Since its inception in 1989, Conde Nast Traveler's Ombudsman column has mediated thousands of cases between travel consumers and providers. We have assisted readers whose money was seized as counterfeit, whose cruise ship was packed with European swingers and whose honeymoon was ruined when another guest fell three stories onto their patio. While some cases are outrageously unique and, let's be honest, all the more riveting for it the stacks of letters we receive tend to show the same pitfalls recurring. Below is our time-tested advice on how to solve the 20 problems that crop up most frequently. Read on to maximize your chances of truly happy trails.
1. Sidestep Cancellation Charges
Does the following scenario sound familiar? You book a cruise or a stay at a remote resort, but unforeseen circumstances force you to cancel. Since you do so weeks in advance, you expect a full refund. Think again. At times, canceling even three months in advance won't be enough to save you from losing your deposit or your entire prepayment. And while that might sound harsh, cruise lines, hotels and resorts have clear cancellation guidelines, often listed in their terms and conditions. Before paying for a trip, check all applicable cancellation policies, and if you aren't comfortable with them, don't spend the money. Alternatively, consider purchasing a travel insurance policy or a cruise line's protection plan that will permit cancellation for any reason without penalty.
2. Fly Home Effortlessly
Waiting to board your flight home is often the low point of a journey, not just because it signals the end of a vacation but also because sometimes the airline won't let you on the plane. Readers have missed return flights because they checked in late, were unaware that the departure time had changed or failed to reconfirm their flight home. Carriers ask passengers to arrive no less than one hour before a domestic departure and usually three hours before an international flight. And they routinely close check-in for international flights an hour before the scheduled departure. Take note of these guidelines and plan accordingly. If you aren't there in time, don't expect the gate agents to sympathize because you were caught in rush-hour traffic. Some airlines also require passengers to reconfirm return flights (U.S.-based carriers do not) even if yours doesn't, call three days before the flight, check the departure time and reconfirm your seat.
3. Bring Back Your Buys
When shopping overseas, the rational side of your brain goes AWOL. You stand in an artisan's store asking yourself how that Moroccan wooden table with inlaid stonework would look in the living room. But you rarely consider the more important question: How do you get it home? Readers write to us about purchases that never arrived because unscrupulous merchants never shipped them. Repeat our mantra: If you can't take it with you, step away from the purchase. If that morsel of wisdom is too distressing to contemplate, try to organize the shipping yourself. (Start by asking the store or your hotel for a recommendation.) If the only viable option is for the merchant to ship the item, before giving the store the green light, check its credentials with the local tourist board. It might save you the heartbreak of never receiving that cherished souvenir.
4. Return Your Rental Car the Right Way
Readers have been known to drop off a car in perfect condition only to discover, weeks later, a hefty charge on their credit card statement for damage to the vehicle. To ensure this never happens: At the point of return, always get an employee of the rental company to sign a statement saying that the car is in satisfactory condition. If nobody is there at drop-off, take pictures of the vehicle when you leave it (dated photos are even better) and hope that this evidence will persuade your credit card company that any damage charge is unwarranted. Or, when you pick up the car, purchase the rental company's collision-damage waiver.
5. Make It to the Port on Time
Cruise ships, like time, wait for no one. Readers often write to tell us how they arrived at the port late usually because their flight was delayed and discovered that they had missed the ship completely. If the delay was the airline's fault, then it might fly you to the ship's next port without charge. But if the delay was caused by weather, you're out of luck. Save yourself the distress by arriving at the port city at least one full day before the ship's departure; that way, even if your flight is delayed, you should be there prior to sailing time.
6. Get the Room You Booked
When is an ocean-view room not an ocean-view room? Readers have booked and paid for this category of accommodation only to find that what they actually looked out at was a construction site or a giant parking lot. Most hotel Web sites have photos of rooms that one assumes accurately represent the place. But if the actual room is markedly different from the one online, speak with the general manager immediately, voice your concerns and propose some sort of solution: a cut in the room rate, some money back if the booking was prepaid, a free meal, something he or she can work toward on the spot. It might further help your case to have some proof, such as a printout of the Web site's photo or description promising uninterrupted vistas of the surf rather than the steel beams visible from your balcony.
