When all else fails — read the darn rules


No one likes paying unnecessary travel penalties. And, travel agents and consumer advocates do our best to help when travelers are unjustly charged.

Unfortunately, while suppliers can and do make mistakes, there are many times when the problem could have been avoided in the first place if the travelers actually paid attention and read the contract before they put money down.

Now, to be fair, reading can involve anything from something spelled out clearly right at the top of a booking form or email, to something in the very fine print.

Just last week, I had a client make a booking four days before she wanted to leave for Maui, for the Kea Lani resort, which has a 21-day advance cancellation penalty. Meaning her reservation was completely nonrefundable. I clarified this with her in an email and she agreed because, “We’re not going to change.”

Except that the next morning she apologetically emailed that she wanted to change the reservation, to have a few days first on another island. Because we do a lot of business with the hotel, and they have very kind sales representatives, the Kea Lani allowed her to change, but they would have been completely within their rights to charge her a two-night penalty.

Today, with the proliferation of nonrefundable hotel rates — often listed simply as “special,” “advance purchase” or “saver” rates — travelers don’t need to book close to departure to end up with reservations they can’t change or cancel. In our agency, we’ve lost track of the number of times we’ve warned people, only to hear some variation on, “Well, I didn’t think they MEANT it.”

We’ve also had clients come to us who’ve already made the nonrefundable bookings, wondering if we could help. (Answer, “No.”) Admittedly, these nonrefundable rates can be quite good, but without insurance they incur a big risk. The frustration is less with those who take a chance and lose than with those who claim they never realized how restrictive the rates were or who convince themselves the hotel will understand if someone gets sick.

Airline tickets can have the same problems. Most airfares, even nonrefundable ones, are changeable for a fee. But that isn’t always true, especially for tickets for travel outside the U.S. (British Airways, for example, has some discounted London-Nairobi business class tickets that allow both no refunds and no changes.)

In another case, a client was going to add insurance to a cruise after I’d sent said insurance brochure, and it was only by chance in discussing pre-existing conditions that he mentioned one of his traveling party had been recently treated for severe depression and added that they were doing well with medication. But, he supposed a relapse might be the most likely reason they’d have to cancel.

Sure enough, in the fine print, not only did this bring up a potential pre-existing condition problem, but also psychological issues are excluded, with only some exceptions for hospitalization. (In this case, we then opted to take the cruise line insurance, which allows a cruise credit if canceled for a non-covered reason. However, it could have been a disaster otherwise.)

Travel insurance companies love to put things in fine print in general. For instance, while skydiving might be an obvious exclusion — and yes, it is excluded from many policies — so is the much tamer parasailing.

Yes, in a perfect world, penalties and restrictions would be front and center when putting down a travel payment. But, as with many things, suppliers are much more interested in getting money than warning potential buyers. My experience these days indicates that cancellation penalties are both getting larger and kicking in earlier with tours, hotels and cruises etc. Private rentals as on AirBnb and VRBO can make up whatever rules they want.

In addition, third party booking sites may well have more restrictive cancellation and change fees than the airlines and hotels themselves.

Another occasional client called us for help recently because she was convinced the ticket she had purchased online to save a booking fee should have the same change fee United had directly. But the site claimed the ticket was nonrefundable AND nonchangeable — the way she booked the trip, it was both.

The good news: All suppliers are supposed to disclose terms up front. And to be fair, most of them spell it out reasonably clearly before you click “buy.” To avoid buyer’s remorse, read the rules. If you can’t find the rules, look harder or contact customer service before putting money or a credit card down. Otherwise, that very great deal may turn out to be very expensive.

  • John Baker

    Janice you work in a service business… how many times have you heard variations on … “The rules don’t apply to me” or “But the customer is always right so your rules are wrong”?