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

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By Christopher Elliott

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.

When a vacation goes wrong

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 obligations a travel agency has when something goes terribly wrong with a booking,” Forbes remembers, “My phone calls were met with cool indifference. “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.

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

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Travel agency accountability

“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 agencies should then pass along these notifications 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 now, these specific problems are 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. It was not required to offer her a $50 voucher by way of apology, but it did when she returned. Hotwire did both those things in the interest of good customer service.

Limitations of E&O insurance

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. He is 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.”

“Your vacation will be recovered quickly and a way to handle flight delays or cancellations will be figured out by a travel agent,” 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. These policies are basic business liability insurance with high deductibles, 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.

Alternative avenues for resolution

Before suing an agency, you have numerous other options. The best first step is to plead your case with the company, airline, or hotel you booked with. 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. (Here’s what to do when things go awry with your Hotwire reservation.)

A last resort

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. (Here’s what you need to know before finding your next travel advisor.)

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.

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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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