When you commit hundreds—or even thousands—of dollars in advance to a travel provider, you probably like to know that the company is reliable enough to deliver what you want. And as illustrated by the recent closures of Thomas Cook and airlines like WOW Air, there are unstable travel providers out there.
There are three main considerations for weighing whether or not a travel provider in reliable:
- Can a supplier be counted on to deliver the services it promised?
- Will it make good if something goes wrong?
- Is your advance payment safe?
Obviously, there’s no absolute guarantee of reliability. While the Thomas Cook closure may seem like a blip, back in the ’70s and ’80s, several big tour operators failed, leaving people with neither their money nor their tour—and even leaving some people stranded overseas as the Thomas Cook closure did. Those operators were considered “reliable” right up to the day they folded. Still, there are ways to vet a provider before you commit your money and time.
Check the Travel Provider’s Public Ratings
The U.S. government compiles and publishes some useful data that assess airline and cruise-line reliability:
- The Department of Transportation (DOT) publishes an Air Travel Consumer Report with monthly and yearly data that measure airline operational reliability in terms of delays, mishandled baggage, oversales, consumer complaints, and problems with transportation of pets. These numbers deal with reliability in terms of how often each line might fail to meet its promised schedule. They don’t examine financial reliability, but that’s usually not a problem with big domestic lines. They’re also covered regularly by travel media—so staying up on the latest travel news can help you stay in-the-know.
- The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) posts a Green Sheet Report of scores from its regular inspections of cruise-ship sanitation. This one important measure of reliability and stability for cruise companies.
Unfortunately, no other government data sources cover the same for hotels, rental cars, or tour operators.
Several big online outfits collect and compile user reports that frequently focus on reliability. The largest sites include:
- TripAdvisor (SmarterTravel’s parent company) for hotels, airlines, and vacation rentals.
- J.D. Power and Skytrax awards for airlines worldwide.
- Cruise Critic (SmarterTravel’s sister site) for cruises.
A lot of other websites post user-generated reviews of hotels, airlines, cruise lines, and car-rental companies. User reviews occasionally come under fire for lack of uniform standards as well as for false submissions by suppliers or their competitors. Overall, though, they’re extremely useful, particularly when they highlight problems.
Check the Big Online Agencies
Most of the big online travel agencies, such as Booking.com, Expedia, and their many corporate affiliates, provide ratings compiled from user reports for most of their listed airlines and hotels. Some agencies develop their own data, while others use ratings from TripAdvisor or other independent sources. The big online vacation-rental agencies also post user reviews of most rental units.
Check the Professional Rankings
J.D. Power and Associates, a top consumer-satisfaction ratings service, posts current customer-satisfaction scores for airlines, North American hotel chains, major online travel agencies, and rental-car companies. The American Consumer Satisfaction Index publishes annual satisfaction index numbers for large U.S. airlines, hotel chains, and Internet Travel services.
Check the Better Business Bureau
If you want to avoid the majority of “wonderful” user reports you get from so many sources, look at a few of the online gripe sites for stories about suppliers that, one way or another, failed the reliability test. Check with the Better Business Bureau (BBB) about any domestic supplier you’re not familiar with: It’s reliable when it comes to concrete complaints; less reliable when a page has no complaints, as there just might not be any yet. My “bookmarks” file used to include a dozen or so travel-specific gripe sites like editorial-first blogs, but the only one I find still in business is AirlineComplaints.
Ask a Travel Agent
A good travel agent is careful not to book clients with unreliable suppliers, for obvious reasons. That sort of expertise is one of several good reasons for using a professional travel agent, even in the Internet age.
Go online and Google any supplier about which you are at all uneasy. Sure, you’ll get a lot of trash search results, but you might also find some useful customer data or financial information on the company you can’t find anywhere else. And to find a reliable local travel agent, ask your friends and coworkers about their experiences. You might also ask your company’s travel agency, if it uses one.
Avoid Foreseeable Pitfalls
For the most part, despite occasional glitches and poor service, most travelers would consider well-known airlines, big-name cruise lines, and major hotel chains to be reliable. Your danger spots are smaller overseas airlines on shaky financial ground; maybe some local ferry services; small, independent overseas hotels; and—most likely—small tour operators anywhere.
If you’re considering one of these suppliers, be sure to check if it has any business presence in the United States or Canada. That presence won’t protect you against a problem, but it at least means that the supplier is within the reach of local court systems in case you have to escalate a complaint that far.
Tour operators that belong to the United States Tour Operators Association (USTOA) must provide $1 million in financial backing to cover reimbursement in case they default. That may not be enough for a big failure, but it provides credibility.
Minimize Your Purchase Risk
Any time you consider a questionable supplier, careful purchasing can limit your risk.
Avoid advance payments as much as you can. That way, if you encounter a problem, you can back out of the deal, find a substitute supplier, and avoid any financial loss or unpleasant experience.
When you can’t avoid paying in advance, you can at least protect your money. Use a credit card rather than cash or debit. And try to delay any advance credit-card payments until 60 days or fewer before the charge; that improves your position if you have to request a chargeback. But a chargeback protects only your payment if your supplier fails to deliver the promised service; it doesn’t help with just an unsatisfactory experience.
Insure Your Payments
Carefully consider trip-cancellation insurance (TCI) that includes supplier “default” as a “covered reason” for cancellation. “Bankruptcy” isn’t adequate as a reason: Many failing suppliers never bother to file. Like a chargeback, insurance covers only your prepayment and only if a supplier fails totally; it doesn’t help with misrepresentation or bad service.
Most travel-insurance companies offer trip-cancellation insurance that compensates you for any advance payments to a supplier that defaults, as well as a bunch of other risks. You can buy it from an insurance agency or from most big online travel agencies, which offer the same kind of cancellation insurance. Either way, costs are typically 5 to 15 percent of the total trip cost.
Always have a Plan B. No matter how carefully researched in advance, a trip can still go wrong. For that reason, it’s a good idea to have some idea of what you might do if you encounter a significant reliability problem with any individual supplier.
More from SmarterTravel:
- WOW Air Ceases Operations, Cancels All Flights
- The 10 Best (and Worst) Airports for Cheap International Flights
- Air Passenger Rights: The on-the-Go Guide
Consumer advocate Ed Perkins has been writing about travel for more than three decades. The founding editor of the Consumer Reports Travel Letter, he continues to inform travelers and fight consumer abuses every day at SmarterTravel.