Image: Double standards
Duane Hoffmann / msnbc.com
The hotel industry — one that claims to be in the hospitality business — is one of many that has some distinctly unfriendly business practices. Columnist Christopher Elliott has some tips travelers can embrace to get on an even playing field.
By Christopher Elliott Travel columnist
msnbc.com contributor
updated 9/10/2007 9:51:28 AM ET 2007-09-10T13:51:28

No business, except maybe politics, is as two-faced as travel. There’s one set of rules for us, the customers. And there’s another set for them, the airlines, car rental companies, hotels and travel agencies.

But it’s worse than that. See, the travel industry isn’t just getting away with its duplicitous behavior. The real crime is, we’re letting it happen.

We shouldn’t, but then again, most travelers aren’t fully aware of the industry’s most maddening double standards. Here are four of the worst, plus my tips on how to even the score:

Double standard No. 1: If an airline cancels a flight, it owes you nothing. If you miss a flight, you lose everything.
Let’s say an airline cancels a flight because of any circumstance beyond its control, like the weather. According to its rules, you aren’t entitled to any compensation. (This has, as I noted in an earlier column , prompted airlines to invoke the weather excuse with greater frequency in an apparent effort to save money.) And even if it is the airline’s fault — for example, a mechanical problem — airlines won’t offer compensation unless you experience a significant delay.

But turn the tables. What if you miss your flight?

The airline industry used to have a “flat tire” rule that said if circumstances beyond your control made you miss your plane — like the weather or a fender bender — you would be rebooked on the next flight at no cost. But the airline industry quietly did away with that policy after 9/11. Latecomers are now told “tough luck,” even when it’s obvious they did everything they could to make it to the airport on time. They have to pay for a new ticket, usually at the most expensive walk-up fare.

This double standard must end now. If airlines let themselves off the hook for the weather, why can’t they cut us a little slack when we’re snowed in?

How to get around it: Give yourself plenty of time to get to the airport. And if an airline tries to play the weather card, don’t buy it. A terrific resource for flight data is the Federal Aviation Administration’s flight delay information site.

Double standard No. 2: If you reserve a hotel room, you have to “guarantee” it with a credit card. If the hotel sells too many rooms, it doesn’t have to guarantee you anything.
Ever book a hotel room by phone? Then you probably remember how the call ended. You know, the part where the agent cheerfully asks which credit card you’d like to use to guarantee your reservation. Hotels take your credit card number and if you don’t show up or if you cancel without enough notice, they’ll charge you for a night. This policy isn’t exactly the most customer-friendly, especially for an industry that claims it is in the hospitality business. But I digress. You make a reservation, they take your card number. That’s just how it works.

Does the credit card actually guarantee a room? Actually, no.

Here’s why: the hotel’s clever reservations system figures that anywhere between 10 to 30 percent of the hotel guests won’t show up, so it allows the property to sell more rooms than it has. When the system is wrong — which tends to happen at the peak of tourist season and during major holidays — it’s forced to “walk” guests to another hotel. Usually a hotel of lesser quality. There goes your guarantee.

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How can hotels get away with this double standard? It only seems fair that if they can take your credit card number, they should be able to guarantee a room at their hotel. The solution is simple: either don’t oversell or stop asking for guest’s credit card numbers.

How to get around it: Read your hotel’s cancellation policies carefully before you buy your room. Sometimes when you book a room directly through a hotel, the cancellation terms are more favorable than if you buy it through a third party, like an online travel agency. And join the hotel’s frequent-stayer program. Good guests are rarely walked to another hotel, and they can cancel their rooms with little or no penalty.

Double standard No. 3: If a rental agency runs out of cars, you have to wait and you don’t get compensated for your time. If you bring back one of its cars late, it charges you its highest hourly rate.
Most car rental companies won’t guarantee a particular vehicle, only a “class” of car. Car rental companies do this because they can’t effectively manage their fleets. It isn’t unusual for them to rent all of their cars in a particular class, which means you have to wait anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours for your vehicle. Incidentally, you know you’re at a quality car rental company when they offer you an upgrade to the next class right away. Your compensation for the wait? Nothing. In fact, you’ll probably lose part of the value of a rental because you’ve already signed a contract, and the meter is running.

So what happens if you make your car rental company wait? Well, the rules are a little different.

Car rental companies have literally been losing their patience with tardy customers. Just last year, for example, Hertz abbreviated the grace period for returns to 30 minutes, from one hour. Not to be outdone, four car rental firms — Dollar, Enterprise, National and Thrifty — completely eliminated their grace periods. That means if you’re a minute late, you’ll have to pay an hourly rate for your vehicle. Not very nice.

What a silly double standard. If a car rental company is going to make you wait, it should be prepared to do the same.

How to get around it: There’s a little-known car rental industry policy that still exists. If a car in your class isn’t available, you’re entitled to an upgrade to the next class. Free. Next time someone tells you to wait, try reminding that person of the rule.

Double standard No. 4: If you book a trip, your travel company takes your money immediately. If you’re owed a refund, it takes months to get your money back.

Next time you book a trip, chances are pretty good that you’ll have to pay for everything up front. The airline or agency will suck the money out of your bank account with a swipe of your credit card. There are notable exceptions for big-ticket items like cruises or tours, where you’re allowed to make a deposit and then pay the balance later. But the rest of the time, we settle up at the time of booking.

But what happens when the roles are reversed? If your trip gets canceled and now the airline or agency owes you a refund, there’s nothing instant about getting your money back. Far from it.

In fact, airlines are notorious foot-draggers when it comes to refunds. Although they promise to return your money in seven to 10 days, it can take much, much longer to get your money — anywhere from one to three months. Why so long? I’ve asked customer-service experts, and they say the most plausible explanation is that these companies haven’t invested in the technology to process quicker refunds. There’s no incentive. When there’s a travel agency involved, the wait time can be even longer because it won’t pay up until it’s been compensated. In some cases customers have had to wait up to six months to see their money again.

This is a ridiculous double standard that is easy to fix. Travel companies should be committed to paying their debts as quickly as they are paid by their customers. It’s just good business. You should insist on it.

How to get around it: If a travel company owes you money, the only way to speed things up is to become the proverbial squeaky wheel. Call, write, e-mail and let them know you aren’t interested in giving them an interest-free loan for half a year. If push comes to shove, don’t be shy about threatening to dispute the charges on your credit card. And if they don’t respond, make good on your promise.

This is by no means a definitive list of double standards. There are more out there — lots more. If you have any favorites, shoot me an e-mail with your nomination. And remember, the reason the travel industry gets away with these double standards is that no one bothers to question them.

If we stop letting them get away with it, they won’t.

I’ll be taking a close look at what makes the travel business tick in this column that appears here every Monday. Your comments are always welcome, and if you can’t get enough of my column, drop by my blog for daily insights into the world of travel.

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