On mortgage penalties, WestJet’s woes and international roaming charges

These are all controversial topics I’ve covered recently in my CBC radio commentaries. Check the link on this page under Navigation.

Sometimes, I use complaints from readers to illustrate my points. I did so this week with the story of a couple, Helen and Don, who were stuck with an $11,000 mortgage penalty when they sold their house. They wanted the lender, FirstLine (owned by CIBC), to cut them some slack because they planned to take a bigger mortgage on a new house in June. Luckily, CIBC agreed. You can read all about it below.

WestJet has been in the spotlight because of a computer reservation system upgrade that didn’t fly straight. I was getting a few complaints from Star readers, and later started hearing from CBC readers, but the most anguished response came from the airline’s communications contact. You’ll find his comment below, along with others.

Finally, if you’re tempted to travel overseas with your digital device, pay attention to David McVay. He took his BlackBerry with him on a Baltic cruise and came home to find ridiculously high data roaming charges. My CBC commentary talked about his complaint, but didn’t mention the result. Bell worked with him to reduce the bill by half.

See McVay’s advice below on avoiding the pain when you travel, plus advice for wireless carriers on how to shape up or ship out.

Author: Ellen Roseman

Consumer advocate and personal finance author and instructor.

8 thoughts on “On mortgage penalties, WestJet’s woes and international roaming charges”

  1. After 20 months of trying to sell our house, we finally did and now can build our dream home.

    However, since our mortgage term has 2 years left on it, our mortgage company is charging us a penalty (using the interest rate differential) of $11,000.

    We move out of our house in 3 weeks but can’t start building the new one until the spring, with a closing date in June. After asking around, we’ve found out that most banks/mortgage companies will put your mortgage on hold (for even up to a year) as long as you are going to sign back on with them. Not ours…

    We are with FirstLine (a division of CIBC), whose policy is to hold for a maximum of 90 days. We have 144 days from when we move out to the closing date of the new build.

    My husband called FirstLine and was treated very rudely by a customer service agent, told that we’re only one customer and they have others with million dollar mortgages. Translation, we don’t matter.

    Finally, I got through to a manager at the company and was told that no exceptions can be made. We’re not sure how giving us an extra month and a half would really put them out; all they have to do is wait just a little bit longer.

    Really, it’s bad business on their part. Yes, they’ll make $11,000 off us now, but then lose our business (and all our other banking and credit cards that are with CIBC).

    Or they could wait 54 more days and then they’d have a new mortgage with us, which is going to be double the amount we have now and they could make tons more money off us in interest over the next “x” number of years.

    That penalty of $11,000 uses all our profit from selling our house and ruins our funds for the downpayment of our dream home.

    It was a wonderful Christmas present, needless to say – and not to mention stressful, especially with our third baby due any day now.


    Thank you for whatever you did, because it worked! The manager at FirstLine called us the next day and I now have it in writing that they have agreed to give us an extension until our closing date in June.

    Also, they said they will reimburse us the full penalty (and not charge us the per diem interest) when we sign back on with them in June!

    I guess they didn’t want the media after them!

    Thank you again. We are so appreciative. Also, please thank your CIBC contact!!

  2. Can you please do a story on Westjet’s deteriorating customer service?

    For the past several months, people have been venting their frustration here:


    My personal experience is as follows:

    I booked a return flight for my wife and daughter (8 years old) via Westjet’s website between Toronto and Calgary.

    Their departure from Toronto on Friday, Dec. 12 was delayed for more than 3 hours. Their return flight back home on Monday Dec. 14 was delayed for 4.5 hours (a 17:00 flight departed at 21:43).

    I understand that the weather in Alberta has been severe, but I randomly sampled similar Air Canada departures/arrivals and their delays were in the 30-90 minute range. There was no explanation for the delays.

    The most frustrating part was trying to connect to their customer service. On at least 3 occasions, we waited on the phone for over 20 minutes before deciding to hang up.

    This is a significant change from last summer, when the 3 of us travelled to Calgary. Back then, our return flight was cancelled and I was able to connect with customer service within minutes to rebook our flight.

    Furthermore, when I complained about the cancellation, a supervisor called me the next day and offered us future travel credits, which I couldn’t apply to the latest trip, because I couldn’t get through to customer service.

    For the past several years, Westjet has received favourable reviews and publicity for their customer service and deservedly so. Unfortunately, their service in the past few months has degraded significantly.

    I feel that, if you were to do a story on them, it may help shake the Westjet management into taking appropriate steps to raise their standards and also benefit flying customers like us who had grown accustomed to their friendly customer service.

  3. I spent 48 minutes on hold with WestJet to get the new locator code for our flight today. Getting the new code took 20 seconds.

    Why wouldn’t they go through the files of those who had booked before the switchover and email us the new locator code? Seems like it would be more efficient than having thousands of us sitting on hold.

    I think it is interesting that Air Canada has not run negative ads when their prime competitor has problems. Westjet does.

  4. I’m part of a group that handles Westjet’s delayed luggage delivery in the Vancouver area.

    From day one that we started doing their luggage, they have been nothing short of awesome, and they pay us for exceptional service, asking for no excuses from us in return.

