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Alitalia – Pay For What You Get

An Airline That Would Make Berlusconi Proud

Last October I booked 2 Tickets on Alitalia to Madrid for $287 via a Mistake Fare

Typically with Mistake Fares, Airlines are extremely quick to respond, as every minute the mistake continues, the more people get in on the deal.

Alitalia’s response was painstakingly slow and once they finally shut it down, for a good week they were sending out fake emails making claims about fraud, etc.

This really should have been my first indication of just how terrible Alitalia is…

In the end, Alitalia honored the tickets if you actually paid more than $0.01 for your tickets. If your tickets were free (which many of the intra-EU tickets were), they were canceled.

Since our Tickets were confirmed by Alitalia, for the past 3 months I have been planning the trip for me and my Friends.

I visited Madrid 2 years ago on an identical $280 Mistake Fare on Delta, so I wanted to visit another Country in addition to Spain on this trip. I have always thought Istanbul looked like an amazing City, so we decided to book that via a separate Revenue Ticket (I will cover logistics tomorrow).

There was also a massive USAA sale on Hotels, so we booked 2 great properties in Madrid and Istanbul for an amazing price.

Well on 1/22/2013, or a little over 19 days to Departure, Alitalia sent me the following bizarre email saying my flights on 10/01/2013 had been canceled and to call them.

Since our Flight was actually on 2/09/2013, I wasn’t sure what Alitalia was talking about and figured it was a mistake, but I went ahead and called them anyways.

Even though Alitalia’s Phone Number is U.S based, given the heavy Italian accents and terrible connection, it was clear the calls were being routed to Agents based in Italy.

After I got connected to an Alitalia Agent, I explained the weird email that I got and inquired what it was about.

Lo and behold, the date on the email was wrong but my Flights had in fact been canceled!

The original Itinerary is below.

Even though I am based out of Chicago, our Alitalia flight was from JFK since that is where the deal was from.

As you can see on our flight to Madrid, we had a quick 45 minute layover in Rome, and then coming back to New York, we had a 1:45 hour layover in Rome.

Normally Flight Cancellations aren’t a big deal. Even if you are booked on Miles, your new flight typically becomes a Revenue Ticket since they will try and stick you on whatever Flight they can get you on.

So as long as there are some other options available, Flight Cancellations can typically be managed.

While I was talking to the Alitalia Agent on the Phone, I pulled up Alitalia’s website and started looking at other options.

I found 2 flights with short Connections available on Air France and KLM, so I gave the Agent the Flight Numbers and asked to be switched to those.

To my shock, the Agent said “Sorry that is not possible, you can only fly on Alitalia.”

I told them that didn’t make any sense and I should be able to fly any Sky Team Partner.

The Agent told me I could either fly on Alitalia or cancel my Ticket for a refund, but she wouldn’t budge on flying with Sky Team Partners.

I thought about just canceling the Ticket but because we already had booked our other Flights and Hotel Reservations in Madrid, I couldn’t cancel on the spot without first checking to see if those were Refundable. 

I ended up calling back and talking to another Agent. 

Same exact thing happened again except the Agent hung up on me…

Not being one to give up easily, I dialed back again and talked to another Agent but with no luck!

After talking to about 6 different Agents and either getting hung up on (not a joke) or told Partner flights were impossible, I finally caved and asked what the Alitalia flights options were. Conveniently there was only 1 other Alitalia Flight.

Since I knew everyone else would be calling in to change their Flights, I figured it was a safer bet to get a Seat on the other Alitalia flight, rather than not get a spot and have to fly out Sunday.

The new Itinerary was as follows:

Although the Flight from JFK to Madrid wasn’t terrible because there was only a 2:15 hour layover in Rome, it kind of messed up our plans because it got us into Madrid a full 6 hours later than originally planned.

Coming back from Madrid, what was originally a 1:45 hour layover, became a 5:10 hour layover in Rome… 

To make things even worse, we had a connecting Southwest flight from New York to get back to Chicago, and had to switch Airports from JFK to LaGuardia. Conveniently our new Alitalia Flight would land at 6:25PM and the last Southwest Flight was at 7:30PM, so that was a no go!

After Alitalia sent the new Itinerary, I was getting really frustrated with them as I had already spent 5+ hours on the phone, I was barred from speaking to a Supervisor, and the fact that they decided to notify people of the Flight Cancellation a mere 19 days before Departure. I really feel bad for people who never checked their email and will inadvertently show up to the Airport only to find out their Flight has been canceled.

