If You Book with an Online Travel Agent, Always Double-Check With Your Airline

I’ve run across plenty of problems when it comes to helping our Cranky Concierge clients, but a recent run in with CheapOair.com has me absolutely steaming. It also provides a very valuable lesson: always double check with your airline if you book via an online travel agent.

One of our clients had signed up looking for First or Business class tickets from LA to San Jose, Costa Rica. CheapOairThe lowest rates I had found on most sites were for about $950 roundtrip, a good deal in its own right. But when I went to CheapOair.com, one of the consolidators that I check relatively frequently, I found one that was just over $600 roundtrip on TACA. Was it much lower than elsewhere? Sure. But it wasn’t so insanely low that it seemed completely impossible, like a $10 fare. Besides, CheapOair is a consolidator and can often get lower deals, especially from international carriers.

So, our client booked the trip and the confirmation email confirmed that it was in First. I knew TACA only had Business, but those terms can be used interchangeably by online travel agents for two class airplanes like this. For most people, they would have booked this and been thrilled with the deal. They would have shown up at the airport and been on their way, right? Not so fast.

I always make it a point to double check every reservation made with on online travel agent with the airline directly. Usually it’s just to confirm or request seats, but I always make sure everything got booked properly in the first place. I’ve sent other clients through CheapOair before and never had a problem, but when I checked with TACA, it showed the booking in coach.

Huh? How did that happen? So I called CheapOair and their Indian call center agent assured me that it was booked in First Class. I said that was all well and good but the airline said it was in coach and that meant that they needed to help resolve this problem. They put me on hold.

Sure enough, they came back and said that this flight doesn’t have First or Business so that’s why it was in coach. I told them that wasn’t the case and there absolutely was a premium cabin on this airplane, but the agent refused to believe me. I hung up and figured I’d try again. But first, just to be clear, I called TACA to confirm that there was a premium cabin. There was, and the agent there said that it had been booked with a coach fare.

Round 2 – I called CheapOair back and after going back and forth for several minutes, I was told that I could absolutely get First Class . . . for $1,500 per person. Are you kidding me? I said that our client paid for First Class and expected to get it, but not if it meant nearly tripling the price. This agent went back again and finally came back saying it was a technical glitch and there was nothing she could do. I asked to speak to a supervisor. She came back and said that there was no supervisor to speak with. Great.

We regrouped. I had one person who emailed me awhile ago about blog advertising from CheapOair, so I sent him a note. I didn’t hear back.

I tried to call one more time the next morning and got another agent. This time, he told me that it was the airline’s fault. The airline had failed to file the fare with taxes and fuel surcharges, so it was their fault. Tired of hearing the third different excuse in as many calls, I finally simply gave up and asked for a refund. That was granted. And we just moved on.

The moral of the story? Well, there are two.

  1. If it’s too good to be true, it probably is (but not always – there are great deals out there).
  2. Always double check with your airline after booking through an online travel agent to make sure everything is in order.

[Update 4/16 @ 1118: Just got a note from CheapOair. They have now offered our client two vouchers for travel on AirTran in consideration for the problems. Now, I have no idea what AirTran has to do with anything here, but hey, it’s something. This points back to previous questions about whether a regular traveler would be able to get the same treatment as a blogger. Apparently they can, if they’re Cranky Concierge clients!]


39 Responses to If You Book with an Online Travel Agent, Always Double-Check With Your Airline

  1. One possible explanation (though not the only one, and not the one provided by CheapOair)…

    The problem might have been the way CheapOair interpreted the booking class codes (RBDs) on TACA. Booking classes can be almost any letter of the alphabet and are used both to price the booking as well as establish the cabin class. There are lots of booking classes for each cabin class, but how they are used varies by airline. There are conventions like Y = economy these aren’t enforced by GDS or in fare filing. If the availability source (e.g. GDS) just provides booking class that forces the agent or OTA to maintain a list of booking to cabin class mappings per airline. When the OTA’s list of classes is not in sync with what the airline’s list you can get the kind of confusion you describe above. Even after reviewing the booking the agent won’t see anything wrong. Blaming the airline’s fare filing might be a natural reaction in that case.