7. Research Visa Requirements
There are countries that American citizens can visit without visas, and there are countries they can't. Then there are countries where they didn't used to need a visa but now do, and there are others for which the opposite is true. In other words, the rules for entry to other nations are constantly in flux. Prior to any international trip, check the most current guidelines from the consulate or embassy of the country you'll be visiting. If possible, get them in writing; often they can be found on the consulate's or embassy's Web site. (This will prove handy if you get into an argument over the need for a visa at check-in.) Do not rely on the advice of a travel agent, a cruise line or an airline, since it may not be up-to-date. And since procuring the correct documents is the traveler's responsibility, you will pay the price for someone else's error.
8. Avoid Shady Travel Agents
Many readers use the same travel agent year after year because they have built up a level of trust and comfort. But sometimes those same readers try out a new agent who is promoting a bargain on an around-the-world ticket or a great China package. Often these agents demand payment in cash or by check up front, and they go bust shortly after the money changes hands. We get letters from readers who have stumbled upon the deal of a lifetime from an agent halfway across the country, only to find themselves out thousands of dollars because they tried to jump on an offer that was too good to be true. If an agent is an unknown, is based multiple times zones away or demands payment in cash or by check (neither of which offer any protection against fraud), the alarms should start going off. Always pay by credit card and remember to dispute any charge immediately: Your bank should be more cooperative than any bankrupt travel agent will be.
9. Carry On Valuables
Would you pack your credit cards or large sums of cash in your checked luggage? Of course not. Yet travelers put valuables in their checked bags, even though their loss or damage is not covered. Airlines' contracts of carriage list items that they declare themselves not liable for. These include jewelry, medicine, fragile goods, cameras, computers, antiques, artwork and more. (If your bag is delayed, however, carriers will compensate you for essential items such as toiletries and basic clothing provided you have prior authorization to purchase replacements.) The simple solution is not to pack valuables in checked luggage. Period.
10. Object Effectively
When things go wrong, it's vital to voice your dissatisfaction immediately and to the right person. If the door to your room or cabin doesn't lock or the toilet doesn't flush, don't just grin and bear it and then write a letter of complaint once you get back home. Ask for a solution as soon as you encounter the problem and make sure you contact someone who has the authority to take action, typically the manager. And stay calm. Mimicking the death cry of a banshee while describing your situation is unlikely to elicit sympathy for your plight.
11. Make Them Pay
Readers complain about an airline, a cruise line or a hotel that has promised reimbursement but not followed through. This frustrates Ombudsman since, trite as it might sound, we believe that promises should be kept. Try to get written proof of the guarantee. If you have that and nothing is forthcoming, be persistent. Slowly climb the company's food chain, each time sending your request for compensation to a higher-up in the hope that someone, somewhere, will have the decency to make good on the pledge.
12. Escape Excess Baggage Fees
Baggage allowances have never been uniform. For years, passengers on flights to and from the United States were permitted to check two bags weighing up to 70 pounds each, while inter-European flights had a limit of 20 kilograms (44 pounds) per passenger. Many airlines recently reduced the limits for U.S. flights to two bags that weigh no more than 50 pounds each. The critical point: Policies differ among carriers and countries. And not knowing the requirements of the airline you're flying might mean steep excess-baggage charges. (Ryanair, for instance, begins calculating excess baggage fees when a passenger's total exceeds 33 pounds.) A carrier's Web site usually specifies its baggage allowance; a reservations agent also has the information. Get it before you start packing.
13. Dodge Double Bookings
Online travel agencies have been a boon for travelers, but they have also led to ghost bookings duplicate reservations that mystify travelers. It's important for anyone making travel arrangements online to be fully aware of what they are seeing and purchasing. Sometimes users think they are just comparing prices or quotes for a trip when in fact they are clicking a button to purchase the item. Then, not realizing that the first purchase went through, they'll buy the same travel package all over again. Vigilance is key, especially when navigating a site you are not familiar with. Take time when making a purchase and confirm it only if you are 100 percent certain. If you are unsure whether you've completed the process, check for an e-mail confirmation before attempting the transaction a second time.
