No receipt for gas? Don’t even bother returning your rental car

Refueling fees are a contentious issue for car rental companies, drivers, and government regulators. Last summer, Hertz changed its refueling policy after being pressured by customers and government officials, but other companies have imposed increasingly strict terms when it comes to gas charges.

The following story could have happened to anyone at any car rental counter in America, but it happened to John in Hawaii. And John happens to be a lawyer.

We rented an SUV from Hilo International Airport and drove all around the Island. The rental agreement stipulated that we had to return the SUV full of fuel. We returned the car two days later, full of gas.

Upon return, however, the car agency demanded that I produce receipts of my gasoline purchases for fill-ups.

I declined. They threatened not to permit me to turn in my car without those receipts. They suggested I would have to pay for a full tank of fuel if I couldn’t prove to their satisfaction that I had filled up.

Wait a minute. The tank is full. Why would the car rental company want a receipt?

I was amused and told them that I am an attorney, which I am, and that it would be a cold day in hell before they forced me to show them my personal receipts and before they left my car sitting at curbside check-in at the rental counter, denying me the return. Sheesh.

I told them they had exactly 60 seconds to figure it out or I was going to walk and someone other than me would be paying for my return to Hawaii County to fight whatever surcharges they thought they could charge to my card for phantom fuel.

The rental clerk asked me to wait two minutes, which I did. She went in the back and came out 30 seconds later, apologized and processed my return.

Well, nothing like being threatened with a lawsuit to get a car rental company to do the right thing. Why the hard line on refueling?

As I was leaving — and understand I had been extremely nice to her, since she was just doing her job and was just passing along useless and illegal policies on unsuspecting customers — she confided in me that their agency and others had a real problem with folks renting cars and refilling the tanks with water, kerosene, used oil, etc.

She also said that a lot of people rented the car, drove around for an hour and returned it, claiming that the tank was still “full,” as there wasn’t a discernible change in the fuel needle.

Let’s take those “arguments” one at a time. If a tank is full, minus a fraction of a gallon, it will be equally full for the next customer. So the car rental company won’t have to bear the expense of topping off the vehicle.

If someone adds water or oil to the gas tank, the car will stop running. The rental company will track down the customer and charge for the damage. Besides, a gas receipt doesn’t prove a renter didn’t add water or oil to the tank at some point.

A car rental company doesn’t have the right to demand that you show receipts for a fuel purchase. If the needle is at the “F” mark, your case is closed.

Airlines can be compassionate — if you know who to ask

Remember “no waivers, no favors,” the unbending, post-9/11 airline policy that said all rules were to be enforced, no exceptions? Kay Fore got a little flashback when she asked Northwest Airlines to refund her nonrefundable ticket after her husband had a kidney transplant last year. Turns out she was talking to the wrong people.

I know what you’re thinking: nonrefundable ticket. Refund. Get a grip, lady. You rolled the dice and lost.

But in the real world, that’s a completely impractical view. Fore’s other option was a refundable ticket, which cost twice as much as the nonrefundable one.

Why the price discrepancy? Refundable tickets are sold to business travelers, who can afford to pay a premium in exchange for the flexibility such a ticket offers.

In the real world — and at some level of the organization — airlines understand that and offer refunds on a case-by-case basis.

But at what level? Not the one Fore tried to contact at first.

I sent an e-mail to Northwest Airlines, explaining that because of complications and being hospitalized several time since surgery, we have not been able to use the credit and asked if the credit could be used by our daughter.

Their answer was “no.” The credit could only be used by him and his new travel has to be on or before June 8, 2009. At this time, we are unable to do any traveling before June.

Northwest Airlines was acquired by Delta Air Lines last year, so it would be easy to assume that whoever is left in its customer service department is on autopilot, reading scripts or sending out form responses. Not true.

I suggested that Fore contact one of the former customer service managers with her problem. She did.

Northwest called and because of extenuating circumstances they will be sending us a refund. Thank you for giving us the information to pursue this.

