09 December, 2008

My winter vacation... OR... How the travel agency (first) fleeced me (and then made good!)

Addendum: This morning, I awoke to a comment on this blog in my inbox. The comment was from an employee in Marketing Communications, at STA Travel. Apparently, somehow they came across the blog posting, which I guess was not surprising, because if one had searched for STA Travel on Google Blog Search, my blog was number 5 on the first page of results. I had no idea this was the case, and was surprised enough, that I wondered if it was really a person from STA, or one of my friends joking around with me. As you can see, the comment stated that the president of the company was interested in speaking to me (this also sounded amazing).

As a result of that message, I decided to at least try to make contact with this individual, before going ahead and doing the inevitable rebooking, that needed to occur before 12:50pm today. While waiting to hear back from this person, I also decided to make one last call to STA customer support, to ask them about the phone call transcripts from my discussions with them, because I wanted to find out if perhaps they had missed something that I might be able to point out to them.

When I called, and spoke with Carlos, one of the supervisors, the first thing he said to me was that he sees a note on the account that the president of the company wants to speak with me! So, this was true. Very interesting. I asked him, in the meantime, what should I do about the flight rebooking/cancellation, since time was running out.

He put me on hold briefly, and then transferred me to another supervisor (also named Nick, different from the Nick who works in the emergency call center in the evening - I think I know the entire staff now!). Nick tells me immediately that there is some good news. The good news is, I will be receiving a full credit, minus a small penalty, and that I can reuse the credit for travel anywhere in the world, as long as it is with Northwest Airlines, and it is booked prior to August 2, 2009. So, this is essentially what my original thought had been about the terms.

It turns out, Nick said, that Northwest Airlines has some conflicting clauses in the terms of their non-refundable tickets. This caused all of the misunderstandings, and when they reviewed it further, realized that it could be handled as I had originally been told.

This ended much better than I expected, and ironically, it was not through direct efforts via telephone, but through the indirect approach of a blog sparking the attention of someone from a different branch of the organization.

Everyone at STA was very polite and attentive to my concerns during the past few days, and for that, I am very appreciative. I have not yet spoken to the president of the company. But if I were to speak with them now, I think I would be in a position to thank them for getting things right in the end. The only suggestion I might have, at this point, would be for them to improve the design of their telephone system, since it seems that there is an extremely high probability of dropping a call when a representative tries to return from placing someone on hold :)

What is the meaning of the word “non-refundable”?

I would tend to assume, in most situations, that it means “you cannot have a refund”. And if this were always the case, then I would not be in the situation I am in right now. Actually, that’s not really fair to say, because it is much more complicated. But it comes down to semantics.

In the airline industry, most tickets that the average consumer buys would fall into a category that would be classified as “non-refundable”. And my experience with this has been that if you are unable for any reason to travel on the dates for which you purchased your ticket, then you can cancel, but you will lose a portion of your credit as a penalty. And you typically need to use the remaining credit toward future travel with that airlines, within a certain period of time, or lose the value.

Recently, I had the opportunity to plan a trip to Bangkok, Thailand. The trip was planned with someone whom I was dating at the time. But there were 4 months between the time of booking, and the time of travel, and we both recognized that there was a non-negligible probability that we would not be together anymore when the date finally occurred. Nonetheless, we also recognized that there was a finite chance that we would be together, in which case, we would probably like to spend some of that time traveling together. She was already going with some other friends of hers, anyway. So, with some apprehension, I researched the travel plans. This was through a travel agency called STA Travel.

Being familiar with the way tickets usually work, I knew there would probably be some penalty if I needed to cancel the flight, and that I would not be able to receive a full refund (of course!) if that happened. So, when I contacted STA, I asked a number of questions (on multiple phone calls, to different representatives) regarding the terms of cancellation. Most specifically, I asked “If I cancel the flight, will I be able to use the credit from the cancelled ticket towards other travel, on different dates, to different destinations”, and the answer that I received was “Yes”. And that was good enough for me to feel confident booking the ticket. The penalty for cancellation was pretty steep ($285) but I was willing to take that risk, as compared to the overall ticket price, which was a whopping $1750.

The problem is, the information I was given was incorrect.

Subsequently, the relationship dissolved, and it became apparent that I would not be traveling to Bangkok at the scheduled time. When I called to make the cancellation, I was immediately told that I could NOT cancel the itinerary. All that I could do was change the dates of travel. But the ticket MUST be used to travel to Bangkok, and must be used within one year of the original travel date. But that I could rebook any time during that year.

This was very bad, because I was not sure that I wanted to go to Bangkok, especially without a travel partner. And it gets worse, because as bad as this is, it was still inaccurate information.

I was not happy with this info, since it conflicted with the info that I used to decide that I felt okay about making the purchase. So I called several more times, and spoke with different representatives. One representative told me that I should call the airline to try to change the ticket. So I spent much time talking to the airline, who told me that it was absolutely impossible for the airline to change it. Subsequently, I found out from STA that whoever told me to call the airline was flat-out wrong, and that they are sorry about that inconvenience.

