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My experience trying to get to and from beautiful and restful Costa Rica for a family holiday using Orbitz has been entirely depressing. Flying these days is akin to trudging across a barren desert full of rattlesnakes and mirages, only made mentally and emotionally possible by holding firmly in your mind the hope that you might finally reach your destination. It didn’t used to be this way.

What used to be the ‘friendly skies’ is now more commonly referred to by most of my peers and colleagues as ‘airport purgatory’. I can remember back when you were treated like a paying customer. Nowadays once you enter airport purgatory you’re treated like a potential criminal/potential terrorist and a burden that needs to be schlepped from one side of the world to the other as cheaply as possible without much regard to your own comfort. It’s sad. If I could get to where I need to go by horseback, train, bus, bicycle, boat or foot in a reasonable time I certainly would.

Before entering airport purgatory, you have to spend some time in the ‘antechamber of airport purgatory’: purchasing tickets. Oftentimes, due to weather or some other issue, you have to make changes to the ticket, and you go swiftly from the antechamber, to airport purgatory, to full on travel hell where you have to deal with ‘customer service’. You wish you could stab yourself in the eyes with a corkscrew rather than be held there listening to hideous music, pre-recorded messages, attempts to up-sell you something, and travel hell agents who don’t really help you with anything.

For the past 10 years or so, I’ve allowed Orbitz to guide me through the antechamber of airport purgatory. I’ve gotten my tickets through them. It’s been fine as long as nothing out of the ordinary happens — eg, if the weather is fine, there are no delays, plans don’t change, and I don’t miss any connections. Unfortunately, things out of the ordinary do happen, and increasingly it seems I’m spending a lot of time with Orbitz in travel hell. That’s what happened on this last trip.

I can only remember 2 other instances that I’ve felt as dis-empowered and pent-up angry as I did when dealing with Orbitz this time around:  1) when visiting someone in prison and 2) when working with immigration officials in a country under a military dictatorship. (Coming in a close third is being on the phone with Dell’s customer service about a faulty computer….)

This recent experience in full on travel hell with Orbitz, combined with lesser annoyances throughout the past couple years has me so totally done with the airline system and its intermediaries that I do anything in my power not to fly. Unfortunately that impacts on my ability to do my job so I’m not always successful at avoiding it. Not even the environmental movement has been able to move me as emotionally far towards flight avoidance as the airline system and all its corollary parts.

Since I’m still really pissed off at being royally screwed by Orbitz, I thought I’d write down a few things that I wish I had done to avoid the pain of travel booking with them. I just sent off a long email to Orbitz and will be contacting them on paper too, so I will spare you the details. It’s probably not productive anyway to re-hash it all. I’d rather try to make something positive out of this to add this to my ‘Travel Tips for my Female Friends‘ post as an additional tip from someone who spends a lot of time traveling and arranging travel logistics.

The problem with Orbitz:

1) Orbitz doesn’t seem to keep any record of their interactions with customers. This means that every time you call, you have to re-explain your whole story. I used to work in customer service and we had a system where we stored notes and details on each call so that if a person called a second or third time, there was a record on file and anyone on the team could help. I’m blown away that each time I called Orbitz, they said they had no record of anything and I had to start over explaining from zero.

2) Orbitz treats the customer as if the customer is always wrong. They try to make it seem as if they are actually helping you on the phone, when in actuality you could do the same thing for yourself by calling the airlines directly. In the process, they keep saying they are ‘very sorry’ but never actually resolve anything for you. If you press them, they actually become rude. When I worked in customer service, and even back in high school when I was working retail at the mall, we were not allowed to deal in a less than friendly way with customers unless they were yelling or swearing at us. It’s bad for business. We were trained to be calm and polite. Not the case with Orbitz. I was not yelling or swearing or being unreasonable, and I spent no less than 14 hours on the phone with them in the past few months trying to resolve different aspects of the same tickets (not to mention time on emails, time wasted in airports and the night my kids and I slept on the cold floor at the entrance of the San Jose airport). That plus the fact that I have had an Orbitz account for over 10 years and I book tickets through them several times a year should flag me as a customer to treat with care. Apparently none of that matters to Orbitz. They were still rude to me.

Prepare for my trip? You mean the one that was cancelled back in October?

