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Travelers’ rights? Fuggedaboudit!

You’ve all heard a few of those “shortest book in the world” jokes—”what men know about women,” for example. In an article for a London-based magazine, I once nominated “masterpieces of British cuisine.” But a more accurate joke would be “travelers’ rights,” especially if you exclude air travelers.

As I noted in a [%1621340 | | previous column%], air travelers have at least a few defined rights, together with means of enforcing them. Sadly, that’s about the end of it. I know of no federal laws, rules, or regulations offering specific protections for hotel guests, cruise passengers, or people who rent cars. A few package-tour buyers enjoy protection for their advance deposits, but that’s it.

Although some state and local regulations apply to travelers, in most cases, when something goes wrong, your only recourse is to general contract law. Here’s a rundown of the rights you have—and don’t have—with suppliers other than airlines.

Protection from fraud or default

Beyond the airline protections I examined last week, other traveler protection regulations generally focus on fraud or financial default:

  • Federal regulations require that the operator of a tour using charter air service deposit your prepayments in an escrow account, to be released to the airlines, hotels, and other suppliers only after your trip is complete.
  • State “sellers of travel” statutes, where available, protect a broad range of travelers. The better ones establish reserve funds to compensate travelers who lose money due to fraud or failure on the part of the selling organization.
  • Some state statutes also call for some form of licensing to weed out scammers and financially shaky agencies.

These protections are valuable, and I commend the various states that have adopted them. They do not, however, protect you against many of the problems—short of fraud—that nevertheless plague travelers. Among them: oversales and inability to honor reservations, unannounced change of schedule or itinerary, lost baggage, personal injury, overcharges, and failure to issue refunds.

Voluntary industry programs

As far as I know, only two travel industry groups have established any sort of meaningful consumer protection programs:

  • The United States Tour Operators Association (USTOA) has established a financial guarantee program for its members—typically the larger and more stable members of the industry. This guarantee, however, applies only in cases of failure or default, not customer dissatisfaction. And it applies only to member operators.
  • The American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA) vets agencies prior to enrollment, and it provides a mediation service for disputes between consumers and member agencies. As with USTOA, however, ASTA’s program applies only to member agencies.

I know of no group of hotels, cruise lines, or rental car companies that has established anything similar. In those industries, the trade associations limit their activities to lobbying and promotion; consumer protection isn’t on their radar screens.

Traditional practice

The hotel and rental car industries practice rudimentary forms of consumer protection against overbooking:

  • If you arrive at a hotel with a confirmed reservation and the hotel can’t accommodate you, industry practice is to “walk” you to an alternative hotel, “of the same or higher standard,” and pick up the tab for your taxi and first night’s stay.
  • If you arrive at a counter and the rental company does not have the car that you reserved available, it either gives you a car in a more expensive group for the rate at which you reserved, or finds a suitable car from another rental agency and pays the difference in rate, if any.

But these protections are entirely unofficial or voluntary; individual hotels and rental companies are free to ignore them, and they often do.

One-sided contracts

In most disputes, your “rights” are governed by the contract you have with the supplier. Contracts in the travel industry are notoriously one-sided, holding consumers to rigid payment and schedule requirements, while giving suppliers all sorts of leeway and wiggle room. These contracts are so one-sided and biased that they’d be funny if the consequences weren’t so serious.

Cruise contracts are by far the worst:

  • Overall, cruise lines operate under maritime laws rather than ordinary civil laws, and maritime laws are strongly biased in favor of shipping companies.
  • Many cruise contracts specify that any court action you might take be in a specified venue—sometimes a distant state, sometimes even a foreign country. Traveling to a distant state to pursue a claim can be a major hassle, but pursuing a claim in a foreign country—where, say, the legal limit for personal injury is a trivial amount—can effectively deny you the right to any compensation at all.
  • Some allow a cruise line to cancel a confirmed and fully pre-paid cabin, with no advance notice, as long as it refunds your money.
  • Cruise lines have carte blanche to substitute ports and itineraries without your right to a refund.

While not as bad as cruise contracts, tour contracts typically give the operator wide latitude to change hotels, itineraries, and schedules, with only limited offers of refunds without penalty.

What to do

No matter what you’re buying, try to follow two general guidelines:

  • Before You Buy Take a hard look at any travel contract before you sign it. Yes, the fine print is numbingly boring, and yes, it’s often in mouse type and faint ink, but it can potentially affect thousands of dollars.
  • When you have a problem
  • When a hotel, rental car company, cruise line, or tour operator stonewalls your legitimate request for compensation, your only recourse is to general contract law.

As I wrote in that recent column, “In a dispute with a supplier, your rights are strongest when (1) you can show a supplier is in violation of its own contract or (2) the supplier’s action/inaction resulted in a measurable monetary loss to you. But you can also at least try to get compensation even for instances not covered by the contract or for situations that are nominally excluded from the contract.”

Keep in mind that interpretation of contract law can be inconsistent, depending on the venue, the judge, and a whole bunch of other particulars. Some courts have upheld a cruise line’s contractual requirement for a distant venue, for example, while others have rejected it. You can’t predict.

Again, what I wrote in the other column applies here: “Clearly, you don’t want to start legal action over a trivial monetary loss or claim for inconvenience. And if all you want is an apology, forget going past your second letter of complaint. But if you have some significant money involved, head for court—small claims court for most cases, regular court if lots of money is involved. Often, the prospect of defending itself in a court gets the attention of a previously inert supplier.”

In doubt? See a lawyer

As I’ve noted in past columns, I’m not a lawyer. Although my conclusions are as accurate as I can make them, they’re not legal interpretations. In any circumstance involving a significant amount of money, personal injury, or other loss, consult a lawyer sooner rather than later.

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