By Travel columnist
updated 3/21/2006 2:09:00 PM ET 2006-03-21T19:09:00

Hurricane Wilma closed down her hotel in Cancun, forcing Jean Fagan to cancel her vacation. But despite promises to send her a refund, Travelocity is dragging its feet. Why does it take six months for Fagan to get her money back from an online agency? And what can be done to speed up the process?

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Q: Last summer, a week before Hurricane Wilma hit Cancun, we made reservations through Travelocity for a vacation in Mexico in December. We paid $4,153, which included a travel protection insurance policy.

The next week, the storm damaged our hotel. I called Travelocity to find out what would happen to our reservation, and was told it was too early to know how the problem would be handled.

I called our airline, America West, and was told we’d be allowed to change our flight dates to any time within the next year; moreover, if we rebooked before November 15, our change fee would be waived.

In late October, Travelocity e-mailed us, telling us our airline had “recently made a change to your flight.” America West called a few days later, saying our flight to Cancun had been canceled.

Although America West offered us a full refund, Travelocity indicated there would be a “cancellation penalty” of $1,716.68. Later, by phone, a representative told me to ignore the penalty, as it would not apply to our situation.

However, when I inquired about the discrepancy later, another representative gave me a different story. Now we were to receive a “credit with the airline.” This sounded strange, since America West had already told us that it had refunded the cost of our airline tickets to Travelocity.

After many calls to Travelocity, and after speaking with countless customer service representatives, I have finally been promised a refund. But so far, nothing. Will I ever get my money back?

— Jean Fagan, Tucson, Ariz.

A: I’m surprised that Travelocity still has your cash after nearly half a year.

I’ve always said that the travel industry is quick to take your money and slow to return it. But six months? Come on.

What makes this even more difficult to believe is that Travelocity recently unveiled a high-profile “Customer Championship” campaign designed to prevent service lapses like this from happening.

If the system had worked the way it was supposed to — and I think no one at Travelocity would disagree with me here — then a customer service representative would have made it his personal mission to ensure you got your refund as quickly as possible.

Instead, by your account, the new Travelocity acted very much like the old Travelocity: more reactive than proactive and more bureaucratic than streamlined.

I think “Customer Championship” is a terrific idea and Travelocity should be applauded for undertaking it. But there is more work to be done. In fact, the latest numbers from the American Customer Satisfaction Index, released by the University of Michigan, seem to suggest that Travelocity’s initiative hasn’t gained the traction that the company hoped it would. The online agency’s ratings dropped by one point, to 75, from a year ago. (Expedia led the pack with a score of 79).

When will the online agencies learn that their customers are not in the business of lending them money? And make no mistake, that’s exactly what you’ve done: Against your will, you have extended an interest-free loan to Travelocity for the better part of six months.

That practice has to end. If a travel company takes your money in a few seconds, it can return it in a few seconds, too.

How could you have prevented this long-running fiasco? I think a politely worded e-mail to Travelocity’s customer service department might have gotten you quicker results — especially if you invoked its “Travelocity Guarantee,” which promises, among other things, that “everything about your booking will be right, or we’ll work with our partners to make it right, right away.” You can find Travelocity’s guarantee on its Web site.

After I contacted Travelocity on your behalf, it issued you a prompt refund.

Christopher Elliott is National Geographic Traveler's ombudsman and a nationally syndicated columnist who specializes in solving your travel problems. Got a trip that needs fixing? Send him a note or visit his Web site. Your question may be published in a future story. Want to sound off about a story? Try visiting Elliott's forum.

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