9:30 AM EDT, September 30, 2013
Ronnee Schweizer's flight to the Virgin Islands is canceled, and when her online agency issues a refund, part of the money is missing. How does she get it back?
Q: I recently booked an American Airlines flight on CheapOAir.com from Kansas City to the Virgin Islands to attend my brother's wedding.
We were issued electronic tickets and our itinerary was confirmed with reservation ID and a booking number. Our credit card was charged $1,643.
When we arrived at the airport on our day of departure, an American Airlines representative handed us a slip of paper that said, "Your flight has been canceled, you need to call this number." No explanation or anything! Just a slip of paper.
American said it "regretted" any inconvenience resulting from the cancellation, and advised us to call its customer service desk. We were never given any information about the reason for the cancellation.
Since we knew we had to catch two different connecting flights that day, we rushed to call the number. After about five hours of trying to get a flight that would get us to the Virgin Islands in time for the wedding, we were left with one option: to arrive two days later than expected on the island, miss the wedding and two days of our five-day vacation.
Plus, we were going to be charged about $1,000 extra for airline tickets because American Airlines would not cover the flight that we would have to take -- it was going to be with an airline with which it didn't have a code-share agreement. Also, we would have had to find a place to stay in Puerto Rico for the night, another extra expense.
None of the options were in our budget, so we decided to cancel our trip and miss the wedding.
American Airlines would only refund $1,313, which they said is the value of the tickets. That left $330 that neither American nor CheapOAir would take responsibility for. When I called on the phone and actually got to talk to a real person, they would always refer me back to the other company. I sent email messages to the customer relations department for both companies. I received one call back that was left on my answering machine from CheapOair. that said they were looking into the matter and that they would get back to me in the next six to eight weeks.
I never heard back. I feel both companies should have done more to help us, and we should have received a full refund. Can you help me get my $330 back? -- Ronnee Schweizer, Kansas City
A: You should have received a full refund, as promised. The fact that you had booked your ticket though an online travel agency shouldn't matter. That just adds one extra layer, with the airline refunding your agency, and then your agency sending the money back to you.
But let's take a step back. When your outbound flight was canceled, you could have phoned CheapOAir also to check your alternate flight options. That's why you work with an online agency, after all. CheapOAir should have advocated for you instead of pocketing part of your refund.
It's unclear if the $330 holdback was temporary or permanent. The money may have represented a bonus paid to the online agency, perhaps a commission or something called an override. Or it could have been an unknown cancellation penalty. Whatever it was, CheapOAir was reluctant to part with it.
When an online travel agency -- or any travel agency, for that matter -- stalls on a refund that you deserve, you can take the case to your credit card company. Disputing the charge may be the fastest way to get a full refund.
Or you could ask me. I contact CheapOAir on your behalf, and after several more months of back and forth, it finally surrendered your money.
(Christopher Elliott is the author of "Scammed: How to Save Your Money and Find Better Service in a World of Schemes, Swindles, and Shady Deals" (Wiley). He's also the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine and the co-founder of the Consumer Travel Alliance, a nonprofit organization that advocates for travelers. Read more tips on his blog, elliott.org or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Christopher Elliott receives a great deal of reader mail, and though he answers them as quickly as possible, your story may not be published for several months because of a backlog of cases.)
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