Know Your Rights: Travelers should be aware of consumer protections available to them
July 30, 2012 4:00 AM
By Gabrielle Banks Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
For most people, a vacation begins when they shut off their workaday worries, crack open a cool refreshment, put up their feet and draw a sweet sigh of relief. But that magic moment becomes elusive when travels are hampered by delayed flights, lost luggage, overbooked hotels or misplaced passports.
With a long list of such unforeseen travel snags in mind, we bring you the (high anxiety) summer travel edition of "Know Your Rights," which will explore consumer protections for domestic and international vacationers by land, sea and air. The guide also suggests appropriate agencies in each arena for consumers to register claims or to file complaints if they feel their legal rights have been violated.
Beware of bargains
The Federal Trade Commission warns travelers to be wary of magnificent, luxury, deluxe, "buy now" discount vacation offers from telemarketers. Get the agency's offer in print before you purchase anything. Don't pay for coupons or part of a complete package. Don't give your credit card or bank information over the phone.
The official government stance is that travelers should avoid these locales or carefully consider visiting them. For other countries you plan to visit, you may peruse the State Department's assessments: http://travel.state.gov/travel/travel_1744.html.
The State Department provides international travelers a digital form through which they may submit their specific itineraries for traveling; it's called the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program: https://step.state.gov/step/. It will set you up to receive updated safety and security announcements.
Also, check with your provider about medical coverage while you are out of the region or country. If you're not already up to date on your shots, you can check health advisories and required immunizations for over 200 countries: http://wwwnc.cdc.gov/travel/destinations/list.htm
Traveling with valuables
Some travel pros suggest you bring proof of purchase (receipts) or insurance for watches, jewelry, cameras, electronics or firearms you plan to pack in case customs officials question your ownership or charge you a U.S. duty, for example, for a laptop made in Japan. Any object with a serial number or distinct markings may be registered.
To ensure you can return with these items duty-free, U.S. Customs and Border Protection form 4457 provides travelers a "Certificate of Registration for Personal Effects Taken Abroad," which must be filled out before you leave home: http://forms.cbp.gov/pdf/CBP_Form_4457.pdf.
Security screening woes
In the decade-plus since 9/11, passengers have become accustomed to heightened screening practices. The U.S. State Department and the Department of Homeland Security explain on the DHS website that their present aim is to "welcome legitimate travelers while still securing our country from those who want to do us harm."
Travelers who believe they have been unjustly treated, incorrectly delayed, repeatedly identified for additional screening or improperly denied boarding or re-entry at a U.S. airport, land border checkpoint or port of entry may file a complaint online with the Department of Homeland Security's Traveler Redress Inquiry Program (TRIP): www.dhs.gov/files/programs/gc_1169676919316.shtm
Delayed and canceled flights
Airlines have no legal obligation to compensate passengers for delayed or canceled flights. It's customary for airlines to book affected passengers on the first flight with seats available.
If awaiting a new flight requires a long layover, and the delay was not caused by weather, air-traffic delays or mechanical issues or other conditions beyond the airline's control, some carriers will provide vouchers for food or phone calls -- if you ask.
If you find another carrier that can get you to your destination sooner, you may ask your original airline to "endorse" your ticket to the new carrier -- however, the original airline is not required to extend you this kindness.
Passengers must be provided sufficient food and water if they are delayed on the tarmac more than two hours, according to recently issued U.S. Department of Transportation guidelines. If there is no security concern, domestic flights may not detain passengers on the tarmac for more than three hours. It's a four-hour limit for international flights.
If you have checked in on time and are involuntarily bumped from a flight because the airline has overbooked, the airline must reimburse the full price of your fare, according to new DOT rules. (These rules do not apply to inbound international flights.)
If, as a consequence of being bumped, you are delayed more than two hours, the airline owes you up to double the price you paid. Extended delays warrant four times your original fare.
This seldom happens because most airlines will ask volunteers to give up their seats in exchange for a free flight voucher. And volunteers usually abound.
Damaged and lost luggage
It's safest to pack cash, keys, credit cards, important documents, jewelry, heirlooms, eyeglasses, prescription medicines and perishables in your carry-on luggage.
The fine print of your contract may state specific items that will not be reimbursed if your luggage is lost.
The DOT protections say that passengers must be compensated the full bag check fee for a lost bag.
In addition, airlines must pay "reasonable expenses" to repair damaged bags or replace lost ones. If they lose your sporting equipment, they might pay for you to rent replacement gear while on vacation.
Airport veterans suggest you fill out a claim form and keep a copy.
You may be able to skip the line and register your lost bags over the phone. If you're not pleased with compensation, you may also file a complaint in small claims court.
Air travel complaints
Each airline must provide customers a statement of its policies called a "contract of carriage" or "conditions of carriage." You may print this document -- usually in fine print -- and bring it along. You may write your airline regarding violations of its agreement or send complaints regarding delays, personnel, or baggage to the DOT: http://airconsumer.ost.dot.gov/escomplaint/es.cfm.
If a hotel overbooks and you have paid in advance or reserved with a credit card, management must provide you with a reasonable alternative and pay your full fee for the first night elsewhere. But if you have an unpaid reservation and you show up after the hotel's stated arrival time, you have no guarantee of a room.
Most hotels claim limited liability for loss of guests' property, as long as your door has a locking system and fire and safety regulations have been met. If you have a legal dispute with a hotel, you will probably need to hire a lawyer who practices in the hotel's jurisdiction.
Citizens should contact the closest U.S. embassy if they lose a passport -- www.usembassy.gov/ -- and fill out a passport application ahead of time. The State Department suggests traveling with a copy of your passport to expedite the process.
In emergency situations, an after-hours duty officer may be able to assist you on a weekend or holiday.
Rejected or lost credit card
Let your credit card company know ahead of time where you're going to prevent them placing a hold on your account. Unusual spending patterns will often trigger the fraud unit to put a hold on your card. It's a good idea to bring a copy of your card numbers or leave them with a relative in case you lose your credit card.
As with hotels, if you have a complaint against a cruise ship company, you must file in the ship's home port or jurisdiction. Safety concerns may be reported to the Coast Guard Marine Safety Office responsible for the "control verification examination" of the ship. Reports of unsanitary conditions on a cruise ship can be made to: U.S. Public Health Service, Chief, Vessel Sanitation Program, National Center for Environmental Health, 1850 Eller Dr., Suite 101, Ft. Lauderdale, FL, 33316. Telephone: 954-356-6650
Know Your Rights explores your legal protections and right in a broad range of everyday situations. If you have a topic you would like to see explained in Know Your Rights, contact Gabrielle Banks at firstname.lastname@example.org.