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Travel Trouble: Do you Know your Rights?

by Ari Cetrone

Sooner or later, most everyone travels. Whether for business or pleasure; for a drive across the state or a flight across the country, at some point, you’re away from home. And it seems inevitable too that the more you travel, the more likely you are to run into snags — canceled flights, rental car accidents, seemingly unfair charges or mistakes that someone has to pay for.

No matter where you go — at least in the United States — there are some rights you have regarding the way you’re treated by the travel industry and some rights you don’t have. Here are 10 situations you could find yourself in.

1. Flight cancellations
There are some misunderstandings about just what an airline owes you in the case of a canceled flight. As a rule of thumb, if it’s their fault, they might take care of you, but if not, you’re on your own. In practice that means if something like a mechanical failure cancels a flight, or if a delay caused by them forces you to miss a connection, they’re on the hook. In that case, you can look forward to hotel accommodations and a meal or two, depending on the length of the delay in getting you on a new plane.

However, if a hurricane blows through and cancels your flight, that’s not their fault, and they don’t owe you anything. In either case, there are no federal regulations mandating that they do anything for you. It’s up to the individual airline’s policies.

2. Getting bumped
Airlines are notorious for overbooking flights and then bumping passengers when they have more people than seats. If that happens to you, you might get a bit of cash from it, but maybe not. In this case, there are federal regulations. If the airline can get you to your final destination (not just a connecting flight) within one hour of the scheduled time, there is no compensation. If you are between one and two hours late, they owe you double the price of a one-way ticket to your destination (up to $675). More than two hours, and they owe you four times the fare (up to $1,450).

There are two caveats: You have to have had a written reservation and checked in on time. Also, it only applies to involuntary bumping. If the airline asks for volunteers to be bumped and you agree, this doesn’t apply — though they’ll probably give you some other deal for volunteering.

3. Delayed luggage
That sinking feeling you get when you’re in New York and your bag somehow ended up in Houston might translate into compensation. If your bag is delayed, most of the time the airline will get it to you within a couple of hours. As exhausted as you are from traveling, report the luggage problem to the airline and get a written copy of the report before you leave the airport. Check with them about fees, they are not required to get it to you for free. They may be willing to compensate you for reasonable expenses incurred while waiting for your bag — some even hand out cash there in the airport.

Be aware, though, that you and the airline might have different ideas of what “reasonable expenses” are. If they are going to reimburse you, make sure you agree on expenses and keep your receipts.

4. Lost luggage
If your bag hasn’t just taken an unscheduled detour, but is missing altogether, the airlines will reimburse you for what was in it. You’ll have to file a form (pay attention to the deadlines — if you miss it, they won’t pay) detailing what was in the bag. They can deny payment for things they find excessive and have a liability limit of $3,500 per passenger, so don’t bother trying to convince them you had a Faberge egg tucked into your shoes.

5. Extra ticket
If you accidentally buy an extra plane ticket, you can cancel it, even if it’s nonrefundable. Two important criteria: You have to make the cancellation within 24 hours of buying the ticket, and the flight has to be at least a week away.

6. Rental car insurance
At the counter, the person handling your rental car will try and sell you extra insurance. You may already be covered by another policy through your credit card, or your existing auto or homeowner’s policy, but not always. Furthermore, while some policies may cover a car, that coverage may not apply to trucks — and bear in mind that many SUVs are classified as trucks. Read the fine print of your existing policy, and call the company if necessary, to clear up problems before they happen.

7. Rental car breakdowns
If your rental car breaks, that’s not on you, right? It depends. If it was broken before you got it — A/C on the fritz, wiper not wiping — that should be on the rental company to fix, but you need to tell them about it beforehand. When you do that check of the car before you take it off the lot, make sure you look for these things as well as the odd scratch or ding. Once it’s off the lot, the companies can, and often will, hold you responsible for damage.

If the car completely stops working, most rental companies will provide roadside assistance. Just be sure to document everything so you don’t get charged for repairs if the damage wasn’t your fault.

8. Out of rental cars
Even if you’ve got a rental car reserved, you may find that the company doesn’t have one when you get there. This is another case where you end up depending on the company to do the right thing. They are under no obligation to do anything for you. Most will help, either by upgrading you at the same rate, or finding you a car with a different company.

9. Getting walked
Much like airlines, hotels sometimes overbook, and you find no room when you arrive. (Airlines call it bumping, hotels call it walking.) In this case, the hotel will usually take care of you. They should pay for accommodations at another, comparable hotel, and pay the cab fare to get you there.

10. Your room is burglarized
As a rule, the hotel is not responsible for anything stolen during your stay. Most states require hotels to provide you with a safe, but it’s up to you to use it. In some cases, you may even have to call the police yourself. If you are physically harmed during the robbery you can try to sue the hotel, but you’ll probably have to prove they were negligent.

“Do not go where the path leads, travel instead where there is no path and leave a trail.”  @wbbrjp

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