Help is on the way


There’s probably no such thing as a perfect vacation.

That’s because travel rarely goes as you planned it. Your hotel bill is slipped under your door with a surprise surcharge. Your luggage is lost. Or your cruise is ruined when you’re infected by a painful gastrointestinal virus.

Believe me, I know.

Not only have I experienced these problems firsthand (yes, I caught the Norwalk virus on a recent cruise). But as this column’s author, I’ve also helped travelers like you solve these snafus when they crop up – reversing the fees, getting compensation for your misplaced luggage, and at the very least, securing an apology for catching a pesky food-borne illness.

How did I get into the business of troubleshooting other people’s trips?

The short answer is: I became a travel writer. There’s no faster way to realize that vacations can end in disaster.

Things do go wrong. Routinely. And when they do, there’s often no one there to help you.

People with a grievance against a travel company are forced to listen to elevator music for hours while holding on the phone for customer assistance (unfortunately, the Geneva Convention doesn’t cover that form of torture). Their letters often go unanswered; their pleas for help are ignored.

How could anyone not try to help?

This is a syndicated column, which means you’ll find reader queries from everywhere. It also appears on newsstands, as a feature called TripFix in National Geographic Traveler Magazine. It was a regular segment on the public radio show “The Savvy Traveler,” and although the program has been canceled, I still make regular radio appearances, representing the interests of travelers like you.

I want to hear from you when something goes wrong on a trip.

But hang on to your letters for just a second. Even though I’m your advocate, don’t assume I’ll always side with you.

We sometimes err when we make vacation plans. We neglect to read the fine print in a contract, we get the dates wrong on our reservations, or we hire the wrong travel agent. Or worse, we don’t hire an agent at all.

When that happens, it isn’t the travel company that should take responsibility for our blunders. We should.

If it’s any consolation, I find that a lot of travel companies assume the exact opposite. They think that being a troubleshooter means treating them with kid gloves when they fail to meet their customer service obligations. They think an ombudsman should somehow be, to borrow a certain news organization’s words, “fair and balanced.”

I’m not.

At the end of the day, I’m solving these problems in order to make travel a better experience for you, not for the companies serving you. Every case also contains a broader lesson about the travel industry that you’ll be able to take with you on your next trip.

If something happens to you while you’re traveling, my advice is to address it immediately. Don’t wait until you’re home to write a letter. Talk to a manager to see if the situation can be resolved right then and there.

If your trip is already over, then go through the proper channels. Write a polite letter and give the company a chance to write back. If it doesn’t, then contact me. I’ll do my best to at least get a meaningful response – if not a resolution.

One other thing. Just as vacations are imperfect, so too are travel columnists. Sometimes I make the wrong call or express an opinion that’s needlessly harsh (in one memorable case, an airline had so mishandled a customer’s complaint that I said it made me wish it would do us all a favor and go out of business).

When that happens, don’t go too hard on me. Remember, I’m only trying to help.