I’m encouraged by Northwest’s response. It suggests that the airline — and perhaps even Delta — understands that sometimes, despite your best efforts, you can’t take a nonrefundable flight. Or use a nonrefundable ticket credit.

The gesture cost Northwest a few hundred dollars. But the next time Fore has a choice in airlines, I’m willing to bet she’ll go with Northwest/Delta.

What’s new on Elliott: Old rules we need, overblown fears and flying fantasies

This is the online version of Elliott’s E-Mail. If this doesn’t display correctly, you can always switch subscriptions to my RSS feed or my daily newsletter.

Protect your health on your next plane trip. Our underwriter, Travel Feet Disposable Foot Covers offers products that allow you to protect your health when you’re passing through security checkpoint areas where shoes are not allowed. And don’t forget to order your Travel Feet Face Masks, which offer some protection against Swine Flu. Get more information.

This week’s burning question: overblown fears? There are those who say H1N1 is an overblown fear. What other kinds of travel phobias are out there, that shouldn’t be? Fear of an airline crash? Fear of food poisoning? Fear of catching an exotic disease? Have you ever had any of these phobias — and if so, how did you overcome them? Please share your thoughts, and don’t forget to include your full name, city and occupation.

Take the Titanic Awards quiz. Fellow travel writer Doug Lansky has just launched a fun new travel site called The Titanic Awards. You can participate by taking this quick survey.

New rule. A lot of consumer advocates look to the future, to a time when passenger rights legislation becomes law. But in my latest column, I argue that some old rules might do the trick. Maybe it’s time to bring them back. In this week’s Travel Troubleshooter, read all about one passenger’s struggle to get a long, long overdue refund from her airline. And in my new weekly interview column, find out why so many Americans are monolingual and which languages you absolutely must know if you want to be an accomplished world traveler.

All those luggage exclusions? Never mind! You know how airlines say they’re not liable for valuables, including cameras and other electronics, in your checked luggage. Turns out they’re wrong. I also have two H1N1 updates: One on a Princess cruise that was rerouted and another involving online travel agencies. Plus, which airline has the best checked luggage policy? Here’s your answer.

Fly boys. This week’s adventures took us to Fantasy Of Flight in Polk City, Fla., where we saw hundreds of vintage aircraft and even got to see a few of them fly. If you haven’t checked out Souvenirist yet, come on by!

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Government says airlines are responsible for valuables checked on international flights

When Pina Belfiore-Benvenuto’s bags were lost on a recent flight from New York to Paris, the missing contents included a digital camera and a watch — two items that her airline’s contract of carriage exclude from liability. And to absolutely no one’s surprise, her carrier told her she was out of luck.

Maybe it shouldn’t have.

A recent Transportation Department guidance statement on airline baggage liability and responsibilities (PDF) says those blanket disclaimers are out of line with international law.

We have become aware of tariff provisions filed by several carriers that attempt, with respect to checked baggage, to exclude certain items, generally high-cost or fragile items such as electronics, cameras, jewelry or antiques, from liability for damage, delay, loss or theft. A typical provision found in carrier tariffs and disclosed on carrier websites states that the carrier does not assume liability for loss, damage, or delay of “certain specific items, including: . . . antiques, documents, electronic equipment, film, jewelry, keys, manuscripts, medication, money, paintings, photographs . . . .”

Such exclusions, while not prohibited in domestic contracts of carriage, are in contravention of Article 17 of the Montreal Convention (Convention), as revised on May 28, 1999.

In other words, an airline can continue to refuse to compensate passengers for lost items that are considered “valuables” on domestic routes. But not internationally. Specifically,

Article 17 provides that carriers are liable for damaged or lost baggage if the destruction, loss or damage” occurred while the checked baggage was within the custody of the carrier, except to the extent that the damage “resulted from the inherent defect, quality or vice of the baggage.”

