A Cautionary Tale About Booking Through Expedia

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.

Cranky Flier documented how badly Expedia handled Delta’s ‘Basic Economy’ fares

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.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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Comments

  1. Expedia?
    Want cake? Go to a baker!
    Meat? Go to a butcher

    Expedia is not an airline it’s a joke.

    It’s the equivalent of s supermarket. Low quality along with low prices. You gets what you pay for.
    Nothin is free

  2. This one struck a chord. I made the mistake of buying a discount business ticket through Expedia earlier this year. To make a long story short, it took more than an hour to even get through to a phone agent (after getting disconnected twice) to try to make a change, and even then the supervisor I dealt with got the airline’s fare rules wrong (according to my triple-checking it with the airline itself). The upshot is that a process that would have taken five minutes with the airline was so botched by Expedia that I couldn’t even make the change at all.

    There’s more, but I’ll leave it at that. The lesson is to avoid Expedia, period.

  3. That’s why they say you should always just book directly with the airline. I hate not being able to see fare rules, or even fare class. I’ve been on holds with Expedia for hour plus. I try to avoid if possible.

  4. It appears to be an open and shut case in a Small Claims Court if you have a screen shot of the relevant pages – but who ever keeps those? More to the point is what the damages would be – and they’d probably be trivial, and certainly not a full refund.

  5. I’ve almost purchased from Expedia (and similar) but then backed out when it wouldn’t show me full fare rules.

    Gary, I’m not really up on the OTAs, but you mentioned more Expedia facing more competition – what sites do you think show promise as competitors?

  6. What about tickets for small airlines though? I have a couple of tickets for Air Tahiti for intra-island flying to Bora Bora etc.

    Any thoughts on that?

  7. Reminds me of my own horror story of booking through an aggregator. I’d booked a flight from Denver to Beijing, with a connection in Seattle right at the same time that Continental and United were going through their merger in the Spring of 2010. I couldn’t print my boarding pass since my final destination was international, and my printed confirmation very clearly said “Continental”, and so that’s the counter I went to for check-in, waited in a fairly long line there, only to be told that I had to check in at United instead. The line for the United counter was over an hour long and I was less than that away from boarding and Continental didn’t bother to walk me to the front of the line even though it was clearly not my fault. By the time I got up to the counter, they weren’t accepting luggage for my flight anymore, but I might make it if I run and gate check it. Decided to chance it. Frantically ditched shampoo, toothpaste, everything that wasn’t TSA-friendly while dragging my suitcase through the security line, and that apparently sent up the flag for secondary screening, during which I cried and tried to explain what was happening. The agent took his sweet time. I missed the flight, then was on standby for several flights before I managed to get onto one (which miraculously got me to Seattle just as my connection to Beijing was boarding). There was a LOT that went wrong with that flight, but it started because the third party booking service listed the wrong airline on the confirmation.

  8. “And Expedia is unlikely to easily provide access to call center tapes if the information you’re given turns out to be incorrect.”

    The reason I record all my calls that I may have a remote chance of needing the tape of.

  9. While Gary makes an ever so slightly valid point about combining two airlines on the same ticket, that comes with headaches of its own if you’re checking bags. Offline transfers get lowest priority.

    I learned my lesson with the OTA’s when I need to change a ticket. On top of the airline’s change fee, I had to pay Orbitz $30. For what? That was years ago, and the last time I bought airfare through somebody other than the airline directly for a US domestic flight.

    (As Gary points out, they have their uses overseas.)

  10. My Expedia issue was getting them to honor a mistake for $200 off a five nights hotel with no minimum. I knew the old Navy Y in San Diego is now a $40 night budget hotel, a carpeted flophouse but much nicer than when I stayed there in the Navy. So I booked and it got rejected. I learned it was a mistake, but I had the Terms printed out so was able to get a supervisor to honor it. Others wouldn’t spend the five hours to get to someone who would.

    Otherwise their hidden overseas flights aping Priceline can be a bargain as I’ve flown to Berlin a few times on a $500 one, which time frames clearly revealed which Lufthansa flight it was.

  11. It’s been years since I’ve used an online agency like Orbitz or Expedia, but I have had some good experiences (along with bad).

    Best is when there’s an issue. Had a trip booked via Expedia a few years ago. The first leg of the trip, the flight was cancelled and they automatically moved me to a different carrier on to my final destination.

    On the other hand, I’ve been walked on hotel bookings via third party sites more than is statistically normal.

