By Christopher Elliott Travel columnist
Tribune Media Services
updated 12/2/2008 9:49:58 AM ET 2008-12-02T14:49:58
travel troubleshooter

Q: After much work and desperation and reading your column faithfully, I have come to the conclusion that you are my only hope.

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A few months ago, just before my wedding, my fiance and his best man went to Las Vegas for his bachelor party. He had purchased a package deal through Yahoo Travel that included a stay at the MGM Grand hotel and round-trip airfare on Spirit Airlines for both of them.

But when they got to the airport, there was no one at the ticket counter. After a little bit of research, they learned that there were no flights to Vegas on Spirit Airlines that night. When my fiance contacted Yahoo from the airport, they informed him that Spirit Airlines had stopped flying from Atlanta to Las Vegas. He was never told that or sent an e-mail regarding that fact.

He was told to pay for a flight on AirTran Airways to Las Vegas and they would secure his return flight. They told him that he would need to contact Yahoo Travel when he returned to get reimbursement for the plane ticket. They paid $539 for two one-way tickets.

Once he returned, he contacted Yahoo by phone and was given a case ID number. They told him to e-mail the information to them and they would get back in touch with him. He did just that. No one got back in touch with him, so he called again. Yahoo told him that they had to wait for Spirit Airlines to return the money to them so that they can return the money to us.

It's been four months, and there's no sign of the money. We could use whatever help and advice you can give to us.
— Christina Stansbury, Columbus, Ga.

A: Yahoo Travel should have told your fiance about the flight changes.

When he made his reservation, he gave the site his e-mail address and phone number. If he received an e-mail confirmation from the online agency the first time, then it's reasonable to assume the second email — the one saying his flight to Las Vegas had been canceled — made it as well.

Unless it was never sent.

I'm willing to bet it wasn't. That's because the domestic airlines, which are expected to cut their routes by an unprecedented 15 percent in the coming months, have been less than forthcoming about their flight changes. I can't really blame them; it's easy to forget something when you're slashing your schedules every day.

All of which doesn't absolve Yahoo of its failure to notify your fiance of his flight changes. Yahoo, whose reservations are handled by Travelocity, has the means to track schedule changes. Why are you working with an online travel agent in the first place? One reason is that you'll be taken care of when something goes wrong.

Of course that doesn't absolve your fiance of not checking with Spirit or Yahoo to confirm his flight. If he had bothered to call a day before he was scheduled to leave, Yahoo could have found another flight and prevented him from having to buy a new ticket.

At a time like this, when airline schedules are in a constant state of change, my advice is not just to call 24 hours before departure, but also two weeks before you're scheduled to leave. Why? Because if your flight is rescheduled and you don't like it, you can ask for a refund and still qualify for a reasonably-priced advance purchase fare. Try doing that a day before you leave, and you're talking big bucks.

Yahoo was wrong to make you wait until it received its money back from Spirit. I've heard of airlines taking two to three months, and in extreme cases, up to a year, to issue a refund. Yahoo and Travelocity don't want to give an airline an interest-free loan, but why should their customers?

You might have appealed directly to Travelocity when your first complaint got you nowhere. I contacted Yahoo Travel, which got in touch with Travelocity, which in turn offered your fiance an immediate refund of the AirTran ticket.

Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine and the host of “What You Get For The Money: Vacations” on the Fine Living Network. E-mail him at celliott@ngs.org.

© 2008 Christopher Elliott ... Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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