A Murphy family vacation


Q: My husband and I bought tickets for a trip from Chicago to Norfolk, Va., in April for travel in June. In May I received an automated message from United Airlines asking me to call the airline regarding the trip. I called and was informed that one of the legs of the return trip had been cancelled, but that we could be booked on a direct flight leaving at almost exactly the same time from Norfolk to Chicago. I was happy with this, because we wouldn’t have to change planes at Dulles as was originally planned.

Many things went wrong on what was to be a happy family vacation, not the least of which was a fall by my father which resulted in a four-day hospital stay for a punctured lung. So I did not get a chance to check the time of the return flight until the night before we were to leave.

I knew the flight was some time about noon. When I checked the e-ticket I discovered that it was indeed a noon flight, but on June 15 and not June 20, as was our intent. The ticketing agent had booked us on a flight on the wrong day, and I hadn’t caught it.

When we realized the error we called the airline. This is the point at which things turned really bad. I was told by the agent that there was no way to get a flight out of Norfolk on June 20 and that the only possible flight was out of Dulles airport in Reston, Va., at 6:15 a.m.

We explained to the agent that we were approximately 350 miles from Dulles and that this was a totally unacceptable option, to which she responded that this was the only option available.

Finally, realizing we had no other choice, we randomly started naming big cities in North Carolina near where we were at the time, and asking if they had airports. The airline representative said that there was a flight out of Raleigh-Durham, and we asked her to book the flight. It was a four-hour drive from where we were, but at least we knew we would get home.

When we got to the airport at 3 p.m. the next afternoon they had no record of us being on the flight. However, a very kind ticket agent managed to get us on the full flight.

Meanwhile, we had to figure out what to do about the rental car. We began by calling the number that was listed on the envelope for rental extensions or change return location. The representative said that due to the type of car we had rented – a convertible – she would be unable to help us.

She informed us that we would have to contact the Hertz location in Norfolk directly. So we called Norfolk and spoke with the station manager. From the beginning of the conversation, he seemed irritated. He said if we did not return the car to Norfolk, the original contract would be null and void and the car would cost us more for the original rental.

We asked to speak to his supervisor, to which he responded that he did not have one and we had no choice but to deal with him. We ended up paying an exorbitant daily fee for the car, instead of the weekly fee, which was $192.54 less for the original seven days. Plus an additional $71.99 for the extra 3 hours we had the car, instead of the $57.67 extra day charge that was on the original contract.

The attitude of these companies was that there was nothing we could do but accept whatever was offered, no matter how unreasonable it may be. And maybe that is indeed the case, but I certainly hope not. Can you help us?

— Eileen Simeone

A: I’m sure you’ve heard of Murphy’s Law, the rule that says anything that can go wrong, will. Well, if Murphy ever took a vacation, it would have been a lot like yours. You were probably happy to get back home after that ordeal.

United Airlines made a mistake by booking you on the wrong flight home, but when you discovered the error, it tried to make things right. Problem was, you were trying to fly during one of the busiest summers in the history of aviation, so when you were told there was no room, chances are there really wasn’t.

Not to let United off the hook. I think the fact that your reservations didn’t go through the second time suggests someone at United is asleep at the joystick. Good thing you found a compassionate ticket agent to make things right.

The Hertz manager you spoke with could have been more understanding. Why wasn’t he? I think the fact that you rented a convertible might have had something to do with it. He probably believed you could afford the extra charges, but were returning the car to another location because it was inconvenient – despite your assurances to the contrary.

Incidentally, a one-way rental costs more because the company has to transport the car back to its original location. During that time, the car can’t be rented, so the company is losing potential revenue.

Let’s not forget your role in this disaster, either. If you’d taken the time to check your reservation, then most of this could have been avoided.

Next time, remember to check your reservations before you leave. And if a car rental company raises your price – which, by the way, it’s entitled to do when you break a contract – then you need to let the company know about your dissatisfaction. Don’t allow an agent to tell you there’s nothing that can be done because you’re renting a convertible. There’s always something that can be done.

Since the extra costs to you were incurred through Hertz, that’s where I took your grievance. Hertz looked into your case and agreed that you didn’t receive the level of service you should have. As a gesture of good will, it processed an adjustment of $186.60 to your credit card, reflecting a 30 percent credit off the base rate of the rental.