A bad travel experience can waste your money as well as your time. And a good number of irate consumers get ahold of Christopher Elliott: He’s the consumer advocate for National Geographic Traveler and writes its Problem Solved column as well as his own syndicated Travel Troubleshooter column(read it at charlotteobserver.com/travel.
Elliott’s book – “How to Be the World’s Smartest Traveler (and Save Time, Money, and Hassle” – was published this spring ($19.95; National Geographic. Kindle edition: $9.19).
Q. Your self-help tips are for preventing problems. What’s the biggest issue?
A. The most common complaint I hear is, “I wasn’t aware of the rules.” Many readers travel infrequently, so maybe they don't know about some of the rule changes that have taken place during the last few years, almost all of which are to the detriment of passengers and guests.
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For example, if you took your last flight before 2009, you could check a bag at no additional charge. Now you have to pay for the first checked bag on most airlines. More hotel rooms offered online are completely nonrefundable. If you try to change your dates, you lose everything.
Too many of my readers are stuck with a product they can't use – a ticket, an insurance policy, a canceled car reservation because the plane was late…. That shouldn't be happening, of course.
Q. And airlines are the biggest offenders?
A. Absolutely. They have multiple contracts that are often so difficult to read that even their own employees don’t understand them. There are separate contracts for international and domestic travel, separate agreements for luggage and fare tariffs in terms of actual fares. You almost have to be a lawyer to know what you’re getting when you’re flying these days.
Q. Are there problems you’ve personally had?
A. Yes, I’ve personally made a mistake or two. That’s one reason I say in my introduction that I'm not the world's smartest traveler. I once arrived at the airport to fly from London to Vienna on the wrong day. I didn't check the date on my ticket. Technically, I was a no-show, and the airline could have kept my money. But I was also holding an 8-month-old baby, and the ticket agent was compassionate, and rebooked me on the next flight at no extra cost. Thank you, British Airways.
I’ve also tried to check in on the wrong day. It’s so easy to get your arrival and departure dates mixed up, or to be confused by the date format, which is different for Europe. You have to go back and look at your reservation and make sure it’s correct.
Q. The book has a section on drive trips. What are things to watch out for?
A. With car rentals, frivolous damage complaints are at the top of my list. Car agencies can’t make money with a base rate of $19 per day. The service counter you walk up to is actually a sales counter offering fuel-purchase options, GPS, optional insurance and more.
Damage claims are said to be a profit center for some car rental companies. They’ll go over your returned car with a fine-tooth comb and charge you if they see a ding or dent. This fee suspiciously comes to slightly less than $500 – just below your deductible, so your insurance company doesn’t get involved. You pay $495 out of pocket; they allegedly put the car right back on the lot and later collect on the same ding if they want.
The consumer advice, if you’re driving your own car, isn’t that sexy, but it's essential. Make sure your car is properly maintained.
My biggest complaint from readers is probably about GPS directions that didn’t work. I recommend packing an actual paper map.
The section on driving also encourages you to think about road trips a little differently. I travel a lot with my family. We've discovered that you don’t have to eat out for every meal. That can be expensive, not to mention unhealthy. We look for local grocery stores and do a lot of picnicking. You get to know locals, your food bills are significantly lower and you are actually getting more interesting cultural experiences that make for a more enriching trip.
Q. You also cover cruising. What’s the top consumer gripe?
A. The biggest hassle is with an all-inclusive experience, where you get on a ship and think you don’t pay for extras. If you think most cruises are like that, I would encourage you to get up early on the day of a ship’s disembarkation; go there with a cup of coffee and listen to the arguments between passengers who are checking out and the cruise line’s agents standing behind the counter. Sometimes they’ve paid two or three times what they thought they would because of photos, food or other “extras.” Cruise-offered shore excursions can be expensive. You can find a comparable shore trip for half the price.
Cruise lines are making a ton of money from what it calls “ancillary revenue” – money that isn't coming from its base cruise fares.
The lengths to which a cruise line will go for your (extra) dollar are pretty extreme. I heard from a woman who was in a ship restaurant and who had asked for the end piece of the roast. She said she was told, “That’ll be extra.”
Mind your key card, which doubles as a charge card on most ships. If you have teenagers, they will discover the arcade and the next thing you know, you could have a $600 charge on your account. Don't laugh. I heard from one unhappy passenger a few years ago whose 14-year-old did just that. She was grounded for life.