By Travel columnist
updated 3/21/2006 2:17:41 PM ET 2006-03-21T19:17:41

When Carolyn Curtis tries to buy a bargain airfare through 1-800-Fly4Less, she's in for a few surprises. First her credit card doesn't work, and then she finds several mysterious fees on two of her credit cards. Where did these charges come from -- and how can she get rid of them?

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Q: I recently called 1-800-Fly4Less to find the lowest fare from Portland, Ore., to Phoenix. The phone was answered by an agent named Sunny in New Delhi, who assured me I could find the best price through her.

After some searching, she offered me a $218 round-trip fare on Alaska Airlines, and I decided to book it. I gave Sunny my credit card number and waited. Sunny said the card wasn’t going through and suggested that I try another credit card. I gave her another number, assuming that the first transaction had been voided.

I was surprised and concerned that the first card didn’t work, so I called my credit card company. That’s when I discovered a $218 charge from Alaska Airlines on my card, plus five charges of $29.95 from a travel agency for a total of $267.75.

Then I called the second credit card company. There were two charges on it: $29 and $17 from Carlson Leisure, the travel agency that owns Fly4Less.

When I phoned Alaska Airlines, I was told I’d be charged $50 if I canceled my flight.

After talking to a lot of people over the last couple of days, I decided to cancel both credit cards to protect them from fraudulent usage. And Alaska Airlines finally let me cancel my reservation without a fee. But I’d like to get my money back.

Can you help me?

— Carolyn Curtis, St. Helens, Ore.

A: The fare you’re quoted on the phone should be the fare you’re charged, obviously. It looks like something went very wrong with your reservation.

Even before talking to the company, it was clear to me that you were dealing with several different problems. First, you were booking through an offshore reservations agent, and that can sometimes be challenging in itself. Second, your first credit card transaction didn’t process as quickly as expected (although we don’t know whether the fault for that lay with your credit card company or with Fly4Less). Finally, you weren’t told — or didn’t understand — that there would be a booking fee involved in your transaction.

After talking with the company, it seems there were other issues as well.

“Because there was trouble in getting the first card to go through, the credit card company showed multiple attempts for authorization,” explained Steve Loucks, a spokesman for Fly4Less. “However, just one charge went through for $29.95.”

I don’t know whether Sunny told you about the service fee, but she should have. That fee is assessed on top of the cost of your ticket to cover the cost of reserving the ticket through the travel agency.

When the second card was used, another $29.95 service charge was automatically assessed, which was an error. So, in fact you ended up with two unexpected charges for $29.95 — not as bad as you first thought, but still an unpleasant surprise if you thought you would be billed only for the cost of the ticket.

Your reaction to these seemingly fraudulent charges is completely normal. But had you called Fly4Less back and explained the situation, it might have acknowledged its error and reversed the charges. Your credit card company could also have done a better job explaining that several of the apparent charges would not in fact go through (I’ve come across phantom charges on my own credit card statement, and they usually disappear after a couple of days).

Fly4Less apologized to you for the misunderstanding, reversed all the charges and offered you a free ticket to Phoenix for your trouble.

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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