Article 19 provides that a carrier is liable for damage caused by delay in the carriage of baggage, except to the extent that it proves that it took all reasonable measures to prevent the damage or that it was impossible to take such measures. Although carriers may wish to have tariff terms that prohibit passengers from including certain items in checked baggage, once a carrier accepts checked baggage, whatever is contained in the checked baggage is protected, subject to the terms of the Convention, up to the limit of 1000 SDRs (Convention, Article 22, para.2.)

Carriers should review their filed tariffs on this matter and modify their tariffs and their baggage claim policies, if necessary, to conform to the terms of the Convention. In addition, carriers should ensure that their websites do not contain improper information regarding baggage liability exclusions applicable to international service.

Belfiore-Benvenuto should have received compensation for her lost camera and watch, and so should you if your domestic airline loses your checked valuables on an international flight.

Endless vacation: 9 tips for becoming a ‘new’ nomad in 2009

Gary Arndt didn’t want to wait until he was old to see the world. So two years ago, at the ripe age of age of 37, he sold his house, put everything he owned in storage, and hit the road.

Arndt, a consultant-turned-photographer, never looked back. He’s visited some of the prettiest destinations on the planet since, including French Polynesia, Easter Island, the Cook Islands, Fiji and Samoa. (You can see photos on his blog) “I don’t regret it in the slightest,” he says.

He’s at the forefront of the latest travel trend: the permanent tourist.

As many as a million Americans now live nomadic lifestyles, and their numbers appear to be growing because of the ailing economy and the aging population. Richard Grant, author of the book “American Nomads: Travels with Lost Conquistadors, Mountain Men, Cowboys, Indians, Hoboes, Truckers, and Bullriders” says the influx is being fueled from two sides of the income spectrum. At the top end, “it’s people taking early retirement and living on boats, folks with money finding ways to stay on permanent vacation, that sort of thing,” he says. And at the bottom, travelers who have lost their homes and jobs and don’t want to wait around to find out what’s next.

“For now, it is early in this trend and there is no reliable data,” says Clark University history professor Deborah Dwork, who is an authority on the subject. “All you have to do, however, is look at the lines of people snaking around city blocks, hoping to get a minute of a recruiters’ time for the few jobs that are in the area. You can ascertain what the future holds for many of them.”

Woodrow Landfair is among them. When he graduated from the University of Texas in 2006, his career prospects were iffy. “That was enough of an excuse for me,” he recalls. He’s worked a string of odd jobs across the country since them, including walling barns in Vermont, running a refugee shelter in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, lifeguarding in Virginia, and cutting trees in Northern California. Landfair, whose ambition is to become a storyteller in the tradition of dust bowl balladeers like Woody Guthrie and writers like John Steinbeck and Louis L’Amour, has chronicled his adventures on his blog, iWoodrow.

If the thought of living on the road seems appealing, you’ve got company. Who wouldn’t want to spend a few weeks in an exotic place, discovering a new culture, seeing the sights, living like a native, and then moving on to the next destination? There’s even an online magazine, Janera, devoted to the movement. Gotta admit, I have a latent nomad gene, too. But more on that in a minute.

So what’s the secret to becoming a modern-day nomad? I asked people who were already doing it, and here’s what they said:

1. Find a reason. Most transients have a portable career that allows them to travel freely. They’re consultants, freelancers or teachers, for example. But there are other ways to make money when you’re nomadic. In 2006, Tiffany Owens and her husband became full-time property caretakers. Both had been frustrated with their former careers — she was a magazine editor and he was a cable installer — and needed a break. “Now, I garden instead of sitting in boardroom meetings,” she says. “I couldn’t be happier.” Check out the newsletter Caretaker Gazette for caretaking opportunities.

2. Travel extra light. That’s the advice of Jimmy Wales, founder of He became what he calls “unstuck” about two years ago, spending a month in Tokyo, San Francisco, New York, and Buenos Aires. “Pack less, and become unattached to possessions,” he says. “And then … pack less.” You’ll be living out of a suitcase for months — literally.

