Consumer rights when traveling
Learn about your rights with airlines, ground transit companies, cruise lines, and hotels. Find out how these companies compensate inconvenienced customers.
Photo Credit: Ernest Campbell
Being aware of your rights when traveling is a key factor in making sure your trip runs smoothly. While not every delay or inconvenience entitles you to compensation, if you know the law you'll be able to act with confidence if something does go wrong.
Delayed or canceled flights are among the most common of travelers' woes. There are no comprehensive federal guidelines, but each airline has its own policies, which are detailed in the contract of carriage.
Usually, if your flight is delayed, there's little more you can do than wait. You may want to ask if meal vouchers are available, but the airline isn't required to give you any. If your flight is canceled, however, the airline will most likely rebook you on its next available flight at no charge. If the next flight with your airline doesn't leave for several hours, you can ask to be rebooked with a different airline. You may not be offered this option immediately, so you'll have to ask for it. Be aware, though, that some discount tickets may not be honored by other airlines. Although in practice it's rarely a problem, tickets marked "nonendorsable" are legally valid for one airline only and might not be accepted by others. You most likely won't receive monetary compensation for a canceled flight, but if you ask, you might receive a meal voucher or small flight voucher.
If the plane cannot leave because of conditions beyond the airline's control, such as bad weather or a security alert, the airline is no longer obliged to honor your ticket. Although some airlines give passengers a small voucher or help finding a hotel room, they are not legally required to do so.
If you are bumped from your flight with or without your consent, under federal law you have the right to be put on the next available flight and to be compensated monetarily. The amount of compensation depends on the cost of the flight and how late you're likely to arrive at your destination. Quite often, those who volunteer to be bumped receive even greater compensation, such as a free roundtrip flight.
Also, although many airlines have a policy of giving the bulkhead seats or aisle seats to those with small children or disabilities, no law requires airlines to do so.
Ground Travel: buses, trains, and rental cars
Buses and trains experience just as many delays as airlines. As with airlines, no federal law governs how transit companies should compensate inconvenienced passengers. In fact, ground transit companies tend to be less willing than airlines to hand out meal or trip vouchers. Amenities on trains and buses can vary widely, so ask the company or check the company's Web site for the standards you can expect. This way you'll be aware of how much inconvenience is too much. Unfortunately, though, if you do experience unusual problems, you can complain to the company's customer service department, but the company is not required by law to compensate you.
Naturally, with rental cars, the bulk of the responsibility is your own. While most companies check driving records, some try to save time by asking renters to sign a form declaring that they have acceptable driving records. In this case, if you have an accident and it turns out you lied about your driving record, the company may claim that you violated the rental contract and you'll be liable for much more than you would be otherwise. Also, be aware that while discount companies may charge a low base rental price, they can nearly double this price with added fees for vehicle licensing, concession fee recovery, and other costs. This is perfectly legal, but renters who neglect to read the fine print are often caught off guard.
Each cruise line has its own policies, but many regulations are standard throughout the industry. For instance, almost all international cruise ships employ a staff of doctors (multi-lingual or with interpreters) with several years experience and offer continuously-available medical services. Cancellation fees are a special consideration here, as many cruise lines charge a high percentage or the entire cost of a trip canceled for non-medical reasons. Cancellation insurance doesn't always cover non-medical cancellations, so be sure to read the cruise line's policy before booking.
A primary concern of travelers staying in hotels is how reliable reservations are. It's important to understand the difference between the two types of reservations. Confirmed reservations can be made without paying, but do not require the hotel to hold a room for you past your agreed-upon arrival time. Guaranteed reservations require credit card information and usually payment, but ensure that your room will be held even if you get in late. However, with guaranteed reservations, if you don't come at all and don't cancel, the hotel may still charge your card for the full cost of your stay.
Another concern is the extent to which the hotel is liable for any damage or loss of guest's personal property. Under most state laws, the only responsibility hotels have is to provide a safe storage place for guest's valuables and to advise guests that such a storage space is available. The hotel's liability for these items is still limited to an amount the law has deemed reasonable. However, if a hotel claims not to be responsible for any items and doesn't provide a secure storage space, the hotel may be liable for the full cost of any valuables damaged or stolen because they had to be left in the guest's room.
When crossing international borders, it's important to be aware not only of visa requirements, but of any laws governing the import of goods and cash. For example, those who attempt to bring a prohibited item into the U.S. will not only have the item confiscated, but may be fined heavily. Minor children often have unique concerns at borders. Minors who plan to leave the U.S. without both parents will need either a parental travel permit or a travel clearance to be allowed to do so.
Travel and tourism law can seem overwhelmingly complex at times, but taking some time to examine the details could save you a lot of trouble later. Carefully read tickets, agreements, and contracts to find out not only what your rights are, but also how long you have to file claims or lawsuits if something does go wrong. By knowing your rights and being willing to negotiate for compensation, you can greatly lessen the negative effects of any problems you might encounter while traveling.