Why you should never book with Expedia

Christmas Eve. I’m in Cancun, Mexico. It’s 75 degrees and I’m on beach. Tomorrow I’m embarking on a 12-day GAP Adventures tour of the Yucatan peninsula and Mayan ruins. It ends in Antigua, Guatemala on 5 January. There I intend to spend a few days hiking up volcanoes before heading home. I wonder what my fellow travellers will be like? Anyway, it’s lovely here, great to get away from London. It’s cost me a fortune but who wouldn’t want Christmas on the beach?

But in reality, I’m at home in my South London flat watching yet another episode of Flash Forward on Five. I think I’ve seen this one. I’ve never felt more miserable or less “Christmassy”.

So why I am at home watching TV when I should be on the adventure of a lifetime? Because I made the fatal mistake of booking flights with online travel agent Expedia, that’s why.

I expected delays when I realised snow was forecast for last Saturday (18th December) when I was due to fly from Gatwick to Cancun with BA. My flight was cancelled at the last minute so I was forced to join a queue of thousands of other travellers for the BA desk staffed by just five people. Despite trying to call both BA and Expedia all day, no one answered: the queue was my only option.

Eight-and-a-half hours later I made it to the front and discussed re-booking my flight with the BA lady. She said my best bet was to fly from Heathrow to New York with Virgin on Tuesday 21st (flight VS003) and then with American Airlines to Cancun. So I took my paper ticket and went home. It was a tough day but I was still going to Mexico, albeit three days late – plenty of time to still make the tour. Pity those poor people at the airport who hadn’t been able to re-book or didn’t have homes to go to in this country.

And then the fun began. Because I’d originally booked with Expedia, it “owned” my booking. On Sunday I got an email from Expedia saying “Virgin Atlantic has cancelled two of your fights”. Two of my flights? There was only one Virgin flight on my ticket.

It then listed a flight to St Lucia on the Sunday (19th) and my flight to New York on Tuesday as cancelled. St Lucia? I’m not even completely sure where it is, I was certainly never going there. Virginatlantic.co.uk still showed the flight to New York as flying as scheduled.

Surely a quick call to Expedia customer services would sort this out? You’d think so wouldn’t you? After all “Expedia makes it easy” – that’s what the website says. In reality, Expedia has made my life hell.

After the standard two-hour wait time I managed to speak to someone. She asked for my itinerary number. “You’re in Cancun?” “Er…no”. There was a language barrier to start with then the fact that the “customer services” person had no idea that a) I wasn’t in Mexico or b) why Expedia had sent the cancellation email or what it meant. She eventually told me the email was a mistake and to check in for the Virgin fight to New York on Tuesday as planned.

But I wasn’t convinced. Virgin was equally difficult to get hold of but when I did on Monday I was told that VS003 was flying but “your travel agent has cancelled your seat”. Expedia was my travel agent and only they could deal with this, said Virgin.

If I hadn’t made this call I would have gone to Heathrow to take flight VS003 only to find my ticket had been cancelled. It’s lucky I didn’t do that, I’d already spent enough time at the airport without going anywhere. I’m not sure my fragile state of mind could have handled being turned away at the check-in desk.

I called Expedia (on hold for an hour etc) and the person I spoke to denied that Expedia had cancelled my seat. They said the flight itself was cancelled by Virgin and all flights until Christmas Day were cancelled. At this point Virgin was still showing VS003 as scheduled and there was nothing on the Heathrow site, from the airlines, or news to suggest that “all flights until Christmas Day were cancelled”, although a reduced service was in operation.

Blatant lies or hopelessly untrained staff? Who knows? Either way, Expedia are a complete disgrace.

Because there were “no flights” Expedia refused to book me on another flight and my trip was off. They promised me a refund “within the hour”, later changing this timescale to “two to 12 weeks”.

And so my investigations as to who caused the cock-up which cancelled Christmas began. Being a journalist makes this easier than if I was just your average traveller. But it doesn’t mean I’ve had answers. Basically BA blames Expedia and Expedia blames BA. Virgin says I was booked to fly to St Lucia and by being a “no-show” for this flight (remember I didn’t know I was booked on it), the rest of my flights were automatically cancelled.

BA insists I was never ticketed for St Lucia but “the booking may have been left open”. The BA customer services guy Craig Stewart says a simple call to Expedia should have meant my seat on the New York flight was re-instated and this small error by BA should not have caused my seat to be cancelled. I almost believe him but I’m not sure BA should be absolved of any responsibility in this sorry tale. Craig offered me £25 to cover the cost of my phone calls – a further insult to my cancelled trip. If I find out for sure BA are responsible I’ll expect nothing less than a private jet and choice of pilot at my personal disposal for evermore.

On the other side Jill Lloyd, Expedia’s PR manager, has tried to explain Expedia’s side of things. However, despite being very nice, she’s failed to justify any of it. No one seems to know why Expedia staff told me (and others, according to Twitter) that my flight was cancelled when that simply wasn’t the case.

Nor does she know why staff told me “all flights” were cancelled when they weren’t. Nor does she know why if I log into expedia.co.uk, I’m greeted with the message “Hope you’re having a great time in Cancun.” I’m not, just to clarify. I’m having a rubbish time in London. They know how to twist the knife at Expedia. Its sister site hotels.com keeps emailing me for feedback on hotels I never made it to.

So far Expedia have offered me a refund which will take weeks to show up. I asked for compensation for my aborted trip and ruined Christmas. But Jill says “it’s not Expedia’s policy.” Expedia’s policy, it seems, it to be totally incompetent, lie to customers and effectively cancel trips without a second’s thought or any admission of responsibility. And then hang on to their cash for as long as possible for good measure.

My travel insurance will hopefully cover the cost of the tour I couldn’t go on and the hotels I’d booked before and after it. But nothing makes up for the disappointment and trauma, the hours on the phone on hold, the lies and incompetence. And don’t get me started on the paperwork – letters of complaint to all three companies and a lengthy travel insurance claim which I’m not even completely sure will pay out. And there’s the fact that I now have three weeks with nothing planned – freelance journalism requires some forward planning and most of my friends are away for Christmas. Still, I have my backpack to unpack and my currency to return to the bank.

So, if you see me in the New Year, please don’t ask if I had a good Christmas. You’ll have a hysterical woman on your hands. Let’s pretend nothing happened. That is, after all, what Expedia and BA are choosing to do.