By Christopher Elliott Travel columnist
Tribune Media Services
updated 4/13/2010 1:52:23 PM ET 2010-04-13T17:52:23
travel troubleshooter

Q: I recently disputed a charge on my credit card from United Airlines and lost. I need your help getting a refund.

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Here's what happened: I charged an airline ticket on my Discover card, but I had problems with my seat assignment, so I called the airline to fix it. When I received my bill, there was a separate charge for $35 on it from United with an explanation that I had bought flight insurance. But I never bought flight insurance.

I tried to contact United, but it is impossible to speak to anyone and if you can, you are speaking with people in India who don't have command of the English language. It's very frustrating.

I sent a letter to United and Discover, disputing the charge. Discover removed the charge, but later reinstated it because United sent a letter stating it was a legitimate charge and that I knew about it. I sent another letter to United and never received a response.

So my response is this: I will never fly on United again, unless I absolutely have no other option. — Angie Zimmerman, El Dorado Hills, Calif.

A: United shouldn't have billed you for insurance you didn't buy. Except, I'm not entirely convinced you were paying for insurance. At the time you bought your ticket, the major airlines were charging anywhere between $5 and $35 just to make a reservation by phone. It's possible that by calling United, you incurred such a fee, but that it was mislabeled as insurance.

You did the right thing by protesting the charge, but phone calls to an airline are pretty much pointless unless your flight is imminent. An email to United through its site would have been far more effective. If that didn't work, you could have taken your case up the food chain to a supervisor. I publish a list of them on my Web site.

I'm surprised that Discover shrugged off your dispute. Your credit card company is supposed to represent your interests, not the airline's. Unless the airline was able to furnish the credit card company with a transcript of your phone conversation, or a signed credit card receipt, proving that you bought travel insurance would not be easy.

This might be a good opportunity to start shopping around for another credit card. Your dispute was over $35, but who knows what might happen in the future? Would you want your card to take sides with a business that fraudulently bills you thousands of dollars?

Your only other option — besides contacting me — was to take this matter to small claims court. And although you probably would have won, the costs of filing a case may have exceeded your damages. Even if United had to pay your court costs, it wouldn't have been worth your time.

The only way to avoid a phone fee or insurance charge is to do everything online. I think that's what United would prefer, anyway. But it would have also ensured there would be no miscommunication or cross-cultural crossed wires to worry about.

It's a shame that it's come to this. Of course you should be able to pick up the phone and talk to someone in your own language when you have a question and not worry about getting socked with a fee. But that's not the world we travel in.

I contacted United on your behalf. A representative called you and issued a refund of $25 to your card. I have no idea why United decided to keep $10, but it's a resolution you've indicated you're happy with. And it's better than nothing.

© 2010 Christopher Elliott ... Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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