On the Spot: Stranded in Florence between Lufthansa and Vayama

Question: I recently returned from a trip booked through Kayak/Vayama and had a disturbing experience. Last month, we were to travel home from Florence, Italy, by way of Munich, Germany, where we would embark for Los Angeles. Because of problems at the rental car return, we were too late to board the flight. I was sent to Lufthansa customer service, which could not help me rebook because the flight was booked through a third party. I then called Vayama, which told me that they would put in a request for the rebooking but that because it was Sunday, the New York offices were closed and I would have to wait until they opened on Monday morning. This is a company that deals with international travel and closes on the weekends? My daughter and I were now stranded in Florence until Vayama could call me back Monday after 8 a.m. Eastern time, which would have been 2 p.m. Florence time. This would have eliminated Monday as a travel day. So I ended up buying return tickets ($3,200 for the two of us) on Lufthansa for Monday. On Tuesday morning I received an email, not a phone call, from Vayama saying that my booking change request had been received and that I could call them to make arrangements. This would have been Tuesday afternoon in Florence. I was already home. Can you believe this?

Suzanne Beck


Long Beach

Answer: Alas, I can believe all of this. There are so many issues with what happened to Beck that I'll have to address them and the lessons that each holds:

One: "I booked through Kayak/Vayama." Kayak is an aggregator that finds fares, rates, etc., and then brings them to your screen. Sometimes it offers an online travel agency; sometimes it sends you to an airline. Beck was offered Vayama, which deals with overseas travel.

Lesson: Make sure you know if you're dealing with a third party, and make sure you know who that third party is.

Two: "Because of problems at the rental car return...." Beck told me in a later phone call that the rental car company tried to tell her the car was damaged. We increasingly hear stories about this scam.

Lesson: Make sure you have a copy of the rental car form that lists what damage is noted, but don't stop there. Take pictures of your car when you pick it up.

Three: "Lufthansa … could not help me rebook because the flight was booked through a third party."

Lesson: Airlines and online travel agencies, or OTAs, have a complex relationship that's not always beneficial to the customer. Let's say you buy a gallon of milk at a store. You get home and it's sour. The dairy has its money, so does it care? Probably not. Do you go to the dairy for a refund? No. You almost always have to return to the store or, in this case, Vayama.

Four: "Vayama … told me they would put in a request for the rebooking but that because it was Sunday, the New York offices were closed." Here's something Vayama apparently doesn't have: 24-hour customer service, although its website says it does. And here's something else Vayama doesn't have: New York offices, said David Rush, director of customer relations for Travix, the umbrella organization for several travel companies, including Vayama.

Lesson: I don't know what the lesson is here, except, um, don't deal with a company that makes up stuff. Why would a customer service representative say such a thing? Rush said the call center, which is in India, isn't as fully staffed on weekends. "My instinct is that the agents just didn't know what to do," he said. "They stood behind a policy as opposed to coming up with a resolution."

Beck, Rush and I agree on several important points: The Becks were late. It wasn't Vayama's fault that the flight closed. Once that flight closed, the Becks were listed as no-shows, and their tickets no longer had value.

Here's another interesting bit of info that I'm not sure the Becks knew; I certainly didn't. Vayama didn't own the ticket it sold them; another company did. Vayama "works with a variety of travel companies all over the world," Rush said. Many of those are consolidators or what Rush called "ethnic agencies" (also sometimes called "bucket shops").

You've seen them: They're in neighborhoods that are home to people who have connections to a country outside the U.S. Those agencies have a relationship with an airline or airlines that specialize in service to or from that region.

This may explain Lufthansa's willingness to wash its hands of the situation. The airline was a couple of degrees removed from the sale of the ticket.


There's one final point that Beck, Rush and I agree on: Vayama doesn't get good marks for customer service in this case. Rush told me he is still trying to sort things out. ("We don't absolve ourselves of responsibility," he said.)

Beck, meanwhile, is still out $3,200 but says she's not going to let that ruin what was a marvelous vacation (good for her).

As for me, I'm going to pay closer attention next time I use a travel aggregator such as Kayak (which I've used for years and will continue to use) to make sure I know who that man behind the curtain really is. If I suspect he's just some guy from Omaha trying to pretend he's great and powerful, I will get in my balloon and head for home.

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