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How to handle online travel purchases gone bad

At a time when more tickets, hotel rooms and rental cars than ever are being booked online, frustrations with the booking process are growing.

The roundtrip airfare from Brussels to New York on the European online travel site eDreams was €337 — until Alisa Schlossberg clicked on the “buy” button. Then it jumped to €592, causing an eNightmare.

Schlossberg, a software consultant who lives in Antwerp, Belgium, thought it was a simple misunderstanding. “After all, I had purchased, paid and received a confirmation from the site,” she says.

But that’s not the way eDreams saw it. “Unfortunately, your ticket fare expired when we tried to issue your booking and the fare went up in 251 euros,” Luis Alberdi, a company spokesman, wrote to her after I asked about her ticket. “We do apologize for any inconvenience caused by it.”

Can an online travel agency do that? Yes. And more of them are, to hear travelers like Schlossberg and others talk about it. At a time when more tickets, hotel rooms and rental cars than ever are being booked online, frustrations with the booking process are growing.

The complaints can be divided into several broad categories:

  • Bait and switch. You thought you’d locked in a price, but were asked to pay more. Either surcharges and fees were added, or the ticket was completely re-priced.
  • Double booking. Your Web browser freezes during the booking process, you page back and make a reservation, only to find you’re now the proud owner of two nonrefundable reservations.
  • Sleight of hand. The site offers a ticket or hotel room, but once you try to book, you find out the tickets are gone. If you’re buying a vacation package, the site may offer you an alternate destination — usually at a higher price.

What’s going on here? There are two explanations: one put forth by the travel industry, and the other by irritated consumers.

“This predates the Internet,” explains Chicago-based online consultant Bruce Mainzer. He says the reservations systems used by travel agents showed the airline seats and hotel rooms in real time. When more than one person tried to book the same item, the system accepted one request and rejected the other.

“As more and more consumers started accessing these same computerized reservation systems through the Internet, they are getting the same type of mixed signals when they go to book,” he says. “The last seat may have been grabbed by someone else.”

Another theory — so far unproven — is that the Web sites, far from being helpless victims, are leveraging technology to squeeze every last dollar from travelers. Customers contend that Web sites use so-called “cookies” (the crumbs of information you leave behind when you visit a site) to control virtually every aspect of the booking experience. Based on that data, sites can display a higher or lower price or even deny the sale.

Consider what happened when Melissa Gomez tried to buy an air and hotel package through one of the major online travel agencies recently. “After I filled out all the information and gave my credit card, the transaction could not be processed,” she remembers. “After three failed attempts, I had to call customer service.” The agency charged her an extra $25 for making the reservation by phone. Why didn’t the sale go through? A representative told Gomez the airline inventory wasn’t “up to date” on the site. But were they really just trying to make an extra $25?

Whether these failed online bookings are innocent hiccups from an overloaded reservations system or secretive efforts to cash in on our technology ignorance, the real question is: How do we deal with it?

I asked experts for their opinions.

1. Don’t give up.
Sometimes it really is just a glitch, nothing more. Try to search for the fare or hotel room again, and if that doesn’t work, phone the online travel agency, says Rob Käll, president of Bookt, a Web services provider to the hotel and vacation rental industry. “If you don’t have any luck,” he adds, “try the hotel or airline directly.”

2. Call for help.
If your travel site doesn’t work, try someone whose system does — such as a travel agent. “In most cases a real travel agent can check the price to see if it’s available and also book it at the same price,” says Bruce Fisher, Honolulu-based operator of a vacation package site, A competent agent understands the perils of booking online and can often price-match. What’s more, their systems can be faster and more reliable than the one you’re using to buy your trip. It’s worth noting that the advice isn’t free — agents charge a booking fee for their services.

3. Take your best shot.
If you find a price online and try to buy it, but are denied, your first step is to gather evidence. “Take a screen shot of the page with the fare you were promised and contact the travel site,” says Damian Bazadona, president of Situation Interactive, a New York marketing agency. “Most consumers assume that if it’s an online service they can’t speak to someone. That’s not the case.” He’s right. I’ve seen travelers prevail in a dispute with a travel company or bank because they had screen shots.

4. Cite the law.
I’m not going to go into details about how to complain to a travel company — I have a section on my blog dedicated to that — but I would add one thing: In addition to a brief, polite e-mail with your screen shots, it may help to cite any laws that apply to your situation. For example, the Federal Trade Commission has a useful guide on bait advertising with chapter and verse of applicable federal law. (Bait advertising is an alluring but insincere offer to sell a product the advertiser in truth does not intend to sell.) If a company thinks it’s breaking the law, it is far likelier to see things your way.

5. Wait.
Online agencies and reservations systems are aware of the problem and are working to fix it, says Pablo O’Brien, the general manager of Yahoo! Travel. Users should expect “gradual improvement in system performance,” he told me. Those much-needed upgrades will allow travel companies to rely less on a process called “caching” — or storing potentially outdated prices on their servers, where they can be accessed by customers. But the fixes won’t happen overnight.

I had a lengthy conversation with a representative from Amadeus, one of the companies that handle reservations, and came away with the impression that the technology already exists to eliminate most of these problems. I also felt that a few common-sense strategies such as the ones I just mentioned could prevent most of these booking snafus.

Common sense and a little tech savvy is also important. “If a traveler uses their browser’s back button, they are essentially going back to an old display, not a refreshed display,” explained Alix Arguelles, director of product management and support services for Amadeus. “Browsers settings should be set for ‘refresh every time’ to help guarantee fresh data.”

But I’m not sure this problem will vanish any time soon. In addition to the conspiracy theorists who believe these system “troubles” are a thinly-veiled money grab, there are people on the other side who think the current reservations systems and the Web sites that book travel through them work just fine, thank you very much.

Alex Bainbridge, a UK-based travel technology consultant, capably represented that point of view when he called these issues a “minor inconvenience” that would be too expensive to repair. “People should get on with their lives and be grateful that affordable flights exist,” he said.

Maybe he has a point. Maybe we should just shut up and travel.

Or not.

Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine. You can read more travel tips on his blog, or e-mail him at .