    I and members of my family have flown Westjet on a number of occasions, and they have provided very good service from ticketing to baggage retrieval.

    Unfortunately, in Canada, those disgruntled Westjet ‘guests’ have only one alternative….ooops, maybe the temporary IT snafu is worth waiting out.

    Not to belittle Air Canada….I travelled ‘the world’ for 26 years, using dozens of airlines on several hundred flights, and Air Canada internationally was very good, but things have slipped over the past years.

  5. I was so happy to read your article on WestJet’s booking problems. I had experienced all the horrible things you described and could not believe it was happening.

    I tried over a two week period, off and on, to talk to someone in reservations to no avail. I had booked my husband’s fight to Nova Scotia online, but was having trouble getting confirmation of same. As well, I could not log into the boarding pass site to print his boarding pass.

    I sent an e-mail of complaint to WestJet and I did get a prompt answer. However, they instructed me to call the same telephone number I had been calling all along, plus another phone number I had already tried with no success.

    Later, I received a seven paragraph explanation and apology for the delays in service. Attached to that was a survey on my experience with the airline. When my husband will be back, I will complete the survey then.

    We had always heard that WestJet was a customer oriented airline, so I hope all the present problems are a thing of the past.

  6. I had the chance to the piece on the CBC website. I must admit, Ellen, that I am quite concerned about the reference to “simple upgrade” toward the end.

    Perhaps I didn’t explain the depth and breadth of this project… if I didn’t, it’s my fault.

    But, I do remember using the analogy of the newsroom computer system and I do recall listing some of the areas the system controls (booking, scheduling, revenue management), so I’m pretty sure I did what I could to make the point that this is an absolutely enormous project.

    The 150,000 hours of training we did should be further proof that it is anything but a simple upgrade.

    Without a doubt, switching to a new reservation system is the largest project an airline will ever undertake in its life. Hopefully, you can see that calling it a simple upgrade is incorrect.

  7. My response to Robert Palmer:

    While my CBC piece used the simple upgrade phrase, I didn’t use it in my Toronto Star column (which did include the reference to 150,000 hours of training), http://www.thestar.com/business/article/733290–roseman-westjet-reservation-change-frustrates.

    I was trying to say that WestJet is in danger of losing the franchise it built over 13+ years for friendly service because of the recent system upgrade and resulting paralysis it caused for some guests. That’s a shame.

    Yes, it’s a major change, but switching computer platforms can be done without any big hiccups for clients. Yours looked like it would fly, but then you ran into the problems with passenger records.

    Hope you get through this rough patch quickly and come out the other side. We need more customer service heroes in Canada.

  8. I want to update you on my international roaming charges issue with Bell Mobility.

    I wrote to Wade Oosterman, President of Bell Mobility, and made the following points:

    Roaming charges should reflect fair value for service. The data roaming charges are $51.20 per megabyte, compared to $.03 in Canada. I felt a fair value may be $1.00 per megabyte. This would result in a $100 bill for a modest 100MB a month user, but it is within reason.

    Detailed usage statements should be provided that enable you to reconcile your usage to your device. The current usage statement is not automatically provided and, when requested, is irreconcilable.

    Bell should provide clear customer communications about roaming costs. Currently, the website simply says that data roaming costs are $.05 per kb. There are few consumers that would understand the implications of this pricing. For example, sending a picture from your phone via email costs $50!

    I requested a refund of charges that I was unable to reconcile. I was able to support about half of the $564 bill.

    Executive Support responded and was very helpful. I did receive an adjustment for about half of the charges and I did get useful suggestions about how to reduce costs in future.

    They acknowledged the issues I raised and promised to bring this issue to the attention of the appropriate folks at Bell Mobility.

    The problem appears to be that domestic data usage has exploded with the smart phone innovations. The domestic rate structure has kept pace, but the international agreements have not been updated – they still reflect the market of years ago.

    Here are some suggestions to others about how to limit roaming charges:

    Do not use your Smart Phone internationally! This was the advice I received from the sales agent at a Bell Mobility office who recounted her own $2,000 surprise bill when returning from a two week vacation.

    (This sounds easier than it is. Canadians are hooked on the smart phones.)

    Set up a private email address and turn other emails off until you return. Alert the people you give this email to that it is for personal email communication only and perhaps only of an emergency nature. Tell them not to forward emails, attachments, Facebook updates or jokes.

    Turn off data roaming. This enables you to decide when and if you want to use it.

    If data roaming is left on, then your device will check for emails every 15 minutes and charge you for the privilege. You may also inadvertently leave a website open and be charged for continuous refreshes.

    Use WI-FI. The newer smart phones enable you to use wi-fi for email and internet purposes without incurring roaming charges. You can get a free app that shows the free wi-fi hot spots near you. This may be a bit of a hassle, but the savings can be enormous.

    Use Skype: If you use the wi-fi feature, then you can also use Skype to make free calls to other Skype enabled computers or make calls to telephone numbers at low usage rates.

    I did point out to Bell Mobility that it’s a lot of work to avoid the challenges of an antiquated roaming system. Also, it trains clients how to use alternative services that, in the long run, will wean them of Bell. Hopefully, the designers at Bell Mobility will take the long view and fix the system quickly.

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