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Travel Q&A Dodging the hassles

Dodging the hassles
By: Laurie Berger
July 10, 2005

If you like trouble-free travel, forget about going anywhere during the summer.

It seems as though everyone — and their kids, pets and grannies — is on the road, clogging rooms, seats and rental cars. And that means more chances for things to go wrong. Like missing a flight because of long security lines, paying five-star rates for two-star hotels or getting stranded when the rental company runs out of cars.

To ensure that your dream vacation doesn't become a nightmare, we offer answers to some commonly asked questions that may help you avoid similar summertime troubles.

You wait and wait and miss the flight

Question: I missed my flight because I was stuck in lines at the airport. Does the airline or the Transportation Security Administration owe me anything?

Answer: Unfortunately, no. The trip from curbside to gate is your responsibility, regardless of airport obstacle courses. That's why airlines tell passengers to arrive at least two hours ahead.

If you're late but manage to make it to the gate shortly before takeoff, you could still be out of luck: The airline may have given away your seat.

"Passengers must meet the check-in cutoff [time] or they're ineligible for denied-boarding compensation, even if security lines are the cause," says Bill Moseley, a Department of Transportation spokesman. Cutoff times usually are 10 to 20 minutes before takeoff.

LAX travelers got some relief last week when three security lanes were added at crowded Terminal 1 (Southwest). Terminal 7 (United), another bottleneck, will have two additional lanes by December, says TSA spokesman Nico Melendez.

When Mother Nature is to blame

Question: My flight was delayed because of thunderstorms. What are my rights?

Answer: Weather is the No. 1 cause of flight cancellations and delays in summer. The Federal Aviation Administration recently announced that it would hold planes on the ground rather than cancel flights for severe weather this summer. Travelers may be left to fend for themselves at the airport if their flight is delayed.

Federal law does not require carriers to provide passengers with food, lodging or other services when schedule changes are caused by circumstances beyond their control, such as a line of thunderstorms stretching from Illinois to Texas. Nor do most airlines' customer-service plans — the carriers' service pledge to passengers — include provisions for delays caused by weather. (Links to all plans can be found at airconsumer.ost.dot.gov/customerservice.htm.)

Northwest and Continental are the exception: They'll try to secure discount hotel reservations for cancellations or provide snack vouchers for delays exceeding 60 minutes.

Your best hedge against getting caught by bad weather? Book the earliest nonstop of the day.

Flight attendants who cross the line

Question: The flight attendant treated me rudely. What recourse do I have?

Answer: Air rage is not just for passengers anymore. Crowded planes, the lack of amenities and in-flight weather delays are pushing flight attendants too.

Whatever you do, don't yell back. It can be misinterpreted as a threat, and you could be arrested under the Tokyo Convention, which governs in-flight activity. The law gives flight attendants reasonable power to ensure the safety of the aircraft, says Al Anolik, travel attorney and author of "The Frequent Traveler's Guide."

Since Sept. 11, flight attendants have had plastic handcuffs at their disposal to subdue disruptive passengers. Anolik says these cuffs are sometimes being used inappropriately.

If you think you've been mistreated, Anolik advises waiting a few minutes, then gathering the names of witnesses as evidence. If possible, snap a photo of the attendant from your seat. When you get home, file a complaint with the Department of Transportation (www.dot.gov) and your congressional representative.

Compensation for broken locks

Question: TSA broke my approved luggage lock. Why does that happen?

Answer: TSA officials are given master keys to open "approved" locks. "But sometimes they don't work," says spokesman Melendez.

Reservations don't guarantee a room

Question: The hotel didn't have my reservation when I arrived and it's sold out. What can I do?

Answer: This is the downside of booking discounted rooms through websites such as Expedia, Orbitz, Travelocity or Hotels.com. In many cases, the sites still send your reservations by fax or phone.

"Error rates have been as high as 10% on these bookings," says Henry Harteveldt, vice president of Forrester Research, a consulting firm. "But that number is coming down as more hotels establish direct connections with the websites."

Another possible pitfall: "You'll often get an inferior room next to the elevator or ice machine," Harteveldt says.

