Back in November, I was too sick to fly and had to cancel a trip. I hated doing it. It meant missing a visit with my family but even more painful was the thought that I would have to sort everything out with the airlines at some point. I would have to call the travel website that I had used to make new reservations and I expected the airline would fight with me over the $200 change fee even though I had a letter from my doctor.

I was right and I was wrong. The whole process was an ordeal, but the things that were the biggest problems were not the things I expected.

This plane is not part of the Bigname Airline fleet. (Trying not to get sued here.)
This plane is not part of the Bigname Airline fleet. (Trying not to get sued here.)

I called Famous Travel Site and told them my situation. “You need to talk to the airline first,” the agent told me. So I called Bigname Airline. Their automated answering system kept asking me questions and then never had an option to fit my situation. I kept hanging up and trying again. I got so frustrated that in answer to a question I told the computer “Bite me!” and hung up before it could ask me to repeat my request. I paced and swore until I was calm enough to try again. I guess I had suffered enough because I only had to listen to twenty minutes of bad muzak before I got to talk to a live person.

The live person told me, “You have to make reservations first.” They don’t waive the change fee, they refund it, and you can’t refund something that doesn’t exist yet. They also told me refunds are done entirely online, so at least I could hope that I wouldn’t have to deal with their horrific phone system again.

Once I was back on the line with Famous Travel Site, I found myself wishing I hadn’t been born. If their call center isn’t outsourced to a foreign country, then they did an amazing job hiring people with accents you can’t understand. My first call had gone so well — the woman had known at once who I was and what flight I was talking about. She was fast, efficient, and completely comprehensible.

The Customer Service Gods only give you one intelligent, intelligible support person per lifetime, and I’d wasted mine on that stupid change fee question. (Of course, she got the answer wrong, but let’s not go there.) Now that I needed to book tickets, I had a guy with marbles in his mouth. On top of that, it took him at least ten minutes to find out what the first tech had known in seconds. I spent a whole lot time being the polite lady waiting on the phone as we scheduled my flights one at a mind-numbingly-long time.

Then came the fun part. All along, I was wondering how much more these new tickets might cost. Granted, flying from Denver to Tucson was likely to be a little cheaper than Denver to Baltimore, but with the change fee and who knows what else thrown in, I expected to owe them money.

So I was very interested when the guy finally came back and said, “The flight will cost you grumferdal dollars.”

“Two hundred and fifty dollars?”

“Frumgurdel dollars.”

“Five hundred and fifty dollars?”

“Truffenda dollars.”

I gave up and asked politely for a detailed invoice. We went back and forth on this several times before I understood what he was saying. He sent me the invoice by e-mail and when it showed up, it just said $520 with no indication of how much of it went to the flight and how much to fees, or how much of it (if any) was covered by the existing credit. At least it didn’t say “$grumferdal” or I would have started killing people.

A week later, I applied for my change fee refund. I needed time to cool off and regain my strength before I could face another round wrestling with the airlines but my official reason was to make sure that Bigname Airlines knew I had tickets before I tried to get my change fee back. Miraculously, their refund website worked well. I only had to fill out their form three times before it worked. I attached a scan of my doctor’s note and crossed my fingers. I was assured I would hear from them in 7 to 10 days.

At this point, I didn’t expect anything. I had made a second call to Famous Travel Site trying to get a detailed invoice from them and was sent the exact same non-detailed invoice I already had. As I fumed over the fact that no one could tell me how much anything had cost, I had a brainstorm. I could check my credit card account. Famous Travel Site had charged me $30 over the original cost of the tickets, which put my total travel charges at $520, the magic number on their invoice. I was relieved to discover that the cost of my canceled tickets had been applied to my new ones, and that I wasn’t paying $520 on top of what I’d paid in November.

My fear that Bigname Airlines wouldn’t refund my change fee wasn’t only because of the way I’d been manhandled by their customer service system. The letter from my doctor looked like it was written by a delinquent student. It was one sentence long and had two typos, one of which was the doctor’s name. A handwritten “n” was added to correct the name, but the typed “ilness” was left untouched. At least it was on letter head.

Two days after I submitted my request, a miracle occurred. I got an e-mail telling me that my refund request had been accepted. They gave me back $150 of the $222 which was a separate fee billed to my credit card directly from the airline. It was a sour triumph. When I hear “refund”, I think “return”, so I was a little annoyed not to get all the money back.

On the up side, you could argue I made $150 with two hours worth of work, which is more than I’ve been paid by anyone ever. I think I’ll stick to my day job.

This video of Irish singers explaining plane fees helped me laugh this all off. It’s only four minutes long. Warning: full of swearing (although it’s Irish swearing, so it’s kind of cute).

4 thoughts on “Outwitting the Airlines: How I Got What I Wanted Despite Their Help”

  1. Araugh! I think we have all been in your shoes and it never ceases to amaze me that it keeps happening! Customer Service. Not! I usually wait to make these calls until most things I have on my To Do list have been crossed out. That means I don’t have a diversion while on hold. I think from now on, I will have a hand quilting project to work on. It might serve to calm me. I recently had to deal with a US government agency to get my name corrected …at their request…because they could not process my information. Well, gosh . . . their computer would not let me enter my name because it is two words with a space in between. I mean . . . really? How many other Mary Ellens, Mary Anns, Mary Beths and so forth have had to deal with this? So, I jumped all the required hoops, including sending my husband to their regional office to meet with their grouchy representative, and about a week later, I received confirmation that it was all fixed. Guess what? The next piece of mail that arrived from them was addressed to MARYELLEN . . . no space, all capitals. So much for correcting my name in the computer! My advice to parents: do not give your kids a first name with two words! My husband now jokes with me and calls me Mary Ellen Two Words, because that is what I always say when I sign in anywhere! Keep the faith, Kit . . . because you know it will happen again. The good part is the refund! 🙂
    Signed, Mary Ellen Two Words . . . aka Emmy (it is easier, altho I get called Emma a lot!)

    1. Wow, Mary Ellen, that stinks! At least you did what you could. I try to find things to do as I wait on the phone, too, to keep from feeling like it’s a complete waste of time. And bad customer service isn’t going anywhere.

  2. Ever notice how with BigAnybody Corporations that when what you want serves them it takes minutes, but when it doesn’t serve them it takes hours, is confusing, requires multiple reps and steps, and suddenly no one can talk so as to be understood? Airlines, cable, insurance…

    1. So true! There are way more hoops to get your money back than there is to paying them for something. I don’t want to believe that they do it on purpose, but it sure feels that way.

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