Have you heard of this happening? What should I do?
— John Rutledge, Washington
Answer: This looks like an accidental flight cancellation, a problem I've seen a time or two. But the question is, whose accident was it? Did you push the wrong button, did your airline, or did your online agency?
I'm inclined to rule you out. You're a frequent flier on United, so it's unlikely you would have accidentally canceled your reservation. That leaves the airline and your online travel agency.
Given that Cheaptickets offered a full refund, I'm guessing something happened on its end. Normally, the rules are pretty strict when you cancel a ticket a few days before your flight, so for an online agency to offer a full refund probably means there was some kind of glitch that caused your ticket to be voided.
The right thing to do, under those circumstances, is to work with the airline to honor your itinerary — even if it means your agency has to rebook the ticket at a higher fare. A refund will just make it your problem. And it isn't your problem.
I can think of several ways you might have resolved this after the sudden cancellation. You could have appealed directly to United or sent a brief, polite e-mail to a manager at Cheaptickets or Orbitz (both are owned by the same parent company). You can find links to all of the names and numbers on my customer service wiki, On Your Side (www.onyoursi.de/wiki/).
I don't think you should have to pay an extra $651 for a flight that's already been confirmed. I contacted Cheaptickets on your behalf, and it apologized for the cancellation and rebooked your ticket at no extra cost to you.
Christopher Elliott is the author of Scammed: How to Save Your Money and Find Better Service in a World of Schemes, Swindles, and Shady Deals (Wiley). He's also the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine and the cofounder of the Consumer Travel Alliance, a nonprofit organization that advocates for travelers. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.