Pick up the phone, pay twice the price

by Christopher Elliott on September 30, 2008

Question: Is there a difference between the price you pay for an airline ticket online, compared with offline? I recently tried to buy a ticket for my mother on Expedia. She wanted to visit my brother in North Carolina, who was on life-support.

I kept getting to the end of the process and it would not let me fully complete the transaction. The online price for her round-trip ticket from Tucson, Ariz., to Fayetteville, NC, was $490.

I called Expedia’s customer support number. A representative tried to “help” me by charging $1,123 for the identical ticket. I asked why there was such a huge price difference, and was told that I must have been looking at the one-way fare. I reluctantly accepted this answer.

The next day, I went back online to check prices, since my wife would also need to fly to North Carolina. Now the round-trip fare was $415 on Expedia — a $708 price difference. I called Expedia, and it told me I should contact the airline. I e-mailed the company, and it responded with a ridiculous form letter about how to save on airfares in the future. Can you help us get our money back? — Joseph Dunlap, Tucson, Ariz.

Answer: Ticket prices can fluctuate — and yes, they might vary between online and offline — but I’ve never heard of a fare doubling in a matter of minutes in the way you describe. I think someone, somewhere, hit the wrong button.

Was it Expedia? Maybe. When your online reservation didn’t go through, you basically had to start from scratch, and it’s possible that the agent didn’t look very hard for a low fare. The fact that you were able to return to Expedia the next day and find an even less expensive price suggests that something went wrong when you worked with Expedia’s representative.

Then again, it could have been you. You mentioned that you kept getting to the end of the process and then having the site stall. That normally happens when you input the wrong credit card information, like a wrong number or expiration.

Calling Expedia was a good idea. First, you want to make sure that the online agency didn’t process your transaction without telling you. Otherwise, you would have made a multiple booking, and there’s no easy way out of it. And second, you want to see if Expedia can honor the fare it quoted you online.

Reluctantly accepting that story about the one-way fare? Bad idea.

You had to have known that you were looking at round-trip fares. In a situation like this, you could have hung up the phone, restarted your computer and rebooked your tickets through another online agency.

If I didn’t know any better, I would believe you were uncomfortable with using the Internet to buy travel. Which is completely fine. The next time you buy airline tickets, I would recommend using a human travel agent, in order to avoid any misunderstandings.

The form letter Expedia sent to you was unacceptable. I would have appealed this to a higher authority. Here are a few helpful contacts. Many online agencies tape their customer service calls, and if the agent to whom you spoke gave you inaccurate information, I think Expedia might have changed its answer.

I contacted Expedia on your behalf, and it apologized for your experience and refunded $300 to your credit card.

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  • Frank

    Another example of……..why TRAVEL AGENTS are travel professionals.

    Websites have enabled the flyer to not only plan, but purchase their itinerary online. By doing so, you accept the responsibility of what you click on and purchase.
    The problem I find with these sites, Expedia, is that when something goes wrong, they pass the blame to the airline. Or visa versa.

    Years ago, my brother booked a weekend trip to the Bahama’s. Upon arriving in Freeport, he tried to locate the HOTEL that came with the package for the weekend. To his surprise, it wasnt in FREEPORT. It was on another Island.
    He located another hotel, paid out of his own pocket and spent HOURS on the PHONE trying to remedy the mistake. Typical, airline versus Travel site wouldnt accept blame.

    Good Article and thorough response, Mr Elliot. =)

  • specialagent

    Good advice!!! I had a client today who called me about a ticket I did for them 2 weeks ago. She just got around to looking at the e-tkt I sent to her. She told me that I had booked the wrong return date. I looked back through my notes, (all good travel agents keep notes), and sure enough, I had booked the wrong date.
    Who paid the change fees? I did!! Even though we have in bold print to please reconfirm the itinerary and let us know within 24 hours if it is not correct.
    If that would have happened on the phone with the airlines or Expedia or Orbitz, the customer would be paying for the mistake. A good agent will make it right.
    The customer is always right!!!

  • Joe Farrell

    Ah Frank. Travel agents are whole nuther source of incompetence.

    Most of you know us until the check clears – then its our problem.

    I cannot tell you how many times agents have not paid attention, and either screwed reservations or did not complete them properly, or, booked a far in coach that was higher than the first class fare. This was back in the old days when they were paid a commission. . . . it has not gotten any better.

  • http://www.singleparenttravel.net John F

    Joe, I see you are still on the anti-agent binge. Has it occurred to you that the experiences you claim to have experienced may have been intentional?

  • Frank

    On September 30th, 2008 at 2:01 pm Joe Farrell said Ah Frank. Travel agents are whole nuther source of incompetence.
    Most of you know us until the check clears – then its our problem.
    =========================================================

    A GOOD TRAVEL AGENT would of avoided this mess IN THE FIRST PLACE. A GOOD TRAVEL AGENT is knowledgeable on ticketing issues and keeps up on the industry changes, etc. And, I bet, a GOOD TRAVEL AGENT has contacts within some airline companies…..ie. sales reps to resolve complaints. This person thought an EMAIL would resolve the issue. Wishful thinking.

    Back in the commission days, I worked with many GOOD TRAVEL AGENTS via a Reservations job. Many worked very HARD to accommodate their clients. Joe, I find your comment to be an exception, not the rule.

  • Bill

    Although I would like to side with Frank and John, the truth is that good travel agents are hard to find.

    The travel agent industry does a poor job of filtering the incompetents out.

    Every few years, I give it a shot by trying this travel agency or another, and I am seldom disppointed. More often than not, when there is a problem I’ve encountered when using a travel agent, I’ve been stuck paying to fix it as they do not generally take ownership of the problem.

    I know there must be good travel agents out there, but I never run into them, I suspect they are too busy. However, they have to stop letting people who barely know anything about travel run the terminals.

    The last time I had an issue with a travel agent being a complete idiot, it was in fact the manager of the travel agency. Their home office offered me a credit for the next time I used their agency, which was nice of them, but I declined, preferring to be far away from the place.

    I then went to another travel agency where the agent was completely unfamiliar with well known travel products to obscure places like London.

    They need to cull the herd.

  • Frank

    On October 1st, 2008 at 1:06 am Bill said Although I would like to side with Frank and John, the truth is that good travel agents are hard to find.
    ==========================================================

    Maybe it’s the location? I live in NEW YORK CITY and dealt with many of these agents over the phones. Confirming fares, ticketing rules. Building itineraries that dealt with foreign currencies. Checking waitlisted flights. Booking vacations, car rentals, etc.
    In fact, my FIRST CALL was from a travel agent. She blurted out her clients name, asked me to pull up the record, separate one person from it, cancel the return. A few seconds later, she says, “done?” I said, “one moment, please. It’s my first day on the job”. She demanded another Reservations agent.
    That’s also your choice when you walk into an agency. ASK for the most experienced one. You’re intelligence level with travel seems high, Bill. I have no doubt that you compare it with those you’re willing to do business with.

    What exactly did you have to pay for to fix it? And, you actually got CREDIT for your inconvenience in another case. The same thing an airline will do for you, issue compensation.

  • Bodega

    I suggest that Chris Elliott makes an appointment with John F to learn more about this industry before he writes another column. Fares change several times a day, so it is possible for a fare to double in the matter of minutes. I have been in the process of issuing a ticket and have had the process stopped because the fare stored, just a minute earlier, is now hundreds of dollars higher. Airline fares are like the stock market, they go up and down constantly.

    I am sorry that one poster has had issues with local travel agencies and their agents.. I appears that many also have issues with online bookings, too.

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