By January 6, 2005 column
Special to msnbc.com
updated 1/10/2005 3:11:01 PM ET 2005-01-10T20:11:01

When Earl Hathaway cancels the flight he bought through Expedia, he's offered a credit through the airline minus a $100 change fee. But only a few weeks before he tries to book a new trip, the online agency changes its mind and wants to give him a refund. Problem is, that could take a long time. He needs the cash now. Did Expedia drop the ball? Is it the airline's fault - or the customer's? Plus, find out how you can prevent this from happening to you.

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Q: I booked an Air France flight from Moscow to Bangkok on Expedia last summer. Unfortunately, I had a minor family emergency while I was away and had to return to the United States before I could continue to Bangkok.

Expedia offered me a $1,077 credit on Air France, minus a $100 change fee. But when I called the company to use the credit for a trip to Europe a few months later, I was told they had made a mistake. I should have been issued a refund instead.

Their proposed remedy? To reprint the paper tickets that I returned to them and mail them back to me. Then I would have to take the paper tickets to an Air France ticketing agent for a refund.

I live in Madison, Wis., and the nearest Air France ticketing agent is in Chicago, which is a seven-hour round trip by car. After more argument, Expedia finally agreed to refund the money to my credit card. But that will take one to two more months to be credited to my account. My trip takes place next month, and I was counting on the money to cover it.

Expedia offered me a $50 coupon, but I just want my money back quickly. Can you help me?

-- Earl Hathaway

A: Expedia should have helped you secure a prompt refund. Isn't your travel agent supposed to be your advocate when you run into trouble? Otherwise, why not just buy the ticket directly from the airline?

I'm not sure if what happened was the company's fault - at least not entirely. It was confused, but a closer look at your record reveals the source of the misunderstanding.

When you contacted Expedia the first time, the agent you dealt with couldn't decipher the Air France fare rules. The agent's notes show that a request was made for you to call Expedia back the next day, after the agent had some time to take a look at the fine print.

But Expedia now agrees that it didn't communicate its instructions clearly to you, and that you may have come away with the impression that you had the credit you wanted.

Apparently, Expedia didn't contact Air France until months later when you called to redeem your credit. At that point, you were told that you were entitled to a refund. But there is no evidence that anyone told you the process would take two months. Actually, the money should be in your account within two weeks.

"Unfortunately, we are not going to be able to issue his refund, because then he would receive a refund from Expedia and Air France," says Jason Reindorp, an Expedia spokesman.

How could you have prevented this from happening? Getting something in writing is helpful. I wouldn't be content to take an agent's word that you "now have credit" - instead, ask for an e-mail that confirms it.

It's also important to be aware of a ticket's rules before you buy it. You shouldn't have to send your travel agent on a fact-finding mission after your trip to determine if you can get your money back. That's something to worry about before you click the "buy" button.

Beyond that, I think the real problem is the perplexing fare rules. There is no need for the terms and conditions to be so dense that even a professional travel agent can't understand them. Fortunately, a lot of airlines are agreeing and have simplified their rules. Let's hope Air France follows suit.

Expedia admits that there was "unnecessary confusion" in your case. It's already kicked in $50 in coupons. The company now also acknowledges that the fares on the trip you were trying to take have gone up because of your wait, and has agreed to assist you in finding a price that was in line with what you had originally expected.

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