Read the fine print before you travel

language

Before you embark on your summer vacation, take a few minutes to read the fine print on your airline ticket, car rental contract, vacation rental contract — or any other contract the travel industry pushes in front of you. You’ll be glad you did.

It’s no exaggeration to say that many, if not most, travel problems start with a failure to read the terms and conditions. After years of advocating travel cases, I think I know the reason for the fine-print illiteracy. No one even knows where to find the fine print, let alone how to make sense of it.

It’s so frustrating that travelers, and at least one travel insurance company, are doing something about it.

Fine print is inevitable

“Travelers inevitably encounter fine print,” says Karina Saranovic, a lawyer with the firm Delman Vukmanovic in Los Angeles. “The mile stretch of ink at the bottom of agreements can seem intimidating.”

She has encountered more than her fair share of terms and conditions when booking past travels, including her recent honeymoon. Saranovic remarked on how easy it is to click “accept” and finish a booking without understanding what you’re getting.

Her advice: “Comb through the terms with a magnifying glass, because you can’t always predict what you’ll find.”

For example:

• Airline contracts, also known as “contracts of carriage,” say the airline is not required to keep its flight schedule. But you’re expected to check in on time. Otherwise, the airline will cancel your ticket and keep your money.

• Car rental agreements stipulate that if you damage a vehicle, you owe the company for repairs, plus “loss of use” — or what the car rental company would have earned had the car not been in the shop.

• Cruise contracts say the staff may search your cabin for any reason at any time. The cruise line can also use your image for any purpose without compensation.

“While it’s a good idea to read the entire contract, you’d be forgiven if you don’t,” says Tanner Callais, the founder of Cruzely.com, a cruise site. “After all, if you want to cruise, then you have to agree to their terms.”

It’s that way for virtually all travel purchases. The agreement, known as an “adhesion” contract, is a take-it-or-leave-it proposition. If you don’t click “accept,” you’re not traveling.

How to read the contract

So how do you read the contract? And what do you do when you find something objectionable?

Knowing that there is a contract is the first step. Most travelers are only vaguely aware that there’s an agreement. And even if they are aware of it, they have no idea how to find it.

Sometimes, knowing the terminology is useful. An airline contract, for example, can be called a “contract of carriage” or “conditions of carriage,” depending on the company. Hotels are a little trickier. Technically, your reservation is your contract, although you may find additional terms and conditions on the hotel site. Knowing the lingo can help you quickly find the contract when you’re doing your due diligence.

Once you’ve found the contract, experts say, you should take your time reviewing it. Contracts typically outline deadlines for cancellation refunds, rescheduling or promotional qualifications. If you’re buying travel insurance, you should read the contract twice. Travel insurance policies are written in gibberish. Even if you think you understand what you’ve read, you might want to read it again.

No changes allowed

Almost every contract you read will be one-sided and nonnegotiable. Which is to say, you can’t ask the airline or hotel for a revision — it doesn’t work that way. If you press the “book” button, you agree to the terms. (Oh, and the terms can change at any time, for any reason, to which you also agree.)

But you can say no, and if you don’t like what you read, you should say no. This is particularly true when buying products for which you have many options, such as travel insurance or vacation rentals. If your policy doesn’t look right, walk away.

For some travel companies, the fine print is part of the business model. As they teach you in consumer advocacy school, the large print giveth and the small print taketh away. (Tom Waits sang about it, too.) Simply put, travel companies make more money when they slip a term into the fine print that makes your airfare nonrefundable or add a mandatory tip to your cruise ticket.

Even businesses are tired of the confusion

But some travel businesses — the ones caught between the consumers and the companies — are tired of the confusion. So earlier this year, the travel insurance website Squaremouth.com decided to do something about it. The company inserted a notification at the end of its contracts, giving $10,000 to the first person to read to the end.

Squaremouth estimates that fewer than 1 percent of travelers who buy travel insurance read all of their policy information. “We’re working to change that,” Squaremouth CEO Chris Harvey told me.

Harvey expected the contest to last a year. But Donna Andrews, a high school teacher from Thomaston, Ga., discovered the contest in less than 24 hours and won. I asked her why, and she said it was a habit. A self-described “nerd” who keeps a file with all of her contracts, she says she’s done that since studying consumer economics at the University of Georgia.

“I always fully read contracts before signing to ensure I know what is covered and what is not,” she adds.

Maybe there’s a lesson in there for the rest of us. “Gotchas” infest virtually all travel contracts. If you don’t want to get ripped off, you have to follow Andrews’ example. Make a habit of reading the entire contract — unless you like surprises.

Posted in The Navigator Tagged

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can’t. He’s the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes weekly columns for King Features Syndicate, USA Today, and the Washington Post. If you have a consumer problem you can’t solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter.

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Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Seven Corners

Seven Corners has helped customers all over the world with travel difficulties, big and small. As one of the few remaining privately owned travel insurance companies, Seven Corners provides insurance plans and 24/7 travel assistance services to more than a million people each year. Because we’re privately held, we can focus on the customer without the constraints that larger companies have. Visit Seven Corners to learn more.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Cavalry Travel Insurance

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Elliott Advocacy is underwritten Travelex Insurance Services

Travelex Insurance Services is a leading travel insurance provider in the United States with over 55 years combined industry expertise of helping people dream, explore and travel with confidence. We offer comprehensive travel insurance plans with optional upgrades allowing travelers to customize the plans to fit their needs. Compare plans, get a quote and buy online at Travelexinsurance.com.

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The leading global network for luxury and experiential travel. This invitation-only organization comprises over 1,000 travel agency locations with 17,500 advisors in over 45 countries, and holds preferred relationships with 1,700 of the world’s finest travel companies. Virtuoso advisors collaborate with their clients to create personalized itineraries featuring exclusive perks, while also providing advice, access, advocacy, and accountability. For more information, visit  Virtuoso.com.

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As a company that is constantly striving to simplify travel insurance, VisitorsCoverage, is on a mission to help travelers make the better decisions about purchasing travel insurance, quickly. VisitorsCoverage has helped millions of travelers globally to buy the suitable travel insurance and explore the world with confidence. Get insurance for your next trip at  VisitorsCoverage. Lowest Price Guaranteed.

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Medjet is the premier global air-medical transport, travel security and crisis response membership program for travelers. With a MedjetAssist membership, if you become hospitalized more than 150 miles from home, we will get you from that unfamiliar hospital all the way home to the hospital you trust. All you ever pay is your membership fee. MedjetHorizon members add 24/7 personal security and crisis response benefits. Elliott.org readers enjoy discounted rates. Travel safer with  MedjetAssist.

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