3) Orbitz’ systems are not synced with what is actually happening with your tickets and the airlines. With this one trip from Boston to Costa Rica, lack of synchronization caused me major problems and ended up quadrupling the cost of my trip – something I was not prepared for but didn’t have any way around by the time I was stuck with 2 kids in San Jose on New Year’s Day. First, I was informed by automated email repeatedly in August and September that my tickets were being refunded due to an airline going out of business. Each time I called customer service about it I was told that only one leg of my trip was being cancelled and refunded and not to be concerned with the other portion, it was still good. I was advised to purchase a one-way ticket to make up for the portion from the airlines that went bankrupt. This in the end was not true, the round trip ticket had actually been cancelled and refunded, and I ended up with the 3 one-way return tickets I had purchased and no outbound flights [Note: this happened while the tickets were under the auspices of http://www.cheaptickets.com. I found out, after going up the ‘customer service’ ladder and being referred over to Orbitz, they are owned by and share ‘customer service’ with Orbitz]. Orbitz subsequently seemed to get this all worked out. But then they continued to send “Prepare for your Trip” emails for cancelled tickets on the same flight path, same date and same airline as my valid tickets, causing confusion over what our actual flight time was. Due to this confusion, we showed up at the airport for a flight that had been cancelled and refunded months ago instead of for the earlier flight we were supposed to be on, and Orbitz was not willing to do anything to help us get on another flight unless we bore the total cost and waited up to 3 days for available flights on the original airline.

My recommendations of how to avoid getting screwed by Orbitz:

1) Don’t ever try to fix anything via Orbitz after you buy your ticket. You will call Orbitz expecting them to help you since you paid them a fee already for booking. They will put you on hold and call the airline and tell you the same thing the airline would. Sometimes the airline can actually do something for you that Orbitz can’t. So just book directly with the airline and deal with the airline directly. You may not get any better service but at least you are working directly with the company not an intermediary. Don’t bother with Orbitz. Be sure to have the international number of the airline with you when you travel.

2) Use Orbitz to find flights but never book via Orbitz. Once you book, Orbitz will pass everything over to the airline anyway, but then the airline can blame Orbitz for screw ups, Orbitz blames the airline, and you get stuck in the middle. It’s probably better to deal directly with the airlines as they have more information anyway about their own flights, and may want to retain you as a customer.

3) Just skip Orbitz altogether and find flights on Kayak, then book directly with the airline or via a real live travel agent in your area who you can hold accountable. Pay the travel agent the $30 instead of Orbitz. You’ll be helping the local economy and you know who they are when things go screwy. It kills me to say that since I do everything online and it’s so easy to find a ticket and click “purchase” but I’m realizing it’s worth the extra time at the beginning to save the time and increased costs later.

4) If you ever have a question or a claim for Orbitz, talk to them by chat and save a copy of the chat session. Then when they tell you something different each time, you can let them know that you actually have a copy of what was discussed as backup, and that you’re happy to share it with them to prove your point. This has gotten me further than working by phone where you have no way to keep a record of what they are telling you.

In the end, air travel will probably continue to be some variation of hell. The ticket wars are heating up lately as Delta and American Airlines are pulling their flights off of sites like Orbitz, and Expedia has fought back by allegedly making American flights difficult to find on their site.  They all purport to be ‘thinking of consumers,’ but that seems like a load of bull to me. They are thinking of their own piece of the pie. Maybe they could think about offering a decent experience to travelers and drawing in customers that way?

In 2011, I predict that purchasing airline tickets and getting to your destination will continue to suck. But maybe you can make it a little better by taking a few of the precautionary steps above.

Update: Ahhh, wonderful response from Orbitz to my lengthy email and a generous $50 voucher for my troubles. They say that I contacted the airlines directly (not true) and that “Orbitz was never notified of these cancellations, and therefore, was unaware.” That’s funny, considering the email below:

Uh huh... "Orbitz was never notified of these cancellations, and therefore, was unaware."

Update #2: Ah lovely lovely Orbitz. After appearing that they were going to help me and getting my hopes up, they’ve come back now and “for my confusion” they are giving me three $100 vouchers to use on, yes you guessed it, Orbitz. They “deeply regret each of my disappointing experiences.” I feel oh so much better. Not.

Related post on Wait… What?

Travel tips for my female friends

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