Out Travel the System is back for Season Two, bringing you the information that travelers both want and need right now.
In this first episode, we preview what’s to come in the new season – including how to make the most of your travel budget – and the best way to plan for destinations like Hawaii and Japan. We’re also indulging in our love of food, whether it’s how to travel like a foodie, or how to bring your favorite dishes home from your travels.
We’re also taking the opportunity to answer some of your burning questions about previous travel plans that probably didn’t turn out the way you had initially hoped for. Host Nisreene Atassi puts Haytham Akremi, a customer experience manager at Expedia, in the proverbial ‘hot seat’ about refunds and credits. They also look ahead to what travelers can research as they take advantage of some of the amazing travel deals currently out there.
Make sure to “like” and “subscribe” to keep up with all the news we have for you this season.
Be Prepared, Travelers
Nisreene Atassi: We know there’s a lot of uncertainty in the world right now, especially when it comes to travel. That’s why we’ve decided this is exactly the right time to start up Out Travel The System again. I’m your host, Nisreene Atassi. This season, we want to answer the burning questions you have when it comes to travel. We also want to show you how to make the most out of your travel budget, bring you along as we dive into travel trends and specific destinations, and help you bring travel inspiration home if going somewhere right now isn’t in the cards for you.
We’re excited to be featuring some of the leading voices from travel, hospitality, and beyond. We also want to tap into the wealth of information we have at our fingertips. With that, let’s bring on Haytham Akremi. You may remember Haytham from last season of Out Travel The System. He’s a customer experience manager at Expedia, and today we want to put him in the hot seat about refunds and what kind of research travelers need to do these days to be thoroughly prepared. Hi, Haytham.
Haytham Akremi: Hi, there. Thanks for having me back.
Nisreene Atassi: Haytham, there’s a lot going on right now because of COVID- 19, and it can seem really overwhelming to try and figure out what’s happening with travel. Specifically, I think there’s a lot of confusion around what non-refundable means with some bookings in some of the policies that are out there. Where do we stand right now in terms of global policies and refundable versus non-refundable?
Haytham Akremi: Yeah. So first, non-refundable can mean a few different things, depending on what kind of travel product you have. For a hotel, it typically means that you get a cheaper rate, but if you cancel your stay, you forfeit the money you paid for it. For a flight, it typically means that you can still cancel your flight, but you won’t get your money back. Instead, you get a credit that can be used for a future flight with that same airline, minus a penalty.
When the pandemic really hit the world in force, hotel and airlines had to scramble to adapt to this new world, where travel has a lot of uncertainty and fear associated with it, and things changed. Many hotels waived nonrefundable penalties and approved full refunds for impacted customers. Airlines also waived their penalties, removing the usual fees that came with customers canceling their upcoming flight and receiving a credit, so they can then use those credits towards a future booking whenever they feel more comfortable.
For flights, that’s very rare. For most flights that you book with Expedia or any other travel agency, payment goes directly to the airline. So when you need a refund, we do the work of verifying that your booking is eligible, and then we send that refund request through to the airline, so that they can finalize it and process it back to the original form of payment.
Unfortunately, like you said, most of our airlines are completely swamped, they don’t have the manpower to process these refunds out quickly. They’re quoting eight weeks, 12 weeks, sometimes longer. We at Expedia have little to no visibility into refund timing, either. It can be very frustrating for both us and the customer. Unfortunately, it’s just one of the side effects of the pandemic and how swamped everyone is in this unprecedented time.
Nisreene Atassi: So just to recap it, because I think I get what you’re saying. So Expedia doesn’t actually take the money from the customer sometimes when it comes to flights. So in that instance, they can’t actually issue the refund back. So what Expedia does is they take your request to process the refund, submits it to the airline, and then once that’s done, it’s really up to the airline to actually get you the money back, because they’re the one who took the money in the first place. Is that right?
Haytham Akremi: Yeah, that’s exactly right.
Nisreene Atassi: So what can Expedia actually do in those instances, if a customer is waiting for their refund or trying to get a status update?
