For the second time in less than a decade, we have seen a continental wide shut down of an air traffic system. The first time was in 2001, starting on 9/11 and lasting a little over a week. The second time was last month’s shut down of the European airspace as a result of volcanic ash.
So what happens when a major event such as these occurs? Are the airlines obligated to do anything for you and if so, what? What about hotels and car rental agencies? And cruise lines and tour companies, what do they have to do in such an event? Do you know where to find out what their legal obligations are and what your legal rights are?
As has been discussed here previously the EU and the US have different regulations concerning flight cancellations. Both governing bodies require the airlines to do more when it is something that the airline should be able to control. Similarly, both are more forgiving when it is beyond the control of the airline. In the case of 9-11, it was the government shutting down the airspace and the airlines had no control over that. And in the case of the volcanic ash, well, Mother Nature gets the blame and no one has control over that. Legally the airlines are not obligated to do much for a traveler when it is something beyond the airline’s control. If they cancel your flight, the airline can offer you a refund or they can reschedule your travel at a later date. The first one isn’t so bad if you are just starting your trip and your trip was time sensitive. The second is generally used if travel has commenced or you need to go sooner or later. We saw a great many people opting for the second. At Christopherson Business Travel, we spent hours finding alternative schedules, getting waivers from the airlines and then reissuing tickets for our clients. If, by chance, you had booked your travel direct with the airlines, you would have been the one on the phone for long periods of time to get your new flight arrangements made.
How do you know what the airlines will do for you? Each and every airline flying into, out of or through the US, has what is known as a Contract of Carriage and they must have it available at the ticket counter and the gate should a customer need or want it. Most have them on their websites as well. These contracts will vary from airline to airline so don’t assume that because one airline says one thing, that all of them will say the same thing. While it sometimes seems that the airlines are a bunch of kids playing follow the leader, it is not safe to assume that everything is exactly the same. So when in doubt, get a copy of the contract of carriage and read those parts that are pertinent to your needs.
Now what happens to you if you no show a hotel due to a volcanic eruption? Well, most hotels will waive a no show billing provided you contact them as quickly as possible. If you wait a week or two, well, they aren’t as forgiving as if you either call them as soon as you know that you aren’t going to make it or within a day of your scheduled arrival. I must point out, not all hotels will waive it. There are some hotels that don’t worry about good customer service and/or about creating good will. Here again, if you booked your hotel direct with the hotel or through Hotwire, Priceline or via the hotel chain websites, you will be spending your time and money tracking down the number of who you need to speak with and then calling them. If you booked through Christopherson Business Travel, your agent would take care of this at the same time he or she was taking care of your airfare.
Hotels are generally regulated by local authorities, such as cities or counties and in a few places states or even national governments will regulate them. There is no equivalent to the airline contract of carriage. This makes it much harder to know what your specific rights are and in the cases of hotels overseas can make it very hard to get things resolved in a manner that one would expect.
Car rentals are generally easier since most car rentals are not prepaid or guaranteed with a credit card. If it isn’t prepaid or guaranteed, basically the car rental agency has a car sitting on their lot that they were hoping to have rented to you. You aren’t stuck with a bill for it. Now if you prepaid the car rental or you reserved a car that required a guarantee and you no show, you may find yourself in a similar situation as you would with your hotel. The sooner you are able to contact the car rental agency and explain what has happened, the easier it to get them to work with you. If you did it yourself, well, I’ve covered that already.
Cruises and tours operate more like the airlines than hotels and rental cars. They have contracts that specify what they will and won’t do. The contracts also specify their policies for cancellations. These contracts are very specific as to what they have to do. It is a good idea to go over those before you put your money down. One thing that all the cruise lines and most of the tour operators offer is some form of “insurance” or “cancellation waiver”, that allows customers to cancel for a variety of reasons. Again, these have their own contract and each one varies from company to company, so it is VERY important to read and understand the terms of coverage before purchasing it. One downside to purchasing it from a vendor is that it only covers what you purchased from the vendor. For example, if you are going on a cruise and you purchase their cancellation coverage, it will cover the cruise, but if you didn’t get your airfare through the cruise line or you booked your own hotels or maybe you booked a shore excursion on your own, none of those things would be covered by the cruise line’s cancellation policy. So what are you to do to insure that you get your money back from those items?
There are travel insurance policies offered by third party insurance companies. There are many different options available in the marketplace. They range from policies that cover the minimum amounts and things, to policies that allow you to cancel at anytime, for any reason, that include trip interruption coverage, medical evacuation, to your baggage being lost, stolen or damage. And the idea that you only need insurance if you are elderly or just taking a cruise, isn’t really valid. We had someone who was going to Cancun on a family vacation who ended up in the hospital and couldn’t make the trip. Without the insurance the money spent purchasing the airfare and prepaying the hotel would have been lost. However with the traveler had purchased insurance and was covered. Christopherson Business Travel has agents licensed and trained to sell travel insurance. So when you booking your next trip, take a moment to consider if you want to get travel insurance.
Hopefully we won’t have any more major disruptions of travel in the future however even small disruptions can be trying for the person traveling. Let Christopherson Business Travel help make it a little easier for you by allowing us to utilize our knowledge, contacts and expertise on your behalf.