Refund request rerouted, and rerouted, and rerouted again

Question:In August, we booked a January flight through Travelocity to the Netherlands Antilles, flying from Las Vegas through Fort Lauderdale to St. Maarten on Spirit Airlines. We searched for a flight that did not involve a wintertime connection through a northern city.

The next day, I received an e-mail from Travelocity stating that the airlines had changed our flight and that we would be connecting in Detroit. I called Travelocity and said this was not acceptable and we wanted to cancel the flight. The customer-service agent told me everything was squared away, and I would receive a refund in about 48 hours.

Six weeks have passed, and I have yet to receive my refund. I have written many e-mails to Travelocity. Every time I receive another e-mail with a new incident number asking for more information or referring me to another department. Eventually, I got an e-mail saying my case was closed, but I still haven't received the $1,173. Can you help?

—Sherron Balog,Helena, Mont.

Answer:Balog's plans went awry when Spirit dropped non-stop service from Las Vegas to Fort Lauderdale between mid-November and May.

When airlines make schedule changes, the details are updated in global distribution systems and their websites, including online agencies such as Travelocity. But it can take about five days for updates to be completed, during which time soon-to-be-canceled flights are still for sale.

"It could be that a passenger might book a flight just as it is being pulled from the system, which sounds like what happened in this case," says Spirit's Misty Pinson.

Spirit automatically rerouted the Balogs via Detroit. After Balog called to say the new routing was simply unacceptable, Travelocity contacted Spirit, and the airline agreed to refund the value of her tickets. However, Spirit apparently processed a credit for a future booking instead.

Complicating matters, each time Balog contacted Travelocity, the agents simply looked at the history of her file, which contained the refund information, rather than contacting the airline to check on it.

"The agents assumed the refund had been issued, and that's why they answered that the case was closed," says Travelocity's Joel Frey.

Balog also was bounced between Travelocity's member services department, which handles basic questions, and its customer relations bureau, which investigates customer issues such as refund requests.

Travelocity worked with Spirit to finally process the $1,173 refund. The online agency also gave Balog a $50 voucher for her inconvenience.

How can you avoid trouble?

•Be prepared for airline schedule changes. Check and recheck before departure day; don't rely only on your travel agency or airline to do it. If you're not happy with the change, contact your agency or the airline, depending on how you booked.

•Update your profile. Be sure travel providers have current contact information for you. Also check your spam filter, which may intercept legitimate e-mail.

•Contact the right department. Member Services and Customer Relations sound similar, but they handle different problems.

Read previous columns

Linda Burbank first began troubleshooting travelers' complaints for the Consumer Reports Travel Letter. She now writes regularly for Consumers Union publications and is a contributing editor for National Geographic Traveler. E-mail her at travel@usatoday.com. Your question may be used in a future column.

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