    The only solution in this case was for agency to call the airline, and it seems the call center people you spoke to weren’t empowered to do that.

    • CF says:

      I believe you’re right since that’s what happened to David below. The CheapOair people said they did call the airline, but I really have no way of knowing if they did or not. They should have fixed the problem and then honored the fare, but they are apparently not a customer-service organization.

  2. kt74 says:

    Hang on, isn’t there a breach of contract issue here? You have a paper confirmation from the agent saying you have booked and paid for tickets in first. Surely they need to honour these at the price you’ve paid, regardless of whose fault it is? If it’s the airline’s fault then it’s the responsibility of the agent to recover the excess from the airline; after all, when you click the “ok” button, you have de facto signed a contract with the agent – they can’t renege on it if the price rises, just like you can’t renege on it if the price goes down

    Look at it another way: if this was a mistake fare booked direct on an airline website, all hell would break loose (e.g. on Flyertalk) if the fare was not honoured, especially if the fare is, as you say, not “so insanely low that it seemed completely impossible”…

    • CF says:

      But airlines do refuse to honor mistake fares all the time. They have the right to do it, even though many times they honor it anyway. For this client, he was ready to just move on and book something else instead of fighting the fight. So I figured the least I could do is give CheapOair some bad press.

  3. I can’t believe someone would name their business CheapOair. I see they are trying to get the buyer to think of them for lowest fares, but to my age group that screams a cheap product or service. Which sounds like what it turned out to be in this case.

    I remember eons ago when I started working for TWA they trained us to never use the word ‘cheap’ as in cheapest fare. It was always to be said as ‘lowest fare’ or ‘least expensive fare’. The word cheap sent the message of something being inferior or poor quality.

    At least these people got their money back.

  4. …and I can tell you without a shadow of a doubt that they lied to you when they said no supervisors were available.

    I’ve spent many years workig in and supporting call centers, and there is always an availabe manager — even when there is an all manager meeting.

    I would have serious doubts about doing business with a company whose call center employees lie to me.

    • I’d be amazed for this at an Indian call center, but at the office I work at (which shares some characteristics of a call center.) we often don’t have a manager on the right team available, but we’ll always offer to setup a call back.

    • CF says:

      There definitely were supervisors around, but they said that they couldn’t help me so they wouldn’t let me speak to them. Awesome.

  5. Well this client definitly got their moneys worth with the concierge service from you!

    So what fare did they end up getting and through whom?

  6. James says:

    I had a recent issue with Travelocity, (name entered wrong by them,) and ended up being ping-ponged between Travelocity and the airline each saying “it’s up to them to fix it.” After an hour of that nonsense I thankfully found someone in PR that fixed it immediately and offered a credit for the problem. But the average traveler doesn’t know how to track down email addresses at various company headquarters or blog about it until it’s noticed by the “social media response team” or whatever they call it.

    I hate Indian call centers, not because of any communications issue, rather they are the least empowered to make changes and stick to this forced and annoyingly polite script of over the top endless spiels of customer service platitudes without addressing or barely acknowledging the problem itself.

    If I need to speak with someone about a ticket I always request international and just ask my question. They are usually US and always help, and don’t know where you were routed from. (I don’t think so anyway.) Or another way to avoid India is hit the Spanish option. (I’ve been doing this for years with airlines and other companies too.) All Spanish CSRs speak English and seem to have a better grasp of the company and solutions you may need, and don’t mind if you “oprime numero dos por error…”

    Also I also use the double check rules, (booked directly or 3rd party,) with hotels, car rentals, activities, U-Haul rentals, or anything else that might seriously screw up my day if forgotten about.

  7. David says:

    Brett, as you know I had this exact same thing happen to me with TACA and cheaptickets.com about 2 years ago. I booked first, called to confirm, was in coach. Turned out that Cheaptickets sold us an A fare, which for most domestic airlines is discounted first class, but for TACA it’s a discounted coach fare. I called every day and was eventually upgraded to some sort of VIP customer service. They finally admitted it was their mistake (after I told them about the fare class mess-up). They were able to put us in business class for 4 of the 5 legs. I’m pretty sure they used some sort of upgrade certificate to do this, based on the fare class that appeared on our boarding passes. My girlfriend and I each got $250 vouchers for a future flight booked on Cheaptickets too.