Haytham Akremi: What we can do is help you weigh your options. Maybe you have more potential travel coming up, and maybe we can use your original funds as a flight credit towards this new trip. So instead of requesting a refund, waiting those eight, 12, or more weeks to get it, we could instead take that money, apply it to new travel while prices are really low. Like I mentioned earlier, most airlines are being extremely flexible, so if we do this, we book you something else for a future trip, save you some money, and that doesn’t work out for whatever reason, you should still be able to get that airline credit back that you can use again later.
Nisreene Atassi: All right. So more in a moment with Haytham, including some of the feedback Expedia has been getting on social media. You’re listening to Out Travel The System, brought to you by Expedia. I’m your host, Nisreene Atassi. This season, we’ll give you the inside scoop on when, where, and how to travel based on real-time information. Like and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts, so that you can stay up- to- date with both mini and full episodes.
Okay, so we’re back with Haytham Akremi, one of Expedia’s experts right here on customer service and all things COVID. Haytham, I’m going to read out some of the social media posts the Expedia channel has been getting. This one was from Instagram, “I’ve been trying to call for days and it’s like Expedia vanished from the face of the Earth.” This is one that came in through Facebook, “When will Expedia not be overwhelmed and handle people with travel issues from March?” And then this one came in from Twitter, “Still waiting to get my refund promised to me eight weeks ago.”
What’s your gut reaction to that, Haytham? What do you think when you read or hear things like that?
Haytham Akremi: I mean, it’s not good. It’s not what we want to hear, obviously. It’s a challenging time. I’ve heard similar feedback from my own friends and family, even myself with some travel that I had to move around because of this pandemic. It was not a super easy process, and that’s not what we want. That’s not what we want. We want to make things as easy as possible. We want to try to lessen as much pain in the current world as we can.
Unfortunately, there’s just things that we can’t account for. The amount of volume, the amount of customers that are needing to make changes and cancellations to their trip, is way higher than anything we’ve ever seen before. So we’re doing what we can, we’re making enhancements, we’re trying to staff up and be more prepared, but it’s just kind of a crazy time.
Nisreene Atassi: Yeah. I think that’s a really good point, because I saw that a lot actually, on social media. People were like, “How could you not be ready for this,” and things like that, which, I don’t think anybody was ready for it. I don’t think the travel industry or the world was really ready for a global pandemic. We do a lot of prep work to make sure we can handle things like hurricanes and natural disasters, but a global pandemic, I don’t think, was necessarily in the Expedia playbook.
Haytham Akremi: Oh, absolutely not, and there’s really no way to prepare for it. You mentioned a hurricane. We can kind of prepare for hurricane season and know that this very specific part of the world, there’s a good chance that we’re going to get a higher amount of call volume related to that area. There’s no way to prepare for the entire world being like that.
Nisreene Atassi: Okay, Haytham, so it sounds like social media is probably not a super effective way for travelers to come in and to get help with their itinerary. Can you explain a little bit why that is? Because I think oftentimes, just with the culture of social media and where we’re at today, that seems to be a common place for people to go first. Can you tell us a little bit why that may not be the case in this instance?
Haytham Akremi: It basically comes down to, social media just doesn’t really have the capabilities needed to resolve most of the questions. Most of the time, by the time it comes into social media, it’s because customers have tried to self-service online or have waited on hold for an agent and not gotten through, and so then they turn to social media.
Unfortunately, most of these cases require a live agent to resolve. So even if you do get a hold of somebody through social media and an agent looks at your booking, most of the time, they’re going to respond, saying, “You need to call in and talk to somebody, so that we can sort this out over the phone.” Then you’re kind of back to square one.
We’ve done a ton of work over the last few months to try to give customers more and more options to self-service online, whether it’s through their itinerary page or with our virtual agent chat bot. We’ve added tons of features to that, and there’s more coming out every week almost, to relieve some of the pain of having to call in, and wait on hold, and talk to an agent. Where, instead, you can, just at your computer or on your phone, do it yourself and get it taken care of, or at least see what your options are.