Time passed, and I procrastinated the cancellation, figuring that as long as I cancelled before the travel date (which, incidentally, is now TOMORROW), I would be fine. Especially since I would have one year to rebook.

But wait, it gets better.

Today, I called a local branch STA office, and asked them about the cancellation, and they told me that I absolutely should be able to get a refund, minus the penalty. So new hope arose. And this started another round of phone calls to the main STA number, since the branch office could not handle a ticket issued through the central office. After 2 calls, which each included 30 minutes of hold time, plus accidental disconnection (BOTH times), I was told again, no, there is no refund, and I can only use the ticket to go to Thailand. I explained to them about the numerous telephone calls that I had made, and the care I took to confirm the key detail about terms of cancellation. They then got a supervisor involved, and began pulling telephone call histories, and listening to recorded calls.

In the end, they identified 2 calls made on the day of purchase. One was made at noon. And the other at 9pm, at which time the ticket was purchased. They said that the representative explained the terms of the ticket to me, and that I agreed that I understood the terms. They said that they are obligated to explain the terms, and that the customer must agree, and that I did agree. How could this be the case, if I feel certain that I asked the right questions?

I really don’t know. One possibility is that there was a misunderstanding about the meaning of the word “itinerary”. I may have asked if it was possible to change the itinerary, meaning “change the destination and the dates”. Whereas, to STA, a change in itinerary would mean “change the dates, but NOT the destination”. I don't think that's how the conversation went, and in fact, I recall talking to a male representative, whereas they say their call history shows it was a female representative. Another possibility, is that they did not hear the right phone call where this info was provided. Maybe I called from my work number? I really don't think so, because I am pretty sure I did this all from home. Another possibility is that they are lying, which I do doubt.

But they told me that with the telephone call transcript of the purchase, they have no other choice but to stick to the original ticket rules, and that means that I cannot make any change other than the dates.

But it gets worse.

When they told me that I could rebook at any time, they were wrong. I must actually rebook the new dates AT THE TIME OF CANCELLATION, which must be before the flight departs. This means I need to decide when I am going to Thailand between now and noon tomorrow, and rebook it.

And it gets still worse.

When they told me that I could travel up to a year from the date of the original travel, they were wrong. I must actually complete the travel by the date of the original PURCHASE. So that means I need to go to Thailand before August, rather than before next December. And since the entire summer is rainy season (which, in Thailand, is VERY rainy), I probably need to go by March or April.

The supervisor I spoke with today was actually quite nice, and as compensation, he said that he’d send me a $100 travel voucher for future STA travel. Yippee. And he also said he’d try to reduce the penalty from $285 to something less, but not clear how much.

I was slightly heartened by the fact that it looks like airfares to Thailand in March are about $500 less than my original purchase price. This is only of consequence, in the sense that perhaps it would provide leverage for getting the supervisor to reduce the penalty.

But, again, not so fast.

Turns out, STA does not have access to the same airfares that you and I have access to on the Northwest Airlines website. In fact, STA does not have access to airfares that even remotely resemble the ones available on the Northwest Airlines website. Rather than being $500 LESS than the price I paid, the ticket price STA quoted me was $100 MORE than the original ticket price.

So tell me. Why would anyone on earth book their travel through a travel agency, if their fares are WORSE than the airline, and the terms of their tickets are WORSE than the airlines?

I really don’t know. I really, really don’t know.

I cannot even begin to tell you how many telephone conversations this all involved - hours and hours. Numerous times where I was left on permahold, or where I was disconnected after long holds. For sure, I spoke with representatives named: Daisy, Bri, Doug, Ryan, Nick, and Manny. Supervisors were involved, named: Carlos and Mike. And there was also a branch office employee named Abra. And as you can see below, I have now received a comment from a Marketing Communications employee named Patrick Evans (I am assuming that was a legitimate communication, and not fake).

At this point, I am not only demoralized, but I am really just worn out, from trying to resolve the matter. I know what I said, and what I asked, and what I was told. And it seems that, short of hiring legal support (which my employer provides for free) and having them subpoena every single piece of phone and written history, there is probably no way that what I was told originally will come back into the light. And I just don't have the energy for that, especially because there is still risk that it will be unsuccessful.

But now, I am probably looking at spending close to $2100 to fly to Thailand, a place I wasn’t really sure I wanted to go, in March, at a time I wasn’t really planning on traveling, and without any travel partner.

So, I need to suck it up, and start working on that last matter, because that’s the only one over which I have any control. I’m going to find someone to go to Thailand with me.


  1. Mick,

    We would like to thank you for your feedback and have you speak with the president of our company if you are interested. Please send an e-mail to me at pevans@statravel.com.


    Patrick Evans
    MarCom @ STA Travel

  2. Wow. If that's for real, it's pretty cool.