Ultimately, I decided it was probably better to cancel the Alitalia Flight and book an Award Ticket because Alitalia might try to cancel the new Flights or do something even dumber. 

I started checking for Award Flights on AA and US Airways, since they both offer Off-Peak Awards to Europe for 40,000 and 35,000 Miles.

US Airways didn’t have anything available but thankfully AA did. The bad news was that there weren’t any direct AA Flights back to the U.S that didn’t stop in London, so I set an ExpertFlyer alert and started checking for direct Flights every day.

Last week, a direct AA Flight back to JFK opened up, so I went ahead and held the Award. After it was secured, I called Alitalia to cancel our original Flights.

I explained the situation to an Alitalia Agent, thinking it shouldn’t be a problem since they offered the option to cancel the Ticket last week.

To my shock, the Agent said, “Sorry this Ticket has been confirmed and you “accepted” the schedule change so the Ticket is now non-Refundable.”

I was at a loss of words, because there was only 1 other Alitalia Flight available, so I didn’t really have any other options but to accept their Schedule Change or potentially not have a seat on the Flight.

Also what really annoys me is that the Agent never told me that if they moved me to a new Flight (which I didn’t really have a choice to begin with), then I wouldn’t be able to cancel it the future.

The Agent I was on the Phone with did not care, so I asked to speak to a Supervisor and she just told me “No” and hung up on me.

I called back to another Agent and politely explained the situation again, and again they told me, “No changes can be made. You confirmed the Ticket”.  After continuing to stonewall me for a good 20 minutes, I asked to speak to a Supervisor and was told again, “No we cannot do that”.

WTF!

I was getting extremely annoyed at this point, so I hung up and dialed back again and got another Agent.

I again explained the situation for the 3rd time, and this Agent honestly just started to become combative, telling me it was my fault that I originally booked myself on a Delta flight (which wasn’t even true) and it was also my fault that it got canceled. Then to make matters worse, he looked at the new Itinerary and told me he couldn’t see what the big deal was, since I originally had a 2 hour layover in Rome, what was another 3 hours?

At that point I completely lost it and again asked to speak to a Supervisor but was hung up on for the 3rd time!

I wasn’t sure if this terrible Customer Service had to do with the fact that these Agents were in Italy so I pulled up Alitalia’s U.S airport desk phone numbers figuring if I could talk to someone in the U.S, I could convince them that what was going on was ridiculous.

I tried every Airport Number (JFK, Chicago, Miami, Boston) listed on Alitalia’s Website, and not even one of the numbers worked.

After literally exploring every single one of my options to no avail,  I knew there was no way in hell that Alitalia was going to let me cancel the Ticket and that there was a strong possibility of them making some more stupid changes to the Flights. Since I had already book Revenue Flights from Madrid to Istanbul and made non-Refundable Hotel Reservations, I didn’t want to risk dealing with Alitalia in the event something else happened.

In the end, I circumvented Alitalia and called American Express and explained the situation to them saying my flights were canceled and Alitalia was refusing to reasonably accommodate me. They said they would take care of it, and I ended up getting refunded for both flights.

I normally wouldn’t have called AMEX, but Alitalia was clearly trying to pull a fast one on me. They canceled both my original Flights and instead of allowing me fly on one of their Sky Team Partners, I was forced to accept their bogus Schedule Change.

After my Alitalia Tickets were refunded by AMEX, I ended up booking 2 Off Peak Awards on AA for 40,000 Miles Each + $150 in taxes and fees (more on that tomorrow).

Lessons Learned

Dealing with Alitalia was honestly one of the most frustrating things I have ever had to encounter while traveling. It did however teach me a few valuable lessons!

1. Be Careful When Booking Flights With non-U.S Airlines

When I went to Madrid in 2010 on the $280 Mistake Fare, all the legs were booked via Delta.com and we flew on Delta Planes. So even when we stupidly missed our connecting flight to JFK, we just called up Delta and they re-booked us without issue.

The problem with Mistake Fares on non-US Carriers is that foreign Agents / Airlines don’t really have to follow any U.S  rules or regulations because there aren’t any repercussions if they don’t.

I was reading online that even for people who canceled their Alitalia Flights and asked for a refund, it has taken months for them to get their money back. Why? Because if Alitalia doesn’t send you your money back, what are you going to do? You literally have no recourse except calling their terrible Italian Call Center and inquiring where your money is.

Regardless of how shitty Alitalia treats their U.S Customers, isn’t like you are going to file a claim with the EU Aviation Governing Body, so what do they care?

