By Christopher Elliott Travel columnist
Tribune Media Services
updated 11/1/2007 11:17:51 AM ET 2007-11-01T15:17:51
TRAVEL TROUBLESHOOTER

Q: I know this is very last minute, but any assistance you can give would be of great help. My mother is booked on the Norwegian Cruise Line’s Pride of Hawaii. She’s scheduled to fly from Philadelphia to Honolulu with her sister and niece tomorrow.

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Today we found out that her sister and niece will be flying on an entirely different airline. My mother is on United Airlines and her sister and caretaker are on Delta Air Lines.

My mother is 74 years old and has glaucoma and other medical problems, which require her to travel with someone. Although she has a separate room from her sister, the booking arrangements were done together so they could travel together.

My mother is extremely upset. She’s in tears and literally has gotten sick over this news. I have tried to talk with Norwegian, but they told me to deal with my travel agency. When I called my agency, they told me there is nothing they could do to help. Is there anything you can do?
— Lawrence Dean Parrish, Sewell, N.J.

A: If your travel agent booked your cruise and air together, then your mother, aunt and cousin should have been on the same flight.

When your agent made the reservation, a “travel with” flag that notifies the airline you’re traveling together should have been raised in the reservations system. That doesn’t necessarily guarantee you’ll be offered the same itinerary when a flight changes, but it’s the only way to let your airline and cruise line know that the reservations are linked.

Without the flag, it’s impossible to tell that you’re traveling together. So when a flight schedule changes, your entire itinerary can come unraveled.

I checked with NCL, and it appears the flag wasn’t on your reservation. The cruise line turned you over to your travel agent, whose responsibility it was to make the notation. But your agent appears to have been either unwilling or unable to help fix your mother’s flights.

I think hiring a travel agent for this cruise was a great idea. You didn’t want to try to book this important vacation by yourself. I just finished mediating a heartbreaking case involving someone who self-booked a complex itinerary and was basically left stranded at the airport after one of his flights arrived late. A competent agent wouldn’t have let that happen.

There are a lot of terrific travel agents, but none of them are perfect. When mistakes are made, you should expect the agent, who took a sizeable commission from this cruise booking, to step up and do whatever it takes to make things right. Otherwise, why bother hiring a professional?

I’m a little puzzled by your mother’s choice of vacation. If she has serious health problems, why would she want to fly nearly 5,000 miles and then get on a cruise ship? She might have been just as happy — and perhaps happier — to take a cruise from Philadelphia. NCL offers one to Bermuda that might have been perfect.

I would consider having a little chat with your travel agent. What happened to her might have been an honest misunderstanding, or you might be working with the wrong agent. I think it’s important to figure that out before buying your next cruise.

After I contacted NCL, it did its best to change your mother’s flight. It managed to fix her return trip, but unfortunately, she still had to fly to the islands on her own.

Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler
magazine and the host of “What You Get For The Money: Vacations” on the Fine Living Network. E-mail him at celliott@ngs.org.

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