Travel Advisor: Approaching the daze of judgment

Whenever possible, put your name in writing, put your dates in writing and for everyone’s sake put your changes in writing.

El-Al passengers waiting to board flight 370 (photo credit: Sukree Sukplang/Reuters)
El-Al passengers waiting to board flight 370
(photo credit: Sukree Sukplang/Reuters)
We are at the commencement of the Jewish New Year, celebrating a holiday Rosh Hashana, which is not even mentioned in the Torah.
In fact the first known reference describes the New Year as the “Day of Judgment.” Further readings states that three books are opened on Rosh Hashana, where the fate of the wicked, the righteous and those of an intermediate class are determined.
We can all predict the next step. The names of the righteous are immediately inscribed in the “Book of Life,” while the wicked are blotted out of the book of living forever. It’s the intermediate class who are allowed a respite of 10 days, until Yom Kippur, to reflect, repent and become righteous, that is the focus of my contemplation.
More often than not I tackle the airlines, sometimes with caustic criticism bordering on condescension, other times praising them for actions going above & beyond the call of duty. Less often do I condemn that intermediate class, that purveyor of information, that link between the airline and the consumer – the travel consultant.
When Dr. Varon wrote to me recently, his main puzzlement was over the reticence of his daughter’s travel agent to give a simple answer to an easy question: What would it cost to change her return? First off, it should be noted that while Varon did email me, his form of communication with Sarah was verbal, which led to misunderstandings on both parts.
His daughter, Noa, the epitome of our Israeli youth, had finished her army duty and been selected by the Jewish Agency to be a counselor at a summer Camp in the US Like hundreds of Israeli youth, whom are sent as messengers to these camps, where they spend the summer with their contemporaries, hopefully setting an example of what makes this country so special.
Noa had spent close to two months there, and rather than return from Chicago was curious about discovering the US, and returning from a different city. Her father, savvy to the fact that her ticket permitted one free change, did not object and agreed to fire the first salvo.
This travel consultant, gainfully employed for dozens of years by one of the largest travel agencies in Israel, with branches through the country, was responsible for flying hundreds of Israelis this summer to the camps. Wisely putting out bids amongst the different airlines, she elected to send the larger percentage of the flyers using a combination of United and Lufthansa. Good airlines, both, with destinations in dozens of cities, allowing counselors to get to almost any of the camps sprinkled through the United States.
Varon politely asked if she could return from Orlando. No doubt Noa desired to spend some time in the Magic Kingdom, reliving her childhood in the house that Walt built. Sorry he was told, she can come back from many cities, but Orlando isn’t one of them. No problem, Noa said – I’ll head west, see the Grand Canyon and dip my toes in that den of iniquity, Las Vegas.
Calling Sarah again, he was rebuffed, “No, Las Vegas isn’t on the list.” At this stage he emailed me, asking if I thought it was some type of con that the agent was pulling. He knew Noa was permitted to change her return date for free and had been told that it could be done from a variety of cities, but twice was rebuffed. My advice was short and to the point: E-mail her immediately, asking for a list of cities that she could fly back from to Israel from with no additional charge.
E-mail her he did, and she said she would prepare a list in a day or so. No matter, the weekend passed and on Sunday came a list of a dozen cities. Curiously, when contacted, United Airlines confirmed that this special group rate that had been arranged for the counselors did indeed have a limit on which cities could be changed for “free.”
Noa, the naïf, decided she did want to return from Orlando, so again my sage advice was short: ask what it would cost to return from Orlando. Again, it took a few days and the princely sum of $89 was proffered.
You’d think that would satisfy everyone but this tale of deception had just begun. For Sarah, the stressed travel agent reissued Noa’s ticket to come back from Chicago on her “new” dates. For free, of course, and without asking the good Doctor. When told that this was not what they had asked for, Sarah sheepishly replied not to worry and she could still change her ticket.
At this stage Varon and his wife, chose to fly to Madrid in late September and a new thought began to percolate. Perhaps Sarah could get Noa to fly back via Europe and join her parents? Yes, they knew it would cost, but as United had joined Lufthansa, surely a stop could be made in Europe?
First reply from the travel agent was an emphatic “no!” Again with a bit of nudging, she contacted the airline who said, in fact, that Noa could stop in Germany for an extra $203. They would need to purchase an additional ticket from Frankfurt to Madrid and back, but fares inside Europe are quite reasonable and an opportunity to spend five days with your 22-year-old daughter should not be dismissed so quickly.
Varon was told by Sarah that $303 was the price, which surprisingly, was $100 more than what United had said. Pressing her for a breakdown of the fees, Varon was denied. All of this was done by phone, when in all truthfulness it should have been put in writing.
When for the third time I was contacted, it was quite clear to me that the travel agent was simply putting the change fee on the client’s account. So Varon accused her of such and rather than admitting her error, Sarah chose the path of denial and deception, in fact telling him where he could go. All she had to do was own up to her culpability and I’d like to believe that Varon would have split the change fee with her.
On my advice, I told him to contact United Airlines directly, pay them whatever they requested – including the $100 change fee – and get his daughter’s ticket reissued before she ended up stranded in the US. Happy to oblige their customer, they made the change, charged his card and sent him back the new electronic ticket.
Upon receipt, he finally put in writing his complaints and wrote to the manager of the agency. Hemming and hawing they pointed out that they only made an $80 profit on her ticket and that while they completely agree that they made the mistake, asked if he would accept $80 back.
Yes, this agency, with over 100 years in the travel business, tried to keep $20 to avoid any loss. How Varon replied is not fit for this paper, but by the time Rosh Hashana arrives, the $100 will be in his account.
The lesson of this saga is first and foremost: Whenever possible, put your requests in writing. Put your name in writing, put your dates in writing and for everyone’s sake put your changes in writing. Almost every incident I’ve been asked to adjudicate stems from misunderstandings over the phone.
The pen is mightier than the sword, and makes reflecting and repenting much easier for the aggrieved party. May the coming year result in everyone inscribed in the Book of Life.Mark Feldman is the CEO of Ziontours Jerusalem. For questions & comments, email him at