By Travel columnist
updated 6/3/2005 2:50:01 PM ET 2005-06-03T18:50:01

How long should it take to get a refund? A few weeks? A few months? How about half a year? That’s how long Donna Passentino’s son has been waiting to get his money back on a vacation he booked through Expedia. The online travel agency is playing “pass the buck” with an airline, but that hasn’t helped him get any closer to the promised refund. How can you prevent your refund request from being delayed? And what responsibility, if any, does a travel agency bear?

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Q: A year ago my son surprised his wife on her birthday with tickets to Europe that he had bought on Expedia.

They were supposed to fly to Amsterdam on Icelandair on Dec. 25. But Expedia notified my son at the end of November that unless he could start the trip a couple of days earlier and end it a few days later, their trip would be cancelled.

Neither my son nor his wife had enough vacation time, so they called off their vacation. That’s when the trouble started. He sent his tickets back to Icelandair. But the airline hasn’t issued a refund, saying that the cancellation was Expedia’s fault. Expedia says it’s Icelandic’s fault.

The time to dispute the credit card bill is long past, so now my son has lost everything — the tickets, the ticketing fees, plus the money for the hotel deposit. Is this normal procedure for Internet purchases? I mean when you get right down to it, someone has had their money for almost a year. What’s wrong here?

— Donna PassentinoWaconia, Minn.

A: In a word, everything.

When you buy an airline ticket and the carrier cancels the flight, you’re usually entitled to either a full refund or to be rebooked on another flight at no extra charge. Section 9.2 of Icelandic’s Conditions of Carriage – the contract between the airline and you – confirm that your son should have received a prompt refund.

When the money didn’t materialize, your son’s travel agent should have stepped in as his advocate and tried to secure the refund. For some reason, it didn’t. (Your son could have booked his ticket directly through Icelandic, but he used an intermediary like Expedia. The implied promise of buying through an agent is that you’ll have someone to turn to when things go wrong.)

So what’s wrong? Icelandic failed you. Expedia failed you. Oh yeah, and his credit card – the whole business about not being able to dispute older charges lets the bank off the hook, too. Convenient, isn’t it?

Your son could have prevented this by insisting that someone take responsibility for the missing refund. When Icelandic and Expedia played “pass the buck” he might have considered asking an Expedia representative to escalate his case to a supervisor.

The proverbial buck stops with Expedia, and a well-trained manager would have known that and made sure that Icelandic honored its promise for a refund. Sadly, front-line agents often are restricted by computer-generated scripts that they must read when a customer with a problem calls, and I fear that your son has had a lot of scripts read to him during the last six months.

When I brought case to Expedia’s attention, it authorized a refund of your son’s tickets, plus its paper ticketing fees. “Also, because of the hassle and length of time this has taken, we’ve placed $200 worth of credit into their Expedia account for use on future travel,” company spokesman David Dennis told me. “Rest assured that this is not normal, and we are investigating where our systems broke down.”

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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