Stranded? How to Avoid Travel Disaster

randomduck, flickr

Flight cancellations, hurricanes, and even engine fires can throw a wrench in the most carefully planned vacation. But the right professionals can help avoid making a bad situation worse.

As the Carnival Splendor pulled into port in San Diego and 4,000 hot, hungry and pretty miserable passengers headed down the gangway, one couple was looking on longingly, wishing they could be on the next sailing.

When the weeklong sailing of the Carnival Splendor went up in smoke with an engine fire, and the passengers due to depart on the next cruise were simply rebooked as space would allow. But for one San Diego couple it was. They married on November 12, and were to go on their honeymoon that Sunday, a week that would have been the happiest of his life for the groom, who has testicular cancer and is not expected to live through Christmas.

The couple took a chance and rebooked the cruise for the end of November, hoping the groom will be able to travel at that time.

Getting stranded, canceled flights, delayed cruises, accidents and problems abroad -- major inconveniences for most and for some with no time to spare, disastrous. It happens. When you are traveling there is little left to your control -- except how you prepare and how you react.

Use a professional

"That's why you use a travel agent," says Susan Tanzman, owner of Martin's Travel & Tours in Los Angeles, California, and an attorney who helped craft travel laws in California that give travelers some recourse through compensation when traveling goes really, really wrong.

"An agent may not be able to control the fire that happens in the engine room but they will certainly have you covered and taken care of when you get off that ship," says Tanzman.

stranded passengersAnd that couple from San Diego? "All it would have taken is a few phone calls from us to the right people and they would have been on another cruise this week courtesy of Carnival. It may not have been the Splendor but it would have been a great cruise. You don't just have to sit and take it," she said.

Delays and flight cancelations mean missing that cruise ship as it sails out of port; spending extra unplanned nights in a city; missing other flight connections and tours -- inconveniences that cost dearly in time and money and patience.

"These things happen but frankly there is no legal ground to stand on," says Tanzman, who, as a practicing California attorney, specializes in such travel cases. "I have had cases where [the plaintiffs] did not go through a travel agent and did not have travel protection insurance and they came to us to see what might be possible [after a travel fiasco]. And there is very little we can do. You are at the mercy of the cruise line and it all depends on how nice you are and to whom you might be talking that day."

Tanzman notes when it comes to lodging a complaint and accomplishing some kind of redress, cruise lines and tour companies are apt to cooperate somehow with credit toward another trip because they want to keep the client and their loyalty. And, she admits, some cruise companies are nicer than others. "I am usually able to get a ship board credit or even a free cruise for my client, but there is no average recourse," says Tanzman. "Once in a while I have been able to get a two-category upgrade for a client depending on what was the cause of the problem."

"Travel is hard enough these days. You really need an advocate working with you," says Chris Russo, president of the American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA). "If you were stranded on the Splendor a proactive pro would have been in touch with the line, know when the ship is getting back to port and getting the ball rolling for you so when you get in you would not be inconvenienced. ASTA agents are required to meet certain standards and they are with you before your trip, during your trip and after your trip. You may not have cell service when a problem like this happens but your agent is on it, even if you don't know about it."

Get insured

Still, Russo says, there is only so far an agent can go unless a traveler has a reliable policy of third party travel protection insurance. The fees for this are priced according to the cost of the trip and the age of the client -- usually running about 5% to 7% of the cost for the trip -- but the fees are minimal next to the peace of mind the policy brings and the generous benefits offered that are not necessarily included in policies offered by cruise or tour companies.

"Anything can happen. It can snow in Denver and you would not get out of DIA for days. Or you head to a hotel to check in and no one has ever heard of you. These are things you can't foresee and can't foretell," says Russo. "But you will be given the best benefits and recoup your losses if you have travel protection."

Carol Mueller, a spokesman for Travel Guard, a company offering various forms of trip insurance, notes that travelers get a lot more out of this insurance than a number to call when having a bad day. The lines run 24/7 and the company will cover assistance services for whatever you need while traveling. If a trip must be interrupted due to sickness or an emergency in a traveler's family (and this, too, is given wide definition) it is covered. "Passengers on the Splendor who were covered could have called us and we would have everything ready for them like hotel reservations and flight arrangements -- no standing in line to remake their plans. Had the cruise line not stepped in with reparations, we would have done that. If passengers miss a cruise because their flight was delayed we make sure they meet the ship at the next port. We cover for loss: the loss of a vacation and often that also means loss of convenience," says Mueller.

What is not covered by the insurance or the travel agent is the loss of a good state of mind. If it rains all week in Jamaica or Puerto Vallarta, that is just too bad. But if there is a hurricane and you are forced to evacuate, send in a claim.

