By Travel columnist
updated 4/4/2005 7:28:53 PM ET 2005-04-04T23:28:53

David Liu asks an America West agent for last-minute ticket from New York to San Jose, Calif. But what he ends up with is a one-way ticket to Phoenix, which was to have been a stopover on his original itinerary. Now America West wants to charge him more for a second ticket to California. Whose mistake is it - and should Liu fork over more money? Find out what happens when a ticket agent makes a mistake, and how you can prevent that from ruining your next trip.

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Q: We needed to buy a last-minute ticket from New York to San Jose, Calif., recently. We called America West and were offered a reasonable fare — $224 — going through Phoenix.

When we arrived at the ticket counter, an agent confirmed that they had the fare but struggled using the computer system. She booked several tickets and then made some corrections because she had gotten our names wrong. It ended up taking a long time to get the tickets issued, leaving very us little time to rush to the gate.

As we were boarding the plane, we noticed on the receipt that they had accidentally booked a flight from New York to Phoenix without continuing to San Jose. We immediately went to the gate agent who said that she could not help us – even though it was less than 10 minutes since the tickets were issued – and we would have to deal with the problem in Phoenix or miss the flight.

Not wanting to get stuck in New York, we boarded the plane.

We asked the flight attendant for help, and she confirmed with the gate agents that tickets were waiting for us in Phoenix. When we got there, the agent there said that she did not know what happened, but that we would have to buy new tickets from to San Jose for another $250 per person.

After explaining to her the mistake the New York agent made, she said the only thing she could do was sell us tickets to San Jose for an even higher price and refund the New York to Phoenix leg. We only had a few minutes before the plane would take off, so we reluctantly agreed.

I don’t think we should have to pay for the mistake of a ticket agent. Do you?

— David LiuSanta Clara, Calif.

A: Of course not. When you ask for a ticket from New York to San Jose, you shouldn’t end up with a ticket to Phoenix.

It looks as if you ended up working with a ticket agent who was just learning the reservations system. If you’re a frequent flier, you know that using the airlines’ antiquated reservations systems isn’t easy, even for an experienced operator. There are dozens, even hundreds of keystrokes per reservation.

I’ve once asked a ticket agent in jest, “What are you doing, writing the great American Novel?” He was not amused.

So your ticket agent — probably new to the job — was trying to get it right. “It was a dark and stormy night … in San Jose. Or was it Phoenix?” She obviously screwed up.

The question is, who pays for the error?

At an airline where employees are empowered to fix customer problems, and in a situation where you had more time, this wouldn’t have been an issue. You could have returned to your ticket agent and explained the error, and all would have been well.

Unfortunately, time and America West’s corporate culture weren’t on your side. The employee told you to take the matter up with someone in Phoenix, passing the buck instead of making things right. Not good.

Still, you should have been able to explain what happened to an America West representative in Phoenix. I still don’t know what to think of the refund offer. It doesn’t make sense. Why would America West be required to charge you a higher fare?

You could have avoided this by giving yourself more time, first of all. Last-minute travel is an art unto itself that few road warriors have truly mastered. The rest of us run around the airport terminal like chickens with their heads cut off, and I include myself in that group. Even an extra hour would have made a big difference.

Second, and perhaps more important, you should have checked your ticket as soon as it was handed to you. Not as you’re boarding the flight. Look, your tip-off was the fact that your ticket agent kept revising the itinerary. That’s usually a bad sign.

I contacted America West on your behalf, and it apologized for the “apparent miscommunication that occurred during the issuance of the tickets.” The fare differential between the tickets you had asked for and the tickets you paid for is about $50. The airline issued you two non-expiring certificates that can be redeemed for up to $100, which the airline said you accepted.

Christopher Elliott is National Geographic Traveler's ombudsman and a nationally syndicated columnist who specializes in solving your travel problems. Got a trip that needs fixing? Send him a note or visit his Web site. Your question may be published in a future story. Want to sound off about a story? Try visiting Elliott's forum.

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