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Did My Travel Agent Overcharge Me?

A reader who believes his travel agent overcharged him recently asked, “What rights do I have to receive clear and unambiguous details of the travel expenses incurred?” The short answer is no specific rights beyond those contained in the typical contract. I know of no federal or state law or any industry standard requiring such disclosure. To be sure, some agents do disclose this, but to my knowledge, no requirement applies.

But the reader’s predicament isn’t really about rights; it’s about how to deal with some combination of competence and a possible overcharge.

The agent’s competence is certainly open to question. When the reader asked the agent about daily parking rates at his Sydney hotel, the agent told him the rate was $3 a day, so he decided to rent a car while in Sydney instead of waiting until later. But the rate was actually $29 a day, so this bad advice caused the reader to rent a car for more days than necessary, at extra cost. Also, when he asked the agent about the visa requirements for his foreign-national wife, the agent said that visas would be no problem and offered to apply for them online and pay the fee. But instead, he found out that his wife needed a different visa, and he had to pay for express shipment of the paperwork and assorted fees.

The overcharge possibility arose when he checked the cost of a Great Barrier Reef dive excursion with a local operator. When he told the agent about this price, she responded, “That would be one huge bargain,” without informing him of what she had charged for the excursion.

Thus, the real questions to be answered are quite different:

  • Can I recover the amount of the overcharge and the unnecessary costs I incurred because of the agent’s inaccurate advice, and if so, how?
  • How can I avoid a repeat of this problem?

In general, when a customer has a question for—or a beef with—a travel agent, you start by marshalling the facts. With regard to the bad advice, develop a figure for whatever excessive expenses you incurred due to the agent’s bad advice. And with regard to overcharging, determine reasonable prices for the components of a tour in question—pretty easy these days when you can find prices for almost any travel service on the Internet. Recognize that an agent can expect to take a reasonable markup to cover her costs and make a profit. But if you add the total and find that it’s out of line, then you were overcharged. Combine these figures and set a dollar value on how much you think the agent owes you.

The first step is to give the agent a chance to fix or compensate for the problem. If that doesn’t work, the next step is usually to take the issue up with the agent’s supervisor, branch manager, or agency owner. In this case, however, the agent appears to be a sole proprietor, so that wouldn’t work. The reader is then left with a choice of taking the agent to small-claims court or chalking the experience up to kismet and moving on with his life. It’s his call.

As to avoiding similar problems, the cardinal rule is to select your travel agent carefully. In this case, the agent’s website showed lots of “specialist” awards and fields of expertise, but nothing in the way of recognized industry accreditation. You can minimize risks by selecting an agency that:

  • Displays widely accepted credentials such as affiliation with the American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA), an airline or IATAN number, or a Certified Travel Counselor credential. ASTA membership can be especially beneficial to consumers, in that it’s the only trade association in the entire travel industry with an in-house consumer-complaint resolution process.
  • Belongs to a large chain or association, such as AAA or Travel Leaders.

Overall, I’m convinced that a good travel agent can be extremely useful to many travelers. But be careful which one you choose.

Ed Perkins Seniors on the Go is copyright (c) 2012 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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