A Hotwire bait-and-switch

by Christopher Elliott on February 1, 2004

Q: I recently booked roundtrip tickets from Anchorage to Phoenix on Hotwire. But I made a mistake when I bought the tickets – I was actually leaving from Phoenix.

I called Hotwire and asked if I could just change the ticket. I was told it would cost me another $198 per ticket. I used my American Express card for the purchase, so I thought I could dispute the charge since I was not going to be able to use the tickets.

I understand that I was asked to check and accept the transaction before buying the tickets. That’s my mistake. But should I have to take an $800 loss?

I bought another ticket from Hotwire from Phoenix to Anchorage then and waited until the credit-card dispute went through American Express. I thought I would get my money back because I was acting in a timely manner, but American Express sided with Hotwire.

I wrote to Hotwire to see if there I could get something for the $800, but have heard nothing back. Can you help?

– William Shubin

A: You’re right, Hotwire’s tickets are totally nonrefundable. But it’s a little-known fact that the site will allow a one-time change to your airline ticket if you’ve made an honest mistake.

So why wouldn’t Hotwire fix your tickets?

Because the reverse itinerary from Phoenix to Anchorage cost $198 more than the one you had mistakenly purchased. That’s not Hotwire’s fault. Airlines set fares according to demand, and your carrier estimated that more passengers wanted to fly from Phoenix to Anchorage than the other way around.

According to Hotwire spokeswoman Amy Bohutinsky, Hotwire offered to make the change you requested, but it had to charge you the fare difference. “Mr. Shubin told our agent he did not want to pay this price, and he planned to dispute the charges with American Express,” she added.

So with Hotwire unable to refund the tickets, and you unwilling to pay the fare difference, your case went to the old credit-card dispute showdown. And guess who won? Hotwire, of course.

Although Bohutinsky says Hotwire felt you made an honest mistake, she pointed out that you made three additional bookings about 20 minutes after the first one between Phoenix and Anchorage. I’m not sure what that means, other than that you like Hotwire’s prices more than you do its policies.

Next time you book a flight using one of the so-called “opaque” travel sites (Hotwire or Priceline) pay close attention to your city pairs – your departure and arrival city – and only click the “book” button if you’re absolutely, positively sure you’ve got the right itinerary. A site like Hotwire is willing to work with you if you make a simple booking error, but it won’t swallow the cost of a more expensive ticket and it won’t give you your money back.

Unfortunately, that’s what Hotwire did with your tickets. I’m afraid the $800 is lost.

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