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Travel companies are taking a hard line

The check-in time at the Express By Holiday Inn London-Southwark is 2 p.m., but when Arthur Roach arrived at the hotel just after 11 a.m., he thought it might make an exception.

After all, he’d landed at Gatwick Airport following a long overnight flight from Philadelphia and had slogged through customs and immigration. Roach, a fundraising consultant from Arlington, was also a Priority Club Platinum Elite member, the hotel’s highest level of frequent customer.

Wouldn’t that make a difference?

“I asked if there was a room available for me,” he remembers. “They responded, ‘Our check-in time is two o’clock.”

In fact, the hotel seemed excessively rigid in its policies, refusing to help with a billing problem and leaving the phone in his room turned off. “They didn’t have a clue how to work in the hospitality industry,” says Roach. “I won’t be going back to that hotel.”

The travel industry, hammered by the worst economic downturn in more than a generation, is taking a hard line in an effort to contain costs and preserve profits. A post-9/11 airline policy referred to as “no waivers, no favors” seems to have been adopted by almost everyone shortened to “no.”

And often, for no good reason.

I asked Holiday Inn about Roach’s experience. Sarah-Ann Soffer, a spokeswoman for the hotel, said the check-in policy is in place “to ensure that a room will be ready at that time for a guest’s stay with that hotel.” If a room is available early, a guest is usually accommodated. “It’s possible that this was just not the case when this guest arrived,” she added.

To be completely fair, not every travel company is stuck at “no.” Earlier this year, for example, JetBlue announced it would issue full refunds to eligible customers who lost their jobs after buying tickets. The program, which was supposed to run until June, has been extended through the end of this year. JetBlue wouldn’t release the number of refunds it has issued, but a spokesman said, “I can tell you that customers have taken advantage of the program and have received refunds. We’re glad to have a program in place for the customers that need it given today’s challenging economic environment.”

How do you turn a “no” into a “yes”? Here are a few tips:

Look before you book
A lot of travel products come with pages and pages of fine print that could affect your trip. For example, Carnival Cruise Lines has a policy about refunds that seems overly rigid to customers like Kiri Simon. She recently booked a four-day cruise for herself, her husband and two friends. But when her friends canceled their vacation because of a job loss, Carnival balked at a refund. First it charged a $50 cancellation fee. “Then they explained they can only give the credit to my friends,” she says — even though she paid for it.  I asked Carnival about her refund and a representative confirmed that Simon had booked a promotional fare, and that any cruise credit “goes to the person whose name is on the booking.” Had Simon reviewed the rules before buying the cruise, this could have been avoided.

Enlist your travel agent
If you bought the trip through a travel agent — even an online travel agent — you may be able to reverse that “no.” A competent human agent can either persuade a travel company to see things your way or to help make up for the loss. When Laura Salisbury booked a vacation to Yellowstone National Park through Expedia, she inadvertently typed the wrong return date. Delta Air Lines offered to fix the error, but the change fees and fare differential more than doubled the price of her ticket. “New tickets would be cheaper,” she says. Although Expedia lobbied on her behalf, the airline wouldn’t back down. “So an Expedia manager gave me a $100 coupon toward travel as an apology for Delta’s fee policy, Delta’s frustrating customer service, and the overall stress this booking fiasco has caused me,” she says.

Ask again
When Lee Paulson arrived at the Boston Amtrak station 1 1/2 hours early and tried to catch an earlier train to Washington, a representative wanted to charge an extra $121. “Just like the airlines,” he says. “I read a book instead of paying.” But there are other ways to get around a problem like this. Often, a different agent, a phone agent or a conductor will offer a different answer. (When I lived in Germany and traveled everywhere by train, I used to board an early train and claim — in heavily accented German — that I lost track of time. That usually worked.) I’m not suggesting you should lie, but charging an extra $121 seems outrageous, if not unethical. Before forking that kind of money over, maybe you ought to get a second opinion.

File an appeal
Sending an e-mail to someone higher up can do wonders, particularly if you have a legitimate grievance or even just a compelling story. Consider Rachel Schachter, a camp counselor who wrote to United Airlines after one of her colleagues missed a flight connection and was forced to spend the night in Portland, Ore., at his own expense. She appealed her case to Barbara Higgins, who is in charge of customer service at United, by e-mail. (You can find e-mails of executives like Higgins on my site.) United responded promptly. “We realize the importance of getting our guests to their destinations safely and on time, we are very sorry to have let you down on this occasion,” a representative wrote to Schachter, promising to send a check to cover her colleague’s lodging expenses and a voucher for a future flight.

You don’t have to take “no” for an answer when you travel. Pay close attention to the rules, work with a qualified travel counselor, be persistent and know who to appeal your case to, and you’re far likelier to hear “yes” more often.

And what if that doesn’t work? Well, you can always drop me a line.

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