travel agent

With travel complaints, timing can be everything

Timing is everything when you have a travel complaint.

Consider what happened to one of my clients, who had meticulously booked a 16-day trip to Scotland and Ireland months in advance. Our agency worked with Celebrated Experiences to get them an itinerary featuring daily touring with deluxe hotels.

But all the planning couldn’t prepare them for what happened in Ireland.
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A problem with your reservation? Maybe your travel agency should pay

Ivan Cholakov /
Ivan Cholakov /
When Jennifer Forbes and her husband checked in for a recent flight from Richmond to Freeport, Bahamas, they discovered that there are worse ways to start a vacation than having an invalid ticket.

Much worse. The airline on which they had reservations, Bahamasair, didn’t even serve Richmond.

“We had non-refundable hotel reservations,” says Forbes, a homemaker who lives in McKenney, Va. “But we had no way to get there.”

Forbes had booked her vacation through an online travel agency called Hotwire, which offers customers steep discounts in exchange for not telling them the exact airline or hotel they’re booking until they’ve made their reservations. And all reservations are final and non-refundable.
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Are rental cars unsafe?

The Scan is a synopsis of news you can’t miss. Get it delivered to your “in” box by signing up now. It’s free.

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)

Send you news tips to Steve Surjaputra.

“Apparently with Carnival, the passenger does not always come first”

carnival destinyKristen Hernandez thought she’d found a bargain on the Carnival Breeze next month. Or, to be more precise, she thought her travel agent had found one.

She booked two separate balcony cabins for her 8-night Eastern Caribbean cruise for $3,440 each.

Turns out she and her travel agent were wrong.

“After researching the Internet, we found out that Carnival Cruise Lines had slashed the prices due to the fact of the many mishaps,” she says. “Yesterday I went online on the Carnival website and found out that the balcony cabins are now selling for $2,319. That is a difference of over $1,100 per cabin.”
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Can this trip be saved? “We just had the worst vacation ever!”

Craig and Jamie Talley just had the worst vacation ever. Their words, not mine. I’ve seen a lot of bad trips, and as far as “worst vacations” go, this one’s right up there with the worst of ’em.

Among the highlights: Crossed wires with their online travel agent, surly service (if you can even call it that), substandard facilities, extra expenses and ultimately, and early departure. Like, four days early.

Do they deserve a full refund?

The Talleys think they do. I think they deserve something.

What do you think? Can this trip be saved?
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Sometimes getting an insurance claim paid is like a game of chess

If you think travel agents are about as worthless as travel insurance — and I’ve seen your comments on this site, so I know you’re out there — then you’ll like this story.

Joanne Babbitt contacted me a few weeks ago because she was trying to handle an insurance claim for two clients who had been on a tour of the Galapagos Islands and Peru. It’s highly unusual for a travel agent to ask for my help, except for the occasional debit-memo dispute with an airline.

Then I reviewed the problem.
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Forget the agent — 4 trips you should book yourself

Want to go somewhere? Book the trip yourself.

About half of all leisure trips are reserved online — give or take a few percentage points — according to several recent surveys. The latest, a Forrester Research study which showed an unexpected drop in the number of U.S. leisure travelers who booked online (it fell from 53 percent in 2007 to 46 percent last year) was a boost to traditional travel agents, who thought their days were numbered.

They might want to hold off on the celebrations, though. That’s because there are a lot of vacations you’re better off booking by yourself, despite a recent story in which I outlined some trips where you should consult a travel professional.
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So where should I buy my travel insurance?

getawayWhen the subject of travel insurance comes up, I’m usually quick to say: Don’t buy the first policy you’re offered.

That’s because the first policy is normally a brochure your travel agent slides across the desk right after you’ve plunked down $14,000 for that dream safari, along with the warning, “You’ll want insurance.”

You will want insurance, but probably — and I stress the “probably” — not from your travel agent.

Agents are often heavily incentivized to sell a particular kind of travel insurance that benefits them (read: high commissions) but not necessarily you (read: lots of fine print). What’s more, they rarely take the time to review the limits of the policy and when it comes time to making a claim, only the very best agents will ensure every appeal is exhausted if you’re denied.

Read this if you don’t believe me.

(How do you know if your agent isn’t one of them? Chances are, if you’re handed two or more brochures, or are encouraged to “shop around” before buying a policy, then your agent’s one of the good guys.)

So where do you buy insurance, then?
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“I missed my entire trip because my plane was delayed”

icelandairGlen Segal didn’t make it to Reykjavik.

