How to handle online travel purchases gone bad
The round-trip airfare from Brussels to New York on the European online travel site eDreams was 337 Euros — until Alisa Schlossberg clicked on the “buy” button. Then it jumped to 592 Euros, creating an eNightmare.
Schlossberg, a software consultant who lives in Antwerp, Belgium, thought it was a simple misunderstanding. “After all, I had purchased, paid and received a confirmation from the site,” she says.
But that’s not the way eDreams saw it. “Unfortunately, your ticket fare expired when we tried to issue your booking and the fare went up in 251 Euros,” Luis Alberdi, a company spokesman, wrote to her after I asked about her ticket. “We do apologize for any inconvenience caused by it.”
Can an online travel agency do that? Yes. And more of them are, to hear travelers like Schlossberg and others talk about it. At a time when more tickets, hotel rooms and rental cars than ever are being booked online, frustrations with the booking process are growing.
The complaints can be divided into several broad categories:
Bait and switch. You thought you’d locked in a price, but were asked to pay more. Either surcharges and fees were added, or the ticket was completely re-priced.
Double booking. Your Web browser freezes during the booking process, you page back and make a reservation, only to find you’re now the proud owner of two nonrefundable reservations.
Sleight of hand. The site offers a ticket or hotel room, but once you try to book, you find out the tickets are gone. If you’re buying a vacation package, the site may offer you an alternate destination — usually at a higher price.
What’s going on here? There are two explanations: one put forth by the travel industry, and the other by irritated consumers.
“This predates the Internet,” explains Chicago-based online consultant Bruce Mainzer. He says the reservations systems used by travel agents showed the airline seats and hotel rooms in real time. When more than one person tried to book the same item, the system accepted one request and rejected the other.
“As more and more consumers started accessing these same computerized reservation systems through the Internet, they are getting the same type of mixed signals when they go to book,” he says. “The last seat may have been grabbed by someone else.”
Another theory — so far unproven — is that the Web sites, far from being helpless victims, are leveraging technology to squeeze every last dollar from travelers. Customers contend that Web sites use so-called “cookies” (the crumbs of information you leave behind when you visit a site) to control virtually every aspect of the booking experience. Based on that data, sites can display a higher or lower price or even deny the sale.
Consider what happened when Melissa Gomez tried to buy an air and hotel package through one of the major online travel agencies recently. “After I filled out all the information and gave my credit card, the transaction could not be processed,” she remembers. “After three failed attempts, I had to call customer service.” The agency charged her an extra $25 for making the reservation by phone. Why didn’t the sale go through? A representative told Gomez the airline inventory wasn’t “up to date” on the site. But were they really just trying to make an extra $25?
Whether these failed online bookings are innocent hiccups from an overloaded reservations system or secretive efforts to cash in on our technology ignorance, the real question is: How do we deal with it?
I asked experts for their opinions.
Don’t give up
Sometimes it really is just a glitch, nothing more. Try to search for the fare or hotel room again, and if that doesn’t work, phone the online travel agency, says Rob Kall, president of Bookt, a Web services provider to the hotel and vacation rental industry. “If you don’t have any luck,” he adds, “try the hotel or airline directly.”