europe study abroad travel

My Nightmare Experience with Hotwire

They say hindsight is 20/20. Well, I’m seeing everything clearly now. Over the past 4 years, travel has taught me so much about the world and myself. And let’s just say that some of those lessons were not the most fun to learn…like my Hotwire horror story.

Allow me to be clear. I’m not writing this post for vengeance against Hotwire. They will continue to make millions, and be a “successful” company. I’m not talking about their hotel or rental car deals, because I’ve never used them. I can only share what happened when I booked a flight with them, and the grander reason you should never book a flight with a third party.

Here’s the 411, and how I learned from this experience to get better at doing what I love most: seeing the world!

booking a flight to Barcelona for my semester abroad

Remember when I kept going on and on about how you should only buy your plane tickets directly with the airline? Here’s my horror story, my personal experience as to just how badly purchasing a “super-saver” ticket with a third party can go. Cue frowny-faced emoji.

The summer before my junior year in college, I worked tirelessly between my nanny job and an unpaid nonprofit internship. Why? So I could save up for my semester abroad in Barcelona, to begin the following January. I was pumped. I’d been looking forward to that experience since I first found the study abroad program’s website in high school.

Lo and behold, I worked enough to make the money for a roundtrip plane ticket to Barcelona. I started researching which ticket to buy for the program dates, and this is where everything went downhill.

You see, I didn’t know about Skyscanner, or browsing in incognito mode. I didn’t know how to really find those flight deals for a great price. I only saw what those top-ranking, lying, cheating flight “deals” websites quoted for my flight. I’d made enough money, so I went for it. Enter: Hotwire.

Because I used Hotwire to book my first ever flight roundtrip from Atlanta to San José, Costa Rica, I thought it was a good service. I was wrong.

I paid $1,153.13 for a roundtrip flight from Nashville to Barcelona and paid $74 in travel insurance. That is unbelievably expensive. I know that many people consider that average, but it doesn’t have to be. Now, I would never pay over $800 roundtrip to and from Europe. And even that feels too expensive when you can get to London for $99 one-way!

But baby traveler Sarah didn’t know that. And she learned just what scoundrels Hotwire employs.

how this whole debacle began

My family was up in the air about coming to visit me at the end of my semester abroad. Mom wanted to, but needed to make sure her vacation time panned out. My grandparents also wanted to come, but my grandfather’s health was on the rocks and they weren’t positive they could fly that far.

Because Hotwire quotes unbearably high and inaccurate one-way ticket prices, I went ahead and booked a round trip.

Never. Again.

Fast-forward to the end of my semester. My family decides to end their time in Dublin, and I realized that I would need to change my flight to leave from Dublin instead of Barcelona. But you can’t do that without penalty. If you don’t fly the first leg of your itinerary, the airline cancels the rest of it.

Here’s where the horrible customer service comes into play.

trying to pay a change fee

I called Aer Lingus, the airline I flew with. They would not talk to me about my itinerary, saying Hotwire owns it. I get on the phone with Hotwire to request a change and pay the Aer Lingus change fee, and the representative tells me that I’ve already used up the value of my roundtrip ticket before I even flew the return leg.

Mind you, my ticket says changes are up to the airline’s policy, not Hotwire. I was requesting to change my flight by paying the $250 change fee through Aer Lingus.

This is a screenshot from my Hotwire itinerary page:

Basically, the Hotwire rep meant that their super-saver fares use up all of their allocated value in the first leg, so that they can intentionally trap customers like me into buying a brand new ticket if they need to make changes. What a rip-off!

He also told me I might as well buy a new ticket leaving from Dublin, because if not, I’d have to buy the new ticket AND pay a change fee through Aer Lingus. That makes absolutely no sense, especially looking back on my past flying experiences.

I begrudgingly accept that there was no point in purchasing travel insurance, and decide to never do that again. At this point, I’m 1000% done with Hotwire. I purchase a seat on the same Dublin-Boston-Nashville flight as my mom so that I can fly home with family.

Through all of this, Aer Lingus’ representatives are only slightly less rude than Iberia’s, and I’ve determined that their company is not worth my money for the rest of my travels.

If that wasn’t enough to convince you not to book with a third party, wait ’til you hear this.

hotwire charged my bank account without my permission…

I’m with my family, relaxing in our Glasgow Airbnb. We’re a few days from heading back to the States. I check my bank account, just to see how much money I have. My account is overdrawn.