  12. I recently had an interesting experience with Orbitz (which is now part of the same company as Expedia). I purchased an open jaw ticket from Lisbon to Marrakesh and then Marrakesh to Casa Blanca on Royal Air Maroc through Orbitz because I couldn’t figure out how to book the itinerary as an open jaw on the airline’s website but was able to get it at a price that worked for me through Orbitz. I later needed to change the date for one of the flights and was fine with the change fee (although I think that it might have been 25 dollars more using Orbitz but I am not sure). Orbitz told me that I could only make the change through the airline. The airline told me that they could make the change but that I couldn’t pay with my credit card over the phone because the same Orbitz credit card (I might have misunderstood this as it seemed to imply that Orbitz used a credit card to purchase my ticket) had to be used to make the change and that Orbitz would not let me make the change by calling them either. Eventually, the agent found a way for me to go to the airline’s ticket office in Lisbon to make the change. While inconveneient, this worked but it made me irritated with Orbitz that using their service to book my ticket made it so inconvenient to make the change.

  13. @Dan
    Thank you very much for sharing the information that offline transfers get the lowest priority. I did not know this. Do you know of any sources for one to learn more information about what constitutes an offline transfer and how this works?

    I recently booked an itinerary through an online site that included Chicago to Toronto on Air Canada and then Toronto to Dublin on Aer Lingus. My bag did not make the transfer in Toronto and it took two days for me to receive it. After reading your post, my guess is that this is likely a result of connecting on airlines that do not normally work together (they also flew out of different terminals in Toronto). I would like to learn more about this topic.

  14. 1. Unless the flight is uncomplicated and I am not going to change it and it is.. wait main point here.. SIGNIFICANTLY cheaper than the airline website, I will never use a 3rd party site, same goes for hotels…

    2. If you jailbreak your iphone you can record all calls so that’s what I have been doing…

  15. You know what they say about “If it’s too good to be true”…

    If found, it may be worth picking up the phone and calling the airline.

  16. I made a similar mistake and purchased a RT ticket with Expedia on Lan SCL-ICP five years ago. It worked out okay in the end as I was able to get aisle seats for both legs by getting to the airport extra early. My takeaway from this is to purchase from brick and mortar travel agencies when I can’t preselect seats on the airline website. The extra cost is worth knowing I won’t get stuck in a middle seat on a 10+ hour flight.

  17. I had an almost EXACT incident happen with Orbitz where I purchased a business class ticket and was told that it was non-refundable AFTER purchasing all the while calling both the airline and Orbitz BEFORE purchasing and was told by BOTH entities that it WAS a refundable ticket. In the end, the dates worked with no harm, no fault. Nevertheless, regardless of how much the travel bloggers out there taut the opaque sites as being G-d’s gift to saving $$ or the king of mileage earning (& MANY of them do), I very rarely use them and have long blacklisted the son of Satan, Orbitz, & was QUITE vocal that I would never give them business and would always badmouth their piss poor, fraudulent services…

  18. I wish I had read this first. Expedia took us for $4K this week. I had set up a trip for my husband, son and I, as my husband recently recovered from a near fatal traffic accident, and this was our first chance to get a vacation in over 3 years. I booked on April 10, then on April 13th they sent me an email that linked to my itinerary, saying it was not confirmed, and that the airline “rejected” the initial low fare. I had purchase booking insurance, and took heed of the rejection they claim was made that United would not honor the first rate, I rebooked a second ticket. Two days after that, I get an email showing “both” of my itineraries, for the same trip, the same airlines, and the same date, and in 3 of the 4 legs, we had two seats booked on the same flights. I called three times, was on hold all day between the three, trying to rectify why I would want two identical trips for the same three people on the same airlines on the same days coming and going. As bad as it was, I had one cancelled trip, and a second more expensive one booked, and “oops: their agent deleted the second flight, never to be seen again. Both trips were around $2000 for my family, and today, we have no tickets to go on vacation. I have it disputed on my credit card, so I pray I can recover.

  19. Wow. Well, I have used Expedia for more than 11 years now sometimes 2-3 times a year for international vacation packages. The prices were quite good, and I NEVER had one issue. That being said, I have been attempting to use it the past couple weeks, and now, I have noticed some changes. The first being it appears that Delta, who I prefer, is now much more expensive for unknown reasons. The additional cost of over $400 per person makes Delta basically not a choice, and this really limits my choice. Secondly, now, suddenly, you can no longer choose your seats on the planes before paying for the booking. THERE IS NO WAY I would do this. I guess, Expedia, for me, has officially died.

