Beware Buying Overseas Airline Tickets @Expedia: No Seat Selection or Changes–And No Disclosure!

If you are in the market to buy a ticket somewhere overseas, be careful buying the ticket from Expedia (and the many companies Expedia now owns, including Orbitz, Travelocity, Hotels.com, Trivago, etc.). I just bought a ticket for a work trip to Japan, and it turns out that Expedia failed to disclose that this is a special fare that does not allow seat selection until 72 hours before flight time, and Expedia misrepresented the ticket could be changed (such as to a higher class of service, so that I could do seat selection) with a change fee. It is totally non-changeable.  I’ve now started action against Expedia in small claims court. I would have considered a class action (as a friend told me he contemplated when this happened to him), but, as is exceedingly common these days (and explained in this excellent NY Times series), Expedia requires arbitration of most claims (except individual claims in small claims court), and their agreement bars class actions.

Below the fold I give the details of what happened to me with Expedia in the letter I sent to Expedia. No doubt this is a first-world problem, and there are many more pressing things in the world. But it is one of the many examples of large corporations counting on individuals to not have the time or means or experience to file one of these lawsuits. We all increasingly have to put up with this garbage in large part thanks to Supreme Court decisions which make class actions easy for large companies to exclude, and without the class action, it is usually not cost effective to bring such claims. (I didn’t even bother mentioning in the letter that Expedia also failed to honor its lowest price guarantee when I found the ticket cheaper at Vayama and JustFly.)

The bottom line is that had Expedia not told me I could make changes to the ticket by paying a fee to the airline, and had they disclosed this was a special ticket that did not allow for advanced seat selection, I never would have bought from them. I would have paid more and bought directly from the airline. As a tall guy I need an aisle seat on a 13 hour flight and I’m willing to pay for it. I’m hoping to get redress from the legal system, but that will only help me. I hope this blog post, which will become searchable in Google and other search engines, will at least alert others to the problem. Caveat emptor: Let the buyer beware of the Expedia family of companies. [UPDATE Feb 2016: Expedia and I have settled this case.]

Excerpt from my letter

When I purchased the ticket of November 8, I searched various websites for fares. I purchased my ticket from Expedia even though I could find a cheaper fare from Vayama. I had thought, until this incident, that Expedia was a more reliable company. Your website indicated that the ticket was “nonrefundable, nontransferable, and name changes are not allowed.” Further, it states “We understand that sometimes plans change. We do not charge or a cancel or change fee. When the airline charges such fees in accordance with its own policies, the cost will be passed on to you.” Before and after I purchased the ticket, there was no link available to me (I have screenshots from your site) of any more detailed fare rules. I still cannot find them. A few days after I purchased the ticket I attempted to select seats for the flight. I am a tall person and need an aisle seat. Also, I am traveling with four other members of my family (travelling on tickets we received through our frequent flyer program) and wanted to arrange seating together.

Although I was easily able to choose seats on the Japan Airlines website for my family, I was unable either through Expedia or Japan Airlines to choose my seats. Upon investigating with Japan Airlines, I discovered that, unbeknownst to me (and undisclosed in any information you provided to me on your website), you booked me a ticket in “N-class.” According to Japan Airlines, N-class tickets do not allow for seat selection until 72 hours before departure. This is unacceptable to me, especially given that I will be travelling in the busy summer season.

I immediately called Expedia and dealt with an incompetent representative and supervisor from somewhere outside the United States. After being disconnected and waiting on hold for more than one and a half hours, I finally spoke with a Tier 3 agent (Leilani) in Las Vegas. The Tier 3 person said that there was no way to cancel this ticket despite the fact that nowhere did you disclose to me, before or after purchase, that you were selling me a ticket which does not allow for seat selection.

The next day I contacted Expedia customer service via Twitter (I have 9,000 Twitter follower who I have been keeping apprised of this discussion). I exchanged a number of direct messages over Twitter with the account representative, who ultimately wrote: “Our records indicate you were on our site and booked this reservation on November 8, 2015. Your booking session lasted 18 minutes and 42 seconds. The airlines retain total control over the seat selection and/or seat assignments for all flight reservations. If you were uncertain about this, our Customer Support was available for assistance by calling 1-800-397-3342. http://Expedia.com makes every effort to assign seats and preferences to all of our customers as we do recognize the importance of receiving preferred airline seating. With special fares, as the one you purchased, there are times that we are unable to assign seats due to restrictions placed on the reservations by the airline. We recommend to our customers to carefully review the details of the trip as well as the fare rules and/or cancellation policies and to call us immediately if there are any discrepancies or additional questions before purchasing the itinerary. *ST”

I then called Japan Airlines again to see if there is any recourse with them. They told me that the ticket could be rebooked in “S-class” with your agency upon paying a change fee and any fare difference. I then called Expedia customer service again, got another incompetent person outside the United States, and waited over an hour to get in touch with a Tier 3 person in Las Vegas. I finally spoke with “Wanda” in Tier 3 who told me that not only is my ticket non-refundable, changes are not allowed even upon paying a change fee. Not only is this information you failed to disclose to me both before and after I purchased my ticket; your website affirmatively represents that changes are allowed upon the payment of the requisite fee to the airline and any fare difference.

Your non-disclosure and fraudulent misrepresentations provide the basis either for rescission (cancellation) of the contract or an action for breach of contract. You did not disclose to mebefore and after purchase the detailed fare rules, including the information that there would be no advanced seat selection or that the ticket was non-changeable. Even the agents I spoke to atcExpedia were surprised the ticket was non-changeable. I plan to seek both remedies in a lawsuit I will file in small claims court in Los Angeles County next week.

My experience in dealing with large companies like yours is that sometimes it takes the actual filing of a lawsuit in small claims court to get your attention. If necessary that is what I will do. But you can save both of us the hassle and expense of doing that by simply issuing me an immediate full refund and cancelling my ticket so that I can repurchase a ticket in the correct class of service.

Most people, I know, give up and don’t bother filing an actual small claims lawsuit against a big company. It’s a lot of paperwork and it can be confusing. But as a professor teaching Contracts, Remedies and Torts for over 20 years (Google me), I think I can handle the paperwork. Again, if I don’t hear from you immediately, I will file the lawsuit. You can reach me on my cell phone number or email address at the top of this letter if you would rather refund my money immediately.

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