The 2012 holiday travel season is going to be better in at least three important ways. And if it isn’t, you may be able to get help — or at least, see your travel company pay for its misdeeds.
New rules and regulations are offering real protections from practices that, in the past, put holiday travelers in a decidedly un-festive mood. They include deceptive airline surcharges, hotel resort fees and fraudulent car rental damage claims.
Now, to be clear, most holiday travelers already manage to avoid these problems by using a travel agent, driving their own car and staying with relatives rather than checking into a hotel.
But it’s also true that at this time of year I get more than my fair share of complaints about these perennial travel problems.
So what’s changed this year?
Airlines must quote an “all-in” fare.
Earlier this year, the Transportation Department, which regulates airlines in the United States, adopted a new rule that all mandatory taxes and fees must be included together in an advertised fare.
It’s terrific news for people who only travel occasionally and don’t know they need to be adding taxes and other mandatory fees like fuel surcharges, to the cost of their ticket in order to come up with a grand total.
The rule needs a little work — airlines are still allowed to exclude important fees like luggage surcharges and seat reservation fees, which have become common in recent years. But it’s a good start.
What if they don’t? If an airline or online agency quotes you an “a la carte” fare that you think may violate current regulations, file a complaint with the DOT.
Hotels can’t add a “resort fee” after they’ve quoted a rate.
The Federal Trade Commission issued a warning last month that these mandatory surcharges could violate the law.
If you’ve ever stayed at a resort hotel, you’ve probably had to pay one of these mandatory fees, which cover everything from newspapers to the use of onsite exercise or pool facilities, to Internet access.
These extras can add as much as $30 per night to your hotel bill, and, says the FTC, they may be “unfair and deceptive.” But if you’ve ever been hit by one of these fees, you know they’re wrong and probably should have been banned long ago.
What if they charge a resort fee? Let the FTC know about it. Warning letters have already been sent to 22 hotel operators, which is only the first step. If a company persists, then it could be fined.
Car rental companies can’t defraud you with a damage claim.
Another common complaint from consumers involves a car rental company claiming they damaged a vehicle and then overcharging them for the repair.
Because car rental companies are regulated by the states, and because the companies have powerful lobbyists at every level of government ensuring that effective consumer protections against these shenanigans are never enacted, we still don’t have any laws that specifically prevent this kind of scam from happening.
And to be clear, it’s only a scam when you’re stuck with a bill you’re not responsible for.
But this little swindle appears to be unraveling, and it all started in Canada with an investigative report by a TV network.
So, while this kind of mischief is still tolerated south of the border, I strongly believe its days are numbered.
What if it happens to you? Contact your state insurance commissioner, state attorney general and the Federal Trade Commission.
Also, let me know about it. I may be able to help you get a fraudulent bill reversed. I’m strangely upbeat about the upcoming holiday travel season, knowing that consumers have a little more protection.
Who knows, maybe 2013 will be even better?
Christopher Elliott is a consumer advocate who blogs about getting better customer service at On Your Side. Connect with him on Twitter and Facebook or send him your questions by email.