Sebastian Burel/Shutterstock

Sebastian Burel/Shutterstock

 


When Air Dolomiti canceled Stefano Alberti’s recent flight from Florence to Munich because one of its planes broke down, he potentially faced what to many American travelers would be a tall obstacle: a language barrier.

The regional carrier, a subsidiary of the German airline Lufthansa, offered to cover his family’s lodging and meal expenses and re-booked him on a flight back to the States the next day. But under European law, Alberti, who works for an analytics firm in San Francisco, was entitled to 2,400 euros (about $3,245) in compensation, and negotiating with Air Dolomiti might have been tedious, unless he spoke fluent Italian.

Fortunately, Alberti speaks fluent Italian.

Only one in four Americans knows a second language, which often translates into a problem when you’re traveling abroad, and particularly when you have a service question. The workarounds can include hiring a skilled travel agent and using a translation service — and, of course, persistence and creativity in the face of an employee who can’t, or won’t, understand what you’re saying.

Alberti’s problem was vexing even for a native Italian speaker. He first contacted Lufthansa, but it deferred to Air Dolomiti. He communicated with the airline in Italian, although he says that it offered to correspond in English. Invoking a clause that allowed an airline to cancel flights during “extraordinary circumstances,” a representative for the regional carrier initially agreed to cut him a check for less than half of what Alberti was due under the European law, called E.U. 261.

But Alberti said that the airline had misread and misapplied the law and that if it didn’t settle, he would file a complaint with L’Ente Nazionale per l’Aviazione Civile, Italy’s civil aviation agency. “After one more phone conversation, they agreed to pay the full amount,” he says.

An Air Dolomiti representative confirmed Alberti’s story, saying that it was a “privilege” to communicate with him in Italian. But it noted that it can also handle requests in English and offers a dedicated customer-service line in German. “We are an Italian company, but we have been operating on the international market since many years,” said Loredana Lodovici, an airline spokeswoman.

Alberti believes that his knowledge of the rules, not his linguistic edge, ultimately ensured a positive outcome. I think it was a little of both.

There are other ways to find the edge, one way or the other. One of the easiest is to work through a skilled travel agent who can negotiate on your behalf and knows all the rules. Virtuoso, a luxury travel agency consortium, allows you to search its network of agents by language from its Web site (www.virtuoso.com).

“Good travel advisers offer their clients advice, access, advocacy and accountability,” says Matthew Upchurch, Virtuoso’s chief executive. “And those last two points are crucial if something goes even slightly amiss when traveling. Consumer advocacy and accountability are two elements that can’t be replicated online.”

You might find a “mom-and-pop” agent — or, ahem, a consumer advocate — with passable language skills, but then there’s the issue of influence. Belonging to a well-recognized consumer group or travel agency network definitely has its advantages; otherwise, an intransigent travel company may not care that you’re upset about the service you received, or didn’t.

The other option: Go it alone, even if you don’t understand the language. To that end, there are several applications and programs that can help. One well-known fix is Google Translate, which seems to spring into action online whenever you access a site that isn’t in your native language. The results are good enough to get the gist of what someone is saying, and can be helpful.

For a more precise interpretation, you can try a service like VerbalizeIt, which uses a network of human translators to translate text or interpret speech in real time. Rates start at $2 a minute for live interpretation and 17 cents a word for document translation, all of which can add up quickly. But when you need to capture every nuance of a foreign language, and when hundreds of thousands of dollars are at stake, paying extra for a translator may be a sound investment.

Over the long term, learning a new language, or at least several key phrases, can be helpful. I’m a fan of Rosetta Stone, which offers a more interactive way to pick up a second language. And nothing beats actually immersing yourself in a language on a more permanent basis, which is how I learned German.

Perhaps the best way to overcome a language barrier — other than the kind of dogged persistence and native language skills that Alberti had — is creativity. Customer-service workers often speak English, but their comprehension skills vary. So when Janet Baker, for example, encounters language problems, she politely thanks the representative and hangs up.

“I call in again,” says Baker, a sales representative from Chicago. “I repeat as needed until I can get a person I can converse with.”

Turns out, there are many ways to make yourself understood when it comes to customer service. Even when they’re speaking another language.