He’d paid $2,628 for a one-week vacation package to through Icelandair that included accommodations at the Hilton Nordica. He’d even shelled out an extra $200 for Access America trip cancellation insurance. But in the end, none of that mattered.

Here’s the sad story of Segal’s missed vacation — and how you can prevent it from happening to you.
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“Unethical” travel agent claims commission after client finds a bargain online

bermudaJerry Ginnis says his first mistake was asking a travel agent for a quote on a Bermuda vacation. He’d already found a terrific price online — a week at a luxury resort for $2,800, about 40 percent off the normal rate — but a friend suggested he call, anyway.

The agent quoted him a slightly lower rate and offered to hold the reservation for 24 hours. He agreed.

Ginnis went back online and found the price had dropped to to just $1,100 for the week. Unbelievably, the hotel also threw in a concierge-room floor. Ginnis booked the package on the spot.

And here’s where it gets interesting.
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“I realized that there was no way that we could continue to pay claims”

We’ve already heard from Prime Travel Protection’s customers and from the agents who sold its policies. But other than a form letter from its trustee, the company and its president, Jerry Watson, have remained silent. Until now.

To recap, state authorities in Florida and Colorado are investigating Watson’s company and travel agents who sold Prime Travel Protection policies.

Agents say they were unaware that Watson’s travel protection was unlicensed insurance, and insist that they stopped offering it the moment they found out it was an illegal product. But some customers claim Prime Travel Protection is the latest incarnation of a sophisticated insurance scam, and they believe Watson will return with the same network of travel agents, whose loyalty they say he buys with generous commissions and signing bonuses.

Last week, I asked Watson for his side of the story. Here’s the full text of our e-mail interview:

Q: Why was it necessary to cease operations? Have you filed for bankruptcy protection, and if so, in which court?

Watson: I ceased operations when I realized that there was no way that we could continue to pay claims based on the incoming revenues. I had not received any cease-and-desist notices. I elected not to file bankruptcy mainly because it is and has always been my intent to make good on the obligations of the company. Liquidation seems to be a better alternative.

Q: How many claims did you pay in 2008? How much money was paid to your policyholders in total?

Watson: I don’t have the exact number of claims but the dollar amount paid in 2008 is approximately $1,236,691. The total dollar amount for all companies from 2004 through 2008 is approximately $5,627,222.

Q: How many outstanding claims do you currently have? What is the amount of the claims? Of those, how many are approved, and how much are they worth?

Watson: No answer.

Q: Did you ever represent any of the policies offered through Prime Travel Protection and Travel Protection Services to agents as insurance, or encourage agents to represent your policies to their customers as insurance?

Watson: NO, I/WE never advised the travel agencies or the customer that we were an insurance company. We stated that we offered a benefit services contract.

Q:: How is Prime Travel Protection different from travel insurance?

Watson: The Prime Travel Protection service contract is issued in exchange for a separately stated consideration, whereby we are obligated for a specified period to the holder to repair, replace or indemnify or reimburse the holder the cost of repairing, replacing or provision for incidental payments of indemnity. Prime Travel Protection is a member of CLIA (Cruise Lines International Association) and ASTA (American Society of Travel Agents.

The business plan of Prime Travel Protection is to provide benefits that have been deleted from other companies, including “Vendor Default” and pricing that is Non-Age based. Prime Travel Protection offers participating agencies the ability to receive commissions on sales and referrals or to establish their own pricing grids.

Prime Travel Protection is underwritten by the Cielo Capital Insurance Company Ltd; certificate number S24794 with assets exceeding $1,000,000.00 and its Reinsures.

As a comparison with other providers, our claim denial percent ratio was well within Industry standards.

Q: How many travel agencies were selling your policies at the time you ceased operations?

Watson: 38

Q: Do you have any plans to leave Colorado or to start another company that offers travel protection?

Watson: I have no plans to leave Colorado and I do not have any intentions of operating any type of travel protection company.

Update (9 p.m.): Watson has followed up with more information.

I wasn’t able to provide you with accurate data with reference to the number of claims and amounts due to the number of chargeback’s and agency participation in claims settlements.

Regardless of the outcome of the state investigations, I believe that I have tried to accommodate the consumer and the agency community the best that I can. However, the individuals that have responded to your blog are those that have been denied their request for reimbursement and I expect nothing more than their comments, etc. Unfortunately, the customers that have received the benefits of their contracts most likely will not respond in a complimentary fashion and they are in the majority. Our denial rate is less than 20%, which is well within the Industry averages.

