During a recent visit to London, I met with the top investigator of travel problems for Which? Travel, the British Consumer Association’s travel magazine. He noted seven problem areas that the magazine had recently looked into and reported. Although some are uniquely British, others occur almost everywhere. Here are seven travel worries to watch out for.
General “Holiday” (Vacation) Hassles
Issue: Travelers need to know their basic rights in the event of delay, overbooking, airline strikes, or cancellation because of unrest or natural disaster, financial failure of a tour operator, and other misfortunes, as well as how best to complain when something goes wrong with a flight, hotel, or car rental.
U.S. Application: U.S. travelers face the same problems. Currently, traveler protections and compensation requirements are stiffer in Europe than in the U.S., but airlines are lobbying the European Commission to ease some of them. In the U.S., the Department of Transportation’s Aviation Consumer Protection website describes U.S. travelers’ rights in detail. Unfortunately, no corresponding organization does anything about rights of hotel guests, car renters, tour participants, or cruisers.
Should You Worry?: Yes. Airlines will never stop trying to weaken consumer rights, and to begin with, consumers in other segments of the travel market have no rights beyond general contract law.
Finding the Cheapest Flight
Issue: Which? Travel found substantial site-to-site differences in the “lowest” fares displayed by different search systems. Differences among some of the big players were surprisingly high: On a London-New York test, for example, the results from most sites ranged from £388 to £456. Booking and credit card fees accounted for most of the differences, but not all. Checking multiple sites, along with an airline’s own site, is essential.
U.S. Application: Currently, comparatively few ticket sellers impose the fees that many British sites do. But the industry is moving toward more booking fees and less transparency.
Should You Worry?: Yes. Again, the industry never ceases ways to add fees and charges, and recent moves by Delta and Lufthansa—likely to be copied by others—are making fare comparison harder, not easier.
Travel Insurance Hassles
Issue: Travel insurance companies too often unjustifiably deny claims. And “unjustified” isn’t just blather; among various forms of insurance, the British Financial Ombudsman Service upheld a higher percentage of claims, some 53 percent, against travel insurance than against any other form of insurance.
U.S. Application: Here, too, insurance companies deny claims when they can. Unfortunately, the U.S. has no insurance “ombudsman” agency.
Should You Worry?: Yes, but you can avoid many problems by buying carefully and solve many problems by perseverance.
Too Old to Travel
Issue: Seniors age 70 or over frequently found that they paid much higher prices for insurance than younger travelers, and that they could not rent cars, that operators would not accept them on tours, and that they encountered other forms of age discrimination.
U.S. Application: As far as I can tell, U.S. seniors don’t face problems as severe as those in the U.K. But problems do occur.
Should You Worry?: Certainly not if you’re under age 70, and even if you’re older, you can usually find a work-around for most age-limit problems.
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Issue: A rental company featured a car in Barcelona for £4 (about $6.35) for four days. But when renters arrived at the counter, they got hit with a mandatory £87 “fuel and tax” charge. If they accepted the insurance the counter agent scared them into taking, the bill ballooned to £145. Which? Travel noted other problems including excessive deposits, rip-off fuel policies, and sticking renters with damages caused by others.
U.S. Application: The worst horror stories Which? Travel uncovered originated with one problem company, Goldcar, that operates mainly in Spain. But other companies are often guilty of overselling insurance and adding fees.
Should You Worry?: Not much—if you follow the suggestions SmarterTravel and others expert sources provide about how to avoid the rip offs and excessive fees.
Issue: Recent changes have greatly increased the true cost of earning and using “free” seats, and those “free” trips are not really free. The Which? Travel investigation was focused on British Airways’ frequent flyer program, and as an example (before the devaluation), a traveler needed to make nine round-trips from London to Rome to earn a “free” trip; after the devaluation, the free trip requires 29 paid trips. And British Airways imposes a hefty “carrier imposed fee” on supposedly free seats.
U.S. Application: Big U.S. lines, too, are devaluing their frequent flyer programs. But so far, no U.S. airline adds carrier-imposed fees to award travel (except for use of American Airlines miles to fly British Airways).
Should You Worry?: Yes, but you can’t do much about frequent flyer problems: The airlines hold all the cards.
Issue: Which? Travel found that some 800 British hotels and other guest accommodations have poor food-hygiene ratings. Units of some very famous-name chains scored only one or two on the six-point scale used in England or “improvement required” rating in Scotland. Restaurants in Northern Ireland and Wales are required to display their ratings, but for the rest of the U.K, the only way to find the rating is to check the Food Standards Agency website.
U.S. Application: Restaurant hygiene rating programs vary widely among U.S. states, cities, and counties: Some require display; others don’t. And ratings are derived through a wide variety of inspection regimes. Clearly, many travelers are unaware of hygiene conditions at many of the restaurants they visit.
Should You Worry?: Probably, although in reality, you would have to go to some extremes to check out every eating opportunity.
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