3. But don’t forget your patience. “And your sense of humor,” says life coach and blogger Lisa Haisha, who has been on the road since the age of 22. When dealing with new cultures and languages, both are essential.

4. Choose your destinations carefully. There are two kinds of places you’ll visit, says Lea Woodward, who is traveling with her husband, Jonathan, and, like almost everyone else in this story, is chronicling her experiences online. “The first is ideal for also running your business,” she says. “There’s stable Internet, plenty to see and do, but not culturally different enough to what you’re used to. And second, the kind of destination where you do want to spend time as a tourist and not focus on the business side so much.” Balancing the two is important, if for no other reason than getting enough work done to pay the bills.

5. Remember the basics. When you whittle your personal belongings down to just one or two bags, you tend to simplify other parts of your life, too. That’s what happened to Jill and Steve Kaufmann when they turned a Chevy cargo van into a camper, complete with full sized bed and kitchen, and set out on an open-ended road trip. Jill is a marriage therapist and Steve is a news photographer, and you can follow their trip online, of course. “Know what you need to stay sane,” says Jill Kaufmann. “For us, that is a good night’s sleep and a good meal. We designed the van with those two things in mind.”

6. Hop, don’t jump. Jeanne Dee, who has been on an around-the-world trip with her husband, Vince, and daughter, says the key to saving money and savoring the experience is to take the slow boat. “Avoid taking too many long flights as that really adds to the costs,” she told me. Dee, who blogs about her family’s adventures on her site, says that in the first 2 ½ years of their travels, they’ve only taken one long flight. Not only does that save money, but it also lets you see the world from a more meaningful perspective —from the ground.

7. Don’t raise the bar too high. If you expect your life to be a vacation, think again. “Sometimes your experiences will live up to the proverbial picture postcard,” says Melissa Grossman, a life coach who is living the nomadic lifestyle with her partner, Tim and dog Rufus. “Sometimes it won’t.” Their blog, which describes the ups and downs of a life lived on the road, is a case-in-point. It doesn’t help that thousands of people back in the States are following their trip and “living vicariously” through each post, she adds. These fans can add pressure to make each picture and each post seem like the endless vacation it sometimes isn’t.

8. Keep a physical address. That’s the advice of J. Kim Wright, an attorney and global traveler currently wintering in Key West, Fla. “Unless you’re completely dropping out, you need to have your car registered, vote, and have a cell phone number attached to some place,” she says. Also, if you’re on prescription medications, you’ll need an address — a post office box won’t cut it. For most travelers, a friend or family member’s home is a workable address, not to mention a free place to store some of their belongings.

9. Don’t spend all your time together. If you’re traveling with a partner or as a family, carve out some alone-time. “It is extremely important to make time to be alone and have solo experiences,” says Leigh Shulman, a writer and blogger, who is traveling around the world with partner Noah Edelblum and their four-year-old daughter, Lila. “That can mean one of you takes an afternoon and explores whatever city you’re in alone. Or it can mean you connect with other travelers and go off for a journey sans partner and child.” Taking it solo, she says, helps you remember who you are and allows you to appreciate the other people you’re traveling with.

I met my first global nomad, Lisa Lubin, about two years ago. A TV producer by profession, she was on a round-the-world tour that would eventually take her to some pretty far-flung places, including Argentina, Cambodia, Egypt and Spain. What impressed me the most about her, apart from her boundless energy, was the way she managed to capture many of those places on video, allowing her readers to experience her adventure vicariously.

There’s that word again: vicarious. I think it’s the blogs and videocasts made by these nomads that adds to their numbers, maybe as much as the soft economy or shifting demographics. We see — and we want to experience.

It inspired me to create my own site, Souvenirist. I’ve posted photos and videos of my family’s local travels in Central Florida. And next year, we plan to take off and see the world. We don’t know where we’re going yet or how long we’ll be gone.

That’s half the fun, isn’t it?

