Furious at United because she missed her best friend’s funeral

Alicia and Joe Haviland are mad at United Airlines and at me.

They’re furious with United for canceling Alicia’s ticket from Panama City, Panama, to Seattle via Houston and issuing an involuntary refund. As a result, Alicia Haviland missed her best friend’s funeral.

And they’re upset with me because they want me to write about their negative customer service experience and I haven’t — until now.
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I have until Friday to cough up $14,000 – should I pay?

Given my backlog of cases, it’s unusual to cover something I just heard about a few hours ago. It’s even more unusual to redact the name of both the passenger and the airline.

But as you’ll see in a minute, this is a highly unusual problem with an imminent deadline. At stake? The highest-level elite status and several million frequent flier miles.

Oh, and the fate of our republic.

I’m kidding.
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Why fake reviews don’t really matter

Don’t believe everything you read online, especially on user-generated review websites such as TripAdvisor or Yelp, which claim to help you find the best hotels and restaurants.

At least that’s the standard warning issued repeatedly by travel experts for the last decade. The ratings are rigged by hotel or restaurant operatives, or by unhappy patrons trying to shame a business, they say. Since the sites make no meaningful efforts to stop these bogus posts, all the so-called user-generated sites should be ignored when you’re planning your next trip.

That’s wrong.
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Travel insurance claims can hinge on the tiniest details

Thinking of making a claim? Read this first. / Photo by W. Shonbrun - Flickr
When it comes to travel insurance claims, Hannah Yun was about as sure as anyone that hers would be successful.

She’d bought a gold-plated “cancel for any reason” policy for a trip to South Korea. When her boyfriend proposed and she decided to call off the trip to start planning her wedding, she thought that collecting a check would be just a formality.

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Frequently asked questions about travel insurance

Should I buy travel insurance - or not? / Photo by Horrigan S - Flickr
Travel insurance used to be a small segment of the insurance business that protected people against the loss of a non-refundable deposit on a big-ticket vacation such as a safari or a round-the-world cruise. But the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and a series of natural disasters in the early 2000s pushed it into the mainstream. Today, it’s hard to find a travel agent or travel site that doesn’t try to sell an optional insurance policy as part of a trip.

But should you buy one? That depends. Here are the most frequently asked questions about travel insurance:
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Can this trip be saved? Help, American Airlines wants $20,000!

Nancy Schmuhl thought she’d paid for her American Airlines tickets. But the airline had one last bill for her: A $20,000 invoice for “certain fraudulent bookings” she is alleged to have made.

You should read the letter it sent to her. I’ll get to that in a minute.

In the meantime, you’re probably wondering: What kind of fraudulent bookings?

Schmuhl made several fictitious reservations which she later canceled. Regular readers of this site will remember a previous American Airlines case. And United Airlines famously confiscated a passenger’s miles for similar behavior.
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Texas targets “unethical” Royal Palms Travel club

They promised Hans Slatosch the world. Literally.

In a sales presentation he attended a year ago, Dallas-based Royal Palms Travel offered him deep discounts on cruises and other travel products. All he had to do was pony up a $5,593 membership. He did.

But something about the transaction made Slatosch uncomfortable. The sales staff had pressured him to make a decision before he left, and they wouldn’t let him keep the material they’d distributed, he says.
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It’s alive! Prime Travel Protection pursues customer who didn’t want “insurance”

credit cardRemember Prime Travel protection, the Colorado travel insurance company that shut down amid allegations it sold unlicensed policies? Turns out it’s not dead yet.

When Dick Rheinhardt booked a cruise vacation through Four Seasons Tours and Cruises, in Largo, Fla., last November, he agreed to pay $824 for what he believed to be a travel insurance policy. But it wasn’t a real policy, he says. A few months later, Florida authorities told three agencies that Prime Travel Protection policies might be bogus. Rheinhardt wanted a refund.

That’s when he discovered Prime Travel Protection was alive and well.
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TripAdvisor’s Kaufer: We “catch the vast majority of suspicious reviews”

Steve Kaufer is the founder and chief executive of TripAdvisor — a site that made headlines recently when it warned that some of its hotel reviews might have been manipulated. I asked Kaufer about the site, the credibility of user-generated reviews, and the future of social media.

KauferQ: When it comes to user-generated hotel and restaurant reviews, I think it’s safe to say TripAdvisor is by far the most dominant site. Can you give me a sense of the size, traffic and overall influence of TripAdvisor?