In hindsight, I am now extremely happy that I changed our Flights to AA because there is a monster North Eastern Storm coming this Weekend, with 2 feet of snow expected. Since our Flights are on AA, if I need to make any changes, I can just opt to fly direct from Chicago to Madrid.

If the Storm does in fact hit NYC and cause Flight Cancellations, I can only imagine how Alitalia will respond…

2. Be Careful With Non-Refundable Reservations

Since Alitalia decided to wait until 19 days until Departure to tell us our Tickets were canceled, I had already gone ahead and booked Revenue Tickets to Istanbul and made non-Refundable Hotel Reservations because there was a huge sale.

This really came to bite me in the butt later on. Had I made Refundable Reservations to begin with, then when I was on the Phone with Alitalia the first time, I could have just canceled the Alitalia Flights without having to first check on everything else.

Sometimes it can be difficult to avoid making non-Refundable plans (like Revenue Flights), but if possible with Hotels, make sure they at least have some sort of Cancellation Policy.

Recap

Overall this entire experience has really taught me going forward to truly examine the risk / reward of these so called “Mistake Fares” and other “Travel Glitches”.

Although they may look like a “great deal” on the surface, you really have to dig deeper and figure out what happens if you pay money and things take a turn for the worse. Will you be out all of your money or is there a way to get it back?

With this Alitalia mess, I spent a good 12+ hours, either on the Phone with Alitalia, looking at new Flight options, talking to American Express, researching EU Regulations, or booking new tickets, etc. 

Although the ticket was only $287 round-trip to Europe, which on the surface looked like a great deal, when you factor in how much time and hassle I spent trying to get this stupid ticket fixed, it honestly would have been cheaper for me to just purchase a $700 flight rather than spend 12+ hours figuring out new options.

To make matters worse, since I had other Connecting Flights to Istanbul and non-Refundable Hotel Reservations, I really could have lost a lot of money had AMEX not come through at the last minute.

I know from this experience that the next time there is a Mistake Fare, unless it is on a U.S Carrier, I will not be getting in on the deal, no matter how good it seems!

-Parag

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10 Comments

  • Andrew says:

    Moral of the story:

    Welcome to SkyTeam!!!

  • Lively says:

    Sounds like a complete zoo. Staying away from Alitalia.

  • Alan says:

    I got the same e-mail from them yesterday, but our flight from MAD to FCO to JFK was on 2/16. There was another flight on Air Europa on 2/16 around the same time as our previous itinerary but they said they couldn't book it, and I made the same argument about it being in the same alliance, but no go. They said, either accept a change from 2/16 to 2/17 or refund the entire itinerary. Luckily, our schedule was flexible enough that we could stay an extra day in Madrid, but still, after this experience, I told my wife we won't be flying Alitalia ever again. Props to you for your persistence! Their customer service is a train wreck.

  • Dave says:

    Cannot believe your persistance-way to go! Actually, the moral seems to be call in the heavy guns-AmEx in particular- to get some help. I wonder if Visa/MC would be so helpful?

  • ben says:

    true lessons learned
    1. you pay for what you got for sure. stay away from cheapness.
    2. be flexible, period.
    3. Ciao in Chinese means fxxk, it truly is. LOL. I won't fly any Europe airline except a few good ones, BA, LH…

  • Mike says:

    Wow, all for saving a few dollars? Is it worth your time and aggravation? Calling 6 x , and getting Amex involved etc , cancelled flights , long layovers , that is why i do not get involved in mistake fares or getting something for nothing.

  • Babs says:

    I have to agree…was all this really worth it? To be honest…I think that whole mistake fare for under a buck shouldn't have been grated to you or anyone else. It's people like you who take advantage of things like this…make travelers in the future pay for it..so to speak. Don't get me wrong. I love a good deal on flights, hotels but it was almost like stealing and that is just plain wrong! Karma came back and bit you on the butt.

  • Brad says:

    I would have disputed the charge through AmEx after the first hang up. Why the reluctance to do this earlier?

  • Nick says:

    I think rather than saying you needed a US carrier, you probably needed to have known about the EU airline regulations, especially Regulation (EC) 261/2004. They are different to the US ones, but do have some strong teeth in some situations, including cancellations, delays and re-routings. Because you were set to be flying into the EU on an EU airline, you would have been covered. The compensation for a 3 hour delay in that situation on a long haul flight is several hundred euros each!

  • meecks says:

    Just in case… I'm italian and I still live in Italy… So if you need assitance or support dealing with alitalia's italian agents let me know… Sometimes could be helpful…
    Ciao Max

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