Frank Santa Maria buys two tickets to Italy on Expedia. But when an agent misspells his wife's name, he must embark on an odyssey to ensure she'll be allowed to use her tickets. Will he be successful?
Q: I recently bought tickets to Italy by calling Expedia. I spelled my wife's first name to the agent. That afternoon we left town for a trip. When we returned the tickets were at the front door and a confirmation e-mail was waiting. My wife's first name was spelled Crista instead of Christa.
I immediately called Expedia, and was told I should have contacted them the day the e-mail was sent to me and that there would be a $150 re-ticketing fee. After several more calls and being put on "hold" for more than half an hour, a supervisor told me that there was nothing they could do. They couldn't even change the name on the ticket.
I contacted the airline directly and they told me they would make a note on my wife's passenger record. My wife's tickets are still wrong and I'm afraid we may have a problem with our connecting airline or with customs. What can I do? -- Frank Santa Maria, New Braunfels, Texas
A: Expedia should have spelled your wife's name correctly. When it was clear that the company had made an error, it should have done everything in its power to fix it instead of giving you the runaround and forcing you to deal directly with your airline.
Then again, it should have never come to this. First, why are you phoning an online travel agency to buy tickets? It may be more convenient, but online agencies are built to handle your purchases online. It's more efficient and reduces the chance of an error being introduced -- like misspelling a passenger's name.
Second, you should always check your verification e-mail immediately. Expedia could have made a change to your ticket if you had caught the mistake earlier. It's essential that you review your itinerary as soon as possible. Believe me, I know. I just made this mistake and had to spend an extra day at my destination because I put the wrong date in my reservation. (See? It can happen to anyone.)
I've dealt with too many wrong-name cases to count, and here are a few things I've learned. Passengers aren't turned away at the gate because of a typographical error on their tickets. Reservations systems have limitations that sometimes truncate last names or render non-English names in funny characters. Last names and first names are frequently flip-flopped. Ticket agents, gate agents and security screeners know that, and will let you through.
I haven't heard of anyone being denied boarding because of a one-character difference in a name. I'm reasonably sure your wife would have been allowed to travel using her ticket, even if this had happened after the May 15 implementation of the first phase of the Transportation Security Administration's "Secure Flight" initiative, which requires that you provide your full name as it appears on your government-issued identification.
Incidentally, the "notation" in her reservation would have almost certainly been visible to any connecting airline. And a customs agent wouldn't even pay attention to your ticket under normal circumstances. It's your customs form and passport that matter to them.
Next time you buy tickets by phone -- and I hope there's no next time -- do yourself a big favor: When you offer your name to the agent, ask to have it spelled back. That way, you'll catch any errors before the transaction goes through. Once you have a reservation, it becomes much more difficult (or even impossible) to make a change.
It shouldn't be that way. In an ideal world, you'd be able to change a name on a ticket. Airlines say they can't allow name changes for "security reasons" but I'm inclined to believe it has more to do with the fact that they would lose lots of money if passengers could give their tickets to friends and family. Or resell them.
I contacted Expedia on your behalf, and it issued a new ticket with your wife's name spelled correctly.
Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine and the host of "What You Get For The Money: Vacations" on the Fine Living Network. E-mail him at email@example.com.
(c) 2009 Christopher Elliott. Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.