Nisreene Atassi: So speaking of the self- service portal, will that give instructions in terms of maybe how to track a refund, or how to figure out the status of it? I feel like people maybe just have basic questions like that, like, how do I use my credit, or what’s the status of my refund? If people go to the customer support page online, will that give instructions on how to figure out the details for things like that?
Haytham Akremi: Yeah, absolutely. We have, in our customer service portal, which you usually get there by just clicking the service link on our homepage, we have several different help articles in place that will help guide you through how to answer a lot of those questions yourself, including refund timelines, what self- service options are available to you if you’re wanting to cancel or change your trip, et cetera.
Nisreene Atassi: And what’s the best way to get to that page on the site?
Haytham Akremi: Easiest way is if you just go to Expedia.com, at the top of the page there should be a link that says “support” or “service”.
Nisreene Atassi: I know Haytham’s been sharing a ton of really great information on the show today, so for those of you listening, no need to scramble for a pen or to get your phone to jot these details down, we’ll make sure all of this great information is included in the show notes, so that you can come back and reference it later.
But let’s pivot, and now talk a little bit about people who are actually looking to purchase travel and go somewhere now. What are some of the things that you would recommend travelers do in advance or as they’re searching? What are things that you would really advise that they look for, just knowing that things can change at a moment’s notice?
Haytham Akremi: When looking at destinations, we’re doing our best to surface any information we can find on rules and restrictions that some of these destinations are enforcing, such as quarantine, testing requirements, mask requirements, et cetera. But I would encourage customers to do their own research, as well. Most destinations have websites that will detail any restrictions that they’re enforcing at a state level, city level, country level, et cetera.
When comparing properties or airlines, we’re similarly trying to make it easy to see what precautions and rules they’re implementing that are focused on things like cleanliness and safety. My recommendation would be to look for properties that are offering flexible cancellation policies, and airlines that are taking cleanliness and social distancing seriously.
Nisreene Atassi: Okay. So it sounds like there’s two things that people need to really pay attention to. One is the cancellation window and cancellation policy that is specific to the airline or the hotel that you’re booking with. But then the other piece are guidelines set by either the state, the county, the city that you’re going to. Is there a way on the Expedia website where people can learn more about these restrictions before they actually book?
Haytham Akremi: Yeah. So if you’re doing a search on Expedia, on pretty much any destination that you go to, when you get to the results page where you can see all the different properties, or flights, or whatever that you’re looking at, we’re doing a pretty good job of, at the top, we’ve got a banner that has a link off, and then we’ll try to give you some information around that destination and what they’re doing, what their policies are, et cetera. It’s a good place to start. I would encourage you to dig around a little bit more if you need to, but we do have information there that you can link off to and find.
Nisreene Atassi: So just to sort of summarize all the great tips that you’ve given us here today, sounds like first and foremost, if you are still in need of customer service, the best way to do that is to start on the website, either through our customer support portal or the virtual agent. After that, you can try calling into our phone lines, and social media is not necessarily the best way to get help with your itinerary.
If you are looking to do future bookings, it sounds like doing your homework is really critical. Understand the cancellation policies, search for things that are refundable versus nonrefundable, and make sure that you have that flexibility in case your plans need to change.
Thank you, Haytham, so much for joining us today. Is there anything else that you think would be good for travelers to know, just in this uncertain time of COVID?
Haytham Akremi: Yeah, thanks for having me. I would just say that there’s still a lot of really great opportunities to travel right now. Rates are really good, and most destinations and companies are doing a really good job of trying to make everything as safe and comfortable as possible. I actually myself am planning an upcoming trip, where I booked through an airline that has empty middle seats, so I’m not directly next to anybody else. I’m kind of going to the middle of nowhere, and we’re going to go look at nature for a while, and have a good time, and get out of the house for a little bit. I think there’s a lot of opportunities like that.
Nisreene Atassi: Yeah, absolutely, so really making the best of the situation that you’ve got. That’s awesome.
Haytham Akremi is a customer experience manager with Expedia. I’m your host, Nisreene Atassi, and this is Out Travel The System. In our next episode, we’re getting into the inside scoop on flights and hotels during COVID, so please be sure to come back and join us. Until then, happy travels.