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A few months ago, when JetBlue was offering some excellent Business Class fares on its new New York – London routes, I went against a long-term policy of mine and booked a trip through an online travel agency. Specifically, I booked through Amex Travel and while I wouldn’t say that my experience has put me off booking with an OTA ever again, it has reminded me why I have a policy of avoiding OTAs whenever possible.
I could have easily made my London – New York roundtrip booking directly with JetBlue for the same price that I got when I booked through Amex Travel but because Amex Travel was offering me a limited-time $200 travel credit (courtesy of my Platinum Card), it made sense for me to avoid booking directly with the airline.
Amex Travel makes the online booking process pretty straightforward so the act of booking my flights was simple and painless and I was even given a JetBlue booking reference (alongside my Amex Travel reference) that I could use to select seats for both of my flights. At this point, things were going well.
I only started having issues with my booking when JetBlue began revising the schedule for its new transatlantic route as it became increasingly obvious that the US government had no intention of easing the restrictions that currently apply to most travelers originating in the UK, Ireland and the countries signed up to the Schengen agreement.
As JetBlue played around with its schedule, my outbound flight got cancelled and I was moved to a flight scheduled for the previous day which, as it happens, didn’t work for me at all. Amex alerted me to the schedule change via email (there was no communication from JetBlue) and provided me with a phone number to call to discuss my options which, for an OTA, seemed like pretty good service.
On my first call to Amex Travel, I got a little unlucky in that English was clearly not the first language of the agent I was speaking to and there was a clear communication barrier. After approximately 10 minutes of getting nowhere (I got tired of repeating myself), I politely excused myself, hung up, and called back.
With the second agent, there was no language barrier but it rapidly became obvious that the rebooking of a canceled JetBlue flight wasn’t something that this person had done before and I was put on hold five or six times while she conferred with someone who, presumably, had more experience than her. Sadly, each time the agent returned after putting me on hold it was to ask me a question which she had already asked and after a while, that got more than a little irritating. We were going around in circles. Once again, I politely excused myself and hung up the phone.
At this point and despite the fact that my booking was with Amex Travel, I decided to see if I could persuade JetBlue to help out, so I gave the airline a call.
48 minutes of hold music later, I got to speak to a very courteous JetBlue agent who confirmed what I had suspected all along – the airline wasn’t in a position to help and I was advised to contact the agency with whom I had made the booking to get my flights changed.
After having already made two highly unsuccessful calls to Amex Travel, I decided that this wasn’t the day to make a third attempt at getting them to rebook me (perhaps it was a training day?) so I waited 24 hours before calling back.
My third call to Amex was considerably more positive as although the time taken to change my booking could be best measured in terms of eons and eras, I finally got to hear the words that I had been waiting for “your flights have been changed and you should be receiving an email confirmation shortly”. Success!
Within minutes of ending the call, I had received an email from Amex Travel confirming my flights and the fact that my booking references hadn’t changed.
I headed straight over to the JetBlue webpage to re-select my seats only to find that JetBlue was still showing my original itinerary.
Here’s what Amex was showing:
And here’s what JetBlue was showing:
I assumed that there must be some kind of time lag affecting what I was seeing on the screen (I had a ticket number so I wasn’t concerned that my booking didn’t exist) so I decided to return to the booking the next day to make another attempt to select seats.
The next day, the JetBlue website was still showing the same incorrect itinerary, and after it continued to show the same incorrect itinerary for the next five days after that, I called Amex Travel to see what was going on.
The Amex travel agent that I spoke to was adamant that I had been rebooked correctly and suggested that I give JetBlue a call to see if its agents could explain why the airline’s website was showing the wrong booking details so, although I was fairly certain this wasn’t a JetBlue issue, I hung up the phone and gave JetBlue another call.
1 hour and 22 minutes of hold music later, I was connected to a JetBlue agent who promptly cut me off when he tried to put me on hold while he investigated the problem.
I gave up.
I knew that there was no major hurry to sort this mess out as JetBlue (via Amex Travel) had to re-accommodate me and, at this point, I couldn’t face more discussions with Amex agents or more endless holds with JetBlue.
Fast forwarding the story to the present day…
The JetBlue website still shows the incorrect itinerary and I would still be living under the assumption that Amex Travel has somehow messed up my booking had I not found myself bored beyond belief on a slow-moving train earlier today.
With nothing much to do on the train but stare at my phone, I accessed the JetBlue app to see if there was any update on my booking and sure enough, there on the screen in front of me, was the correct booking.
I have no idea why the JetBlue desktop site still shows the wrong booking (the booking reference hasn’t changed) but Amex clearly hasn’t made a mistake at all – the mistake is with JetBlue.
Annoyingly, however, and for reasons that remain unclear, I can no longer do anything with my booking other than to have the itinerary emailed to me.
If I want to assign seats or update my details I have to call JetBlue and risk getting cut off after having spent an eternity on hold and, right now, I have neither the will nor the patience to do that. I’ll get around to calling the airline and getting a seat assigned at some point, but now just isn’t the time.
As I said at the very beginning, this episode has just gone to remind me why I do my very best never to book flights through any of the OTAs.
By booking away from the airline you risk relying on the OTA (and not the airline) to inform you of any changes to your booking (some OTAs are notoriously bad at doing this), you risk dealing with agents who don’t really know how to perform the tasks that you need them to perform, who don’t know the rules of the airline you’re booked with, and who possibly don’t even have English as their first language.
Add to that the fact that if you book through an OTA the airline you’re flying with is not likely to be of much help when things don’t go to plan and the fact that you may not be able to perform the simplest of tasks on the airline’s website (like selecting seats) and you have more reasons than anyone can reasonably need to avoid making flight bookings with any of the online travel agencies.
It would be unfair of me to suggest that all OTAs are the same (equally bad) but it’s not unfair to suggest that bookings made directly with an airline are almost always easier to deal with than bookings made with an OTA when things go wrong and while the travel world continues to live in a state of flux, that’s a lesson well worth remembering.