By Christopher Elliott Travel columnist
Tribune Media Services
updated 1/18/2007 11:59:29 AM ET 2007-01-18T16:59:29
TRAVEL TROUBLESHOOTER

Q: My husband recently found a $644 fare on a one-way airline ticket from Boston to Moscow through Onetravel.com. After several unsuccessful attempts to make a reservation with his credit card, he called the online agency and was told that there was a problem completing the transaction.

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Our bank said that the credit card was working just fine. But with only three seats left on the plane, we had to find a way of paying for the flight quickly.

A company representative suggested we wire the money by Western Union. We did.

Later that day, we received e-mail from Onetravel.com saying that the fare we had been quoted wasn’t available, and that the flight would actually cost us $2,000. Meanwhile, they still had the $644 fare advertised on the site.

We asked for our money back, but Onetravel.com told us that it needed to do some “research” to find out if we are eligible for a refund. If we were, we would get the money back in a couple of months. I don’t think I should have to wait that long. Can you help me?
— Paulina Maguire, Moscow

A: Your money should be refunded immediately, no questions asked.

What is there to research? Your husband’s record should leave no doubt that he tried to pay for a ticket that wasn’t available. Case closed.

The reason Onetravel.com can offer cheaper tickets is that it buys them in bulk from airlines. These so-called ticket consolidators, which take advantage of volume discounts, sometimes handle their inventory differently from travel agents who buy their tickets one at a time. That makes it possible to run out of tickets that are still being advertised on the Web.

In other words, while this certainly looks like a bait-and-switch — and from your perspective, probably is — I don’t think Onetravel.com was doing this to your husband intentionally. Any company that did wouldn’t stay in business for long.

You and your husband made two mistakes. First, you allowed yourself to be seduced by a deal. Did you really think you couldn’t find a comparable price, or at least a competitive price, on a ticket through an agency that could accept your credit card?

When you make a major purchase like an airline ticket, you have to be clear-headed. If someone tells you there are only three tickets left, then the warning bells should be going off. If they tell you that you have to wire them money, you shouldn’t walk away — you should run.

Sending cash was your second error. Let me be perfectly clear about this: When it comes to travel, never, ever, pay in cash. Your credit card can protect you in case something goes wrong, but once the cash is out the door, you’re at the company’s mercy for a refund.

I contacted Onetravel.com on your behalf, and it wired the money back to you almost immediately.

Christopher Elliot is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine. E-mail him at chris@elliott.org, or troubleshoot your trip through his Web site, http://www.csr.elliott.org

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

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