Christopher Elliott: A cautionary tale of offshore phone agents

My girlfriend and I had a set of multi-destination tickets that we booked through the site. We called Travelocity to ask if we could change one of our flights from Chicago to Washington. An agent told me it would cost another $300. She was nice but her English was not all that great. I got a confirmation e-mail, but without any numbers.

Instead of charging me $300, Travelocity billed me another $4,000. They reissued all the flights again, including the trans-Atlantic flight.

I've been on the phone with their agents for the past month or more, trying to get this fixed. Eventually, they told me that if I cancel the remaining flights I would get a refund, which I agreed to. The refund was to appear on my credit card in one to two billing cycles. I rearranged my travel plans and bought the tickets I needed elsewhere.

However, I then received an e-mail that said Travelocity is "unable to refund" the money. I called to see what was happening, and several agents and supervisors said that the refund is no longer possible but that I can get credit for future purchases, provided that flights take place within a year. Do you have any advice?— Marko Grdesic, Madison, Wis.

A: Next time, don't change your flights. Oh, who am I kidding? Plans change, and Travelocity should have been able to handle this request without sucking another $4,000 from your bank account.

Your story is a cautionary tale about offshore phone agents and the needless complexity of airline reservation systems. It helps to look at this from the perspective of an online travel agency and an airline.

A big online travel agency wants to save money, so it hires inexpensive agents for whom English isn't a first language. It figures the cost savings will be more than the added expense of reservations that get fouled up because of language issues.

An airline, on the other hand, wants a sure thing. It wants cheeks in seats, or, more precisely, it wants the money from those tickets. Once you commit to a fare, it's in the carrier's best interest to make it difficult to change. So it hits you with fees for making changes, and it almost certainly gave Travelocity a hard time when it tried to make a single tweak to your multi-itinerary trip.

These two forces are conspiring to create your $4,000 headache.

How could you have prevented this? First, you should have stayed off the phone as much as possible. Some flight changes can be made online — it's not clear if yours was one of them — but I would have tried that before phoning Travelocity.

When you were connected with an agent who you couldn't understand, you could have asked for another representative or simply ended the call (politely) and called back until you got through to someone who could speak your language.

As for the refund, the phone is the least efficient way to inquire about that.

Put your request in writing. Send an e-mail. Your case will get a tracking number.

I twice asked Travelocity to have another look at your case. And the second time, it issued a full refund.