When Holidays Go Bad

My wife and I were meant to be flying to Bali this week, but it very much looks like that’s not going to happen. Even if our flight did reach Bali, we’d almost certainly be in a queue trying to return home, as there are thousands of other travellers who’ve been stuck for several days already.

Volcanic eruptions are out of anyone’s control, but the response which companies give to a situation like this is revealing. A few slightly ranty bullet points:

  • Virgin Australia’s customer support line isn’t a freecall number in Australia, which cost some people a lot if they’re on hold for hours. There is also no kind of notification of how long you’ll be on hold, or how many people are in front of you.
  • After eventually getting through, staff were hamstrung by their own policies — Wotif would have to make any changes.
  • To a travel arranger like Wotif, Virgin Australia is regarded as a “regular” airline while Jetstar is a “low cost” airline. You must make changes directly with a low cost airline, but Wotif has to make changes with a regular airline. I’d much rather deal with the airline directly — why can’t I?
  • Wotif do have a freecall number, and a callback service. Unfortunately, yesterday I was told the callback would be 1 hour 20 minutes, but it was over 3 hours. When they called me back, I was then put on hold(!) for another hour and 15 minutes. Insane.
  • I’ve had no dealings with Jetstar, but you can at least (try to?) contact them through Skype.
  • The airlines only cancel flights day by day. Virgin’s language today is indicating pretty clearly that if they can fly on Wednesday they’ll only be taking empty planes to Bali to fly people home, but they haven’t actually cancelled our flight yet.
  • Virgin are offering replacement destinations “for free” (codeshare costs extra) but they are all domestic/uninteresting/cheaper from Brisbane. (And why isn’t Perth on the list when flights to Broome (via Perth) are?)
  • Days ago, Jetstar allowed passengers with flights booked through the end of this week to pre-emptively cancel their flights for a travel credit, but Virgin didn’t. Virgin’s public language only mentioned changes, and refunds could only be arranged by talking to Wotif, who would then read Virgin’s fine print and ask them nicely.
  • Jetstar are now also offering replacement flights to many other destinations (Hawaii/Fiji/Thailand/NZ) with no change fees. Virgin’s more exotic (codeshare) destinations cost an unknown amount of extra money.
  • Wotif can cancel our flights and get our money back from the airline now, but until the flight is officially cancelled, we’re less likely to get our money back from the hotel (and there’s still no guarantee). We therefore have to wait until it’s officially cancelled before making any other bookings, and can’t book any replacement holiday until the day before, when all the cheap tickets are gone.
  • Finally, Wotif want an $80/person rebooking fee. Apparently not, according to the  person I spoke to today.

Lessons learned?

  • Maybe the savings from a package aren’t worth it. Booking directly is much easier to manage.
  • Wotif and Virgin could both communicate a whole lot better. I’ve had absolutely no proactive communication from either company, I’ve had to call them, and each call has taken a long time.
  • Earlier pre-emptive cancellation of flights would help a whole lot of people to actually have a holiday.
  • Wotif really need to react better to this situation. Why not earn some goodwill and actively offer replacement holidays to anyone still in Australia?
  • Wotif really shouldn’t be calling people back to put them on hold, or charging $160 to make a booking. They should be emailing people to let them know they might not be going on holiday in two days time.

Enough. Hopefully everyone stuck in Bali can get home soon.

EDIT: Virgin finally cancelled the flight today on their travel alerts page, so I rang Wotif to get a refund. Full flight credit received, and hotel refunded too. An hour or two after that, Virgin emailed me to say my flight was cancelled. Better late than never?