    The best part was, at the airport, the gate agent upgraded uson the leg that we were told was unavailable in business class.

    • CF says:

      Yep, I definitely remember this, but you had the fortune of booking through a company that was willing to deal with you. CheapTicket is owned by the same guys that own Orbitz, so they were more willing to deal with you and you guys got a fantastic deal. CheapOair just simply wasn’t going to do it. I kept calling, but when the client decided to just get the refund and run, I stopped the effort.

  8. Allan says:

    This should be an important lesson for all, do not buy airfare tickets (a significant purchase) on websites with silly and juvenile names like ‘CheapOair.’ I travel a ton for business and some for leisure and i ALWAYS book directly through the airline. I avoid on-line or brick and mortar travel agencies at all costs. I might pay a few bucks more but at least I know the vacation I’ve been planning for my family for the past 6 months is safer.

    • CF says:

      I would actually disagree with that. I mean, what was the harm in trying? Nothing. The fare was much lower than elsewhere, and that’s not uncommon for a consolidator like CheapOair. So it was booked and then we immediately went to the airline to see if everything came through ok. If it does come through ok, then all is good. If it doesn’t, like in this case, you just get a refund and move on.

      • robert says:

        But Cranky, does this particular incident mean you’ll never use CheapOair again?

      • James says:

        I agree with Allan. I’ve booked Priceline or Orbitz when the price was significantly cheaper, but I know and accept the risks. When a Kayak search gives me the airline’s rate for $10-$20 or even $30 more than a consolidater I always select it — and eliminate that “wall” between myself and access to the product I purchased.

        “Get a refund and move on” is putting it lightly. For those that reach that point it’s rarely that easy. For many it involves hours on the phone, dealing with refund departments, waiting weeks for the refund or ultimately filing a dispute with their credit card companies.

        I realize those are few and extreme examples among thousands of daily trips, but there are enough of them that it’s too many. I consider myself travel savvy and I too was refused a refund after a (phone based) CSR completely butchered my name, couldn’t reconfigure the rez for the same price, then refused to credit my card back. (I refused to fly internationally with a my first/last name all mixed up and spelled wrong.)

        The method in which I obtained a “refund” before a PR person fixed the whole thing was asisine.

        I feel bad for a family that saves up for a big once a year trip and gets caught up between companies like this. – just my opinion…

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  10. jacob says:

    I try to avoid Cheapoair because of their awful customer service and misleading practices, but sometimes they are the only online travel agent that can book a complected itinerary. When I must use them I first look up the flights I want on ITASOFTWARE.COM then make sure everything matches on cheapo air before I purchase.

  11. JayB says:

    When any company decides to sell a product (a seat, and two simple cabins) under such wonderful “bucket” inventories as F, P, A, C, D, Z, Y, B, M, E, U, H, Q, V, W, S, T, K, L, and G (did I miss any?), what do you expect? [Has LH ever used “umlauted” letter codes?]

    Fare codes are even worse. Cranky probably worked on one: LA3PN9SCREWSOUTHWESTORWHOWEVERELSETRIEDTOUNDERCUTUS!”

    There, I feel better! Keep up the good work!

    • Hrm. CF, could you actually make a fare code “LA3PN9SCREWSOUTHWESTORWHOWEVERELSETRIEDTOUNDERCUTUS!”?

      That’d be sweet. Perhaps not that one specifically, but you could make codes to give a nice nod to a specific city a la the 7×7 flights being more common to go into SeaTac and 1776 going into WDC etc..

      • CF says:

        No, you can’t. Fare basis codes can’t be longer than 8 characters, unless something has changed in the last couple years. You absolutely could file something with that kind of message, but you’d run the risk of getting in serious trouble. Messaging in fare basis codes could be considered signaling and that’s a no-no.

        United’s full fares are filed under xUA where x is the booking class. So their full First Class fares are FUA. There were plenty of times when I worked at America West that I wanted to file an FUA fare myself . . .

        • Now you know why there’s no IATA carrier code “UK”.

          Fare basis codes are still 8 characters.

