s portfolio of brands, which include  CheapOair and  OneTravel, are dedicated to helping customers enjoy their trip. Whether you want to call, click, or use one of our travel apps, one thing is clear: We make it easy to take it easy.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Insuremyrentalcar.com

An independent provider of low cost CDW/LDW insurance for use with rental cars. Up to $100,000 cover with no deductible. Policies available on a per day, per trip or per year basis. Also works with overseas rentals. Try  Insuremyrentalcar.comnow.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by G1G.com

Since its inception over three decades ago, G1G has continued to revolutionize the travel insurance industry by being the only aggregator to operate a customer portal, placing all of the user's primary needs in one place. We have continued to innovate and disrupt the market by reimagining the way travel insurance can be delivered to the end user in ways no competition can. Simply put, no one knows the market as well as its founders and no one else shares G1G values and mission.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Mediacom Communications

The nation’s fifth-largest cable operator, serving the smaller cities and towns in the Midwest and Southern regions of the United States. We are a high-performance broadband, entertainment, and communications company that brings the power of modern technology and quality customer experience to life inside the connected home by combining ultra-fast gigabit speeds with personalized local and over-the-top entertainment choices that fit your lifestyle. Details at  Mediacomcable.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Arch RoamRight

Arch RoamRight is one of the fastest growing, most-highly rated travel insurance companies in the United States. Travel advisors love working with us, and travelers feel protected with our trip cancellation and travel medical insurance coverage. We also make it easy to file a claim online with our fast, paperless claims website. Learn more about RoamRight travel insurance.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Virtuoso

The leading global network for luxury and experiential travel. This invitation-only organization comprises over 1,000 travel agency locations with 17,500 advisors in over 45 countries, and holds preferred relationships with 1,700 of the world’s finest travel companies. Virtuoso advisors collaborate with their clients to create personalized itineraries featuring exclusive perks, while also providing advice, access, advocacy, and accountability. For more information, visit  Virtuoso.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by VisitorsCoverage

As a company that is constantly striving to simplify travel insurance, VisitorsCoverage, is on a mission to help travelers make the better decisions about purchasing travel insurance, quickly. VisitorsCoverage has helped millions of travelers globally to buy the suitable travel insurance and explore the world with confidence. Get insurance for your next trip at  VisitorsCoverage. Lowest Price Guaranteed.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by MedjetAssist

Medjet is the premier global air-medical transport, travel security and crisis response membership program for travelers. With a MedjetAssist membership, if you become hospitalized more than 150 miles from home, we will get you from that unfamiliar hospital all the way home to the hospital you trust. All you ever pay is your membership fee. MedjetHorizon members add 24/7 personal security and crisis response benefits. Elliott.org readers enjoy discounted rates. Travel safer with  MedjetAssist.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Southwest Airlines

The mission of Southwest Airlines is dedication to the highest quality of Customer Service delivered with a sense of warmth, friendliness, individual pride, and Company Spirit. We are committed to provide our Employees a stable work environment with equal opportunity for learning and personal growth.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by TravelInsurance.com

TravelInsurance.com makes it fast and easy to compare and buy travel insurance online from top rated providers. Our unbiased comparison engine allows travelers to read reviews, compare pricing and benefits and buy the right policy with a price guarantee, every time. Compare and buy travel insurance now at  TravelInsurance.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Squaremouth

Squaremouth helps travelers easily and instantly compare travel insurance policies from all major providers. Only companies that meet the strict requirements of Squaremouth’s Zero Complaint Guarantee are available on the website. Compare policies on  Squaremouth.com to save over 70 percent on your next purchase.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Travel Leaders Group

Travel Leaders Group is transforming travel through its progressive approach toward each unique travel experience. Travel Leaders Group assists millions of travelers through its leisure, business and network travel operations under a variety of diversified divisions and brands including All Aboard Travel, Andrew Harper Travel, Colletts Travel, Corporate Travel Services, CruCon Cruise Outlet, Cruise Specialists, Nexion, Protravel International, SinglesCruise.com, Travel Leaders Corporate, Travel Leaders Network and Tzell Travel Group, and its merger with ALTOUR. With more than 7,000 agency locations and 52,000 travel advisors, Travel Leaders Group ranks as one of the industry’s largest retail travel agency companies.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Travelers United

If you’ve been mistreated by the airlines, Travelers United is your voice in Washington. Join the #1 travel advocacy organization working with Congress to improve and protect travelers. Plus, get $400 of annual benefits you can use for travel for only $29/year. Add your voice to ours. Make travel better.  Join today.

Send this to a friend