Burned by Hotwire

by Christopher Elliott on December 7, 2003

Q: I recently tried to buy an airline ticket on Hotwire for a friend. I have made many purchases through the site and feel pretty comfortable with the screens. But as I was making the booking, I looked at the date and realized it was incorrect. I immediately called the company.

A representative I spoke with couldn’t find my reservation. She asked me to look at the bottom of the screen and see if the purchase button was still there. She indicated that I had not made a purchase, so there was no issue. I was signed onto my e-mail account and there was no itinerary – she said that everything was fine.

But when I signed on to my e-mail later, there was an itinerary from Hotwire. They kept indicating that the ticket was non-refundable. I understand that they have policies in place, but I feel I was given incorrect information from one of their representatives. Is there anything you can do?

– Saori Takayoshi

A: A site like Hotwire can sometimes be a frustrating place to buy airline tickets, because there’s a perception that if you book one of its nonrefundable fares, it’s a done deal. And usually, that’s true – if you think your plans might change, don’t even consider buying from a so-called “opaque” site.

But what makes your story unique is that you caught your mistake, called the company and were told you didn’t have a reservation – when, in fact, you did. What’s going on here?

I contacted Amy Bohutinsky, a company representative, to find out. But I never received a response to my inquiry.

Right about now, you’re probably expecting me to start ranting and foaming at the mouth and wishing Hotwire would just shut down. (And after what happened last week, I wouldn’t blame you.) But I assumed that my first e-mail slipped through the cracks – after all, it’s the holidays – so I sent another one.

This time, Bohutinsky replied.

As far as Hotwire can tell, here’s what happened: The customer representative’s note regarding your call suggests that you were given “misinformation” (her words there, not mine) and if you’d called back, your problem could have been fixed. But Hotwire’s records indicate you never phoned the company after discovering the error.

Bohutinsky told me one of Hotwire’s best-kept secrets is that it doesn’t expect us to be perfect. If you screw up a reservation, there’s an unspoken policy that a customer-service rep will fix it for you. “Every customer is allowed one ‘free’ rebooking if they make a mistake with dates, etc., and call immediately after purchase,” she told me.

Too bad your friend’s flight had long since departed by the time we solved your problem.

So what to do? If you’ve been following this Web site lately, you could be forgiven for thinking I would fill my blog with invectives about Hotwire’s ineptness (“Stories like this make me wish …”). Or maybe I would criticize its parent company for letting something like this happen.

Well, don’t believe everything you read.

Without any arm-twisting at all, Hotwire offered you a full refund on your ticket. I wish the site had responded to you the first time I contacted it – but I also wish you had called Hotwire when you got the erroneous confirmation e-mail.

I guess no one is perfect.

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