By Christopher Elliott Travel columnist
msnbc.com contributor
updated 3/31/2009 10:53:19 AM ET 2009-03-31T14:53:19
travel troubleshooter

Q: We've been ripped off royally by an Internet travel agency and need your help. My husband and I took a trip to Grand Cayman a few months ago for our fifth anniversary.

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We booked the trip through an agency called Changes in L'attitudes, which was based in Tampa, Fla. We paid with our credit card.

About two weeks after our stay at the Grand Cayman Beach Suites, we got a call from someone at the resort. Our travel agency never paid for our stay. We were being asked to pay for the hotel again.

According to the hotel, we had signed a form saying if the travel agency did not pay for the booking, that we would be responsible. The property then applied a $1,488 charge to our Citibank MasterCard.

I have tried contacting the travel agency, but the Web site is no longer available and it doesn't have a connected phone line. I've since found out that the agency went out of business, keeping customers' money instead of paying for rooms and airline tickets.

I disputed my charges with MasterCard, but it sided with the bankrupt travel agency. Can you help?
— Nanci Moll, Oklahoma City

A: MasterCard should have sided with you. The card you used offers a number of security features and terms that should have made this an open-and-shut case in your favor.

Shouldn't there be a law against being double-billed? As a matter of fact, there is. Under the Fair Credit Billing Act, which protects consumers from fraudulent credit card charges, you aren't liable for charges for goods and services you didn't accept or weren't delivered as agreed. Here's an excerpt: http://www.ftc.gov/bcp/edu/pubs/consumer/credit/cre16.shtm.

The Grand Cayman Beach Suites should have mentioned the payment problem to you either before you checked in but no later than the time you checked out. When you leave the hotel and receive your final bill, it's reasonable to expect a late charge only if you ran up an incidental charge, like a minibar snack.

The resort could have also offered a discounted rate, particularly if it knew you were going to pay twice for the same room.

You might have been able to avoid paying twice by pushing back when the hotel asked for more money. MasterCard allows late charges of up to 15 percent of the transaction for a hotel, cruise line or car rental company, but if it exceeds that amount, it must ask your bank's permission. In other words, your hotel couldn't arbitrarily charge you again without approval.

But ultimately, I think Citibank's dispute resolution department fell asleep when your case crossed its desk. Obviously, you had already paid for your vacation. What happens between your travel agency and hotel isn't your problem. That's the whole reason you pay for your vacation with MasterCard — to be protected from this kind of internecine squabble.

When Citibank sided with the bankrupt travel agency, you should have appealed its decision.

I contacted Citibank on your behalf. A representative phoned you and told you that things were "not handled quite right" and that you were being credited $1,488 for your hotel stay.

Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine. You can read more travel tips on his blog, elliott.org or e-mail him at celliott@ngs.org.

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