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Double-billed and no refund in sight

Susan Milette's online travel agent accidentally charges two of her credit cards for a single flight. A refund is promised, but it's taking forever. Is there anything she can do to move things along? And how could she have prevented this from happening in the first place?
/ Source: Tribune Media Services

Q: I'm having a problem with a long-overdue refund for an online booking. I don't know what to do.

I recently bought three airline tickets from Miami to Johannesburg through Travelocity. The trouble started soon after I made my purchase. A Travelocity representative phoned me to say that the price of my ticket had gone up overnight, and that he needed my permission to charge more on my credit card.

Later that day I received another call from Travelocity. My credit card was invalid, the representative said. Did I have another card I could use?

After this phone call, I checked to be sure the charges on my first card were canceled. They weren't. The charges added up to more than $12,000.

I tried to cancel the charges on my first card, but was told only Travelocity could do that. I tried to cancel the charges on the second one, and got the same answer. I now had a total of nine transactions authorized and pending. I was getting heart palpitations.

It's been several months, and I've literally lost days of work trying to resolve this. So far, Travelocity has removed some of the charges, but not all of them. The problem is that Travelocity believes the airlines made some errors, and as a result, there are three charges of $1,414 each plus service fees of $33. Please help. — Susan Milette, Ft. Pierce, Fla.

A: Travelocity should have charged your card once. Any other billings should have been refunded immediately.

I'm troubled by what happened to you. First, because your online travel agent contacted you to say the price had changed. That shouldn't have happened. Travelocity's service guarantee promises that everything about your booking will be right, and the company has gotten a lot of mileage from a story about how it honored airfares that were obviously wrong.

A few years ago, Travelocity posted an erroneous zero-fare for tickets to Fiji. Instead of canceling them, it confirmed the tickets at a cost of about $2 million. Anyone who hears this often-repeated story or reads Travelocity's "guarantee" would probably be led to believe that when Travelocity quotes a fare, it will honor the price.

That didn't happen for you.

I'm also concerned with the pace of your refunds. Travelocity blamed the delays on the airlines, by your account. In order to process your refund, your online agency had to figure out who should have billed you and who shouldn't have. That line of reasoning makes perfect sense if you're Travelocity. A business shouldn't be forced to refund money that it doesn't have.

But it makes no sense from a customer's perspective.

One reason you work with an online agent is to prevent something like this from happening in the first place. You've paid Travelocity a booking fee because there's a value in the service it offers. And part of that service is that it's an intermediary — and if necessary, an advocate —for you.

What happens behind the scenes is not your worry. You're dealing directly with the online agency, and it's responsible for ensuring your card has been charged the correct amount.

If you ever run into trouble with Travelocity again, consider appealing this to a manager. (I list a few of them on my Web site. The company's executives are remarkably responsive, and can override a questionable decision made by an employee. I wouldn't have allowed the company to charge a higher fare, and certainly wouldn't have tolerated the months of excuses and foot-dragging.

I contacted Travelocity on your behalf and it promptly refunded the three remaining charges.

Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine and the host of “What You Get For The Money: Vacations” on the Fine Living Network. E-mail him at .