5 Tips for Changing Travel Plans on Short Notice

Upset passenger in line at airport
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You've spent months fine-tuning the details of your vacation only to have a last-minute situation -- a work crisis, a dog or house sitter who bails or, gulp, the dreaded family emergency -- change your plans entirely.

Travel insurance can protect you in such situations. But what happens if you haven't taken out coverage on vacation logistics and are forced to cancel in a hurry?
Brace yourself for the worst (read: no refunds at all for those flights, cruises, hotel rooms and tours), but hope for the best. With the right approach, there's reason for a measure of optimism when it comes to getting at least some of your travel expenses refunded.

1. Get A Real, Live Human On The Line
Sympathetic listeners are hard to find, but that's exactly what you need when cancelling travel plans. And having a good attitude goes a long way.

"There's no guarantee, but call the airline to see if they'll accommodate you," says Mark Drusch, chief supplier relations officer of CheapOair, about canceling airline tickets. Depending on the agent you get, sometimes you'll get by rescheduling without a charge." In the end, he says, hope for the best but be prepared to lose the remaining value of your ticket if you have to cancel.

"It's mostly 'give it a shot and try -- but don't expect a whole lot,'"says Carol Koenig, president of Group Trek Travel. She agrees that getting a supervisor on the line is priority number one. And if find yourself talking to someone who doesn't seem eager to help, hang up, call back and hope for a more empathetic agent with the next connection.

"Kill them with kindness," Koenig advises. "It doesn't help your case at all to be demonstrative and demanding. Say 'I'm sorry to bother you, but I really have a problem.' Sound as sorry as you can be and ask if there's any way to help."

2. Invoke Your Status
If you're a member of a loyalty club, it can help your cause. "Hotels will give [your needs] priority over anyone else who doesn't have their [points]," says Koenig. The same goes for airlines and cruise ship loyalty clubs. Mention your status, then explain your dilemma. The more you've proven your loyalty to a particular company throughout years of traveling, the more likely that company is to be there for you in a last-minute-cancellation crunch.

3. Request Credit
Hotels are usually far more forgiving with cancellations than airlines are, but there are times when they won't budge on refunds. Even if you've reserved a room through an online booking site, your best bet is to call the hotel directly to explain why you need to cancel. If you're told a refund isn't an option, don't give up. "Even if it's a nonrefundable rate, you can sometimes convince a manager it's a circumstance warranting the cancellation," says Koenig, explaining that requesting a credit at the hotel good for a future stay sometimes works when it comes to salvaging what you've spent. It's certainly worth a try, right?

4. Put Your Travel Agent To Work
If you booked your airline ticket, hotel or tour through a travel agent, says Koenig, you can employ their efforts for your cause. "We have travel agent hotlines [with airlines and other suppliers, including cruise lines]; these are numbers the general public doesn't have," she explains, adding that, depending on the pull a travel agent has with a supplier [how much business he or she gives them on a regular basis, in other words], exceptions to change fees can sometimes be made.

5. Put Time On Your Side
As soon as you know you have to cancel, proceed immediately -- when it comes to getting a sympathetic response to a cancellation request, even hours can make a difference. "Escorted tours are like the cruise industry. They're going to be very strict with cancellations," says Koenig. "When you book something, you typically have a deposit that, within a period of time, becomes nonrefundable." Penalties become stiffer the closer you get to your departure date, she says. And delaying canceling your reservation only makes things worse.

The golden rule is always: the more advance warning you're able to give when it comes to whatever you're being forced to cancel, the better you're likely to fare financially.

More tips to help you travel better:
How to Find Under the Radar Travel Spots
Group Trips: How to Plan a Smooth Getaway
Flying With Kids: How to Avoid a Cataclysm in Seat 9B
How to Communicate Abroad When You Don't Speak the Local Language
How to Relieve Stress on the Road
How to Speed Through Airport Security
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