By Christopher Elliott Travel columnist contributor
updated 1/11/2010 10:15:52 AM ET 2010-01-11T15:15:52

David Harm is worried about his wife’s ticket to Omsk, Russia.

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When he made her reservation through Aeroflot’s Web site, his finger slipped — “I hit the ‘L’ key instead of the ‘K’ key” — and misspelled his wife’s last name (“Slirtenko” instead of “Skirtenko”).

“I did not realize my error until I received the e-mail and checked the information,” says Harm, who lives in The Hague, Netherlands. “When I called Aeroflot immediately to address the problem, I was told the name can not be changed, and that a note regarding the misspelling was placed in the record and that my wife should have no problem.”

Should Harm be concerned?

His question is hands-down the most common one I get from travelers — not just air travelers, but all travelers — after the Transportation Security Administration’s strict new Secure Flight requirement began going into effect (more on that next week). Although he doesn’t have the TSA to tangle with in Europe, he shares a problem with a lot of Americans.

At a time like this, with governments imposing new security rules, airlines teetering on the brink of bankruptcy and many hotels facing foreclosure, travelers often have more questions than answers. Which is why I thought I’d devote a column answering the most common travel questions, starting with the ticket-name one.

Airlines can change the name on a ticket easily. They choose not to. A reservations agent for a major airline recently e-mailed me, just to let me know. Yes, she confided, a name change is as easy as a keystroke — and yes, our employers don’t let us do it because we can charge good money for the fix.

How generous.

It’s not all bad news, though. An airline can still make a notation on your ticket for free (this only works with typographical errors or easily-recognized mistakes, like flip-flopping the first and last name). Only one domestic airline, Allegiant, actually allows you to change the name on a ticket for free. And if you work through a travel agency, and spot the mistake soon after the reservation is made, your agent may be able to fix the ticket at no extra charge.

Here are some other common questions:

Can I get a refund on a nonrefundable airline ticket?
The short answer is: no. It’s a nonrefundable ticket. But if you inform your airline you won’t be able to fly, you have a year from the time you booked your ticket — not the date of your flight — to use a ticket credit, minus a change fee. This is becoming an increasingly hollow promise, since change fees can be more than the fare, but that’s a topic for another time. One more thing: Airlines sometimes make exceptions to their nonrefundability rules when there’s an emergency, disaster or a death in the family.

Do I need a passport to visit Canada or Mexico?
Yes. Either a passport or a Passport Card, according to the State Department. Get a passport.

Do I have to pay a resort fee at my hotel?
Only the most dishonest hotels charge mandatory resort fees, which supposedly cover everything from an in-room coffeemaker to beach towels. The legit ones don’t, and any surcharges they have are optional. Mandatory resort fees are nothing more than hidden room rate increases, and you shouldn’t put up with that. But pay it? If the fee was clearly disclosed when you booked the room, and again when you checked in, then yes. If it wasn’t disclosed, than I know of a credit card company or two that will be happy to refund your money in a dispute. Resort fees are as troublesome as airline fees, and my advice is the same for both — give the companies that don’t charge them your business.

I missed my cruise. Can I catch the next one?
No. Cruise lines used to be lenient about letting you hop on another cruise if you missed the boat. Not anymore. Check out the cruise contract — the legal agreement between you and your cruise line – and you’ll find that it’s just not gonna happen. Buy travel insurance, or get to port extra early.

How do I get a bereavement fare?
Don’t even try. Bereavement fares used to be offered for airline passengers who had to buy an expensive walk-up fare when a relative died. But business travelers, for whom those walk-up fares were invented, got smart and began claiming they had a death in the family in order to qualify for the reduced prices. So airlines pulled the plug on the special fares. You’re better off trying to bid for a fare on Priceline or Hotwire, or asking your travel agent for an inexpensive consolidator fare.

My travel insurance claim was turned down because of a pre-existing medical condition. What now?
Ah, the old pre-existing condition loophole! Most travel insurance companies have a clause in their contracts that says if you had a condition before your trip, and it caused a cancellation, they won’t pay your claim. It’s sneaky and unfair, because a claims adjuster doesn’t have to be particularly insightful to find something in your past medical history to give the insurance company an excuse to turn down your claim. But don’t lose hope. On appeal, more than 90 percent of travel insurance denials are overturned in your favor. So it pays to ask an insurance company again.

I’ve spent hours on the phone with my travel company, and I’m not getting anywhere. What do I do?
Send an e-mail. Airlines, hotels and car rental companies outsource their call centers to countries where no one speaks English, or where the English they speak can’t be understood by anyone here. E-mails can be escalated to someone in the States — and those get real results. (Here are some customer service contacts.)

Can a car rental company charge me for damage I’m not responsible for?
Yes. But it needs to prove the damage occurred while you were renting the car and that they paid for the repairs afterward. And that can be difficult. Most bills from car rental companies don’t show anything, and neither do their follow-up letters. If you copy the state insurance commissioner on your replies that politely inquire about your responsibility, chances are your car rental company will give up and find someone else to bother.

Is it safe to visit Mexico?
Sorta. You’ll want to avoid parts of Michoacán and Chihuahua, according to the State Department. But that destination wedding you had planned for Cancun? The biggest threat to your safety will probably be alcohol poisoning.

Can I call 911 if my flight is stuck on the tarmac and I want to get off?
I wouldn’t. Tarmac delays are a small but serious problem. While Congress hasn’t come to the aid of travelers, the Department of Transportation has. Last month, DOT ordered airlines to let people off planes delayed on the tarmac after three hours. In other words, calling 911 or faking a heart attack is plain unnecessary now that the Obama administration has finally acted. Additionally, pilots and flight attendants want to get off the plane just as badly as you do — after all, they’re still at work. A 911 call will only confuse the issue. You’re better off letting flight crews and government oversight do its jobs. And if you’re stuck for more than three hours, phone the airline, airport, DOT — or your favorite reporter.

Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine. You can read more travel tips on his blog, or e-mail him at

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