By Travel columnist
updated 8/12/2005 3:12:16 PM ET 2005-08-12T19:12:16

There's a hurricane bearing down on the Bahamas, and Marifran Manzo-Ritchie is worried about her upcoming all-inclusive vacation. But when she calls her travel agency to ask about its cancellation policy, a phone representative deletes her reservation. Manzo-Ritchie is charged a cancellation fee and is left to fend for herself. Did Orbitz make a mistake? And if so, what does it owe Manzo-Ritchie?

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Q: My husband and I booked a vacation at the Hotel Riu Paradise Island, an all-inclusive resort in the Bahamas, through Orbitz.

Three days before our trip, Hurricane Emily bore down on the Caribbean, seemingly headed for the Bahamas. I called Orbitz just to ask about its cancellation policy. The service representative said that if I canceled before midnight, I would incur a $25 charge; if I canceled the next day, I would be billed for one night’s stay and taxes.

The agent did not speak English very well, and she asked me twice if I’d like to cancel. Twice, I said “no.”

About half an hour after I hung up, I got an e-mail from Orbitz saying that my reservation had been canceled. I immediately called Orbitz to reinstate my room. After two hours on the phone — and after having been hung up on twice by representatives who obviously didn’t want to deal with my problem — I got a call from a supervisor named Jeff. He told me that my room was canceled and that there was nothing Orbitz could do about it. He was rude and unapologetic, all but accusing me of lying.

At this point, three days before our trip, my husband and I had nowhere to stay. The only available rooms were at the Holiday Inn, and we booked one. Unfortunately, the hotel turned out to be an absolute dump. In short, our vacation was ruined by the incompetent folks at Orbitz.

To add insult to injury, Orbitz charged us for one full night’s stay plus tax for canceling within three days of departure. The representative was not only wrong about our wishes, but also about the charges we would incur if we did cancel.

I have e-mailed and called Orbitz, but to no avail. I feel I deserve not only a refund but also additional compensation. What do you think?

— Marifran Manzo-Ritchie, Wayne, Pa.

A: Like many online travel companies, Orbitz outsources its call center operations in order to save money. That means when you call the company with a question, you may be talking with someone in India or in the Philippines — someone who may not speak English as a first language.

I’ve covered the outsourcing phenomenon, and my impression is that the companies who handle overseas call centers have done a remarkable job in the last year bringing their service levels and employee training up to American standards. But there is still room for improvement, as this case amply demonstrates.

You never asked to cancel your vacation, but the call center employee misunderstood you. That was the first mistake. Later, a supervisor sided with the errant employee instead of with you, the customer. Strike two. Then Orbitz left you to find a new hotel on your own. That’s three mistakes, and that’s too many.

Here’s what should have happened: Your hotel reservation should not have been canceled in the first place; when it was, Orbitz should have scrambled to find you a replacement hotel at no additional cost.

Could you have prevented this problem from happening? Well, booking a Caribbean vacation during hurricane season is always risky (though relatively inexpensive). Had you waited until December, you might have avoided the whole situation.

Once Orbitz canceled your hotel, you could have done two things. First, you could have asked to speak with Jeff’s supervisor at Orbitz, expressing your determination to stay on the phone until the problem was fixed to your satisfaction. Second, you could have taken your problem directly to the hotel, which might have been able to reinstate your reservation on the spot. Once you had your vacation back, you could argue with Orbitz at your leisure.

I contacted Orbitz to get its side of the story.

“It was clearly a mistake on our part,” company spokeswoman Jeanenne Diefendorf told me. Orbitz sent you a letter of apology, refunded $345.30 for the night you were charged, and as a “gesture of goodwill,” offered you a $200 voucher for future use on Orbitz.

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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