Here are the most common travel problems — and solutions

Common travel problems -- and solutions

I’ve spent my entire career helping people avoid travel trouble. As the Washington Post’s Navigator columnist, I know where the land mines are buried.

Here are the most common travel problems — and solutions:

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  • I’ll show you how to get a refund for an airline ticket.
  • I’ll help you book the best room at any hotel. If you can’t, I can help you get an upgrade at no extra expense.
  • I’ll make sure you avoid the worst car rental problem ever: a bogus damage bill.

What’s new during the COVID crisis?

The COVID-19 pandemic turned the travel industry on its head, when it comes to common travel problems. It also forced some travel companies to rewrite their rules, particularly when it comes to refunds. The important thing to know is that the pandemic-related policy changes are only temporary.

Travel companies are itching to get back to the days when they sold you nonrefundable tickets, rooms and cars. So when it comes to navigating your next flight, hotel stay or rental car, remember — they will always try to impose rules that favor them, not you.

Common travel problem #1: The airline ticket refund

People often ask if they can get a refund for an airline ticket even if it’s nonrefundable.

The answer: Yes, sometimes.

If your airline cancels your flight, you should receive a full refund within seven business days. You don’t have to ask for it; it’s given automatically. Most travelers don’t know that. So when the airline offers a voucher or reschedules the flight to a less convenient time, passengers immediately accept the new flight. Caving in to the airline is a mistake.

If your airline doesn’t cancel your flight, you can cancel and ask for a ticket credit. Some airlines will impose a change fee, which reduces the credit. (Note: Some airlines eliminated change fees during the pandemic and promised the change was permanent. Don’t believe them.)

If you want a full refund, you can either wait until the day of your flight, hoping the airline will cancel, or you can ask the airline for an exception.

Remember the 24-hour rule. If you’re flying domestically, you can cancel most tickets within 24 hours of booking them. (Some restrictions apply.) Airlines will try to offer a flight credit, but you should get an immediate refund if you cite the 24-hour rule.

Tricks for getting an airline refund

Sometimes, airlines promise you a refund but don’t deliver. They drag their feet or just ignore you. I’ve seen it.

I strongly recommend appealing your case to an airline executive. I list the names, numbers and email addresses on my consumer advocacy site, Elliott.org. A brief, polite email can really help.

You can also file a complaint with the Department of Transportation (DOT). The DOT regulates airlines operating in the United States.

If you purchased your ticket through a travel agent, you can also contact your advisor for help.

How you pay for your flight matters. Settling with a debit card, a check or even a wire transfer means the money is gone. But if you use a credit card, you have the full force of federal law (the Fair Credit Billing Act) and your credit card’s resolution department in your corner.

A word of warning: Don’t use a credit card dispute unless you have no other choice — in other words, if the airline won’t refund your purchase even though it’s agreed to do so. Give the system a chance to work before filing a chargeback.

Pro tip: Use the three ‘Ps’ for a faster refund

One of the techniques I’ve developed as a consumer advocate is called the three “Ps.” It works great on refunds.

Patience. Give the company at least a week to respond to your refund request and two credit card billing cycles to pay you.

Persistence. Don’t let months pass by without letting the company know that your money is still missing. If necessary, set a calendar reminder so that you don’t forget.

Politeness. Angry demands for a refund and threats to take a company to court almost always backfire. The company may refer your case to its legal department, where it could linger for weeks or months. Be nice!

I have more information on this technique on my consumer advocacy site.

Common travel problem #2: Bad hotel room

For hotels, the most common complaint I get is one involves the room quality. People complain about closet-size rooms below the disco. Or “ocean view” rooms overlooking a dumpster. Or noisy neighbors.

You don’t deserve this.

But how did you end up here? There’s usually a reason:

Not paying enough

You know that saying, “You get what you pay for.” Nowhere does it ring truer than when you’re staying at a hotel. Guests who pay full rate are far less likely to end up in a bad room. Some hotels dispute this, saying they assign rooms on a first-come, first-served basis. Not always.

