My Orbitz adventure began with reading about Orbitz’s “courtesy cancellation policy” on its website. The site stated that one could cancel an airline reservation by 10:00 P.M. Central Time the following day and get a complete refund. The exceptions were paper tickets, tours, and “certain airlines.” I wrote to Orbitz customer service, and was told that “The two airlines that are an exception from the ‘Courtesy Cancellation’ option are Spirit Airlines and AirTran Airlines.” So, I felt safe booking Virgin America through Orbitz.
The day after my booking, I needed to cancel. I went to the reservation, but there was no “courtesy cancel” button. I then called Orbitz customer service, and got someone in the Philippines. Both the first person I spoke with, and the claimed supervisor, said that the courtesy cancel policy did not apply because there was no button allowing a courtesy cancel, therefore the policy did not apply. The simple logical assertion that somehow Orbitz was bound by its own website and its prior response to my email inquiry seemed to be over the head of the representative.
The rest of the saga is well worth reading, detailing the negotiations before court, the company’s refusal to clarify its policy online, and final judgment: Award to the plaintiff for a full refund, legal fees, and $500 for the trouble. Despite voting fully for the consumer in this case, small claims courts can’t force the company to change their policy or the content of the website.
There are a few surprises in this for me.
First, I’m actually surprised that Orbitz showed up in court. I’ve heard many cases of large travel companies just not showing up in small claims court, and accepting the judgment in absentia. (Lesson: Sue.)
Second, I was frankly surprised to hear that Orbitz even HAS a 24-hour cancellation policy for airline tickets. Airlines have been scaling these policies back for purchases on their own websites, so it’s surprising that Orbitz can afford that kind of generosity. (Admittedly, the booking fee, if applicable is not refundable. But Orbitz eliminated most booking fees for airline tickets a while ago, and didn’t bring it back.)
Third, I’m surprised that the company was so resistant to clarifying their policy on the website. Orbitz has been pitching itself as the friend of the little guy, and transparency should be a big part of that. But this policy is far from clear.
Having fine print is bad. Having invisible print is worse.
Orbitz would be wise to reconsider the vagaries of the policy. Having the 24 hours to cancel is a great way to encourage someone to click “buy” in the first place. But not knowing if you’re covered until you hit “purchase”? That’s not a guarantee. That’s a lottery.