By Joe Johnson, AllAboutChile.com
Being a frugal person, and needing to keep close track of every greenback with the travel expenses involved with EscapeArtist Chile, I do what most folks do – shop for the best deal as early as possible. Sometimes, when the timing is right, a deal pops up that you need to jump on. That’s what happened as I planned my next trip to Chile.
Normally I fly out of Tucson, Arizona. It’s a smaller airport and easier to find your way around. Phoenix usually has cheaper flights, but not by enough to make the drawbacks of a larger airport worthwhile. Add to these factors that we live closer to Tucson and that traffic there is far less than in Phoenix, and you have a nice list of reasons to pay a little more.
This time the price was too good to pass up. Normally, the flight is anywhere from around US$1200-$1500. I rarely buy tickets three months out, but that week the price dropped. I could get round trip tickets out of PHX for $877 – a savings of about $400. You bet I jumped on it.
When buying tickets early, there are often changes to your flights. It’s usually nothing significant; perhaps an aircraft change or slight adjustment. It’s very rare that it’ll affect your travel plans though. About a month and a half out, I’d already received two or three itinerary change alerts from Priceline. After confirming that the changes wouldn’t really affect my plans, I went about my business. That was until August 11.
Having received the alert early in the morning, I added it to my morning routine of checking messages and making sure I was on top of contacts for the day. Clicking on the alert brought me to my new itinerary.
Flying on AeroMexico, I had two connections – one in Hermosillo and another in Mexico City. Normally I get away with one connection, maybe in Dallas or Atlanta. But for $400, I’d take the extra stop. Imagine my surprise when I look at my new itinerary and see only one connection, in Mexico City. However, as nice as that sounds, it wasn’t a good thing. You see, rather than routing me direct from Phoenix to Mexico City, My entire PHX leg, both directions, was cancelled. In other words, my flight now ORIGINATED in Hermosillo!
Priceline has always had good customer service for me. I wasn’t too worried, figuring that there was just a simple mistake. So I open the convenient chat-box on the itinerary page to chat with a Priceline rep. This shouldn’t take long. Ruben answers the chat. After a couple of moments, it becomes clear that this isn’t going to get fixed in the chat. He says I’ll need to call in.
Note of caution – don’t necessarily accept the person on chat as an expert in customer service. Ruben was very polite, but he also told me that airlines had the right to cancel flights like this. In most cases, he’s right. However, it’s poor customer service to say that to someone when it’s still likely that things can be sorted out. So, don’t panic if someone says this to you right off the bat. Stay calm.
My call was answered by a very polite lady who listened attentively and assessed the situation quickly. She seemed genuinely baffled that this could happen, and proceeded to call AeroMexico to get it sorted.
I knew there must be some interesting discussions going on since I was on hold for about 35 minutes. Finally, she came back and shared that my Customer Service Ticket had been escalated and that a supervisor would have it sorted within 24 hours. This was Monday morning, around 9. Great! No worries. I have plenty of time, and they’ll have it sorted in the morning.
Tuesday afternoon rolls around – still no call. Hrmmm, what now?
By early evening I figured it had been long enough, so called in again. This time I get a young gentleman. He’s polite, except for this assumption right at the beginning that I am mistaken. He says that my tickets have been taken care of, all is in order and that I must have missed the email.
I politely explain to him that there was no email and that there has been no change to my itinerary. He affirms that, yes indeed, my itinerary is correctly showing that the flight will be leaving Hermosillo… then stutters. Oh, now he gets it. I don’t know what he’s looking at, but somewhere it’s telling him that the itinerary in front of him, lacking any flights in and out of Phoenix, is supposed to be for a trip form Phoenix to Santiago de Chile.
Again, I’m on hold. This time is must faster. He affirms that the supervisor is indeed handling the situation and that he has no idea why it wasn’t handled yet – perhaps AeroMexico hasn’t responded. Since the supervisor won’t be on until morning, he’ll leave him a note so that he’ll see it first thing. Okay. I’m not really worried at this point since I have a month and a half before I leave. So, let’s see what happens Wednesday morning.
Wednesday rolls around … nothing. No call. No email. Zip. Okay, I tried chat – obviously that wasn’t going to do it. I’ve tried two phone calls, with two empty promises. On the 14th I try using the contact form on the site. They guarantee they’ll respond within 12 hours. Nice.
Sure enough, I have a response from Jigar M. waiting for me. I’m encouraged to call and someone will take care of it for me. Hrmmm, seems like I’ve been this route, but it sounds like someone’s on it so let’s give it a shot.
