Warning to Travelers Who Book Online

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The Computer Age has changed the way people plan trips.  Once upon a not-so-distant time, we called our travel agent to book flights and arrange cars and hotels.  Now we are more likely to use an online booking service like Travelocity, Orbitz, or Venere.  I strongly recommend against this for several reasons, not the least of which is that these agencies—especially Travelocity—appear to be completely indifferent to your welfare and entirely oblivious of their business responsibilities.

A year and a half ago, for example, I booked two hotel rooms in Paris through Venere.  When the friend, for whom I booked the second room, had a domestic emergency—his small daughter had to go to the hospital—I sent an email to Venere cancelling the room for the first night and warning we would probably have to cancel the second.  Since the person handling this account was on vacation,  the hotel was never informed, and we were obliged to pay for the two nights.  Venere made no attempt to help in any way, but the hotel (the Lennox) did waive the second night and upgraded his room to compensate for the payment for the first night.

Travelocity, with whom I have foolishly done a good deal of business, is a more serious matter.  Several years ago, I used them to book tickets to Milan for my children.  When we got to O’Hare, we discovered that the flight numbers had been changed, which meant that my kids had no reservations.  This was a problem for two reasons: first, because we were supposed to meet them at Malpensa airport and take them to Verona, and second, because storms had shut down the airport and the whole place was a nightmare.  People who had been wise enough to book through either a travel agent or directly with the airline had been notified and switched over.  I had my secretary  call Travelocity, who informed her that this was our problem, not theirs.  United, despite the chaos, did find them seats, and all was well, but I could never even get Travelocity admit that they should change their policy, at least.  In fact, they refused to respond in any way.

I did not use Travelocity for years until I began noticing they showed some good web fares.  Foolishly I tried them again and nothing went wrong, and I not only forgave but forgot.  Back in February, I realized I had to find a hotel for two nights to attend my son’s graduation from the CIA (the good CIA, the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, NY).  By the time my wife’s relatives could figure out their schedule, all the good hotels within 30 minutes of Hyde Park were booked—there were several graduations on the same weekend in May.  The most suitable place I could find—a low-rated Rodeway Inn in New Paltz—could only be booked, it seemed, by either jumping through the hoops on the Rodeway Inn website or by using an online agency.  Since I had a Travelocity account, I booked three rooms for two nights with them—a terrible mistake, as it turned out.

A few weeks later—in late February—my daughter informed me she would not be able to attend.  I sent Travelocity a message canceling her two nights via their feedback mechanism for my itinerary.  I got a message back saying they had received my message, and that should have been that, but it was not.  The day before we left, I had the presence of mind to look again at my itinerary online, and it was then I discovered they had not cancelled the two nights.  I called customer service and was transferred immediately to the subcontinent, where people with the improbable names of Fiona and Paul, whose impenetrable accents were not Scottish brogue, gave me the run-around for an hour.  I told them I had the message of acknowledgment, but the best they would promise was to talk to yet another supervisor and then to the hotel manager.

When I got to the Rodeway Inn, the girl at the desk claimed to have received no word from Travelocity and did not give me any paperwork, and when I checked out, the manager—another Indian gentleman—refused positively to give me a bill or a receipt.    When I returned, the Travelocity computer sent me the usual message asking for feedback on the hotel (poor but adequate, despite the chicanery) and on their service.  I explained in no uncertain terms what I thought of their incompetence and duplicity and said I expected a refund and apology.  I have received neither, which is why I am posting this  brief account of my dealings here and elsewhere to warn unsuspecting travelers against Travelocity.com.

Two conclusions: First, deal directly with hotels.  Try to write at least a greeting in their own language, even if your French or German is primitive.  Mention the online price and they will almost always match it.  Once you have established contact, you will have confirmation.  I have heard many stories of people who booked with a company online only to discover, whey they arrived, that there was a glitch.  Yes, hotels may sell your room, but I have never had this happen when I went through all the steps of getting a verification.  I also think you get a somewhat more personal treatment when you arrive.  You can also make requests or changes directly without going through an unreliable mass-marketing intermediary.  It is the difference between shopping at your local grocery and going to Walmart.

Second,  use the same travel agent whenever possible.  It rarely costs as much more as you might think.  they charge a few but on balance the total usually comes to within $10 of an online price.  In general, though I continue to buy tickets directly from airlines, when they have a special webfare that my travel agent cannot match or come close to, I rely on the ladies at Morrison Travel, who can run interference with airlines as I am rushing through an airport when my flight has been canceled.    They have saved my bacon twice in just the past year of so. In using Travelocity, I am trusting my fate to an impersonal machine that hires employs aliens many thousands of miles away and whose indifference to my fate is matched only by their rudeness.   In using Morrison, I am dealing with fellow-citizens I have learned to rely on and who alert me to possible difficulties.  They do not just do business in Rockford but have clients all over the country.    If you book a flight or hotel through Morrison Travel, please tell them I sent you.  It won’t get me a dime discount, but I do want them to know I appreciate their faithful and efficient service.

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