Rick Hasen, a law school contracts professor who runs an election law blog, writes about an Alice in Wonderland experience with Expedia.
He purchased a ticket from Expedia for travel on Japan Airlines:
…it turns out that Expedia failed to disclose that this is a special fare that does not allow seat selection until 72 hours before flight time, and Expedia misrepresented the ticket could be changed (such as to a higher class of service, so that I could do seat selection) with a change fee. It is totally non-changeable.
He bought from Expedia because he believed they had a better reputation than another online booking site displaying a lower price. He made a best rate guarantee claim that was denied.
Expedia disclosed general terms of purchase but didn’t provide access to specific fare rules (that most non-specialists would have a hard time decoding, but regardless they weren’t made available).
His priorities for the trip were an aisle seat for himself and seating together with his family (who were traveling on award tickets while he was traveling for work). It turns out he had a Japan Airlines N fare which doesn’t permit seat assignments until 72 hours prior to travel.
Expedia Dancers Don’t Provide Customer Service. Flickr: Juggernautco
After being disconnected and waiting on hold for more than one and a half hours, I finally spoke with a Tier 3 agent (Leilani) in Las Vegas [who] …said that there was no way to cancel this ticket despite the fact that nowhere did you disclose to me, before or after purchase, that you were selling me a ticket which does not allow for seat selection.
The next day I contacted Expedia customer service via Twitter…[they] wrote: “Our records indicate you were on our site and booked this reservation on November 8, 2015. Your booking session lasted 18 minutes and 42 seconds. The airlines retain total control over the seat selection and/or seat assignments for all flight reservations. If you were uncertain about this, our Customer Support was available for assistance…
With special fares, as the one you purchased, there are times that we are unable to assign seats due to restrictions placed on the reservations by the airline. We recommend to our customers to carefully review the details of the trip as well as the fare rules and/or cancellation policies and to call us immediately if there are any discrepancies or additional questions before purchasing the itinerary.
Japan Airlines suggested that he buy up to a more expensive economy fare.
I then called Expedia customer service again, got another incompetent person outside the United States, and waited over an hour to get in touch with a Tier 3 person in Las Vegas. I finally spoke with “Wanda” in Tier 3 who told me that not only is my ticket non-refundable, changes are not allowed even upon paying a change fee. Not only is this information you failed to disclose to me both before and after I purchased my ticket; your website affirmatively represents that changes are allowed upon the payment of the requisite fee to the airline and any fare difference.
So what to do? Professor Hasen notes that “Expedia requires arbitration of most claims (except individual claims in small claims court), and their agreement bars class actions.” He intends to file a small claims suit.
- Fare rules are complex and some websites are very bad at parsing them. When rules aren’t disclosed, or the rules are contrary to what is disclosed, the consumer should have a strong case but can be up against an impenetrable bureaucracy.
- Technology limitations are at play. And agencies haven’t made the investments yet to fix this. The industry is pretty fragmented and each airline wants the travel agencies to adopt their own proprietary standards and the agencies want the airlines to use standard computer reservation systems (which are themselves lagging in supporting all the new ways in which airlines disaggregate their fares and sell things separately now).
- Online travel agencies tend to underinvest in their flight search and display technology since air travel is mostly a loss leader for them, they sell air in order to sell consumers far more lucrative hotels.
- You can generally cancel any purchase from an online travel agency in the US for 24 hours. Most consumers are unaware of this.
- While their terms and conditions (adhesion contracts) are pretty one-sided they’re actually not as bad as the airlines themselves, which you generally can’t even make state contracts claims against when suing in state court (the Airline Deregulation Act preempts state regulation, and the Supreme Court has ruled that a state claim of good faith and fair dealing would be the state’s regulating the airline). So you’re basically limited to suing under the terms of the airline’s contract of carriage as-written.
- Airlines in the US are regulated by the Department of Transportation. The selling of air travel by the OTAs like Expedia is similarly regulated. So you do have recourse of a DOT complaint.
- Eventually the technology will improve here, as airlines and online agencies work out their differences and as Google slowly gets into the space and starts eating their lunch.
There are things I like online travel agencies for. For instance,
- Combining different airlines on a single ticket
- Issuing tickets inside a particular country (especially is particularly useful given their myriad country-specific sites).
- Double dipping with the site’s own rewards program in addition to frequent flyer programs.
- Choosing which computer reservation system is used to make my booking — since there may be availability lags which cause one site to price less expensively than another.
Surprise, you’ve been put into Basic Economy [fares which are not changeable at any price]. And look at the bottom right. It actually says that the ticket is changeable for a $200 change fee. Further in the process, it tells you the change fee again, and if you click the fare rules, it just says they aren’t available. Wow. Something tells me Expedia might be looking at a fine from the DOT here.
Expedia told Professor Hasen that it’s his obligation to run the call center gauntlet to speak to someone if he wants to know the rules of the ticket he’s buying. Of course getting access to accurate information that way is far from assured. And Expedia is unlikely to easily provide access to call center tapes if the information you’re given turns out to be incorrect.
Cranky thinks Expedia is getting better. I think all the sites eventually will because they’ll be facing new competitors. I personally haven’t booked through Expedia in quite some time. Two years ago they devalued their rewards program after just recently devaluing their rewards program. So I scaled back my bookings and lost ‘VIP’ status (which meant better call center access). Without reasonable call center access I just don’t have the time to deal with the bureaucratic hurdles.