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After a storm, getting travel refunds can be tricky

The recent superstorm nor’easters that slammed into the East Coast grounded tens of thousands of travelers, including Neil Weiss.

Most travel companies waived their usual rules, offering those delayed by the storms a refund or credit. But Weiss, an editor for a trade magazine in Cherry Hill, N.J., found an unlikely roadblock to his refund: his online travel agency.

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After Hurricane Sandy, Weiss had to cancel a business trip to Las Vegas he had booked on Expedia. US Airways agreed to waive its change fee and let him reschedule his flight.

Treasure Island Hotel & Casino wanted to charge him $200 for being a ‘‘no show,’’ according to Expedia. But when Weiss contacted Treasure Island directly, he heard a different story: The hotel would be happy to cancel his reservation, but because he’d booked through Expedia, a refund would be up to the agency. Expedia, though, would not give him his money, citing its published refund policy, he says.

It wasn’t the only refund case I tried to mediate after the storms. The problems highlight one of the oft unmentioned risks of booking through a travel agent: Even if an airline or hotel is willing to refund a purchase, you may have to get past an agency’s own refund rules.

The Weiss case is interesting because he got conflicting information from Expedia and Treasure Island. Expedia says it advocated with the hotel on his behalf, trying to secure a refund of his first night’s stay. But it said the hotel wouldn’t allow it.

A vice president at Treasure Island disputed that. ‘‘If Expedia suggested that they’d already paid us for your room and kept a cut, you either spoke to someone who does not have the correct information, or deliberately told you something that is not true,’’ he wrote. ‘‘In addition, if Expedia advised you that they will not refund your payment due to policies in place by our hotel, that is also untrue.’’

Either way, Treasure Island promised to return Weiss’s money. After I contacted Expedia on Weiss’s behalf, the agency agreed to refund his hotel charges. A spokeswoman said Expedia was the merchant of record on his hotel booking, meaning it had charged him, not Treasure Island.

A similar problem befell ­Jason Singer, who had booked a Hertz rental car for his 30th high school reunion in Manhasset, N.Y. When Sandy struck, both American Airlines and La Quinta offered immediate refunds. But Hotwire said its refund policy meant his car rental fee could not be returned.

‘‘A Hertz representative apologized profusely for Hotwire’s policies and for the fact that they could do nothing about it,’’ Singer said.

I asked Hotwire to review Singer’s case. It said his request was handled correctly on one level but incorrectly on another.

For one thing, Singer’s travel dates fell outside the window for which refunds were being offered. And he had paid a special deep-discount rate that was subject to strict nonrefundability rules.

But Hotwire refunded Singer’s purchase anyway. Why? It turns out the Hertz location was closed because of storm damage. And Hotwire was the merchant of record.

These cases raise two key questions: Who takes your money when you’re buying a travel product? And how do you know where to go for a refund?

When you buy through a bricks-and-mortar travel agency and pay by credit card, charges are passed through to the airline, hotel, or car rental agency and are governed by its merchant agreement, which is the contract between the company and the credit card.

‘‘That means that when our clients see their credit card statements, they’ll see a charge for the specific supplier they’re using, rather than for the agency,’’ said Steve Loucks, spokesman for Travel Leaders, a travel agency consortium.

Refunds on credit card purchases go directly to the consumer, so an agency would not be able to hold back the money because of its refund policy.

In other words, if you want to know who has your money, check your credit card statement. Unfortunately, you can’t always know who will charge you until you’ve been billed.

Christopher Elliott is National Geographic Traveler magazine’s reader advocate. He wrote this for The Washington Post.
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