As I wrote about on my other blog, I recently had to return to the US from Uganda for my grandpa’s funeral. He died suddenly and unexpectedly, and so we had to fly back on very short notice. I tried calling several airlines to find if they had bereavement rates on international flights, but It turns out bereavement rates are still much, much higher than what you could find with even a brief online search.
This route having been exhausted, I turned to the interwebs to try to find a roundtrip ticket from Entebbe to Indianapolis, departing on Monday. Keep in mind that I was searching on Sunday.
Although the fares that I found were much higher due to the last-minute nature of my search, I was able to find a ticket at a not unreasonable rate on smartfares.com. Now, I thought that I had booked a ticket through Smartfares before, but a search of my email revealed I hadn’t, and therefore had to learn a very unwelcome lesson at a very bad time.
Anyway, I purchased the ticket, and arrived at Entebbe Airport on Monday afternoon, still in a rather emotionally fragile state. Imagine my and my wife’s shock when we stepped up to the counter, presented our passports and were told that we were not ticketed for the flight. Since our names weren’t showing up, we had the agent search for us by final destination, frequent flyer number, and every other piece of information we could think of. I even called my dad in the US (an expensive proposition, mind you) and had him check my email to find my confirmation number. That didn’t help either.
Needless to say, we missed our flight, and therefore the rest of the three-leg journey.
Given the general decrepitude of East Africa airports, and the ineptitude of Entebbe in particular, I suspected that the fault lied somewhere within the airport (perhaps the ancient-looking computer systems?). Having been turned away after already paying a handsome sum, and not knowing what else to do, I asked my dad to try calling one of the airlines involved United) while we visited the Entebbe office of the other (Emirates).
It was quickly becoming clear that the guilty party was Smartfares. My dad tried to call Smartfares, but they didn’t answer phone calls before 8:30 am PACIFIC TIME, which meant 11:30 am Eastern time, which meant 6:30pm Uganda time. This was agonizing in the extreme, as we had to sit around for several hours in the discomfort of Entebbe’s airport, but hey, I can understand: Smartfares are based in California, they want to get to work at a reasonable hour, so of course they don’t answer the phone before 8:30.
But to add insult to injury, when my dad finally got through to Smartfares, his call was re-routed to India. Now I have nothing against outsourcing — it makes economic sense. And it also makes sense, if you’re outsourcing to India anyway, to not limit your customer service to the Pacific time zone’s working hours.
Nevertheless, after my dad waited, on what the call operator thought was Hold (in fact, my dad could still hear the guy singing and talking to other people in the background, instead of elevator music) he was told something not entirely coherent about international credit card purchases, and Smartfares needing 24-72 hours to issue tickets.
Wow! Where to begin here. If it takes Smartfares 72 hours to issue tickets, wouldn’t it be responsible for them to not sell tickets less than three days before departure?
And when I’ve bought international flights on other, more trustworthy sites like Travelpapa, I’ve received emails and even text messages with instructions on how to confirm my credit card purchase. Smartfares sent neither.
The moral of the story is obvious: DON’T BUY PLANE TICKETS ON SMARTFARES.COM!!!
But, for those of you who are wondering how the story ends, here’s what happened:
After a frustrating conversation with India, my dad called Delta Airlines directly and booked us a ticket with KLM-Delta, for a flight departing later that night. Because we were now buying a ticket the day of, rather than the day before, the fare was even more than what we had originally spent on Smartfares.
So not only did Smartfares cost us 9 hours of waiting in the airport, heartbreak and emotional distress, they also cost us an extra $800.