To avoid being caught without a room, call the hotel to confirm your reservation immediately after you've booked online. Reconfirm that reservation 72 hours before check-in. And ask for the hotel's confirmation number, which may be different from the one issued by the website.

Also, carry a copy of the confirmation slip. It's proof of your contract with the hotel. If the hotel loses your reservation and doesn't have any rooms left, it must find you a comparable room at a nearby hotel.

Third-party booking services also may be liable, despite disclaimers on their websites. "When a site sends you a confirmation notice, that's a contract too," Harteveldt says. Customer-service representatives have been known to intervene on a traveler's behalf.

You don't get what you paid for

Question: I paid $250 a night for what I thought was a five-star room. It was shabby and overlooked a parking lot. Can I demand a refund or a better room?

Answer: With occupancy rates high (averaging 72%), most hotels have decided they don't need to discount this summer, says Steve Danishek, a Seattle-based travel-industry consultant.

Two-star properties are charging five-star rates, says Shelly Ransom, manager of lodging relations for the American Automobile Assn. "We're hearing lots of complaints about this," she says. "The rooms are not what people expect for the rates they're paying. We've tightened on our ratings for those hotels."

In each case, the hotel doesn't owe you anything unless it has misrepresented its property in advertisements (like airbrushing out a road between the "beachfront" hotel and the water, or promoting suites when most of the rooms are standard).

That's why it's important to check a hotel's recent reviews. You can do this on http://www.tripadvisor.com , http://www.fodors.com and http://www.igougo.com before booking.

A slew of rants for a five-star property is a red flag that something's amiss. It also helps to choose hotels with satisfaction guarantees, like Hampton Inns. And if you're not happy with the room, ask for a refund on the spot.

Getting the room that was requested

Question: I didn't get my requested nonsmoking king hotel room. Why did this happen and what can I do?

Answer: Hotels can't always guarantee room requests, whether it's nonsmoking, king or whatever. But if they don't tell you in advance, it's a breach of contract. You have a right to demand the requested room at that property or at a comparable hotel.

More properties and third-party websites are now covering themselves by adding "if available" to their fine print about room requests. You can maximize the chance of your requested room by booking directly with the hotel.

Check in as soon as you arrive. "A late-night arrival will kill you." says AAA's Ransom. "If it's before the designated time, leave your bags with the bell desk."

Beware unwanted rental car upgrade

Question: The car rental agency didn't have my reservation when I got to the counter and the only car they had available was at a higher rate. What are my rights?

Answer: The involuntary upgrade is a common tactic, says travel industry consultant Steve Danishek. It's also one of the biggest problems for renters because it forces them to pay a higher price than they expected.

Once again, the confirmation number is proof of your contract. If the rental company can't give you a car at the rate you booked, it must upgrade you to another model for the same price, even if it means getting one from another rental firm. (See latimes.com/rentalcar.)

Another ploy: Rental companies sometimes say they can't find your reservation when they are really out of cars. They routinely overbook to compensate for no-shows. But in summer, when everyone typically shows up, some travelers are stranded.

This is a breach of contract. The rental company owes you the difference between the booked rate and the price of a car at another rental company, plus any reasonable expenses incurred in getting that car.

Get a jump on rising Web prices

Question: I found a great airfare online. But by the time I hit the "buy" button, the price had gone up. Would this be considered bait-and-switch?

Answer: Not exactly. When the price you're quoted is different from the price you pay, it's called "fare jumping." And it often happens when there are lots of fare wars going on, says Harteveldt of Forrester Research.

Fares "jump" more frequently on third-party websites because the sites don't have the most accurate pricing at the time of booking, he says. Such sites get around this by including fine print that says, "Fares not guaranteed until ticketed." That's why online bookers often receive a call from a website with news that the fare has gone up, even after they've given a credit card number and have received a confirmation (latimes.com/webfare).

To avoid surprises, particularly during the summer crunch, shop around first for the best fares you can find, then book them on the airlines' sites. American, Northwest and Alaska offer fare guarantees to encourage bookings on their websites. If you found a better fare elsewhere and can prove it, they'll refund the difference. American and Northwest will even throw in a $50 credit for future travel.