I’m still waiting for my refund … and waiting … and waiting

Question: I’m having some refund trouble with an airline, and need your help. Last year I had to cancel a Lufthansa flight I had booked through Expedia because of a death in my family. The ticket cost $303. When I told my travel agency the reason for canceling the trip, it gave me a list of documentation necessary for a refund.

I called Lufthansa, and a representative told me they wouldn’t process a refund by phone. So I sent the necessary paperwork to both Lufthansa and Expedia.

Since then, I’ve followed up several times online and have re-faxed the documents to Lufthansa. To date, I have never received any response from Lufthansa — not even to acknowledge receipt of the documentation. Any advice? — Megan Gallardo, Podgorica, Montenegro

Answer: I think you’ve been more than patient with Lufthansa. The airline should either send you a refund or refuse to return your money. Not responding is not acceptable.

Most airline tickets are nonrefundable, but airlines sometimes make exceptions when there’s a death in the family. Your online agent would have recommended that you send a death certificate and a letter to the airline, explaining your circumstances.

Refunds can take a while. Airlines normally tell you to wait two to three credit card billing cycles, but a year isn’t unheard of. I’ve seen that a time or two.

Why the foot-dragging? Of all the explanations I’ve been offered — slow accountants, obsolete technology, or just corporate policy — the one that rings truest is this: airlines don’t want to part with the money.

I’m not sure that’s what happened in your case. Maybe Lufthansa didn’t have all of your paperwork. Maybe your letter went to the wrong department. Either way, the airline kept you waiting for a year. It shouldn’t have.

Was this preventable? Absolutely. You bought your ticket through an online travel agency, which should have done more than just give you an address for refunds. You might have applied a little pressure to Expedia to nudge Lufthansa about the status of your refund. That’s what good travel agents do for their clients.

You might have also considered sending a polite follow-up email to Expedia and Lufthansa to check on the status of your update after a few months. An online inquiry is fine, but if you aren’t getting through to anyone, I recommend escalating your case to a manager or an executive. Their e-mail addresses are not difficult to find.

If neither the agency nor the airline responded, you might have contacted your credit card company to initiate a dispute. (If your ticket was fully refundable, and your credit card company believes your airline is simply holding on to your money, it might have been and open-and-shut case.)

At my suggestion, you emailed Expedia one last time. It responded saying, “your request for refund is still in progress as of this time” and that there were no further updates on whether the request had been approved.

So I contacted the airline. Initially, the airline deferred to Expedia. But eventually it came through for you. Nearly a year and a half after you applied for it, Lufthansa issued a $303 refund.

Rosetta Stone’s Adams: World travelers should learn Spanish, Chinese


International travelers know what a formidable barrier a foreign language can be. From time to time, language spills over into the headlines — as it did last week when Fidel Castro insisted his brother’s comments about political reform in Cuba were “misunderstood.” Tom Adams knows about language barriers and how to overcome them. He’s the chief executive of Rosetta Stone. Yeah, the company with the ads featuring a hardworking farm boy and an Italian supermodel.

Q: Can you get along with just English when you travel internationally?

Adams: You can if you’re traveling to major cities and don’t plan to really engage. However if you’re trying to go into the field and really discover a culture and a country, then yes, you do need another language. I think that anyone who has successfully learned another language knows that the benefits are tremendous. Those that experience success communicating in a new language often describe it as life-changing.

Q: Let me confess, I’m one of the people who makes fun the tourists who try to learn a language before they visit another country, or worse, they tote around a phrase book and read from it. Convince me of the error of my ways.

Adams: I would tend to agree, people that try to get by with a phrase book don’t get very far. It’s better if people can learn a language the way they learned their first language, without translation, so they have an intuition behind the language when they are actually in country. I think it is wonderful that people make the effort to try and go deeper into the cultures that they explore when they are traveling. Locals will give you points for trying and it makes life more fun.

