Stranded in San Francisco


Q: I used Orbitz to purchase three seats for a flight on America West from San Francisco to Boston. The tickets were for my wife, our infant daughter and me.

At the time I booked the flights, Orbitz charged me the same price for the separate infant seat as the adult ones. After repeatedly beginning a new reservation only to get the same result, I booked the tickets.

After making the purchase I called Orbitz to get the fare for the infant seat adjusted. The representative informed me this was “an America West issue” and provided me with the airline’s toll-free number. I then called America West. Their representative said it was something “on Orbitz’s end,” however, she did promise to talk with Orbitz while she kept me on the other line. She returned every few minutes to give me an update on what Orbitz was saying.

Minutes later, the America West agent returned to say that the whole matter was straightened out. Orbitz would make the adjustment to the fare for the infant seat (she said my daughter’s ticket came out to $108.35 after the adjustment, instead of approximately $222 for an adult seat) and that Orbitz had even gone so far as to credit us the service fee on the infant ticket.

Flash forward to the day of our trip. We arrived at the San Francisco airport, first to find that our flight was scheduled to depart at 8 a.m, not the 8:50 a.m. listed by Orbitz. And second, that our tickets had been voided.

According to the record provided to me by the America West ticket agent, Orbitz “courtesy canceled” our tickets and claimed to have informed the America West agent on the line with me that we needed to re-book the tickets to get the cheaper fare.

Remarkably, we were able to purchase walk-up tickets on United for $416.70 roundtrip for the two adults and $217.70 for our daughter. However, because of all the time it took arguing are case in vain with the America West ticket counter, we had to settle for a flight that left roughly three hours later. That meant we arrived in Boston too late to catch the last puddle-jumper from Boston to our final destination, Provincetown.

As a result, we rented a car in Boston and drove to our final destination on the Cape.

After we returned, I contacted Orbitz and America West by mail, fax and phone requesting that they reimburse me for the difference in the price of the tickets we should have had on America West and those we ended up purchasing on United, along with the cost of the rental car, gas and tolls. All told, this came to a little more than $600.

Here’s a surprise: each blamed the other guy for this game of telephone, and both declined to compensate us in any way. In fact, Orbitz didn’t even apologize for the inconvenience, even after I painted a dramatic picture of entertaining a bucking 17-month-old, who had been up since 5 am, in the airport for several hours.

So who’s to blame?

— Steven Birenbaum

A: The buck stops with your travel agent. Period.

I’ll probably get a lot of hate mail from travel agents for saying that. But isn’t that what you’re paying an intermediary for – to make sure your trip goes smoothly? If you didn’t need an agent, you’d just go directly to the airline Web site.

Unfortunately, what happened to you isn’t unusual. Agents (yes, even Web-based agents like Orbitz) aren’t always perfect. And everyone likes to play the blame game, particularly airlines.

The America West agent shouldn’t have told you everything was taken care of when it wasn’t. Plus, any properly trained customer-service agent would have followed up to make sure the reservations were in the system, as specified, after Orbitz was done working on your itinerary.

That apparently didn’t happen.

Orbitz failed you in two ways. First, according to a customer service agent who you spoke with during the dispute resolution process, the site didn’t support standard discounting for infant seats when you booked your tickets.

Second, Orbitz voided your tickets but then relied on America West to tell you. It shouldn’t have done that.

Orbitz is changing its policy to make sure that from now on, customers are contacted whenever a ticket is voided by the agency, according to a company representative who contacted you.

You could have easily prevented this from happening by following up with Orbitz after the tickets were supposedly changed.

But more important, you could have – and should have – spotted the error earlier by calling to confirm your flight. Checking your reservation would have tipped you off to the fact that your flight had been rescheduled, and indeed, that you didn’t have reservations at all.

We have a saying in journalism: If your mother tells you she loves you, check it out. In travel, if your agent tells you the tickets are taken care of, check it out.

Orbitz took the highly unusual step of crediting you $607.13, citing your unique situation. I think it did the right thing.