Play by (ob­scure) rules for one win­ner of a trip

The Washington Post Sunday - - TRAVEL - CHRISTO­PHER EL­LIOTT

If you’re an ex­pe­ri­enced trav­eler, maybe you know about the Depart­ment of Transportation’s 24-hour rule for air­line ticket pur­chases, or EU 261, the Euro­pean con­sumer pro­tec­tion reg­u­la­tion for air trav­el­ers, or the Fair Credit Billing Act.

But what about the cruise bill of rights? The flat-tire rule? The Lan­ham Act?

Turns out there are a lot of rules, reg­u­la­tions and poli­cies that ben­e­fit trav­el­ers. Travel com­pa­nies some­times go to great lengths to avoid men­tion­ing that you have rights. That’s be­cause it could cost them money in the form of re­funds or penal­ties.

At a time when “reg­u­la­tion” is be­com­ing an ep­i­thet, it may be­hoove you to take a mo­ment to ap­pre­ci­ate one or two of the more ob­scure rules. Who knows, maybe they could im­prove your next trip.

First, just in case you didn’t know: The 24-hour rule gen­er­ally al­lows cus­tomers to can­cel air­line ticket reser­va­tions within 24 hours of mak­ing the book­ing and re­ceive a full re­fund. There are ex­cep­tions for travel booked within a week, hence the “gen­er­ally.” EU 261 is the Euro­pean reg­u­la­tion that makes air­lines pay cus­tomers when their flights are de­layed or can­celed. And again, cer­tain ex­cep­tions ap­ply. The Fair Credit Billing Act pro­tects cus­tomers when fraud­u­lent pur­chases are made with their credit cards and al­lows them to dis­pute the bogus charges.

You knew all that, didn’t you? But how about these:

The Lan­ham Act: This is a fairly broad fed­eral statute that says any­one who makes a “false or mis­lead­ing de­scrip­tion of fact” is in vi­o­la­tion of the law. Spe­cific to travel, it for­bids a com­pany from mis­rep­re­sent­ing the “na­ture, char­ac­ter­is­tics, qual­i­ties, or geo­graphic ori­gin” of goods, ser­vices or com­mer­cial ac­tiv­i­ties. In other words, if a ho­tel room isn’t as ad­ver­tised on­line or if a tour doesn’t live up to its billing, it may run afoul of fed­eral law. Sim­i­larly, when car­rental agents im­ply that in­sur­ance is manda­tory and of­fer to up­sell you on their pricey pol­icy, that could tech­ni­cally be a vi­o­la­tion.

The cruise bill of rights: “Most cruise pas­sen­gers don’t know they have a bill of rights set forth by the cruise lines,” says Tan­ner Cal­lais, ed­i­tor of the cruise web­site Cruzely.com. The bill of rights, adopted by the in­dus­try in 2013 to avoid more for­mal gov­ern­ment reg­u­la­tion, gives pas­sen­gers the right to leave a docked ship if it can’t pro­vide essen­tials such as food, wa­ter, bath­room fa­cil­i­ties and med­i­cal care. It also grants pas­sen­gers the right to a full re­fund for a trip can­celed be­cause of me­chan­i­cal fail­ures and a par­tial re­fund if a trip is cut short for the same rea­son. The bill also prom­ises to of­fer cus­tomers “timely” up­dates about any changes in a ship’s itin­er­ary caused by a me­chan­i­cal fail­ure or an emer­gency. It is legally en­force­able be­cause it’s part of your con­tract with the cruise line.

