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Christopher Elliott: Refund requests best handled by e-mail

  • Published Sunday, Dec. 12, 2010, at 12:03 a.m.
  • Updated Sunday, Dec. 12, 2010, at 12:56 a.m.

They offered a substitute flight that was in no way comparable, so I called them and requested a refund. They said I had to take it up with the airline, which was Air One out of Italy, so I called them and they said no, that I must request the refund through CheapOair.

I then spent about an hour on the phone with CheapOair, explaining my situation over and over again with different agents that I was transferred to. Finally I spoke with someone who confidently said, yes, it would be no problem for me to get a refund, but that it might take up to 12 weeks.

More than three months later, I still hadn't received my money, so I called the CheapOair agent I had spoken to before and no one seemed to know who she was. I spent another hour being transferred from person to person at CheapOair and the consensus with them was, "What refund? You need to request that through the airline."

So I spoke with someone at Air One again and they very firmly repeated what they had said before — that they would definitely provide a refund but that the proper channel was through CheapOair. Many phone calls and many hours later I still had gotten nowhere with CheapOair.

It's now been almost a year since I first asked for a refund. Help!— Dani Lind, Soldiers Grove, Wis.

A: CheapOair should have helped you get a quick refund from Air One. As your travel agent, CheapOair should have advocated for you, rather than sending you directly to the airline for help.

One of the reasons you buy airline tickets from a third party like an online or offline travel agency is that they stand behind your purchase, offering to act as intermediaries when you need help. A good travel agent would have helped you fill out a ticket refund request and kept the pressure on Air One to send you the money.

I've been mediating these kinds of refund cases for a while, and I've noticed that it takes longer and longer to process refunds. It doesn't help that you were dealing with Air One, which at the time was part of troubled Italian carrier Alitalia.

You shouldn't have tried to contact CheapOair by phone. A refund request is almost always better handled by e-mail (remember the paper trail!) and it will save you time, too.

Another option is a credit card dispute. True, you only have 60 days to dispute a credit card charge by law. But many credit cards will go to bat for you even if it's been longer than that. Simply put, Air One didn't give you the product that you were sold, so you might have had a strong case for a successful credit card dispute.

The other options — which are long shots — are taking CheapOair and Air One to small claims court. I say "long shots" because technically, neither company is keeping your money. The airline is just taking its time with your refund.

I contacted CheapOair on your behalf. After a considerable amount of back-and-forth between you, the agency and the airline, and another three-month wait, you received a full refund.

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

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