By Travel columnist
updated 8/12/2005 3:02:34 PM ET 2005-08-12T19:02:34

When Lois Hudson clicked the "back" button to correct her online reservation, she inadvertently double-booked her flight. The airline insisted she use the second ticket, which is impossible, or pay a change fee, which is infuriating. Can United really do that? Should Hudson's credit card company intervene? And how could she have avoided this copycat crime?

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Q: I purchased a round-trip ticket from Sacramento, Calif., to Lincoln, Neb., on United Airlines’ Web site. Before I confirmed and paid for the ticket, I reviewed my transaction and realized I had entered the wrong month for my return. I clicked the “back” button, corrected the information, and then paid for the ticket. When my credit card statement came, I found that United had charged me for two trips on the same day and same flight.

I called the airline and explained what had happened. I also mentioned that they had not sent me an e-mail verification of the second purchase, and that there was no record of it on their Web site.

A United representative told me I would have to either use the second ticket or pay a $100 change fee, plus the difference in fare. I argued that it was impossible for me to use the second ticket since both trips left on the same day and on the same flight. I also told them I certainly wasn’t going to pay for something I did not confirm.

United told me there was nothing the company could do. I sent an e-mail to the customer care department and did not receive a reply. I called customer care and was unable to speak with anyone who could help me. By this time, I was totally frustrated. I contacted my credit card company to dispute the charge, and it has been removed for now. However, the card company has notified me that if United provides documentation that I purchased the second ticket, the charge will be reinstated. I fear I may end up having to fork over $435 to United for a ticket I did not purchase.

— Lois Hudson, Rancho Cordova, Calif.

A: Double billings are a persistent problem for tickets purchased online. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve tried to help readers who thought they hadn’t made a reservation, when they actually had.

Who’s to blame? Partly United, partly you — but mostly the World Wide Web. Sometimes, Web sites like United.com develop unexpected electronic hiccups that lead to double bookings (I’ve seen it time and again). Sometimes, computer users bring the problem on themselves by clicking the “book” button, then going back to a previous screen and booking again.

But most of the time, it’s just the Web, a marvelous invention better built to survive a nuclear attack than to handle your travel bookings. Data packets get lost; connections are refused; electronic gremlins infest the wires between you and the airline. If you want safe, go to an airline ticket counter to book your seat. But watch out: You may have to pay more for the ticket — plus pay a $10 surcharge for talking to a real person. (Then again, you won’t have to worry about being billed for two tickets.)

United should have taken a look at its records and quickly removed the second charge. It is obvious that you can use only one of those tickets. Instead, United gave you the runaround and then forced you to dispute the charge with your credit card company. That’s not what I would call customer service.

You did your best to avoid this mess, but you need to be extra-vigilant when you get to the final screen of your online ticket reservation. You don’t want to make any sudden moves, and you definitely don’t want to scroll back for any reason (some booking services specifically instruct you not to scroll back in order to avoid the problem you had).

If you have made a mistake, either close the browser window and start again, or call the airline once your reservation is completed and make sure only one booking was recorded. Also, be sure to check your e-mail for a verification of your reservation. Normally, the double booking will show up as two separate verifications with two confirmation numbers (although it didn’t in your case). If you have any doubts, call the airline immediately. Don’t wait for your credit card statement — by then it’s probably too late.

I contacted United and it removed the second charge from your credit card bill.

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