Q: Two years ago, when I was stationed in Hawaii, I called Expedia to get a price quote for an airline ticket to California. I wanted to spend Thanksgiving with my fiancee.
The agent could barely speak English, and insisted that I give him a credit card number in order to reserve a ticket for 24 hours.
The next day I was admitted to the hospital with pneumonia, and I never called Expedia back to buy the ticket. I was in the intensive care unit for five weeks, and when I came out, I learned that Expedia had bought the ticket.
I've been trying to get my $500 back since then. Northwest Airlines has denied my claim, even after providing it with proof of my hospital stay. And I continuously reminded them that I did not purchase the ticket — I just reserved it. Is there anything that you can do about this?
— Lizelle Figueroa, Colorado Springs, Colo.
A: It sounds as if you weren't speaking the same language as Expedia. Maybe the agent wasn't American, but by referring to your purchase as a "reservation" and offering your credit card company, you appear to have inadvertently booked a plane ticket to California.
It didn't have to happen like this. Although it's more convenient, you might want to think twice before phoning an online travel agency, even if you're just getting a price quote. The most efficient way of working with an online agency is through its Web site. Booking online saves the agency money (it has to hire fewer human agents) and eliminates booking errors (like misspelled names or wrong dates).
Don't get me wrong. I think calling a conventional travel agency — by which I mean a brick-and-mortar travel professional — for a price quote is perfectly fine. They're trained to ask you if you just want to find a good fare or if you want to buy. But I'm just not sure I would take my chances with an offshore call center for an online agency.
Once the ticket was bought, you could have done a few things differently. Initiating a credit card dispute might have worked in this case, because it might be difficult for Expedia to conclusively prove you booked the ticket. A brief, polite email to Northwest Airlines, which is now a subsidiary of Delta Air Lines, might have also helped.
As I review the facts in this case, I find plenty of blame to go around. By asking to make a reservation, you authorized the representative to buy your ticket. But the agent apparently didn't understand your instructions or communicate his intention to buy the tickets.
Expedia explicitly promises that if this kind of thing happens, it will fix it. Its Expedia Promise assures would-be customers, "We'll take responsibility — at no additional cost to you — if we make a mistake booking your travel." You can read the whole guarantee on its Web site.
I contacted Expedia on your behalf. The online agency researched your case and determined that there was a "communication error" between the agent and you. Specifically, it found that the ticketing agent was under the impression you wanted to purchase the trip, when you just wanted to only hold a reservation.
Expedia has refunded the full amount of your ticket.