Warning, guys, this one’s a doozy. But it’s been brewing for some time—more than a year, in fact. And while I try my hardest to keep this a positive space, sometimes you’ve just got to tell the truth in hopes that history doesn’t repeat itself (i.e. none of you make the same mistake I’ve done). Cliffsnotes version: Booking through Expedia or another third-party OTA is something you should never do. Why exactly? Well, I’ll tell you.
As you may recall, my family and I went on an epic European vacation through the Balkans last fall. The trip began in Budapest, wound its way down the Danube and ended in Bulgaria. From there, we’d fly to Istanbul for the final week.
Throughout all of 2016, the ISIS situation in Turkey continued to escalate, one bombing after another made us a bit wary but the majority of them occurred far from Istanbul, where we’d be visiting. Until, of course, the Istanbul airport itself got bombed at the end of June. This paired with my dad’s stroke and his inability to communicate left us all feeling uneasy enough for me to attempt to reroute us—with no help from Expedia.
There was no way to cancel our flights, they told us. They had no control, they said. It was, ultimately, the airline’s decision. And if you’re thinking “good luck trying to contact Turkish Airlines,” you’re exactly right—they’re about as helpful as Expedia.
So I guess we were going to Turkey; there was no way around it.
Then when our trip was less than one month out, Turkey fell into a military coup—which later failed, but here’s the kicker: For three full days of uncertainty, anyone who had booked trips to the airport, for the most part, could get refunded in full for their trip.
That is, unless, you booked with Expedia.
At the time, I reached out to the company by both Twitter and phone to go ahead and cancel all our flights; my thought was that if I could just get those funds back or a credit to rebook even, I’d simply purchase tickets on another airline (certainly not Turkish) that transported us to another European hub like Vienna or Budapest. We didn’t have to go to Istanbul after all; our cruise left from Hungary and ended in Bulgaria. We simply had thought a few days in Turkey on the back-end would be a nice way to tie up our family vacation.
At the time I was going through all of this in mid-July, too, the Turkish president had declared a state of emergency that was in effect through October. Our trip was planned for mid-August. This was the state department and FAA warning issued at the time:
Sounds ominous, right? Because I know someone who works at Expedia and was getting no results with the phone, being left on hold for hours at a time, I immediately got in touch with her hoping she’d help. She put me in touch with Nick Curry, GCO at Expedia, who wrote me this on July 16, the day after the coup attempt, in response to my explanation of the events that had unfolded:
Looks like the coup is over for now. There are no cancellations to report but please let me know closer to your trip if you have any questions. Thanks!
To which I responded:
It may be over—for now—but more than 160 people died last night, and this is the third such incident in a month alone. Would you feel comfortable taking your family there? I sure don’t—particularly as my 64-year-old father just had a massive stroke months ago.
We still want to go on our Europe vacation as planned, as it’s been booked for a year now, but want to avoid Turkey entirely. I was hoping to change our flights to another Star Alliance member that has us bypassing Istanbul but every time I call Expedia, I’m told they can’t help. Is this something you could assist us with?
Appreciate your help,
I just caught up on my email and saw a note from the US State Department about travel being restricted. Apologies for the spam but there wasn’t a policy last night. Let me have my team call out and see what we can do. I imagine there are lots in your situation, so this may take a few days to resolve, but let me start the process ASAP.
Things were looking up! I suddenly felt like I had an ally. Until I didn’t. Three more days passed without a response from Nick. Then he had his team call to tell me the coup was over so I was, in a sense, screwed. Oh, but had it not taken them so long to respond, I could have easily canceled over the weekend through our credit card company when the state department warning was still in effect, as so many friends also traveling to Turkey had done successfully. Dozens of phone calls with Expedia followed, and I continued to ask to speak to that person’s supervisor, but it got me nowhere.
For those of you who think travel writers get preferential treatment, let this be a case study. We don’t!
Meanwhile, I was working the Twitter connection as I’ve learned, at least in the case of the airlines, it’s often the only way to talk to a real-live customer service representative, someone who is not at a call center in India.
There are two ways this scenario could have played out: 1) They could have just canceled my flights and refunded me in full or 2) they could have let me amend my flights and use the $8,500 we had spent in airfare toward another booking. But oh no, Expedia wouldn’t allow such a thing; I’d have to go to the airline instead.