Lee answers and is very polite, as were the others. He actually asked me if I had done something to make my itinerary change! I went through the routine again, resulting in the same promise I had received before. When I told him that I’d been here before, with no resolution, he “guaranteed” me that a supervisor would be contacting me in the morning. Hrmmm, what comes with that guarantee? Is there really something on the line? Because, if there was, I’d have been collecting the next day.
Yep, you guessed it. No call. No email. No change in my online itinerary. Nada. I reply to the previous email. Guess what? Is a pattern developing here?
I was given a link to have someone call me this time. Oh, that’s different, so maybe it’ll have a different result. It’s now the 17th. Sam calls me and asks how she can help. I politely ask Sam to look over what must be a pile of notes for my ticket number by now, so that I don’t have to explain it again. She reads it over and politely proceeds to inform me that I was notified of the change a week ago, and read the times of departure.
Note: ~Oh, this is going to be fun.~ Actually, these things can bring some humor to our lives if we don’t get too worked up. I was almost enjoying myself at this point. This is another good point. Don’t get worked up. It only makes matters worse. I suppose if you only have a couple of days, that would be difficult. But with several weeks before my departure, it was pretty easy to be amused by all this.
“Do you see the originating airport?” This is one of those times when you wish you could have a cam on the person you’re talking to. As the lights come on, she sees that there is indeed a change in originating city. I’m finally transferred to Jo, who apparently is a specialist.
Jo came through for me. In fact, when all was said and done, I only have one stopover – Dallas on the way down, Mexico City on the way up. I spend half a day in Mexico City, but that’s better than having to walk from Hermosillo any day. See? Nothing to worry about.
I have two additional notes about this experience – both related to customer service.
REQUEST FOR FOLLOWUP FROM PRICELINE
Seeing an opportunity to perhaps provide some insights for fellow EscapeArtists, I sent another email asking if I could talk to someone about how this situation might have been handled differently. Perhaps there was something I could have done or said that would have resulted in more efficient customer service. My goal was genuinely to find the best answers and not make Priceline feel like they were on the defensive. It’s an opportunity to learn for all of us.
The support line gave me Leslie’s email address. Apparently she’s in charge of media, so I sent her my ticket number and was very open about what I was doing. She failed to respond. Okay, that happens. So I sent another email. Still nothing. A subsequent email to support asking for verification got me nowhere.
This was particularly disappointing. I’d like to work with them to find the best solution. But they decided that it wasn’t worthwhile, apparently.
WHAT’S HAPPENED TO CUSTOMER SERVICE?
As I noted earlier, these things can almost be fun; though this one dragged out too long.
More than a couple of decades ago, I worked in the airline industry. I was young, and it was an incredible learning experience. One thing that was constantly pressed forward was to make the passenger happy, to whatever degree we were able. Sometimes this was simple. Often it was very difficult, especially when a passenger was belligerent.
As a passenger, I learned that agents truly want to help. And if you’re trying to work with them, rather than rail against them, they will usually work harder to find a satisfactory resolution. In fact, sometimes they’ll even add something to help make things better. We went out of our way to help folks when we’d messed up their travel plans. If they missed a connection because we were late or we had to cancel a flight or other concerns like that, we’d offer them a voucher. If possible, we’d upgrade them to business or first class.
I’ve noticed that, in some ways, customer service has improved over the past few years. For a while, at least from my experience, it seemed that corporate policy was somehow elevated as moral ground. I might get a response something like:
I’m sorry Mr. Johnson, but we reserve the right to cancel flights and leave you stranded. You’ll have to pay the full last-minute fare to return home. But we will issue a refund to your unused ticket (yes, that was an exaggeration for effect).
That doesn’t seem to be the case today. On the other hand, it’s not what it was 25 years ago either. Most of my previous experience was in front of the agent in the airport though. They’re probably under more pressure to make everyone happy. Even a phone call isn’t nearly as relational.
In this case, Priceline isn’t the airline, so maybe they’re unable to pursue things the same way. Still, a response would have been helpful… or at least polite.
Will I use Priceline again? Sure. They offer a good product and help take away some of the stress that can come with searching for a good deal.
Of course, I’ll use the other brokers as well. When it comes down to it, I’m looking for the best deal to get me to my destination. I can’t afford to be too picky. Perhaps if I could, I’d simply contact the airline directly and set up my preferred itinerary.
On the other hand, I’ll be much more likely to check with the airline to see if I can purchase at the same price directly from them in the future. Using a broker is very nice, but dealing with the one who is actually providing the service might bring better results. You’d think it would be more personal – something sorely missing in today’s digital environment. Maybe some ingenious entrepreneur can overcome this challenge.
You can read more great articles from Joe Johnson at AllAboutChile.com.