  20. I’ve been using Expedia for many many years. I had the worst experience ever today.

    I booked a flight from Atlanta to Las Vegas three months ago. When flying from ATL (5 days ago) – I was given “unassigned seating” during check-in via the Delta app. Not thinking of it, I figured I’d have my seats assigned at the ticket counter. At the ticket counter, the Delta associate didn’t explain not one thing about my not being able to change seating due to the type of ticket I purchased – instead, telling me to wait until the plane was fully boarded and ask a flight attendant to assist with seat changes. Stupid me, I did exactly as I was told and asked the flight attendant for assistance only to be informed “we have no control over the seating assignments”. So, my wife and I took measures into our own hands and asked 4-5 people if they’d be willing to accommodate our desire to sit together. We were successful, but not until the plane was in the air.

    Today, scheduled to return to Atlanta from Las Vegas and still unaware of the Economy tickets we obtained from Expedia, I proceeded to check in online and again was assigned no seats. Having never experienced anything like this in all the years I had booked flights through Expedia, I figured “this must be a fluke”. My wife and I proceeded to the boarding Gate and waited for our names to be called to be assigned seats. When we were called, the ticket agent assigned seats but they were not beside one another. When I asked why we not seating together, I was finally informed of the ticket restrictions. After minutes of back and forth and the the putting up with rude behavior by the ticket agent, we chose not to fly and demanded Delta put us on a later flight with guaranteed seating. Delta obliged.

    I’m now fighting with Exoedia (spent two and a half hours on hold and am awaiting a call back from a Manager) for selling me tickets without revealing the restrictions.

    Livid and stranded in Las Vegas!

  21. Hi Expedia.ca,
    Expedia.ca sucks and you are a bunch of crooks. You stole $ 1163.32 from me as I was preparing for a trip which should be a stress free experience. You heartless bastards including the lying people that work for your company in Quebec. Those incompetent bastards kept me on the phone for hours while lying to me and they finally told me to phone back the following day because the offices were closing. I know lots of people and I will tell all of them how bad your company is and it will be a cold day in hell before I do business with your companies again including: expedia.ca/.com, hotels.ca, hotwire.ca, trivago.ca, egencia.ca (formerly expedia corporate travel), venere.com, classic vacations, expedia CruiseShipCenters, travelocity and orbitz. I will get my money back. So have a nice day you fricken banditos and fricken bunch of low-lifes. It is great that you own lots of companies’ Expedia so I have a lot of options when it comes to complaining about you rats. Now I see where you get the money to buy all these companies; by stealing my money. Good luck with your monopoly.

  22. I have two words for expedia.ca and they are not Merry Christmas or Happy Travels; Part 2

    Hi Expedia.ca/.com,
    I’m back. Expedia, you can’t hide your dishonesty and poor customer service behind all the other companies you own and probably purchased with money you swindled from customers; companies owned by Expedia (so stay away) include: Hotels.ca/com, Hotwire.ca/com, Trivago.ca/.com, Egencia.ca/.com, Venere.ca/.com, Classic Vacations.com (surprisingly good), Expedia CruiseShip Centers, Travelocity.ca/.com Orbitz.ca/.com, Homeaway.ca/.com and Expedia Local Expert (That’s a laugh; expert in what?). I did talk with a company representative of one of your umbrella companies (Classic Vacations) and I was so surprised with the service I almost fell out of my chair. The customer service representative was very courteous and professional unlike its parent company (Expedia.ca/com). Maybe they are worth trying for your travel needs but I have no history with this company or reviews. In addition, maybe that’s why Expedia bought out Classic Vacations in order to learn some manners and provide honest and professional service. In general, instead of getting screwed by dishonest companies like Expedia.ca/.com I would deal directly with the airlines and hotels for travel needs. They probably might match prices found on disreputable sites like Expedia.ca/.com.

  23. I have two words for expedia.ca and they are not Merry Christmas or Happy Travels; Part 3

    Hi Expedia.ca/.com,
    I’m back. I had an e-mail and talked by phone with a manager of Expedia Cruise Ship Center (Sandy), a completely different company but owned by Expedia.ca/.com, about my problems with Expedia.ca (Quebec). He was very courteous and professional and said he would look into the customer service and dishonesty matters I’m having with the parent company. Expedia Cruise Ship Center could not promise me anthing but I think it is amazing that a subsidiary company would help with customer service problems of the parent company Expedia.ca/.com. In addition, Expedia is building quite the monopoly here in North America. Pretty soon they will own every travel company the rate their going. I hope the Feds are watching them.
    Again, the companies owned by Expedia.ca/.com include: Hotels.ca/com, Hotwire.ca/com, Trivago.ca/.com, Egencia.ca/.com, Venere.ca/.com, Classic Vacations.com (surprisingly good customer service), Expedia CruiseShip Centers (Good customer service), Travelocity.ca/.com Orbitz.ca/.com, Homeaway.ca/.com and Expedia Local. Surprisingly two of the companies listed above were courteous and professional (Classic Vacations and Expedia Cruise Ship Centers). You have been warned.

