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Q: I booked a plane ticket through a travel agent, but I have to cancel my flight. How long does a refund take? How much will I get back?

A:If your travel agent has not confirmed or issued the ticket, you pay nothing or a small administration fee. However, if the ticket has been issued, the agent must cancel with the airline, and a refund could take months. Airlines also impose charges on agents, and these charges will be passed on to you.

Airlines usually charge $75 for each ticket cancelled and $50 administrative fees. Agents may charge $50 for the cancellation too, so you could pay $175 in total.

If you cancel only a day ahead, airlines impose a $150 no-show fee in addition to their $75 cancellation fee, $50 administrative fee and the agent's own administrative fee. That way, you could lose a few hundred dollars off the value of your ticket.

NATAS Chief Executive Mr Robert Khoo has also advised that airlines can take up to nine months to process a refund. Therefore, agents are given no choice but to wait. However, you are assured that agents do not sit on refunds.

Q: Will I ever get no refund at all?

A:This can happen with special fare return tickets. If you travel one way, a refund on the return way may be impossible as the airline treats what you have used as a one-way normal fare, with no value left in the return trip. Sometimes ticket conditions state that the ticket is non-refundable, so it is important to read the fine print.

Another no-refund example is during certain peak seasons or promotional periods. Agents may have to 'firm buy' non-refundable seats from the airline first. If your purchase is from the non-refundable seat inventory, you may lose the whole sum.

Q: What if my flight is overbooked?

A:Refused boarding happens when airlines overbook flights against no-show passengers. This has nothing to do with travel agents. Different airlines offer passengers different compensation.

Q: I booked a free & easy trip with an agent including a hotel stay, but the hotel could not find my booking. Now what?

A: You have a receipt of your booking from your travel agent. Show this to the hotel and let them call the agency to check if the booking went through.
In the worst case, if your booking did not go through and the hotel is full, find another hotel, pay first and keep the receipts. When you come back, ask your agency for reimbursement for the booking and mental stress. Give them time to investigate with the hotel and handling agents. Most agencies will reimburse the room rates and compensate you for inconvenience suffered.

The same goes when you have already paid for a land tour, but the overseas agent claims you have not. Pay first, insist on a receipt from the overseas tour operator, then come back with the receipt for a refund from your local agent immediately.

Q: What happens if I book a package tour and then cannot go because of a family emergency?

A:Before booking, it is advisable to read the agent's cancellation policies. If you find the policies unfair, negotiate for more equitable terms (in writing) or choose another agent.

Agents have cancellation time frames (e.g. four weeks before departure, no charge; three weeks before departure, 50%; and so on). Many have 100% cancellation charges if you cancel within 24 hours of departure. If this is in the condition of sale and you sign the agreement, a refund is unlikely.

In addition, agents suffer losses for airline seats bought, and payments to overseas agents to secure rooms and tours when met with a cancellation. If a customer cancels at least one month before departure, the agent usually takes only an administrative fee. Otherwise, you will be charged more.

Q: Is the situation different if the travel agency itself cancels a tour?

A:Agents may cancel tours because of insufficient bookings, passenger cancellations or rejected visa applications. Airlines could also cancel flights because of weather conditions, safety considerations or overbooking (if the agent has taken the risk of selling the seats before confirming with the airline).

In the event when your agent cancels a tour, they will normally inform all passengers two weeks in advance and refund the money in full if alternatives offered are rejected.

If your package includes a mountain trip or helicopter ride and it is cancelled because of landslides or high winds, your agent will try to arrange for alternative sightseeing to make up for it. Your safety comes first.

Q: What is a good travel agent?

A:NATAS Chief Executive Mr Robert Khoo has complimented that an agency which is transparent and upfront with customers is a good agency. A good agency's trading conditions are fair to both parties. Good agents will put in their best effort to ensure that customers get what they want, and are there to handle problems or complaints if such situations arise.

Customers say they like agencies with well-informed, well-spoken and helpful staff who know their product, volunteer information and are able and willing to recommend destinations based on customers' interests and budgets, not merely on the price or promotion alone.

Q: What would be unfair to expect of a travel agent?

A:Agents are middlemen. They do not own the airlines, hotels or transport companies, so matters like booking availability, payment deadlines, cancellation fees and inventory controls are not within their control.

For example, airports may increase taxes and there are instances where customers refuse to pay the extras. Or when customers want to extend their group tours, they do not realise that this depends on airline confirmation. If no confirmation is received, the customer has to return with the group. This is made known at the point of booking.

It may not always be possible to give the customers exactly what he/she wants, but a good agent will be one that can provide satisfactory alternatives.

Q: Why go through an agent when I can book my own tickets and rooms directly with airlines or hotels online?

A:The average customer is untrained in flight booking issues, and if you face problems overseas, you risk having no agency in Singapore to help. Travel agencies licensed in Singapore must live up to certain standards, be reliable and take responsibility when things unexpectedly go wrong, so there are benefits in going through them.

Also, agents may hold special airfares, land tour rates and hotel rates that are lower than those offered direct to the public. They contract them in volume and thus get preferential pricing, and these savings are passed on to customers.

Q: Why are agents' phone lines always busy?

A:At times, phone traffic is unusually high. Agencies like us counter this problem with a call centre - when it registers waiting and missed calls, we deploy more staff to handle the call-in enquiries.

The nature of your enquiries plays a part too. Free & easy tours often take longer process because they combine specific hotels, airfare and land tours into one package. Customers calling about free & easy tours may experience longer waiting time than those calling or queuing for packaged tours.

Q: Why must I queue so long to see a tour operator?

A:For peak seasons like school holidays, peak periods like lunchtime and after office hours, traffic is inevitably higher. Travel agents seek customers' understanding with regard to this.

You may have experienced incidents where you are 'made to wait' even when there is an available counter. This is because agents have different departments handling different tours to ensure specialised service to their customers. A consultant who specialises in packaged tours can indeed assist a customer who walks in for free & easy enquiry, but may not be able to provide a lot of detail or assist to the fullest.

So the consultant you see at an "available" counter is not taking a break at your expense, but simply may not be the best one to help with your particular enquiry.

Q: What can my agent do if I miss a tour because I oversleep, or fall sick?

A:If you miss a tour due to your own negligence, your agent can try to arrange for you to meet the group at a later time, in another place. However, you must bear the cost of re-issuing your ticket (subject to seat availability).

Agents advise you to purchase travel insurance, so that if you cannot travel due to health problems, you can produce your medical certificate and the insurance company can process a refund. The amount is determined by the policy purchased and on a case-by-case basis.

If you cannot travel due to serious family emergencies, agents can try to obtain a compassionate refund for you. However, this is also on a case-by-case basis and depends on the number of days' in advance notice is received.

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