The airline tickets Marianne Ellis buys for a family vacation to Tanzania are refundable with a change fee, but her online travel agent fails to tell her that the fee is about a quarter of the cost of the ticket. Now that she has to cancel, will she lose thousands of dollars?

Q: We recently bought five tickets for a family vacation in Tanzania through CheapOair (, an online travel agency. A few months later, we found out our daughter would be starting a new job and couldn't make the trip with us. So we phoned CheapOair to cancel our reservation.

When we booked the tickets, a CheapOair representative told us the tickets were nonrefundable and that if we canceled and used our credit to rebook another flight, we would have to pay a penalty. But I was never told how much the penalty would be.

CheapOair consulted with Northwest Airlines, which agreed to a full refund of all five tickets, which had cost us $2,271 each. CheapOair then charged us $535 per ticket in cancellation fees. I asked the agency for a breakdown, and it said the fees represented $410 to Northwest, $75 to the consolidator and $50 to CheapOair.

A CheapOair representative said that when you buy this type of fare and have to cancel, the penalty fees are enormous because the airlines want to recoup their lost revenue. We have accepted our responsibility in the cancellation, but think $535 per ticket is excessive. Can you help? -- Marianne Ellis, Sacramento, Calif.

A: This could have turned out much worse. Your airline could have pocketed all of your money, and you would have been out of luck.

CheapOair sells what are known as "consolidator" fares that are often less expensive than the tickets you buy through a traditional travel agent or by booking directly. The reason? It works through a ticket wholesaler that buys tickets in bulk at a big discount. Then it marks up the ticket prices enough to make a profit while still undercutting other published fares.

But that's not all. Consolidator tickets typically come with more restrictions than the garden-variety nonrefundable tickets sold by airlines. While some can be canceled and re-used for a future purchase after paying a change fee, others are completely nonrefundable and non-changeable. Meaning that if you have second thoughts about your vacation, your ticket's gone.

I don't understand why you wouldn't ask your online travel agent for details on the change fees -- particularly if your daughter is either contemplating a new job or looking for work. If there's even a chance you'll have to cancel your ticket, a consolidator fare isn't the way to go. You should have considered a ticket with more reasonable change fees (although "reasonable" is relative -- Northwest charged a $150 fee for international reservations at the time you bought your tickets, which is excessive to a lot of people).

I also think the CheapOair representative with whom you spoke should have warned you about the change fees before you bought the tickets.

This might have also been avoided by booking the tickets online, where such terms would presumably be clearly disclosed, instead of calling CheapOair. But not necessarily. I've seen more than my share of confusing booking screens where important details are buried three screens under a hundred offers to rent a car or reserve a hotel room.

I wouldn't have phoned the online agency after being asked to pay these cancellation fees. Instead, a quick e-mail to may have yielded better results. Trust me on this: don't call -- e-mail.

I agree that $535 in cancellation charges is a little rich, so I contacted CheapOair on your behalf. I heard back from Sneharthi Roy, the company's senior vice president of operations, who verified that this was a consolidator fare and that the fees were in line with what the company charges. Still, CheapOair asked its consolidator to waive the fees on your behalf. And it did.

You've received a full refund -- a total of $11,355 -- from CheapOair.

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

(c) 2009 Christopher Elliott Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.