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Accommodations, Cars, and Cruises: Promises, but No Guarantees

Let’s say you arrive at a hotel, late at night after an exhausting flight, only to be told that your supposedly “confirmed” reservation has disappeared. The hotel has already rented out “your” room to someone else and has no more vacancies. Obviously, the night reception-desk agent can’t quickly build you a new room, so what can he or she do? If you’re lucky, the agent will arrange to “walk” you: Find a room in a nearby hotel that is at least as good, pay for your first night there, and pay for your taxi fare to get there (if it’s not right around the corner or across the street). It’s happened to me more than once, and I suspect also to most other frequent travelers. Overbooking isn’t the only reason hotels may not be able to honor a reservation: Earlier guests may stay longer than planned, and some local regulations may actually prevent hotels from evicting them.

And this scenario illustrates one of what I consider to be the top 10 consumer issues in travel: accountability. Reservations, even when not prepaid, are contracts, yet failure to perform to the contract carries no consequences. We’re accustomed to the airline case, in which federal law requires airlines to provide specific compensation to travelers “bumped” from their flights because of overbooking.

But no similar protections at either the federal or state level exist for buyers of other transportation services. No matter what you’ve read to the effect that a hotel “must” or “will” walk you—and I’ve seen that from people who should know better—I have been unable to find any such legal requirements at any level of government, beyond contract law, even when a reservation is fully prepaid.

Rental-car companies also overbook and renters often keep cars longer than they originally intended. I remember an occasion on Hawaii’s Big Island, when the rental location ran out of cars. In that case, the agent offered no more than the recommendation that I “rest a bit” until a few travelers returned their cars, which would get a quick cleaning and then be available. As with hotel rooms, the agent can’t run out and buy a new car, and you want to get started on your trip, not hang around in an airport lobby for hours. Some companies have policies that they either (1) pay for a taxi to take you to your hotel and deliver the car to you the following morning or (2) arrange a rental from a different company and pay the difference, if any, in the rental cost. But, again as with hotels, this is a voluntary company policy, not a law or regulation of any sort. And because so many car-rental operations are independently owned, some may not follow the parent company’s policies.

Cruise lines, too, may overbook. Because you typically pay in advance, cruise lines almost always offer a full refund, and most also offer a substitute cruise plus maybe a cabin upgrade. But here, again, that might not solve your problem if you’ve made other plans around your initial booking.

Clearly, then, you need more than an unofficial industry practice if you’re overbooked. What’s needed is for the hotel, car rental, and cruise industries to come up with some sort of “bill of rights” for overbooked travelers. Last year, the Cruise Lines International Association did publish a bill of rights, but it consisted of a laundry list of promises with no accountability—thus empty promises—with nothing to say about a line’s responsibility when it fails to honor the bill’s provisions. And the hotel and rental-car industries haven’t even taken that baby step.

I’m not prone to shouting “there oughta be a law” as the solution to all consumer problems. Ideally, the industry would police itself. But what if it doesn’t? The airlines found that when they abuse travelers long enough and don’t fix the problems by themselves, travelers demand government action. Hotels, rental-car companies, and cruise lines may find out the hard way.

Ed Perkins on Travel is copyright (c) 2014 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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