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Christopher Elliott: Always check reservations for errors

  • Published Sunday, Feb. 20, 2011, at 12:04 a.m.
  • Updated Sunday, Feb. 20, 2011, at 12:25 a.m.

This error is extremely unfortunate, since we planned this trip for my husband's birthday. It was an honest mistake.

I contacted Southwest Vacations, and they said they would be willing to rebook our airline tickets and re-issue our theme park tickets, but that there would be a $500 penalty for the Disney hot el. Southwest asked Disney to waive its rules, but Disney hasn't responded. I know they are under no obligation to rebook our package, but can you help us?— Pamela Metcalf Kunelis, Fair Oaks, Cal if.

A: I agree, neither Southwest Vacations nor Disney was under any obligation to refund any portion of your vacation. The fact that Southwest had agreed to re-issue your plane tickets and theme p ark tickets was more than you — or I — could have asked for.

I would have let this case go, except for one thing. Disney doesn't typically ignore requests like yours. I thought that was odd enough that I felt a little investigation on my part was warranted. The Mouse doesn't give customers the cold shoulder, in my experience.

But before I get to Disney, let's talk about your reservation. You booked a vacation and then went away without first checking it? Not a good idea. If your reservation is made by phone, and you're expecting an itinerary to be mailed to you, ask your agent to repeat the dates of your stay. (Admittedly, September and December can sound the same on the phone, which is why they have paper itineraries.)

If you're making the reservation online, give it a once-over. If you'd done that, then none of this would have happened. A mistake caught early in the process can be fixed much easier than later on, either after you return from an extended trip, and certainly, before your vacation starts.

I'm not suggesting this was entirely your fault. Online booking systems can be confusing. It's easy to select the wrong date on most websites. The pull-down menus don't behave in exactly the same way from Web browser to Web browser, so you can think you've selected December when, in fact, you've clicked September.

Similarly, many phone agents don't speak English as a first language. This can lead to major misunderstandings when you're reserving a trip by phone. You say September, they hear December; they say December, you hear September. The only way to be absolutely sure is to get the confirmation in writing as soon as possible — not by mail, days later.

I contacted Disney on your behalf, but as the date of your birthday celebration drew closer, neither you nor I heard anything from the company. Finally, with just days before you were supposed to leave, you heard from Southwest Vacations.

It turns out Disney had responded to your request after all, but because of a communication problem between Disney and Southwest, you never got the message.

Disney waived its $500 rebooking fee and allowed you to redo your vacation.

Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine and the co-founder of the Consumer Travel Alliance, a nonprofit organization that advocates for travelers. You can read more travel tips on his blog, elliott.org, or e-mail him at celliott@ngs.org.

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