So go to the airline I did. Only, I still couldn’t ever actually get through to anyone on the line, and they sent out a stock response to anyone who reached out via Twitter saying that you could cancel within that period but that was it. Not too helpful in my case. And while, yes, the airport bombing happened 47 days prior and the failed coup 31 days before our departure, this happened the morning we would have arrived: 14 dead and more than 220 wounded. I think we made the smart choice here, even if it cost us cold, hard cash.
Needless to say, I lost more than 60 hours of my life on the phone trying to sort this ordeal, and I’ve never wanted to quit a trip so bad as I did this one.
Meanwhile, I located a contact for a PR girl from Turkish Air’s U.S. agency (at the time) Golin, and she tried her hardest to help and was kind as could be. But ultimately she can’t dictate how a government-owned airline runs. In the end, I was referred to a supervisor, Selkan Ukel, who was supposed to be able to help me, only after five attempts at reaching him, this was the only response I got:
So, what happened in the end?
So what is a traveler to do in times of political strife?
I honestly don’t know, other than to do as we did and absorb the hit, realizing that, in the long run, your life is more important than $8,500. I will say that before you do anything else, try contacting your credit card company first; oftentimes, there’s a certain level of insurance attached to trips that you might not even know about. There were eight of us travelers and the only ticket we didn’t book through Expedia was SVV’s RT ticket from Atlanta to Istanbul; we booked it via Chase Sapphire Reward points instead. So guess who issued us a $965.16 refund check for the canceled flight? Chase’s Broadspire insurance company. (Yay, Chase!)
Guess who did not issue us a penny back? The Citicard and AmEx Gold we used to book the remaining seven round-trip international flights on Expedia (plus another two legs to Budapest and from Bucharest for a total of eight travelers).
According to one of my travel industry friends, it’s important to get the right kind of travel insurance—and also read the fine print.
“The key with the ‘cancel at any time’ insurance is you pretty much have to buy it within like 24 or 48 hours of booking your trip,” she told me. “As I discovered when prepping for a trip to Africa, almost no regular travel insurance policies cover political unrest/coups/etc. I think from Allianz, that said in the fine print you could cancel for absolutely any reason. Burkina had just had a coup so I wanted to make sure I was covered in case there were more riots/protests.”
I’m no expert on travel insurance, but many travel agent friends recommend Travel Guard or Allianz, two companies I’ll also be looking into on future trips.
But hey, at least I got a media hit on Fox News out of the whole ordeal. My grandfather would have been proud!
Nearly a year later, I still feel dirty about this whole scenario, as if I’ve been scammed, like as a travel industry professional I should have known better. Let’s just consider it a lesson learned the hard way. And to rub salt into the wound, not only were we out more than $8,500, but we had made all our bookings through Expedia, including rental cars, and were charged double on both car bookings in Romania, which wound up being a little shack about a mile from the airport and gave us no documentation of the fees we incurred.
Given they just owed us $200 back, you’d think this was something that Expedia could easily remedy, right, particularly in light of the big blow we’d just been delivered? Wrong! This is the company that specializes in adding insult to injury (just call them the United of OTAs). After seven months, I finally got a rep on the phone; after more than 60 minutes on hold while she investigated, at the end of the call, she promised me a $100 voucher for my trouble and a resolution within 48 hours. You may not be surprised to hear that the voucher never materialized and no one got back to me. So, 13 days later, I took to Twitter again, only to get yet another rude response:
Note: It would have never occurred to me to ask for a voucher, and I was a bit surprised (and pleased); this kind gesture came from a “customer service” rep over the phone who proffered it because of the inconvenience. But the patronizing response from Expedia’s Twitter team sure was awesome!
I gave them myriad chances to fix it, and no matter how many times I’ve given the rundown to a rep, I have to start over. Is it really worth pursuing further for a measly $200?
So guys, take my family’s painful hit for your own travels, and don’t book through Expedia. In fact, don’t book through an OTA (online travel agent), period. Go straight to the source, the airline in this case, as had always been my policy in the past.
My usual plan of attack? Monitor airfare through Scott’s Cheap Flights, Google Flights, The Flight Deal, whatever service you like, then book directly through the airline (or rental car)(or hotel). Every single time. Or! I can refer you to an actual, live travel agent who will help you 1,000 times better than an OTA would. I know a number of good ones and am always happy to pass along the contact info.
And as for if I’ll ever make it to Turkey? That’s debatable. Sadly, this financial blow was enough to sour the whole country for me—apologies to any Turkish readers I might have; it’s not you, it’s your airline—and with all the ISIS activity continuing to occur in the eastern part of the country, it might be a long while before I feel safe traveling there.