Dec 292011


I had intended to write three travel-related posts consecutively before getting sidetracked with the last post.  I figured that by going from bad (United Airlines) to good (Singapore Airlines) to awful (this post), I might avoid sounding like a perennial complainer.  And indeed, as I mentioned in a recent post on customer service, I really think it’s worth calling out and supporting great customer service (and the companies that provide it) so we get more of it – and less of companies like Travelocity.

You already know that this story doesn’t end well, so I’ll caveat things up front. First, I technically booked through as opposed to; but were they to tell me that’s a separate corporate entity with a relation in brand only, I’d tell them that I don’t care and that they should be more careful with their brand. Second, this is just one experience; I am sure that some people have good experiences. Much probably depends on which agent your call is routed to, and whether they’re having a good day. Though having communicated with them many times via both phone and E-mail, I must have hit many bad days. Finally, there are definitely things I could have been more proactive about or attentive to. Still, I think customers deserve better.

The context is simple – I needed to go back to Malaysia from Seattle for my mom’s birthday. Since I was no longer living in Canada or flying out of Toronto, which I was pretty familiar with, I had to look for different options and decided to give Travelocity a try (due to a slightly negative experience with Expedia, in which a flight booked with Expedia got cancelled, but I got charged for the hotel I also booked with Expedia anyways; understandable in some respects, yet unpleasant nonetheless).

The first challenge was just finding flights. Like essentially all travel sites, you type in what you want and what feels like 5 minutes later, you get back a list of options (some of which have impossible connection times and other traps to watch out for). I look forward to the day when the awesomely fast Google Flight Search covers the whole world and not just the U.S. Now, I understand that finding optimal flight routes is something of an NP-complete problem, but taking 6 different airlines via different cities isn’t going to work anyways, so it’s unclear that the search space should be that large. Yes, arcane fare rules and airline partnerships probably make matters more complex, and I have no doubt that the people who work on this problem are very smart. But the results aren’t great, yet.

What do I mean by not great? Searching for flights from Seattle to Kuala Lumpur turned up a few options, all with 2+ stops, that were not appealing and also quite expensive. Searching for flights from Los Angeles to Kuala Lumpur and then matching flights from Seattle to Los Angeles offered a whole host of viable options not returned by the first search. You can try it right now! Plugging in this same set of routes (SEA -> KUL versus SEA -> LAX -> KUL), with a random date, the two-part search found flights $70 cheaper – with the same number of stops (2). In my case, the difference was more than $70, and more importantly, I was looking for a decent airline (Singapore Airlines) and also a Star Alliance carrier since that would have put me at the 100k threshold to qualify for Super Elite status for another year. The added inconvenience and time of flying via LAX was easily worth it to earn those miles.

But my gripe is not about the search process not being as good as it could (or should, or will) be. It’s about three things that happened next:

  • As I check in at Los Angeles for the flight to Singapore, the check-in agent tells me that in addition to only having middle seats (which I can accept), that I’m on a special fare that doesn’t qualify for miles. I’ve rarely ever seen such fares, especially not for international travel – but in all cases where I had, it was fully disclosed.  There was no mention of this in any interaction with Travelocity, and I did indeed read all the fare rules.  I read them again after discovering this, complained to multiple people at Travelocity about this, and all they could say was that it’s an airline policy, not their policy, and that I have to talk to the airline about it.  They were utterly uninformed, and this was a serious failure in disclosure.  The net cost of this was approximately 40,000 miles (I earn 2-for-1 through this year due to being Super Elite), which is enough for 1.5 round trip tickets anywhere in North America.  And it put me well out of reach of making Super Elite for next year (which historically meant 50,000 extra miles during the year – another 2 round trip tickets).  Of all the issues, this was the most serious – it still makes me angry thinking about it, especially given their clueless and uncaring response to the issue.
  • Several weeks after booking, I received several E-mails on both flights informing me about changes to the flight schedule – made by the airlines (Singapore and Alaska, in this case).  Flights, in particular the LAX -> SEA flight, moved several times, sometimes backwards, sometimes forward.  I knew I’d have to check this at some point, but assumed that it was just a change of schedule.  In actual fact, my LAX -> SEA flight had been moved earlier enough that there was absolutely no way I was going to be able to clear immigration and customs, walk between terminals (it’s LA!), and go through security to catch my flight. Once I realized this, I called to correct the situation.  Their response?  I should have called sooner, now I’m stuck with unworkable flights, and have to pay $200 to get something later.  I paid less than $200 for the entire round trip initially!  To add insult to injury, they spent a bunch of time trying to convince me that I initiated the change – when I was looking at E-mail directly in front of me that made it clear that I didn’t.  Thank goodness I was calling with Google Voice, or it would have cost a fortune to listen to them tell me that I decided to pick impossible flights for myself.
  • A day later, they get in touch via E-mail to say that my rebooked flight didn’t go through, because my credit card – the same one they had yesterday when they were on the phone with me – has now expired.  Note this isn’t a credit card I had given them; they asked if the same credit card was fine and I said yes, without actually thinking about exactly which card I had originally booked with.  Oh, and in the whole 24 hour period that went by that it took for them to discover what normally happens in the 10 seconds after you click the “Book” button, the fares have changed – upward – and now I have to fly through Portland.

I’ve probably traveled between 800,000 and 900,000 miles by air during my lifetime, but this qualifies as the single worst experience in that entire history of air travel. The only two that come even remotely close are benig told by the now-defunct airline Jetsgo that we our flight out of Newark was cancelled because it was snowing in Toronto (it was over 10 degrees Celsius, and an Air Canada flight was departing at the same time – this was just an outright lie), and being locked in a room for over four hours with my brother while on transit as unaccompanied minors in Los Angeles.

I won’t be using Travelocity again, and I suggest that you don’t either.

 Posted by at 10:25 am

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