"We cover you for the vacation you had, not the vacation you thought you were going to have," says Mueller.

What's a would-be traveler to do? Ask your travel agent about third party insurance if it has not been suggested already, says Russo. Read the policy carefully to make sure it covers what you want it to cover. Don't take chances with airlines. If it's a cruise, try to get to the port the night before. And if you use an agent, "relax and try to have fun," he adds. "We work on these things all the time -- from disasters like 9/11 to freak snowstorms. Your number one question should be 'how do I get a hold of you.'"

Even if you do everything right

Unfortunately, even if you have the safety net of a travel agent and insurance, problems aren't always easily resolved. Gary and Robin Klein booked an Alaskan cruise on Celebrity through a travel agent and even bought third party insurance on the agent's recommendation. They used points to fly from their home in Baltimore to the departing port of Vancouver, via Las Vegas.

And that is where things began to fall apart. Although they arranged to fly in a day early, the flight they were supposed to take from Las Vegas to Vancouver had been canceled. The airline rerouted them the next day through Phoenix to Vancouver and then canceled that flight too. The ship left Vancouver and the line would not agree, despite whatever insurance the Kleins carried, to reroute them to the next port on the itinerary.

The Kleins called their agent with the breathless request of "what do we do now?"

"The agent, who is no longer our agent, dropped the ball and did nothing," said Robin Klein. "So we just went home. What were we supposed to do? The agent would not help us and the cruise company said we could not join the rest of the cruise -- something to do with 9/11 restrictions."

In the end, it took about six months and many days of paperwork for the Kleins to get their cruise mishap resolved. The line did offer full credit toward another Alaska cruise within a year, but the Kleins opted for a refund -- which stood at only 2/3 of what they paid for the cruise. The insurance company would not advocate for more than that amount because of the lateness of the interruption.

Now, the couple reads the fine print on the insurance policy and only works with agents that have special relationships with the cruise line they are booking. They make sure they get to the departure port a day early and then hold their breath.

"Even if you do everything as correctly as possible you still just have to hold on and hope," says Robin Klein.

For travelers without insurance or agents

When it comes to airline issues, travelers are just out of luck. "The airlines don't care, so if you've bought a ticket, you live with that ticket," says Tanzman. "If you miss a cruise departure because a flight was late -- whether it was weather, mechanical issues or what not -- the airline will just tell you that you should have arranged to fly the previous day. Mechanical difficulties are the only circumstance for which airlines will take any responsibility and for that there are Department of Transportation guidelines that dictate what that action will be. Weather is not a bargaining chip with an airline, but severe weather -- that is something a cruise line will respond to and offer some form of satisfactory redress.

"Otherwise," Tanzman says, "there is no certain way to play out these kinds of problems. These things happen. You just have to be nice and hope."

The U.S. Department of Transportation offers guidance for consumers addressing problems occurring through the airlines. However, unless the passenger is left stranded due to airline delays on the terminal or tarmac, overbookings, or cancelations, there is very little a passenger can do.

If your flight is experiencing a lengthy delay, the DOT recommends trying to arrange another flight, as long as you don't have to pay a cancelation penalty or higher fare for changing your reservations. And it might be easier to make new arrangements by calling the airline's reservation line instead of going to the a ticket counter at the airport. If you find a flight on another airline, ask the first airline if it will endorse your ticket to the new carrier (unfortunately, there is no rule requiring them to do this).

Most airlines will rebook you on their next flight to your destination that has seats available if your flight is canceled, at no additional charge. If this involves a significant delay, find out if another carrier has space and ask the first airline if they will book you on the other carrier.

Each airline has its own policies about what it will do for delayed passengers waiting at the airport; there are no federal requirements. Airlines almost always refuse to pay passengers for financial losses resulting from a delayed flight, but it is a good idea to ask if they will pay for meals.

If you choose to be bumped from a flight, the airline must pay you an amount equal to your one-way fare to your final destination that day, with a $400 maximum (more if your new flight lands more than two hours later than your original flight) .

But if you are bumped involuntarily and the airline arranges substitute transportation that is scheduled to get you to your final destination (including later connections) within one hour of your original scheduled arrival time, there is no compensation.

Airlines may offer free tickets or dollar-amount vouchers for future flights in place of a check for denied boarding compensation. However, if you are bumped involuntarily you have the right to insist on a check if that is your preference.

If nothing else works, small claims court might be the best way for you to help yourself.

Ever been stranded? Tell us about it in the comments below.

Couple Photo Credit: Flavio@Flickr, flickr
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