  24. I have two words for expedia.ca and they are not Merry Christmas or Happy Travels; Part 4

    Hi Expedia.ca/.com,

    I’m back. In previous posts I referred to Expedia.ca/com employees as rats but I was wrong because rats are highly intelligent unlike Expedia.ca/.com employees and probably me since I’m the one out $ 1163.32. So far I’m no further ahead of getting my money ($ 1163.32) back from Expedia.ca/.com that, in my opinion, stole it from me. So, in my opinion, Expedia.ca employees are thieves, liars and have poor customer service. Some companies owned by Expedia.ca/.com, however, have surprising good customer service (Expedia Cruise Ship Centers and Classic Vacations).
    In general, short of getting a lawyer or going to law school or picketing their corporate offices I’m running out of options, however, I’m not running out of words. Also, in my opinion, companies like Expedia.ca/.com price fix between their subsidiary companies in the corporate world and the Competition Bureau says that’s all right. Yes, all right for the Rich Corporation but bad for the Middle Class. Do you think rich people use Expedia.ca/.com? For example, when looking for a supposedly bargain airline ticket a person may search Expedia.ca/.com then Travelocity.ca/.com. The customer assumes he is looking at competitive rates from different companies but we all know Travelocity.ca/.com is owned by Expedia.ca/.com. They are thick as thieves in my opinion. Companies like Expedia.ca/.com try to squeeze every drop of money from the Middle Class to show their shareholders how well they did. They do not tell their share holders who they screwed along the way to make the money. Expedia.ca/.com profits, some from screwing customers, are used to purchase a monopoly in the travel business in order to screw the Middle Class in a never ending cycle.
    The companies owned by Expedia.ca/.com include: Hotels.ca/com, Hotwire.ca/com, Trivago.ca/.com, Egencia.ca/.com, Venere.ca/.com, Classic Vacations.com (surprisingly good customer service), Expedia CruiseShip Centers (Good customer service), Travelocity.ca/.com, Orbitz.ca/.com, Homeaway.ca/.com and Expedia Local. You’ve been warned. Yes, I am one pissed consumer.

  25. I have two words for expedia.ca and they are not Merry Christmas or Happy Travels; Part 5

    Hi Expedia.ca/.com,

    It’s me again. Expedia.ca/.com has a great shell game going that would make the likes of Al Capone, Paul Castellano, Vito Genovese and Lucky Luciano proud. Expedia.ca/.com uses the old bait and switch method on customers offering tickets that are an apparent bargain but add extra fees and raise ticket prices at their whim especially when they know you’re stuck. It happened to me. The dishonest employees and heartless bastards of Expedia.ca in Quebec inflated prices on me after I was forced to cancel a ticket priced at $ 1163.32. They now wanted over $ 4000 for a new ticket because there were no more tickets at the lower price. What a bunch of horse shit. An hour later prices were in the $ 1400 dollar range. It makes you wonder if the upper echelon of Expedia.ca/.com, who live in their opulent homes (Some money earned and more stolen from the Middle Class customers), give kick-backs to their employees when they rip off a customer. There must be an incentive for the employees to raise ticket prices by 4 times the original price. Expedia.ca/.com preys and bleeds the Middle Class of their money because the Middle Class is 99% of their customers and they have a near monopoly in the travel business. It’s time the Middle Class stands up and say no it is not alright to rip us off. Stop being pussys and demand your money back. Expedia.ca/.com has a near monopoly in the travel industry in North America and the money bleeding of the Middle Class will only get worse. Do not do business with the bastards. You’ve been warned and yes I am one pissed Middle Class consumer.

    The companies owned by Expedia.ca/.com include: Hotels.ca/com, Hotwire.ca/com, Trivago.ca/.com, Egencia.ca/.com, Venere.ca/.com, Classic Vacations.com (surprisingly good customer service), Expedia CruiseShip Centers (Good customer service), Travelocity.ca/.com, Orbitz.ca/.com, Homeaway.ca/.com and Expedia Local.

  26. Expedia customer service is a joke, all they do is blame the airline and quote policy, i will never use expedia again, half the time i couldn’t understand the accent of the operators(i think they are all in india), their managers/supervisors have no power to help you, they just have a knack of constant repetitiveness of their policy. all in all expedia sucks ass!

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