Here’s what I wanted to do: buy a one-way ticket from USA to Indonesia with EVA Air, a Taiwanese airline, on Orbitz.com. However, I needed one bit of information that wasn’t on the website. I wanted to know the fare class to earn frequent flyer miles. It’s a common misconception that you can simply fly the airline and get the miles because not every kind of ticket qualifies. Some of the cheaper fare classes accrue no mileage, which you want to avoid, if possible.
This is a problem with frequent flyer miles. I love the concept and it’s a substantial section of my website, but they can be a pain to deal with. I sympathize with those who don’t want to get involved, but it takes only a couple of minutes to sign up and if I am flying anyway, why not get the miles?
I can use EVA Air miles in my United Airlines/Star Alliance account, but, again, it depends on the class of the ticket. (It’s also called the fare code, and it is usually a five or six-digit code. Only the first letter is important.) Look at this chart from United about which classes of EVA Air tickets accrue frequent flyer miles and note that the cheapest tickets don’t accrue 100% of the miles flown.
The problem is that often websites don’t show the class of ticket when you book. I find that the airline’s own website sometimes does, but what can you do in this case with Orbitz? You have to call and ask. You might feel idealistic and email Orbitz (some websites have a live chat to deal with issues like this), but you need to know now.
Well, you don’t necessarily need to know immediately as there is a little known, new rule in USA where you can hold a reservation or cancel within 24 hours without penalty if it is more than 7 days from your flight, but good luck finding that information volunteered on any website.
Also, if you wait, the price may rise due to the ultimate customer-unfriendly trick of what I call price creep, where the website automatically raises the fare if you look too many times, but don’t get me started on that. (The link makes me crazy. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. If not, do a search with the words “disappearing airfares elliott” on cnn.com. It’s a very illuminating article.)
Full of dread, I picked up the phone.
This is the point where I think most people slump their shoulders, already conceding defeat. It’s not only Orbitz or the travel industry. To phone any mammoth company is to descend into the depths of customer service hell. You feel very small and insignificant. (I contend it’s not a stretch to say that wretched customer service is the by-product of capitalism.) I always wonder how many millions in profits big companies have to make before they hire extra staff, and what’s the excuse if they are using cheap labor from outsourced call centers in India? When I call and get the recording, “Due to unexpected high call volume, there might be a delay…” Come on. You have to know your call patterns by now. Hire more Indians, if need be.
Once one Saturday morning I called Southwest Airlines and after a couple of rings someone answered the phone. A live person! I was speechless. And then they could help without transferring me! I might forget my nieces’ names before I forget an experience like that, the bar for customer service has been set so low. This was years ago, but needless to say, I am a big Southwest Airlines fan to this day. (It’s telling that Southwest doesn’t allow their airfares to be found by outside search engines—free baggage allowance, too.)
I don’t need to spend much time on how my call to Orbitz went. Everyone knows how it goes. It’s all a variation on a theme. In my case it sounded like I interrupted a raucous frat party. Lots of whooping and hollering in the background with claims of a bad connection, and then the guy is hardly listening, gives information I didn’t ask for, refuses to transfer me, refuses to admit he doesn’t understand, insists on calling me by my name in every sentence, etc.
Feeling impotent, I went to that bastion of ranting, Twitter, and posted a screed to @OrbitzCareTeam. There was some back and forth, it didn’t go anywhere, and then I got a long, canned email that started with this:
From your comment, you are questioning the price along with taxes and fees of booking a ticket. Furthermore; you believe that Orbitz makes adjustments due to rate and taxes on the website….”
Of course, my beef had nothing to do with the price, which only infuriates me more. In the long and glorious history of communication, has anyone been satisfied with the canned response? I’ve done customer service, and I can assure you the answer is no.
So what’s the lesson? Travel overland. Barring that, it may be prudent to buy tickets during website/airline office hours, buy from the airline’s website directly if most things are equal for customer service-related issues, shop around, etc. It also makes sense to try and book when your credit card company is available because they can block the purchase, suspecting fraud, even if you have called them beforehand to say you are going to purchase the ticket!
There are probably other lessons I’m not thinking of. Orbitz has fried my brain. I’m googling “discount lobotomy” after I post this. If you have a story or a way of dealing with customer service issues, I’m all ears.
By the way, this is a benefit of my website: I get my hands dirty so you don’t have to. I have experience and lots of it. Even if I’m rambling and incoherent, I’m out in the trenches doing this stuff. I often know what I’m talking about. If you want the deep ins and outs of how to travel cheaply, you stay with me, OK? Come on along!
Let’s finish on a positive note, a happy photo from the archives!