Are rental cars unsafe?

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What we’re reading

Are rental cars unsafe? (11 Alive)

My dad dies during Celebrity Cruise excursion; Crew throws out our stuff (Consumerist)

An airport bomber in China becomes an unlikely recipient of online sympathy (Time)

With Carnival Cruises Under Attack, Micky Arison Opens Up (WSJ)

What we’re writing

Most airline fees are variable. Why not change fees? (Consumer Traveler)

Don’t be fooled by fake electronics: 5 tips (Elliott)

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These Surfbouncers really know how to sweet-talk a girl

screenOne of the first questions I ask when someone needs help is: Could I see the correspondence between you and the company? When Steven Price showed me his back-and-forth between with a company called Surfbouncer, I was speechless.

And then I asked the company for its side of the story.

Normally, here’s what happens when you have trouble with a business: You send it an email with your problem, and it replies with a pre-fabricated form response that vaguely addresses the issue and offers non-apologies like, “We’re sorry for the way you feel.”

Surbouncer, which offers VPN services for international travelers who need to stay connected, is not one of those companies.
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Is this enough compensation? Denied boarding because of bogus visa problem, but his luggage went to China anyway

If you though your last trip was bad, you might want to talk with James Liu before complaining about it.

He just had an frustrating experience with United Airlines, which started in Columbia, SC, and was to have ended in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. But he never made it that far. In Chicago, a United representative told him he couldn’t continue to China because he didn’t have the right transit visa.

But it turns out his paperwork was in order. And although Liu was eventually sent back to Columbia, his luggage took a different route — first flying to China and then taking its time getting back to the States. United offered a half-hearted apology and some compensation. But is it enough?

Problems like Liu’s are relatively rare, and they aren’t specifically addressed anywhere in United’s contract of carriage, the legal agreement between you and the airline. Airlines can be held responsible for allowing passengers to board an international flight when they don’t have the right paperwork, so gate agents often err on the side of caution when determining who can, and who can’t, fly.

Unfortunately, airlines don’t always have the most up-do-date information about visas in their system. In Liu’s case, the most authoritative information came from the Chinese embassy, which confirmed he was, indeed, good to go.
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Is my insurance claim lost in translation?

Question: I am having a difficult time — no, make that an impossible time — collecting a claim for a trip insurance policy. My husband and I bought a policy through Access America for a trip to China. It covered trip interruption and medical expenses, among other things.

Unfortunately, we had a medical emergency while we were away, and my husband was hospitalized. We filed a claim and submitted receipts, including medical reports and documentation from our tour group.

Access America requested a copy of the original invoice, which I sent the next day. Three weeks later, the company informed me that the paperwork was fine, but was still “in translation.”

We’ve been assigned three different claims adjusters since we started the process. It has been three months since the claim was filed, and I feel the company is being uncooperative with us. Could you please look into this? — Suzanne Baxter, Fair Oaks, Calif.

Answer: Once it had all of your forms, Access America should have processed your claim in a week or less. At least that’s what a company representative told me when I called it to ask about the average processing time for a claim. Normally, it would cut you a check five to seven days after receiving all of your paperwork.

Now, you need to factor in some time for translating the Chinese documents. By your account, there were two short reports in Chinese, both sent to the company as soon as it requested them. Three months seems like more than enough time to process a claim — even for a trip to China.

Access America could have done a better job processing your claim expeditiously and keeping you informed of the progress. But you could have also avoided this situation. When it became apparent that you were getting the runaround from your insurance company (probably when you were assigned the second adjuster) you might have sent a brief, polite e-mail to the company, expressing your concern with the process.

Phone calls aren’t as effective, because there isn’t always a record of your conversation. Even when you hear that “calls may be recorded for training purposes” it’s no guarantee that what an agent promises on the line is what will actually happen. Not so with an e-mail. Everyone can see what the company said, and what you wrote, and an e-mail chain can be forwarded to anyone.

Like, say, the insurance commissioner for your state.

Here’s how I might have handled this: After a week, I would have sent a very polite note to Access America, reminding it of its commitment to processing claims in a week or less. After another week, I would have sent a cordial e-mail expressing your concern about the timing of your refund. Copy your state’s insurance commissioner. You can reach California’s insurance commissioner online at this site.

You don’t want to threaten Access America. Just copying the commissioner alone is enough to underscore the seriousness of your complaint.

After a month, I would have sent another, more forcefully worded note (but still polite) copying your attorney and me. By the three-month mark, you should be in small claims court, asking a judge to rule in your favor.

For what it’s worth, I don’t think Access America was dragging its feet intentionally. At the time of your case, it was probably dealing with a lot of other China claims from the Olympics and its translators were overworked. Not that that’s an excuse for stringing you along. But it would explain the long delay.

I contacted Access America on your behalf. Two weeks later, you received a $2,098 check for your claim.