Q: As a student of linguistics in college, I always thought total immersion — which to me always meant dating a native speaker — was the best way to learn another language. Was I wrong?

Adams: There is no doubt that immersion-based instruction is the way to learn a new language. In fact, I would challenge that those who try to learn any other way are highly likely to fail. Dating someone from another country is not enough to learn a language, though it is very stimulating.

The problem is that if they speak your language you’re likely to stay in your comfort zone and use your native language. An instructional immersion environment forces you to use the language. If you’re learning the right way with the right immersion tool or service, then having a boyfriend or girlfriend that speaks that language natively provides a great opportunity for practice – as well as motivation.

Q: Why don’t more Americans speak a second language?

Adams: Fundamentally, Americans have not had the opportunity to use the right methods. Most Americans use grammar translation and classroom solutions to memorize vocabulary, translate the language and pass the test.

Learning another language works better when it’s done in a natural way and you can leverage your own language learning ability. If given the opportunity to learn with the right tools, Americans – like others around the world – can learn languages with great levels of success. Of course, many Americans do not travel internationally as much as Europeans, for instance, so there is less opportunity to use the language – and that does not help.

Q: If you’re monolingual, and had to pick just one language to learn, what would it be?

Adams: Choosing a language to learn is a very personal decision. I decided to learn Chinese because I was being relocated to work there. I know others who have learned Russian because they are married to someone of Russian origin. It’s a very personal thing.

Q: What are the advantages of knowing another language, particularly from a traveler’s perspective?

Adams: If you want to engage a culture and feel somewhat independent when you’re traveling, then learning and knowing another language is critical. Imagine the reward from being able to greet people and have basic ways of introducing yourself and making that initial connection.

Add to that the freedom and independence when you can experience a country without being restricted to English. Imagine being in China and being able to say “I would like to buy that for a cheaper price, what can you do for me?” If you do gain real proficiency in the language and are able to communicate on a social level with friends that you make — that takes the trip to a whole new level. Someone that speaks even basic Portuguese will have a completely different level of experience when traveling in Brazil. It’s life changing.

Q: Which languages do you speak, and how did you learn them?

Adams: I speak Swedish, English and French fluently. I learned all three languages through immersion. Swedish is my native language and I learned the other two as a result of living in France and England as a child. I’ve studied Spanish by going to Spain and spending time there at a language center and living with Spanish students. I also have a basic knowledge of German and Chinese, which gives me some freedom and empowerment when I am traveling in those countries. I learned Chinese by living in the country and using an earlier version of Rosetta Stone.

Q: Which is the most difficult language to learn, from your perspective — and why?

Adams: All languages are learned by people as they grow up. For example, an Arabic boy learns Arabic just as easy as an English boy learns English. There is really no difference. And yet as adults, we try to rely on our own language to learn the new language. Whether you’re learning Arabic, Japanese, Chinese, Swedish, Polish, Russian you’re really learning the same way. All languages can be learned provided that you learn them the right way.

Q: When you’re learning a new language, you make rookie mistakes. Do you have any favorites you’ve heard?

Adams: When I was learning Chinese, one of the challenges I had was that the word “is” or “am” is pronounced essentially the same way. Depending upon the tone in Chinese, “shi” means either “shit” or “am.” In the beginning of my Chinese language learning experience, I would say “I am Tom Adams.” However, I was actually saying, “I shit Tom Adams.”

Q: How many languages should a world traveler know? And which ones?

Adams: At least one other language, but preferably two. In today’s world, if you know Spanish and Chinese you’re in a great position. You can travel throughout the Americas or to China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and a huge number of people are able to understand you. Chinese and Spanish are of course important for business.

Q: If you could change one thing about one language — declensions, script, inflection — what would it be?

Adams: If I could change one thing about the languages that I have studied it would be the tones in Chinese. I found using tones very challenging since it conveys alternate meaning and it relies on your aural muscles and their ability to interpret those different sounds. It takes a while but soon you get there and there is no way around it.