The flat-tire rule: This rule stip­u­lates that if you’re de­layed and you miss your flight — be­cause of traf­fic, for ex­am­ple — you can go standby as long as you ar­rive within two hours of the flight. Al­though I have seen this rule in­voked by pas­sen­gers on a reg­u­lar ba­sis, none of the air­lines pub­li­cize this rule on their web­sites. Ac­cord­ing to for­mer and cur­rent air­line em­ploy­ees, some, but not all, air­lines cite such a rule in in­ter­nal man­u­als and re­fer to it dur­ing agent train­ing. I’ve ques­tioned air­lines about it on nu­mer­ous oc­ca­sions. For ex­am­ple, when I vis­ited United Air­lines a few years ago, the com­pany’s se­nior vice pres­i­dent of cus­tomer ex­pe­ri­ence con­firmed that it did, in­deed, ex­ist. How­ever, even when air­lines have a “flat-tire rule,” it can be un­evenly ap­plied by agents, so in­vok­ing it won’t al­ways do you much good.

Rental-car up­grade and rec­i­proc­ity rules: Like the flat­tire rule, com­pany poli­cies on rental-car up­grades and rec­i­proc­ity are not read­ily avail­able to the pub­lic. How­ever, in­dus­try in­sid­ers have told me they ex­ist and I have suc­cess­fully in­voked them my­self on many oc­ca­sions, so here goes: If you re­serve a class of car and the lo­ca­tion runs out of ve­hi­cles in that class, you’ll get a free up­grade into the next avail­able class of ve­hi­cle. If the lo­ca­tion runs out of cars, it will pay for a com­pa­ra­ble car from a com­peti­tor. Both of these are stan­dard prac­tices, and of­ten for­mal­ized as in­ter­nal poli­cies. Al­though they are prac­ti­cally uni­ver­sal in the car rental busi­ness, they are not widely known.

More rules and reg­u­la­tions that could po­ten­tially ben­e­fit trav­el­ers are con­stantly be­ing added to the books. For ex­am­ple, a few years ago, Josh Sum­mer, a Dal­las gui­tarist, dis­cov­ered a line in the FAA Mod­ern­iza­tion and Reform Act of 2012 that re­quired air­lines to al­low pas­sen­gers to carry vi­o­lins, gui­tars or other mu­si­cal in­stru­ments in the air­craft cabin, “with­out charg­ing the pas­sen­ger a fee in ad­di­tion to any stan­dard fee that car­rier may re­quire for com­pa­ra­ble carry-on bag­gage.”

“As a mu­si­cian, I have been very thank­ful for that ob­scure rule,” Sum­mer says.

Do the rules re­ally work? Yes, this col­umn is filled with reg­u­lar ex­am­ples of how the 24-hour rule, the Fair Credit Billing Act and EU 261 can help trav­el­ers.

Even the lesser-known reg­u­la­tions demon­strate their ef­fec­tive­ness ev­ery day. Who can for­get the 2008 YouTube video “United Breaks Gui­tars,” by the Cana­dian coun­try band Sons of Maxwell, which lamented the air­line’s mis­treat­ment of the group’s gui­tars in the cargo hold? Since the pas­sage of the FAA Mod­ern­iza­tion and Reform Act, com­plaints sent to me about dam­aged in­stru­ments have vir­tu­ally dis­ap­peared. Like­wise, the cruise bill of rights, ini­tially crit­i­cized by con­sumer ad­vo­cates for not go­ing far enough, has dra­mat­i­cally re­duced the num­ber of griev­ances I’ve re­ceived about cruise ship ser­vice prob­lems.

A po­lite re­minder of these rel­a­tively ob­scure poli­cies — many of which have ex­isted for years — is of­ten all that it takes to se­cure that up­grade or re­book­ing.

Taken to­gether, the rules and reg­u­la­tions of­fer nec­es­sary pro­tec­tions for trav­el­ers. That’s an im­por­tant thing to re­mem­ber at a time when “reg­u­la­tion” has be­come a dirty word in Wash­ing­ton — and also a warn­ing to any­one look­ing to dis­man­tle the few rules that pro­tect us. El­liott is a con­sumer ad­vo­cate, jour­nal­ist and co-founder of the ad­vo­cacy group Trav­el­ers United. Email him at chris@el­liott.org.

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