'Puts you off travelling' - Kiwi in five-month wrangle after travel agent's Mongolia flight fail

Booking a trip to the farthest flung corners of the Earth is not an adventure for the faint hearted – so if you want to get it done seamlessly, you’d use a travel agent, right?

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TVNZ1’s Fair Go explains. Source: Fair Go

Well, Levin woman Stephanie Scott is questioning that decision after using STA Travel to book her trip to a horse derby in Mongolia that left her stranded and flightless just as her journey began.

“It actually puts you off travelling, especially booking with agents,” she says.

“The thought of calling an agent now and booking a flight – why would you?”

Stephanie decided to take part in the Gobi Desert Cup, a race across 500 kilometres of southern Mongolia on semi-wild horses. But to get there involved flights out of Wellington, through Sydney, Hong Kong and Beijing before landing in Ulaanbaatar. 

She made the booking through STA Palmerston North’s branch and the night before her flight, the travel agent emailed to say all her flights were confirmed. But when Stephanie arrived at the airport the next morning, there was a problem – the flight between Hong Kong and Beijing was missing. 

“[The airline staff] said, ‘Well, we’ve only got a record of you going to Hong Kong.' So at that point I realised there was something not quite right.”

Turns out that while STA had confirmed the flight, it hadn’t ensured Steph’s seat had been ticketed. She rang the STA helpline, but nobody was able to sort it out.

“I was buckled in ready to go, the seatbelt signs were on, they were heading down the runway and I’m trying to email my travel agent saying, 'Please can you sort this because I’m about to be in a foreign country and yeah, I have no flight'.”

When she landed in Sydney, Steph tried the helpline again.

“I kept being told to hand them over to someone at the Qantas desk, and I kept saying over and over – ‘I’m in a transit lounge, there’s duty free shopping and gates and that’s it.' And he just kept repeating, ‘Well I need to speak to someone at the Qantas desk'."

In the end, Stephanie rang her travel agent again and ended up paying for the missing flight for a second time – charging it to her credit card. She made it to Mongolia, and made it through the race. And when she got home, Steph began chasing STA for a refund. But the company told her the fault lay with the airline, and it couldn’t help. Stephanie was gobsmacked.

“They’ve offered me no extra protection, no support – I should have just done it myself.”

For five months, Stephanie went back and forth with STA – who told her she needed to try asking Qantas herself for her money back. It was fruitless. 

Under the Consumer Guarantees Act, Stephanie’s contract was with STA – she paid the company for a service, and it had guaranteed her flight was confirmed when it wasn’t. So Stephanie came to Fair Go.

“I would like someone to own it, someone to say, ‘Yup, there’s been a mistake and no, you shouldn’t be responsible for paying for it’," she says.

Within days of Fair Go contacting STA and Qantas, both began ringing her, offering a refund and compensation. Qantas refunded Stephanie $909 for the second flight, and STA offered her $200 cash. She’s accepted the offer, but learnt a lesson from the experience.

“It doesn’t feel like a relationship’s been reinstated. I don’t think I’ll be rebooking with STA,” she says.

STA says it apologises for the delay, which it says was a “technical issue” that it has been investigating.