By Ed Perkins, Tribune Content Agency
“What are my rights?” You often hear travelers ask that question — most frequently about air travel, but also occasionally about rental car, rail and bus travel. You don’t hear about your rights when you buy a TV set or go to a play, but travel is different. And, yes, air travelers, in particular, have a few “rights” guaranteed and enforced by the federal government that don’t apply to other goods and services. But for the most part your rights in any purchase are governed by the contract you have with the seller. And, in travel, those can be pretty murky. Fortunately, you can find just about everything you need to know about your rights in the publication “Travel Rights,” published and just updated by Travelers United, one of the nation’s top advocates for travel consumers.
More than half of the book’s 147 pages are devoted to air travel, not surprising in view of most travelers’ concerns. The book starts out with a general rundown of the nuts and bolts of the services airlines offer, how they price them, and of the many concerns you have to face when you search for your best deal and buy it.
Next comes a detailed examination of a key source of consumer frustration with airlines: what happens when your flight is delayed or canceled. Here, the only government-enforced right you have is to deplane if your flight is stuck on an airport tarmac for more than three hours. And that’s a weird right, because if an airline holds you beyond the limit, the Department of Transportation fines the airline; as a passenger, you get nothing. Other than that narrow case, your only official right is access to information on whatever rights the airline says you have. And those rights vary from confusing to pure vaporware.
“Travel Rights” tackles the complexities of one of the few other guaranteed rights you have: compensation if an airline “bumps” you off the flight because the flight is overbooked. The explanation here is detailed, and, yes, you may be due up to $1,350 in monetary compensation.
Baggage rules and dealing with mishandled baggage also raise complex issues. The government-imposed rules here verify that you do, in fact, have a monetary claim for lost or damaged baggage, but the rules cap airline liability, currently at $3,500 per passenger on domestic flights or about $1,575 on international flights. For the most part, most “lost” baggage is not totally lost; it’s somewhere else, but the airline knows where, and it can usually reunite you with it the next day. As to what an airline owes you for items you might need that next day, no contracts I know actually specify: They’re either fuzzy or don’t treat the subject at all.
Other topics covered include traveling with infants and children, shipping children off on their own, seating, meals and other in-flight considerations, European regulations, and dealing with Transportation Security Administration (TSA). And it makes a good case for using a travel agent.
When you rent a car, take a train or ride a bus, you have no special “rights” beyond those in ordinary contract law. The rental car section concentrates on the number one consumer issue: insurance and how to avoid the rental companies’ outrageously priced collision coverage. The rail and bus sections provide useful rider guidance.
I found two big overall takeaways from “Travel Rights”:
- Travel contracts are among the most one-sided you will even encounter. Suppliers demand that you adhere rigorously to terms, but they allow themselves enough wiggle room to drive an 18-wheeler through.
- Beyond the bumping compensation, asserting any other right is a negotiation. Transfer you to another airline when your flight is delayed? Negotiate. Pay for meals or a hotel room in an extended delay? Negotiate. Pay for something to wear if your baggage isn’t here? Negotiate. Oversold hotel? Negotiate for transfer to a different hotel.
“Travel Rights” is an essential resource for travelers. The $20 cost for a PDF download includes a year’s Travelers United membership. Disclaimer: I have no financial interest in either the book or Travelers United. I just think it’s a great idea.
(Send e-mail to Ed Perkins at email@example.com. Also, check out Ed’s new rail travel website at rail-guru.com.)
(c) 2016 TRIBUNE CONTENT AGENCY, LLC. — Tribune Content Agency — September 27, 2016
Ed Perkins is a nationally syndicated travel columnist, with weekly columns appearing in three dozen U.S. newspapers. He was founding editor of Consumer Reports Travel Letter and has written for Business Traveller (London), Arthur Frommer’s Budget Travel, The New Yorker, and National Geographic Traveler.