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Risks on the road ahead

Risks on the road ahead
Canceled flights, overbooked hotels, civil unrest: How to prepare for the worst.
By Laurie Berger
Special to The Times
January 22, 2006
Originally Posted: www.latimes.com/services/site/premium/interceptlogin.register
 

FROM bankruptcies to bedbugs, many of the perils that beset travelers last year still loom large. Perhaps not surprisingly, experts are predicting an equally bumpy 2006.
If that sounds like doom and gloom, take heart. Practically speaking, this year's vacations are more likely to be sidelined by scuttled flights, overbooking and grumpy customer service people than by hotel bombings and bad weather.

To help you travel smarter and safer, we asked the pros about risks that lie ahead.

Here's what they said.

Airlines
BE prepared for more pain.

Analysts may be calling 2006 the turnaround year for ailing airlines, but consumers won't get a reprieve from last year's flight woes.

Eight carriers are in default, and only United is expected to emerge from bankruptcy this year. "Service will get worse in the near term because airlines still have to conserve costs," said Vaughn Cordle, a Washington, D.C.-based airline analyst and a pilot for a major carrier.

Partly as a result of cost-saving measures, the number of seat miles dropped 3.2% domestically in 2005 from the previous year and is expected to decrease even more in 2006. With fewer spots for a record number of fliers, travelers are at greater risk of being inconvenienced than stranded.

"There's a good chance the nonstop jet you book today may be a connection on a regional plane tomorrow," says travel attorney Jeff Miller of Columbia, Md.

But the single biggest obstacle for travelers will be trying to rebook a canceled or delayed flight at the same price.

"Even if you pay with a credit card and get your money back, you can't replace the great low fare [on] short notice," says Robert Mann, an airline analyst based in Port Washington, N.Y.

Your rights and remedies: When flying with a bankrupt carrier, remember that airlines must honor their contracts of carriage (see the major airlines' contracts at latimes.com/contracts), says David Castelveter, a spokesman for the Air Transport Assn.

"Being in bankruptcy does not give them carte blanche to do whatever they want," he says, "unless they file a motion in Bankruptcy Court to terminate an agreement."

Although consumers have few rights under these contracts, there's one important safety net: If your flight is scrubbed, you're due a full refund — in cash.

Another protection: If your airline goes belly up, other carriers serving that route must fly you to your destination for no more than $50 round trip under Section 145 of the Aviation and Transportation Security Act, which Congress recently extended for another year.

Beyond that, fliers are at the mercy of the replacement carrier's goodwill — or lack thereof — for help with hotels, transportation and other expenses if they're stranded by another airline's bankruptcy.

Avoiding trouble: To dodge schedule changes that cause missed connections, go a day early, says George Delanoy, president of Brea Travel. "Flights are so full and airlines have less schedule, there's no cushion like we had in the past," he says.

Lean on your travel agent. Good online and bricks-and-mortar agencies earn their fees these days rebooking fliers when their flights are canceled or excessively delayed. But don't expect the same from discounters: You've traded service for price.

*

Hotels
AFTER years of empty rooms, there's little or no room at the inn.

Lingering effects of Katrina are partly to blame. The hurricane took out about 30,000 New Orleans hotel rooms. Properties across the country are now filled up with relocated conventioneers as well as an estimated 150,000 evacuees.

But with travel rebounding, Smith Travel Research, an industry data provider in Hendersonville, Tenn., is forecasting a 5.5% rate increase, well above the predicted rate of inflation, for the coming year. "It's going to be harder to get a room at the price you want," says Jan Freitag, spokesman for Smith.

But higher rates raise service expectations. "Mid-priced hotels in New York are charging several hundred dollars a night," says Shelly Ransom, manager of hotel relations for the Automobile Assn. of America. "At these prices, customers expect to get the best, but they won't."

Cutbacks on renovations, maintenance, even housekeeping are already rubbing travelers wrong. "I don't know when the last time was I heard a vacuum in a hotel," Ransom says.

Guests in 2006 may find themselves glad they get a room at all. Hotels are getting more aggressive about overbooking, says Bjorn Hanson, a lodging analyst with New York City-based PricewaterhouseCoopers.