Kaufer: TripAdvisor has nearly 25 million reviews and opinions on more than 490,000 hotels and attractions, more than 11 million registered members, and operates in 14 countries and 10 different languages. We have more than 25 million monthly visitors to our site, and have acquired 13 other travel brands. In terms of influence, a May 2008 Jupiter consumer travel survey reported that 76 percent of people find reviews from like-minded people most useful.

Q: Let me ask you about last week’s Beat of Hawaii-Arthur Frommer dust-up. TripAdvisor is now warning users about hotels gaming in the review process. Can you tell me why you decided to do this, how long you’ve had these warnings, and how many reviews are affected?

Kaufer: We’ve been posting the warnings since 2006. We view our red badge and rating drop as the best punishment for properties trying to manipulate the system. A couple of people have asked why we don’t drop these properties from the site entirely. We think the red badge is a better punishment, and provides more information to travelers so they can make the most educated and informed decisions before they book. We also wouldn’t want hotels with very poor traveler reviews to use such a banning on the site as a loophole to get out. That’s exactly what poorly run properties want — to be taken off TripAdvisor.

Q: One of the things TripAdvisor uses to catch bogus reviews is a computer program. Why can’t the algorithm tag these fake write-ups?

Kaufer: We have three primary methods to insure review integrity. Prior to posting, every review is screened and a team of quality assurance specialists investigates suspicious ones. This group brings a wide range of professional experience, including expertise in credit card fraud, loss prevention and identity theft. We also use proprietary automated tools to help identify attempts to subvert the system, and our community helps screen our content and report suspicious activity. These systems do catch the vast majority of suspicious reviews.

Q: What would you say to readers of your site who are concerned about the integrity of your hotel and restaurant reviews?

Kaufer: We believe our 23 million reviews and opinions are authentic, unbiased, and from real travelers, which is why we enjoy tremendous user loyalty. The sheer volume of reviews we have for an individual property allows travelers to base their decisions on the opinions of many and provides an additional safeguard. After all, any individual review is just that… a review by one person who may or may not have the same tastes as you, or be in a good or bad mood when they wrote the review. But when looking at the average of hundreds of reviews for a single property, the collective wisdom shines through and presents a complete picture of the property.

Q: Some TripAdvisor critics were quick to add their “I-told-you-sos” last week. Can you understand where these folks are coming from? Could you help us make some sense of why they’ve been critical of your site?

Kaufer: Some of those critics have a horse in the race. Professional guide books and travel agents are losing audience to TripAdvisor and other UGC sites. Forrester research shows that 68 percent of travelers read reviews from other travelers before they book. The same research shows only 38 percent turn to professionally written content. The average guidebook takes 15 months from manuscript submission to hitting the store shelf. TripAdvisor gets 13 new posts every minute of every day, so it’s the freshest travel information available.

We don’t have anything against professionally written reviews. In fact, we have links to many professional reviews on TripAdvisor today, as we have had since we launched the site. We’re happy to have our visitors find all the available information on the Web to help them make the right travel decision for them.

Q: How do you use TripAdvisor when you’re on the road? And how do you think people should use the site?

Kaufer: TripAdvisor has a lot of features that are valuable at different stages of the trip. When in the initial planning stages, I’ll use the inspiration section on the home page to help me select a destination. I’ll use our flights product to find the best airfare, and then use our hotel mapping functionality to pick the best hotel near where I want to be. If I’m traveling on business, I head to the business center, as that section highlights the hotels that are good for business, as well as offer restaurant suggestions for a business dinner. When I’m traveling with my kids, I’ll look for top-value hotels which save me some money, and I’ll read the reviews written by folks who traveled with their kids. And like all of our visitors, when I read the reviews, I take the best and worst reviews with a grain of salt, and focus on what the majority of reviewers have to say. My favorite ‘hidden’ feature of TripAdvisor is our forums. No matter what I ask in the forums, I always seem to get a good answer within 24 hours.

Q: Is there a way in which people are using TripAdvisor that you think they should not?

Kaufer: From a consumer perspective, there’s not necessarily a wrong way to use TripAdvisor. I think some of the posts on your blog represent unique and useful ways to use our site.

Q: Oh, thanks. I want to ask you about services such as Returnity, that funnel positive reviews about a property back into TripAdvisor. Doesn’t a hotel using a service like this have an advantage over another hotel that relies on the organic review process for its rating? Is that fair?