Booking through the wrong site

Where you book your room is as important as how much you pay, say experts. If you book through a discount website, you’re a second-class citizen. The sites purchase discounted rooms in bulk, with no apparent repercussions if their guests get a key to the broom closet. Having a high-quality travel adviser can help. If you work with someone who has a personal relationship with the property, chances are you’ll avoid a bad hotel room.

Being the last person to check in

Numerous hotel guests told me that checking in after midnight virtually guarantees a bad room. That makes sense since by midnight most of the rooms are already taken for the night. The better rooms go to those who plan ahead. If you’re going to be late, call ahead and let them know you’re coming. You can also use the hotel’s app to check in and select your desired room ahead of time

Being rude to the receptionist

Although hotels make most room assignments before you check in, the front desk staff has some flexibility in reassigning your room after you arrive. The associates who help you check in to the hotel generally have a fair amount of autonomy when it comes to room assignments. Being rude to them might land you in the broom closet.

Pro tip: Use the hotel’s app to check in and select your desired room ahead of time.

What if you’re stuck in a bad room?

Politely let an associate know that the room isn’t quite what you were hoping for. You might also request a room upgrade. (You may have to pay extra for it.)

When it comes to getting an upgrade, relationships matter. Even if you don’t travel enough to achieve elite status, you may be able to make a compelling case for an upgrade. For example, if you plan to visit the hotel again, or if you have been there previously, that’s enough for you to be a “regular” — and warrant extra nice treatment.

You don’t have to be confrontational. A simple conversation with a front-desk employee may be enough to get you out of your broom closet.

More proven techniques for getting an upgrade

Here are a few more proven techniques:

Use your “pleases” and “thank-yous”

Hotel staff responds favorably to polite guests making reasonable requests. Making demands or saying “do you know who I am?” will almost certainly fail.

Look for special offers

Hotels routinely have upgrade specials, often advertised on their social media accounts. You may be able to find one while you’re standing in line.

Give them a reason

Hotels sometimes respond favorably when you give them a reason. A special event like a honeymoon, a special circumstance, or a special need (like needing extra space for a CPAP machine) can land you in a better room.

Common travel problem #3: Bogus car rental damage bill

When it comes to rental cars, I receive lots of questions about allegedly bogus damage bills. Those are never easy.

Here’s the problem: Most car rental customers return their vehicles in the same shape as when they rented them. An employee gives the vehicle a once-over and a receipt, and that’s it.

Or is it?

Not necessarily. Weeks, and sometimes months later, the car rental company notifies customers that there’s damage to the car and demands their insurance information. In some cases, they charge the customer’s credit card for the damage and “loss of use” without even bothering to get the customer’s side of the story.

I call this the ding-and-dent scam. Companies train their employees to inspect each returned rental for small dings or dents and charge either the insurance company or the renter an inflated price for repairs. And while public pressure, lawsuits and common sense have brought this practice to heel — at least among the major car-rental companies — it’s still a big problem, particularly for people renting through an independent car rental agency.

Here’s how to avoid the ding-and-dent scam

There are ways to avoid this common car rental problem.

Document e-v-e-r-y-t-h-i-n-g

“Before” and “after” photos or videos are the best way to fight a bogus damage claim. I’ve seen these bills go away after a car renter sent a damage-claim department the photos.

Ask for proof

You have the right to see the repair bill and images of the vehicle. Here’s a pro tip: Compare the license plate on your rental vehicle to the one being repaired. They are often different, which is enough to get your case dismissed.

Carry adequate insurance

Your regular car insurance policy may already cover you. If not, look into a travel insurance policy. Note that your credit card may also offer some coverage. No matter what kind of coverage you choose, make sure you have some kind of coverage.

If a car rental company doesn’t furnish your insurance company with adequate information, or if it rejects your photos and then refuses to provide you with a repair bill, you have options. You can appeal to a car rental company executive or file a chargeback on your credit card bill, disputing the fake repair charges.

These tips will help you navigate your next flight, hotel stay and rental car. If you can steer clear of these three problems — airline refunds, bad hotel rooms and bogus car rental bills — you will avoid most of the problems I encounter daily in my advocacy practice.

And for the rest of them? Well, that’s why my team of advocates and I are here. We’re always happy to help you. Here’s how to reach us.