"You can expect one in 100 customers with confirmed reservations to be 'walked' [the hotel industry's term for bumping] at big-city hotels midweek," he says.

Your rights and remedies: If you're one of the unlucky guests, the hotel has breached your contract and must pay for another room for you elsewhere. This information is not offered voluntarily, so you must ask.

Even a broken toilet, air conditioner, shower or other essential service is cause for a change of room or refund. The room has to be "serviceable," says San Francisco-based travel attorney Al Anolik.

The same goes for hotel facilities that cost extra, such as a resort pool. If it's closed during your stay, you have a right to a refund if you cancel or a reduction in price if you stay.

Avoiding trouble: Always call the hotel directly and ask about renovations. "Hotels and online services typically do a poor job at alerting travelers about construction work upfront," says Henry Harteveldt, an analyst with Forrester Research in San Francisco.

Hard-hat alerts are slowly popping up on hotel and third-party websites. Expedia, Travelocity and Orbitz put them on their websites, but they're inconsistent.

Ask to be booked in a quiet room away from any renovation projects and have that added into your record.

To avoid overbooking, join the hotel's frequent-guest program, even if you never plan to stay with that chain again. Hotels are less likely to turn away members. If you do get walked, accept cash only. Hotels have begun doling out gift cards instead of greenbacks when something goes wrong, says AAA's Ransom.

And those bedbugs? Not to worry, Hanson says. It's a cyclical problem and not widespread.

*

Natural disasters
FOUR major hurricanes made landfall in the U.S. in 2005. Katrina was the costliest and the deadliest since 1928, claiming more than 1,300 lives. Forecasters say we can expect more of the same for 2006.

Your rights and remedies: Last year, travel suppliers doled out lots of goodwill after Katrina and Wilma. But that generosity could dry up in 2006.

Expect to see fewer hurricane guarantees and stricter contracts among tour operators in particular, Anolik says. "They're tightening up their terms and conditions."

Consumers will still be entitled to airline refunds when flights are canceled, even on a nonrefundable ticket. But none are obligated to refund your money if you decide not to go.

As always, travelers who pay by charge card are protected by the Fair Credit Billing Act, which allows them to dispute charges. But it may be harder to collect this year.

"Large suppliers are pressuring card companies to tighten up their refunds," Anolik says.

Avoiding trouble: Think twice about going south in the fall. Cheap rates can be tempting, but it's a risk.

If you do go, book your flights through a cruise or tour operator. They have the most incentive to get you back on track if disaster hits.

*

Terrorism, civil unrest
ALTHOUGH the chances of getting caught in a terrorist attack or a political crisis are much less than getting mugged or having your pocket picked, U.S. travelers are advised to be prepared and alert.

Since 9/11, terrorists have attacked Bali, London and Madrid. Counter-terrorism pros expect that trend to continue in 2006.

"We'll likely see a multitude of smaller events that have larger cumulative effect," says analyst Sarah Slenker, of IJet, a risk intelligence service.

The riots in France in the fall could give rise to more copycat uprisings around the world, she says. "Many groups are at the boiling point and ready to express their anger in a militant way."

Your rights and remedies: According to their contracts, most tour and cruise operators are not responsible for cancellations and problems arising from terrorism and political violence.

But Anolik notes that these disclaimers are null and void if the government issues a mandate preventing travel to those areas. Suppliers must give you a refund.

Although the State Department warning list totals more than two dozen countries, none prevents travel to those areas, said Kelly McCann, counterterrorism expert with Kroll Inc., a risk intelligence firm.

If a tour operator cancels the trip in the absence of a mandate, it still owes you a refund, Anolik says. But you can't sue for other expenses, such as air travel, if it wasn't included in the package.

Avoiding trouble: Be your own risk analyst. Don't entrust your safety and security to a travel supplier, local police force or single source of information, says McCann.

Check the official sites of English-speaking countries. "They often have different information than the U.S.," McCann says.

Travelers can also get intelligence reports and 24/7 real-time alerts by e-mail or wireless device for 183 countries and 282 cities worldwide from IJet. Cost is $25 per itinerary. Call (877) 606-4538, http://www.ijet.com/services/worldcuetraveler.asp .