Bamboozled: Reluctant refund

LaVonne Heydel had been traveling three times a year from her Blairstown home to visit her mother, Anne Mary Nykreim, 92, BB brandingwho lived in a Wisconsin nursing home.

She used Expedia to book Dec. 10 round-trip tickets to visit her mom at a cost of $222.80. She’d then, as usual, rent a car and drive 60 miles to the nursing home.

But on Nov. 12, Heydel’s mom died of congestive heart failure.

Heydel said she canceled the December flight right away and booked a new one, leaving the next day, for a last-minute fare of $560. She wasn’t happy about the price, but given that she was the one making all the arrangements for her mom’s funeral, Heydel didn’t have time to bargain shop.

While Heydel was in Wisconsin, a helpful funeral director suggested Heydel ask for a refund on the first flight—something that’s common in cases of a cancellation because of a death or an illness.

So she asked. And she didn’t get much of an answer.

“I am frustrated. In checking the internet I see numerous complaints about Expedia in regard to rip-offs, lies and terrible consumer relations,” Heydel said. “Now I am really mad and I want a refund.”

Travel coupons?

Immediately after her mom’s funeral, Heydel mailed a letter to Expedia to explain her situation and request a refund.

22811The letter was returned as undeliverable, though Heydel said she got the address off the Expedia website.

She found another address and on Dec. 1, she remailed her plea. And she waited.

On Jan. 12, she got an answer via e-mail from Expedia.

“We just dropped a Holiday Bonus coupon into your account,” the email said. “You’ll save $200 on any roundtrip package that includes a 5+ night hotel stay. Redeem your coupon for travel by March 31; travel by April 30, 2011.”

Not what Heydel was looking for.

She replied, saying her only travel plans have been to visit her mother, and again she asked for a refund.

This time, no reply at all.

That’s when Heydel contacted Bamboozled.

We explained the situation to Expedia and presented a death certificate, along with Heydel’s cancellation and reservation numbers.

Within a couple of days, Heydel received another e-mail from Expedia. The company apologized.

“Our representative did not go as far as expected to assist you and we apologize for the inconvenience this may have caused,” the e-mail said.

Expedia didn’t give a refund, though. It said on Heydel’s behalf, it submitted an “extenuating circumstance refund request to American Airlines,” and told Heydel to follow up with American.

Expedia also gave a $100 travel coupon for future travel with a one-year expiration date.

Another travel coupon? And it passed the buck to the airline.

“While I know that Ms. Heydel stated that she does not typically travel, unfortunately it is outside of Expedia policy to provide coupons in alternate forms,” spokeswoman Katie Brennan said.

Does the company have a refund policy in the case of death or illness? Or for other types of “extenuating circumstance?”

“Unfortunately, what many people don’t realize when booking through Expedia is that all change/cancellation/refund policies come through the supplier (airline/hotel/cruise/car rental/etc.) as opposed to Expedia,” she said. “Different airlines have different policies relative to cancellations due to things including deaths, military deployment, or illness so we can never issue an over-arching statement. Each time we have to call the specific airline and submit the proper paperwork to request the refund.”

In theory, that’s fine. But we couldn’t find any fine print on the Expedia site about how such cancellations are treated.

We asked Brennan where to look. She couldn’t point us to any one place because it doesn’t exist. She said customers have to call Expedia, “and from there they can investigate what the airline’s policy is regarding cancellation due to a death in the family.”

American’s response

In the meantime, we took Heydel’s case to American, which does have a clear cancellation policy on its website.

It reads: “Nonrefundable tickets generally cannot be refunded. However, exceptions may be available under the following circumstances: Death of the passenger, immediate family member, or traveling companion; schedule changes implemented by American Airlines.”

We asked American to take a look at Heydel’s case.

Good news. Heydel got a call from American, telling her to watch her credit card account for a refund of $222. The rep also gave Heydel a telephone number to call in case the refund doesn’t come through.

American Airlines had no further comment, only saying it tries to settle issues with customers as quickly and fairly as it can.

“I feel triumphant, not just for the refund, but that they, Expedia and American Airlines, actually had to perform some actual customer service and ethics,” Heydel said. “However, I am still angry by the fact that one has to push so hard to get results from an airline—or big business in general.”

Website trouble

American Airlines had had something of a battle with Expedia and other online travel agencies late last year and in early 2011. Expedia dropped American Airlines from its listings, while American removed itself from Orbitz. (Heydel’s tickets were purchased before Expedia dumped the airline.)

If you want to make sure your travel research is comprehensive, you should check both online travel agencies and individual airline or hotel websites before you book. Try a travel agent: Some have access to deals not available to the general public. The more options you see, the better your chances of getting the best possible deal.

And don’t forget a key point: Make sure you understand all refund policies, and if you think there’s a chance something could interfere with your trip, consider travel insurance. Yes, it’s an added expense, but well worth it if you need to cancel.