Travelers say miscommunication between Seattle-based travel booking company Expedia, hotels and airlines about refund and cancellation policies is leaving them on the hook for hundreds or thousands of dollars — and with the company’s call system overwhelmed by “unprecedented” call volumes, some are desperate for answers.
Hundreds of thousands of travelers in the U.S. alone are frantically canceling flights and hotel bookings amid far-reaching restrictions on movement and the closure of many tourist destinations to control the spread of the coronavirus.
“Our teams recognize the challenges our customers have faced in trying to contact us, and they are intently focused on helping them during this very unprecedented situation,” an Expedia spokesperson said in a statement. “Travel remains a vital part of the global economy and we are doing our part to ensure all those in need have the full extent of our help and assistance.”
Seattle resident April Baker was looking forward to taking her children to Disneyland for the first time in late March.
“This was a big trip for us,” she said. She and her husband planned to celebrate their daughter’s fourth birthday in Disneyland. It would be their first vacation as a family.
Between taxes on their family-owned plumbing business and medical bills to treat her 5-year-0ld son’s Crohn’s disease, Baker said, “vacations don’t happen for us. We’ve been saving up for this.”
They bought a package through Expedia, including flights and a hotel. She also bought trip insurance through the company.
Then, last weekend, for the first time since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Disneyland closed to comply with a California ban on large gatherings to control the spread of the novel coronavirus.
Initially, Baker said, she wasn’t worried. “That’s why you buy the trip protector,” she said, “so that if you need to cancel, you’re protected.”
Except that when she tried to cancel her hotel reservation on Expedia’s website, she received an alarming notification: “This is a special discounted rate that is non-refundable. If you cancel this reservation for any reason, you won’t receive a refund.”
Expedia, which handles one out of every 15 travel bookings globally, according to Morningstar analyst Dan Wasiolek, doesn’t make its own refund policies — it leaves that up to airlines, hotels, cruise lines and car-rental agencies.
In response to the global travel snarl caused by the coronavirus pandemic, many airlines and cruise agencies have offered to waive change fees for rebooked travel, and hotels are loosening their cancellation policies.
Baker called the hotel. They agreed to refund her reservation. But, they said, because she’d booked through Expedia, she would need to cancel through Expedia. Then, they said, they could transmit her refund through Expedia.
That policy — book through Expedia, cancel through Expedia — holds true for all travel reservations except budget airlines, a spokesperson said.
The company unveiled a new suite of online tools last weekend intended to help travelers do just that without the assistance of a customer service agent.
But for some travelers with more complicated bookings, including people with discount hotel reservations and travelers who booked “Expedia bundles” of flights and hotels, those online tools have proved difficult to navigate.
It’s sent thousands of frantic travelers dialing for customer service — including Baker, who’s found herself in an interminable game of phone tag, trying to reach an Expedia representative to work out the problem.
“I’ve called maybe 200 times” over the past five days, she said. Mostly, she said, the phone doesn’t even ring. Sometimes she gets a message that says the call center is experiencing technical difficulties.
Three times, she said, she’s been placed on hold, but only spoke with a representative once. The agent said they couldn’t help Baker.
Expedia has been besieged in recent days with call volumes up to seven times above normal, according to a spokesperson.
Even before the coronavirus outbreak, Expedia has had a tumultuous month. In late February, CEO Barry Diller announced the company would lay off 3,000 employees, nearly 12% of its global workforce, including 500 people in its Seattle headquarters. The layoffs did not affect the company’s ability to respond to the current wave of rebookings, a spokesperson said.
Later, the company withdrew its full-year earnings forecast, saying coronavirus’s impact on travel would negatively impact a key measure of profit.
Expedia shares have fallen by 56% since mid-February, to close at $54.12 Tuesday.
Late last week, in an effort to staunch the firehose of calls, the company began asking clients not to contact customer service unless they are traveling within the next seven days.
In Toronto, Gil Yim, who helps manage the finances of a large cannabis company, has kept track of the number of times he’s called Expedia to try to cancel a bundled trip to the Dominican Republic leaving March 23 that he’d booked for himself and another person, totaling nearly $2,000.
Monday, he called customer support 22 times. Finally, he said, he managed to speak with a representative at the company’s headquarters in Seattle.
Technically, he’d passed the date where he could cancel his hotel for a full refund — but since he’d tried to call Expedia twice that day, March 9, and been told their “system was down” and to call back later, he hoped for extenuating circumstances. He’d called the company nearly 10 times every day since, his phone logs show.
After an hour of back-and-forth, he said the company rep agreed to provide a refund.
“She gave me a refund on the hotel,” he said. “Then she was working on my flight and the call dropped.”