Although many professional colleagues take the opportunity of a new year to tout the good stuff you can expect, I'm concentrating—as I often do—on the potential potholes in your 2014 journeys.
Air Travel: Air travel historically draws the major share of travel complaints and disappointments, and 2014 is likely to continue this illustrious tradition.
- Vouchers: This may seem an odd choice, but I've seen lots of reports from consumers who were due cash refunds but were pressured by airlines to accept vouchers for future travel instead. The problem with airline vouchers is, of course, that they're worth less than cash. You can't use them to buy a high-definition TV if you decide not to travel. You usually can't give or sell them to anyone else. They usually expire in six months to a year. And they may entail other restrictions and limits. The Canadians got it right when they established their overbooking rules: If an airline tries to give you a voucher instead of the specified cash payment, that voucher has to be set at three times the cash payment. My suggestion is that you listen to that northern advice: Never accept a voucher unless the face value is at least double the cash you're owed.
- Change Fees: Despite ample disclosure by airlines, if you're forced to cancel a trip because of sickness, a death in the family, or some other egregious event, many of you think an airline will overlook the change fee—and maybe even refund a nonrefundable ticket. Once in a while they may, but you usually get a "Sorry you were disappointed; have a nice day" letter and nothing more. If you're concerned about high change fees, fly American and buy its reasonably priced bag-plus-change ticket option. According to press reports, United is probably going to match.
Hotels: Overall, travelers seem to be much more satisfied by the customer service they get at hotels than at airlines—at least so the folks at the American Customer Satisfaction Index report. But you still face gotchas:
- "Creative" Location: The composers of those online hotel descriptions aren't above getting a bit creative with how they describe the hotel's location and a room's location within the hotel. I once booked into a self-described "airport" hotel that was actually five miles from the airport, and that "partial ocean view" room you book might require that you lean a foot out your window to see a sliver of blue sea. Before you accept the hotel's blurb, check with TripAdvisor or some other third-party source for a more evenhanded report.
- "Free" Wi-Fi: I've been in more than one hotel touting free Wi-Fi, only to find out that, yes, I could get a signal, but the online speed took me back to the days of telephone dial-up connections. Just because it's there doesn't mean you can actually use it.
- Mandatory Fees: By now you know my rant on this one. If it's mandatory, it is part of the price, and omitting it from the price posted online is deception. Period. And unless someone takes action, the problem will get worse, not better, in 2014.
Rental Cars: I don't see any major new gotchas for 2014; the old ones have plenty of life left.
- Collision "Insurance": The old standby gotcha remains the grossly overpriced collision damage waiver (CDW) that lets you off the hook for damage to a rental car you're driving. As you must know by now, your own auto insurance may well cover you, at least in the U.S., and your credit card may also cover what your insurance company doesn't. And if you want to avoid making a claim on your regular insurance, the big OTAs and third-party sources such as ProtectYourBubble.com sell primary collision coverage for around $10 a day—about a third of what the car-rental companies charge.
- Station Surcharges: If you rent in Europe, be prepared to pay a hefty surcharge—either a flat fee up to $80 or as much as 20 percent of the rental—to pick your car up at an airport or major train station.
Ed Perkins on Travel is copyright (c) 2013 Tribune Media Services, Inc.
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