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Christopher Elliott: Refunds take the slowest form of travel

  • Published Sunday, July 3, 2011, at 12:07 a.m.
  • Updated Sunday, July 3, 2011, at 6:08 a.m.

Everything was a "go" until we received a call one day in early April from an Expedia representative informing us of a change to our American Airlines flights. American had apparently changed quite a few flights to the island and, unfortunately, none of the changes worked for us.

The Expedia rep said that if we chose not to accept the changes for the flights that we could expect to see a full refund due to an "unacceptable" involuntary schedule change by the airline. After getting the rep to verify that we could cancel the hotel, excursion and flights at no charge, I authorized them to go ahead and cancel the trip completely.

The rep was able to instantly provide a refund for the hotel and kayak trip, but advised that the refund for the flights would take between four to six weeks to go through.

Six weeks later, having received no refund, I checked with Expedia. It informed me that it had already given me a refund, but it turns out it only was referring to the first refund. I e-mailed Expedia back to let it know that it got the wrong refund, but have not received a response yet. It concerns me that no one can seem to tell us when we will ever get the refund or why it has been held up for so long.

I am at my wits' end with Expedia, Chris. Can you please help me get this resolved? My wife and I would be so grateful.— Dan Lachapelle, Sudbury, Canada

A: I wouldn't be so quick to blame Expedia. Airlines are known to drag their feet when it comes to refunds, and my initial reading of your problem suggests American might have something to d o with the delay, too.

This is a common problem. You buy your tickets through an agency, and the agency takes your money. But if you want a refund — or something else, like a name change — then the agency defers to the airline.

If you paid the agency, why can't the agency just give you a refund?

I've been covering the travel industry for years, and I still haven't heard a reasonable answer to that question. I'm told that it's technology or policy or even tradition that keeps your money from flowing back in your direction promptly. Either way, it seems the only beneficiaries are the companies that get to keep your money for two to three billing cycles. It shouldn't be that way.

Expedia should have been able to refund your entire purchase and then retrieve the money from the airline. Instead, it made you wait. And when you made inquiries, it told you the check was in the mail, and when you followed up, refused to answer.

For what it's worth, I think your refund would have come — eventually. But you've been more than patient. You can find the names of Expedia's executives on my new customer service wiki, On Your Side (www.onyoursi.de) and appeal your case to someone higher up the food chain.

I asked Expedia about your refund. It contacted you and admitted losing the information for your flights and refund. You received a full refund for your trip.

Christopher Elliott is the author of the upcoming book "Scammed: How to Save Your Money and Find Better Service in a World of Schemes, Swindles, and Shady Deals" (Wiley). He's also 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 tips on his blog, elliott.org, or e-mail him at chris@elliott.org.

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