          AFAIK You can’t file a fare based on someone else’s filing (e.g. always be 10% cheaper than WN), but you can do that on your own filings. Some airlines use “fare intelligence” systems to monitor competitor fares and then react by filing new fares (a bit slow) or moving the inventory around to different classes (a lot quicker).

  12. David M says:

    I’d extend the recommendation to check with the airline when dealing with a brick-and-mortar agency too, especially when dealing with someone offering a lower fare. There have been cases where travel agents sold tickets but pocketed the money and never actually bought the ticket, leaving the customer to discover at check-in that they had no ticket.

  13. Tim says:

    I’m with Allan. Buy through the airline. I’m always surprised by how many people buy through these other sites. What’s the point? Cut out the middleman.

  14. David says:

    Tim – you’re forgetting that sometimes an airline has an unexpectedly big number of empty seats which they want to sell, so as to get some revenue rather than none. Airlines will often sell these seats at prices much lower than on their own website, in return for some very restrictive conditions (no changes, no refunds, etc, not even if you’re in hospital !). If you’re absolutely sure you will want to fly in a month’s time, and you can save $350 per person, would you really turn it down ?

    • Tim says:

      David, the reply link is your friend.

      Here’s what I always do: I run a search on kayak or Expedia or IATA Software, or preferably all three (overkill, I know, but it’s fun). I then copy down the details for the best fare for the time I’m willing to go, and run over to the airline’s website and buy it there.

      I have never — never — not seen the identical fare on the airline’s website that I saw on the other websites. Maybe I’m just exceedingly lucky, but I’ve never seen a discrepancy between the two. Until I do (and maybe after that, too), I’ll always buy at the airline’s own site… the advantages are just so great to do it that way.

      • CF says:

        You are exceedingly lucky. I will always send clients to the airline site if the fares are the same, but I’ve had plenty of clients that have had to book through online travel agents to get a cheaper fare. These are usually international trips, but I just recently had a client flying from Florida to DC and found a fare $200 less on airfare.com than on delta.com.

      • Bobber says:

        Tim – the UA site is notoriously bad for not advertising discounted fares. Kayak and Cheaptickets always beat the Unitedairlines.co.uk prices – best case scenario is £10 more. In trying to book a roundtrip to SAN I’ve routinely been faced with paying nearly £100 more if I want to book direct with UA. It was never this bad – I blame CO!!

      • Tim, what David describes is “distressed inventory”. If you fly mostly on Fridays and Mondays, or on more successful routes, you might never see any distressed inventory. A half empty flight on a Tuesday is not necessarily distressed, if the revenue managers got enough $200 to $400 tickets on that flight then they are happy, why discount to $50 to sell 4 more tickets when you can get some guy buying a ticket for $400 at the ticket desk in the airport?

        In short – an airline won’t want to sell distressed inventory via GDS or their own site – they don’t want cheap seats to cannibalize the expensive late bookings. They will often sell them on hidden channels – such as selling them for use in hotel+air packages, redemption, etc.

  15. johosofat says:

    That would be moral, not morale.
    Sorry for nitpicking, but I’m a grammar freak.

  16. Kim says:

    I use CheapoAir all the time to purchase international tickets for myself and my family and have found them to be amazingly inexpensive and have never had a problem. It is difficult to get ahold of them by telephone, but not impossible and they’ve spent a lot of time with me on the phone finding the best fares.

  17. Many Companies are using the Indian Interface to create a firewall, you can book, but don’t you dare ring the Airline, people think they are but they are not, this is an escalating problem, and the big problem for the companies is that they believe their own glorified Public Relations, its our “Great Service’, point is “service” is just that servicing your clients, and using mantra trained Indians is about as far away from their self belief Public Image that “were here to help you!” as they can possibly get.

  18. CF says:

    Just got a note from CheapOair. They have now offered our client two vouchers for travel on AirTran in consideration for the problems. Now, I have no idea what AirTran has to do with anything here, but hey, it’s something. This points back to previous questions about whether a regular traveler would be able to get the same treatment as a blogger. Apparently they can, if they’re Cranky Concierge clients.

  19. Charlie says:

    cheapoair stole from me. they suck at customer service. I booked a ticket but i made a mistake so i called right away, and they said they couldnt do anything, of course after a whole day trying to contact them

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