14. Don't Trust Hotel Safes
In-room safes are not as impenetrable as they seem: Readers have had money and jewelry disappear from locked boxes. Alas, hotels have virtually no liability for items stolen from in-room safes, though the front-desk safe does offer some protection for stolen items (these amounts vary from property to property). We recommend that travelers leave irreplaceable items at home: Does anyone really need a multi-carat diamond necklace or a vintage Patek Philippe watch on a Caribbean beach vacation? If you do bring an item of value, keep it in the hotel's main vault with the understanding that if the bauble goes missing, the property's liability limits may not extend to its full value. Homeowners insurance usually covers theft that occurs while policyholders are on vacation, although there will still be a deductible.
15. Make Flight Connections
Airlines' connection times sometimes defy common sense: Forty-five minutes isn't really long enough for a passenger to deplane, walk to another terminal and board a second flight. And if your first flight is delayed just 15 minutes, that 45-minute window suddenly becomes an Olympian challenge especially since airlines close boarding gates 15 minutes before takeoff. Ombudsman recommends leaving at least two hours between connecting flights and longer if you have to go through customs and immigration. If you're traveling on multiple carriers, make sure they are code-share partners. That way, if you miss your connection, you'll be put on the next available flight without charge. Otherwise, the second airline may simply treat you as a no-show. The penalties for this can range from ticket-change fees to having to buy a brand-new ticket for the next flight -- hardly a pleasant way to start a vacation.
16. Know Thy Cruise
Weather happens, and while a storm can inconvenience any traveler, it can change a cruise ship's entire itinerary. One reader's Caribbean voyage turned into a sail along the Canadian coast because of a storm system. In their contracts, cruise lines state their right to substitute routes without compensating passengers, although some lines let you cancel without penalty within 24 hours of being notified of the new itinerary. (The catch is that you may not be made aware of the change until you board the ship.) Many readers find themselves disappointed when their vessel skips the stop they most wanted to see. It may be stating the obvious, but if a particular port is that important to you, it's safer to fly there and make that your vacation. If the destination is less important than the experience of sailing the open seas and stopping at various ports, opt for a cruise.
17. Minimize Lost Luggage
According to Department of Transportation statistics, more than a million reports of mishandled luggage i.e., lost, damaged, delayed or pilfered were made for domestic flights between January and March 2007. At check-in, make sure all your bags are tagged, and match the luggage stubs that are attached to the back of your ticket to the number of pieces checked. (Some bags never reached their destinations because they weren't tagged and had no names and addresses on them.) And in addition to luggage tags, stick a label with your name, address and contact details inside each suitcase. That way, if the airline's and your own tags somehow fall off, the carrier can still identify the bag's owner. Keep notes on the brand of the suitcase, its appearance and any special features that will help baggage handlers identify it during a visual inspection.
18. Don't Get Bumped
With airlines trimming routes to cut costs, the likelihood of flights being overbooked has risen. Which means, inevitably, passengers will lose their seats: In the first three months of this year, more than 19,000 passengers were involuntarily bumped from domestic flights. Choosing who is denied boarding is a systematic process. First, the gate agent asks for volunteers. If that doesn't free up enough seats, then involuntary bumping begins. This might be done by check-in order (last to check in is first off) or by giving a full-fare passenger priority over a passenger with a discounted or free seat. Whatever the method, your chances of staying on the plane are best if you arrive early, check in early and get to the gate in ample time; latecomers are common targets for involuntary bumping. Note that if you are bumped involuntarily, you can request cash, even though airlines typically offer compensation in the form of vouchers.
19. Complain in Time
Paying for travel-related purchases with a credit card allows you some protection when things go wrong, but only if you take up the dispute in a timely manner, usually within 60 days of the date the transaction appears on your statement. Try to resolve the issue with the company whose charge you are contesting -- a car-rental agency that overcharged you, a hotel that took a deposit twice -- before approaching the credit card company. At the same time, keep track of your bank's cut-off date for disputing the charge.
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20. Safeguard Miles
Ever tried to book a flight with frequent-flier miles only to discover that your miles have expired? Most airlines wipe out your miles if there is no activity in your account for a period of months or years. Check with the carriers whose programs you are enrolled in and keep on top of expiration dates. Otherwise, you'll suddenly discover that those miles earned from spending hours cooped up in airplanes have vanished into the stratosphere.