Booking a flight? Use a credit card

A recent snafu at Southwest Airlines demonstrates why using a debit card is not always the best way to pay.

By Karen Datko Aug 20, 2012 6:47PM

Image: Woman with computer (© Don Mason/Blend Images/Corbis)Certain things are best paid for with a credit card. Case in point: A Southwest Airlines "technology glitch" caused the debit and credit cards of perhaps thousands of Southwest Airlines customers to be charged multiple times when they booked flights during a one-day half-price sale.

 

The event was supposed to be a celebration of Southwest's 3 million Facebook fans, but for customers and the airline, it was a nightmare. That's especially true for those who paid for their ticket with a debit card.

 

The customers who used a credit card faced a relatively easy fix -- a credit from the airline. At worst, their credit card could have been maxed out until the fix was made. And if the erroneous account balance was reported to the three major credit bureaus, that could affect their credit scores and require them to file a dispute. (These people might want to pull a free credit report at AnnualCreditReport.com to check.)

 

However, the customers who paid with a debit card actually had the money -- sometimes thousands of dollars -- drained from their checking accounts. That meant they were short of money to pay their bills, and faced late fees and possible overdraft charges. (Post continues below.)

Some particulars:

  • "You wiped out my checking account!" an angry Southwest customer wrote on the airline's Facebook page, says the Los Angeles Times. "Are you going to pay my bills? Put gas in my car while I wait?"
  • Romona Cobian told CBS News in San Francisco that more than $11,400 was removed from her bank account.
  • Travel journalist Christopher Elliott spoke with one woman whose debit card was charged 15 times for a $156 flight.

The refunds began going out on a Sunday, two days after the Aug. 3 sale. However, some customers who paid with a debit card posted on Facebook on Aug. 8 that they were still waiting for their money.

 

Another customer wrote on Aug. 7:

This morning my account got hit with 15 charges, that SWA supposedly cannot find in their systems. I am now not only overdrawn, but have no money. SWA stated I had to contact my bank because there was nothing they could do, only to be told by my bank all I could do was file a dispute, and a provisional credit for the funds would be issued in 7-10 days ... really? I don't have 7-10.

In addition to returning the money, Southwest promised to reimburse customers for any bank overdraft fees and any late fees that resulted from the computer glitch. It issued $150 travel vouchers to an unknown number of inconvenienced customers.

Thus, debit card customers learned a difficult lesson. Wrote Len Penzo on Len Penzo dot Com:

If (Cobian) had used a credit card instead, she would have avoided having her bank account cleaned out and she could have just contested the charges. ...
In the end, this is yet another example why you should almost always choose credit over debit whenever you have the chance.

Were you one of the customers who was charged multiple times for a Southwest fare? Was the matter resolved to your satisfaction?

 

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