Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, leaving the island with no power and next-to-no cellphone service. Water, food and basic supplies are scarce.
Residents will struggle to meet their basic needs for a long time.
Tourism is a huge industry in Puerto Rico. But in the wake of the hurricane, few flights are coming in, and visitors who would normally seek beautiful beaches and resorts have cancelled their vacation plans.
There is nowhere to go.
In August, long before Hurricane Maria was forecast, Mariana Lopez, 21, and her boyfriend Spike Mcgreggor, 19, planned a week-long trip to the island.
They would celebrate Lopez’s birthday and Mcgreggor could meet some of Lopez’s friends who live there.
“It’s been hard to see what’s happened and I haven’t been able to connect with my friends because they don’t have a phone signal,” Lopez said. “It is really sad to see how such a beautiful place is suffering so much right now.”
Their flight, which cost $285 round trip per seat, would have left today, Oct. 2.
They knew they had to change their plans.
Mcgreggor called United Airlines on Sept. 25 to see what changes could be made, and he conferenced Lopez in on the call.
The couple had the foresight to record the entire call.
Fair enough, the couple thought, and they chose Jamaica as their new destination.
The United rep placed the couple on hold while he searched for a flight from Newark to Kingston, Jamaica.
At the same time, Mcgreggor went onto United’s website and found a flight that would leave Oct. 3. The cost would be $359 per ticket.
When the rep came back, he said he found a new flight, but it would cost nearly $2,000 more.
That was out of the question, the couple said.
Mcgreggor asked about the $359 flight he found online.
The rep checked, but said he couldn’t make the change to that flight from an existing reservation.
But he had an idea.
“It would actually cost you a lot, so why don’t I just process, just go and give a refund on this reservation, okay, so you can go ahead and book this new reservation online,” the rep said. “I’m going to process the refund since the airport in San Juan, Puerto Rico is not operating, so I can give you an exemption with this one.”
The couple agreed, and the United rep processed a refund to each of their credit cards. He confirmed the amount and the last four-digits of the cards, and then said it would take seven business days to process.
Lopez and Mcgreggor were satisfied and planned to buy the other flights separately.
The next day, Lopez decided to call United just to double-check that the reservation was cancelled.
She spoke to a different rep. This one said the reservations were indeed cancelled but the couple wasn’t getting their money back. There were no refunds.
“I thought there was a misunderstanding as their representative the day before promised us everything was fine,” Lopez said. “I spoke to [the representative], who instead of trying to help us just told us to write on their feedback page online.”
Lopez again explained the situation to the new rep.
“They gave us the option to cancel and get credits for United but that is not what we were promised,” Lopez said. “We are very upset because they lied to us and promised something one day and changed the whole story the next.”
But remember — this couple was smart.
They taped the entire conversation with the first United rep.
“We have proof that we are not lying and that United Airlines are the ones who are and don’t want to give us our money,” Lopez said.
They asked Bamboozled for help.
PROMISES AND POLICIES
We reviewed the couple’s reservation and listened to the audio tape of their conversation with the first United rep.
Next we looked at United’s policy in the wake of the storm.
“While United is now operating flights to and from San Juan, we recommend postponing your travel until conditions improve,” the United website said. “The island is still experiencing a lack of power, limited transportation options and no hotel room availability.”
It offered a link for more information.
The new page said for those with travel dates between Sept. 26 and Oct. 12, the change fee would be waived. Any difference in fare would also be waived as long as the traveler was flying between the same cities and in the same class seat as the original reservation. If travelers chose a new destination, the change fee would be waived but a difference in fare could apply.
That’s exactly what the United rep told the couple.
What the website doesn’t have is any language about refunds.
The United policy is quite reasonable, and it seems the United rep made a mistake.
But should the couple pay for that mistake? Should United honor what its representative told the couple?
We reached out to the airline to get its take on the matter.
It came through, and quickly.
“We have reached out to our customers to apologize for the confusion, and have refunded their tickets,” a spokeswoman said.
As of late Sunday, though, the couple hadn’t heard from the airline.
But they did book a different flight to Jamaica.
They, and we here at Bamboozled, are wishing the best for those in Puerto Rico.