Why, you ask? Because there was a debit in my account for the exact dollar amount of the Aer Lingus change fee. After days of talking to both Hotwire and Aer Lingus on the phone, only to be shrugged off and purchase another 600 euro ticket. UNBELIEVABLE.

I’m meticulous about how I spend my money. I am never overdrawn, and I wasn’t going to let incompetent cheaters do this to me after all the damage they’d already caused. I got on the phone with Hotwire yet again.

…and then swears they didn’t do it

The representative tells me that they didn’t charge me the change fee, and proceeds to argue with me about it. When you book with a third party, part of their job is to call the airline on your behalf and communicate itinerary changes to you on the airline’s behalf. This especially applies when the airline won’t talk to you themselves.

Essentially, I was asking her to do what her job description says. She refuses.

Enraged, I ask to speak to her manager. She tells me that the manager will only back her up, but we insist anyway.

The manager is even more incompetent, if that’s possible, and tells us they didn’t charge me without my permission. She says there’s nothing they can do. Shocker.

My mom tells her that there is indeed something she can do, and that is get on the phone with Aer Lingus. Since it was the exact cost of their change fee and they wouldn’t talk to us, we knew either the airline or Hotwire charged it. After arguing with us some more, she finally agreed to call the airline.

Guess what? We actually did know what we were talking about. Hotwire called us back and admitted that they debited my account the $250 even after insisting I couldn’t change my flight for the fee, and did so without my permission. Thankfully, my bank retracted their overdraft fees after I contacted them about the situation.

Of course, there was no apology from Hotwire. Honestly, I didn’t expect one.

salt in the wound

After all that hassle, I was thankful to be on that Dublin flight and put everything behind me. On the way to Barcelona in January, Aer Lingus was delayed 2+ hours in Boston and it made me late for my Barcelona flight with them. I sat in Dublin airport for 10 hours, and the only compensation they offered were two breakfast vouchers.

There must be some thin people working at Aer Lingus if they’re all only eating one meal in 10 hours. Maybe I need to get on their diet.

Needless to say, their customer service reps are horrible. One even said “I don’t want to hear another call about this itinerary.” To top it all off, my in-flight experience was mediocre, considering how much they charge. I’ll never fly with them again. However, their flight attendants are kind! That was the only silver lining of this whole experience.

We got to Boston airport, and checked in with the JetBlue desk in the area after security. Our flight to Nashville was with them, and they’re Aer Lingus’ partner.

The friendly JetBlue agent asked me which Sarah Stewart I am, because they have two seats with that name on their flight. Salt in the wound.

I tell her which seat I chose, and gave her my info. She looked at me, puzzled. I explained that I wasn’t allowed to pay a change fee and alter my flight, so I had to buy another ticket. Her facial expression said it all. This never should have happened, and never will (to me) again.

After I got home, I received an email from Hotwire requesting my honest review. I still hadn’t received my refund, because the rep told me they can take a month or two to post. I detailed my entire experience with them, and didn’t sugar-coat one bit. Let’s just say they suddenly found their refund processes were faster than usual.

moral of the story

Only purchase flights directly with the airline. If you don’t, you risk having an experience like mine. Because of my horrible experience with Hotwire, I can’t recommend anyone to use any of their services. If they’re treating customers like this, then they don’t deserve our business!

However, I do say that knowing some people love Hotwire (although I can’t for the life of me imagine why) and use it religiously. If you’ve had a positive experience with them, I’m glad for you! I don’t wish my experience on anyone. Also, it’s not like Hotwire is the only third-party travel booking service that customers have issues with. All of them have done similar things, at the end of the day.

Bottom line: fiascos like this shouldn’t happen at all. And they definitely shouldn’t be happening when customers spend over $1,000 on a service.

While what Hotwire did was not my fault, I learned from this experience. This is why I insist on purchasing my flights with the airline, and tell everyone I know in-person and on my blog that they should, too. It’s easier, safer, and the all-around best choice.

I’m candid about the good, the bad, and the ugly of travel. I put myself out there because I want your experiences to be better. Learn from my mistakes! After all, the best part of travel is the journey. Make it worthwhile by minimizing your stress, and having the time of your life.

Tibidabo cathedral with blue skies
Tibidabo is a great hike from Barcelona with panoramic views. Highly recommend!

// Thanks for reading! Let’s connect on FacebookInstagramPinterest, and Twitter. If you would like to know when I’ve written a new post, you can follow me on Bloglovin’ or subscribe to my email list. I also have an Etsy shop for all my fellow design lovers out there. See you next time! 

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