Kaufer: My understanding of Returnity-type services is that they facilitate communication between hotels and their guests and, by requesting feedback on a stay, give the hotel an idea of who might write a positive versus negative review. Nothing from Returnity is pre-programmed and uploaded into TripAdvisor.

Q: Do you have any statistical evidence that a positive review on TripAdvisor leads to more bookings or that a negative review takes away bookings? If so, could you please tell me what it says?

Kaufer: We have partners who feature TripAdvisor reviews on their sites, and claim that their bookings have increased — in one case, doubled — with the inclusion of these reviews. And these include both positive and negative reviews. We work with a lot of properties who have found TripAdvisor widgets and badges to be valuable marketing tools.

Anecdotally, we hear from travelers that negative reviews aren’t nearly as impactful as how a property handles them. We do a lot of outreach to business owners and encourage them to use the management response tool that’s available on our site. We know there are always two sides to every story, and we encourage property managers to share their side of the story, or simply apologize if a mistake was made. Anecdotally, we also hear from property owners that TripAdvisor has helped them grow their business.

With millions of travelers using TripAdvisor daily, it is hard to imagine that we don’t influence where travelers are choosing to stay. However, it isn’t something we’ve tried to measure.

Q: With the introduction of video on the new iPhone, we may be poised for a shift from “tell me” to “show me” user-generated reviews. How is TripAdvisor going to position itself in world where information is exchanged in real time, and in a more multimedia way?

Kaufer: We’ve been encouraging travelers to upload photos and video to TripAdvisor for a long time. We’d love to see the use of these tools increase — anything to help travelers make more informed decisions about their trip.

Q: Let me ask about your slogan, which is, “Get the truth. Then go.” It seems to me that the content you’ll find on TripAdvisor is highly subjective, and that your recent warnings are a concession that the reviews are nothing more than one person’s — or company’s — opinion. Do you have any plans to change your slogan, now that you’ve conceded that some of your ratings may have been manipulated?

Kaufer: It’s never been a secret that reviews are subjective, and that they are individuals’ opinions. That’s the power of user-generated content. It’s up to the traveler, with the help of our popularity index and filters, to review the data that’s meaningful for them, and to listen to the wisdom of the crowds. Everyone’s true travel experience is their own. I’m certainly biased, but I’ll always prefer a hundred reviews from real travelers, each recounting a different experience, than one review from a professional writer who is basing his or her opinion on a single experience with a property. TripAdvisor is still the best place to get the truth, then go.

Florida confirms “active and ongoing” investigation of travel agencies that sold Prime Travel Protection

Florida’s Department of Financial Services has confirmed it is investigating travel agencies that sold insurance underwritten by Prime Travel Protection, a Colorado company that filed for bankruptcy protection last month and left thousands of travelers uninsured.

Prime Travel Protection sought to circumvent state regulations by claiming it wasn’t insurance. Jerry Watson, the company’s president, said Prime Travel Protection’s policies were “not an insurance product” and didn’t need to be licensed.

Florida authorities disagree. “This product was claimed to be insurance,” said Nina Banister, a spokeswoman for Florida’s Department of Financial Services. “It does not appear that Prime Travel Protection was an authorized entity. We’re looking for agents who were involved in selling it.”

Under Florida Statutes, any agency or agent selling unauthorized insurance faces fines and a possible suspension of license:

Any person who knowingly transacts insurance or otherwise engages in insurance activities in this state without a license in violation of this section commits a felony of the third degree, punishable as provided in s. 775.082, s. 775.083, or s. 775.084.

Banister says Florida wants to hear from anyone who bought a Prime Travel Protection policy through a travel agency in the United States. She asks that they either call Florida’s consumer help line at (877) 693-5236 or (850) 413-3030, or fill out a complaint online.

The investigation, which appears to be in its early stages, could affect hundreds of travel agencies and thousands of travelers.

According to numerous customers, travel agencies falsely represented the Prime Travel Protection product as travel insurance. Travel agents claim that they believed Prime Travel Protection to be legitimate insurance, and that they immediately stopped selling its policies when they learned it was an unlicensed insurance product.

But Florida authorities are conducting a thorough investigation, and are interested in hearing from travelers who bought policies through other defunct travel insurance companies Watson was involved with, including Trip Assured, Vacation Protection Services and Travelers Protection Services. The punishment for travel agencies who sold those insurance policies and then continued to sell Prime Travel Protection could be severe.

“There is no statute of limitation on this,” Banister said.