By Christopher Elliott Travel columnist
Tribune Media Services
updated 12/7/2006 7:31:38 PM ET 2006-12-08T00:31:38

Q: Last Christmas, I bought three $500 gift certificates on Northwest Airlines for my son. But during my purchase, I neglected to print the first certificate when it was on my screen (I was able to print the other two).

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Normally, when you buy something online you get a confirmation e-mail. But after I bought the certificates, the e-mail never arrived. I thought maybe the first transaction didn’t go through, but when my credit card statement arrived, it showed that all three transactions were paid for. But I only had two certificates.

I’ve tried to get this resolved by calling Northwest Airlines. Every time I do, I end up in voicemail hell, at the end of which I’m just referred back to the airline’s Web site. I’ve left several electronic messages and have never received an answer.

It’s been more than eight months, and I am about to write the $500 off as bad debt. Is there anything you can do?
— Myron Anderson, Woodbury, Minn.

A: Don’t write anything off just yet. That $500 belongs to you, and there’s no reason to let Northwest keep your hard-earned money.

You should have been able to print the gift certificates the first time around at a time of your choosing. And when you weren’t, the airline should have been able to help you retrieve the certificate after a quick phone call instead of sending you on an eight-month voicemail odyssey.

It looks as if the problem was part human error, part computer error. After you buy a Northwest certificate, a voucher is generated that needs to be printed out immediately. Instead of hitting the “print” button, you closed the window. That was your mistake.

And Northwest? According to your correspondence with the airline, once you closed the window, it had no way of tracking your gift certificate. It basically disappeared into cyberspace.

Obviously, things didn’t go as they were supposed to. Northwest should have been able to track your certificates and help you print a replacement voucher. At the very least, you should have been able to show Northwest your credit card statement as proof that you had purchased the vouchers. The system didn’t work for you.

Don’t ever let a company put you on “hold” for eight months again. Hang up the phone, call back the main number, and ask for a real person (usually you just hit the “0” key). If the person who answers can’t help, ask for a supervisor. And if the supervisor can’t help, start contacting executives (a full list is on my customer service Web site).

I asked Northwest to look into your missing voucher. A representative phoned you promptly and within a few minutes, you were issued the missing $500 certificate.

Christopher Elliot is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine. E-mail him at, or troubleshoot your trip through his Web site,

© 2006 Christopher Elliott ... Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.


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