For those consumers that feel that they have been denied the benefits of the contract purchased, per the Terms and Conditions of their contract, they have the opportunity to submit to binding arbitration with the American Arbitration Association for a hearing on their case. To my knowledge, their have been no cases filed with the American Arbitration Association. Their failure or lack of evidence to proceed with this form of resolution only validates their claim denial.

9 ways to tell if your travel pro is crooked

As a rule, most travel agents are well-trained, competent professionals who work hard for you.

But there are exceptions to every rule. Take Kathleen Rossano of East Brunswick, N.J., who was recently sentenced to a 10-year prison term for stealing more than $75,000 from her travel agency. Prosecutors had charged her with offering luxury vacations to her friends, taking cash payments, billing the expenses to her agency’s credit card and then pocketing the money.

It was the fourth time she’d been convicted of taking money from former employers.

A month later, her former agency, Cruise Value Center, collapsed without paying the cruise lines what they were owed and leaving customers in the lurch. One of the clients recently contacted me in a panic after her cruise line demanded an additional payment of $2,544 for her vacation because the cruise line had been stiffed by the agency.

While the odds of running across another Rossano are remote, they still exist. The Federal Trade Commission recorded 14,903 complaints in the travel and timeshare category in 2007 — nearly twice as many as a year before.

How can you tell if your agent is trouble? Here are a 9 signs:

1. Demands you pay in cash
Reputable agencies accept credit cards, and you’d be well advised to use plastic when you make a travel purchase. Why? Because you’re protected by the card if something goes wrong — say, your airline goes bankrupt or your hotel burns to the ground. Or even if your agent runs off with the money without paying for your trip. “I’ve never heard of a legitimate travel agent only accepting cash,” says Stacy Small, president of Brentwood, Calif.-based Elite Travel International. “This would immediately set off a red flag.” (That isn’t to say you should never consider a wire transfer, she adds. Some overseas travel companies offer a 3 to 4 percent discount for cash purchases, but even then, Small recommends using a credit card.)

2. Acts funny when you bring up commissions
Travel agents make money in two ways: by charging a booking fee or by taking a commission from a travel company. If you ask about an agent’s compensation, a travel adviser who is on the up-and-up should be willing to openly discuss bonuses, so-called “overrides” and other forms of commission. Responses such as “What I’m making is none of your business” are a sign of trouble. In fact, it may mean the agent is trying to sell you a vacation that isn’t in your best interests. “My pet peeve is to see an agent push a client into a cruise or tour that may not suit the client, but doing it anyhow because one, it’s easy, and two, they get a better commission,” says Patricia Dwight, owner of Adventure Travel, an agency in Summerville, S.C. Travel agents want to be considered “professionals” in the same way we do real estate agents or financial advisors. Yet the commissions and compensations of those professionals are clearly disclosed. Why not those of agents?

3. Has no certifications
Although there’s no accrediting agency for American agents that’s comparable to, say, a bar association, there are groups that suggest your travel professional means business. Having an International Airlines Travel Agent Network (IATAN) card is a sign your agent is for real. Other organizations that may signal a seriousness of purpose include membership in the American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA) or a certificate from The Travel Institute, which accredits agents based on their expertise. Although no one requires these certifications, my rule is: the more paperwork, the merrier. For example, the top one percent of travel agents in the country belongs to an invitation-only network called Virtuoso. “It reduces complexities, uses network members for exclusive relationships, and opens up access to many luxury experiences,” says Pamela Hurley Moser, whose agency is a Virtuoso member.

4. Adds a booking fee to your bill after you’ve decided to buy a vacation
An agent on the up-and-up will disclose all fees, surcharges and extras before you make a booking decision — not afterward. Agents who tell you, “Oh, by the way — there’s a $50 booking fee” are being less than upfront with you. And who knows what else they’re not telling you? “It’s important to have everything in writing, so there is a paper trail to follow, and being up front always,” says Cindy Harris, an agent with Travel ’N Dive Adventures, which specializes in diving, snorkeling and fishing destinations. Harris says a good agent treats clients like friends — “with courtesy, honesty and respect.”

5. Doesn’t know a thing about where you’re going
If your travel advisor has never heard of the destination you’d like to visit, that may not be a good sign. If it’s a well-known place (“Orlando? Where’s that?), you might want to slowly back away toward the exit. “The most important quality in a good agent is destination knowledge, and the ability to match the perfect vacation with each and every client,” says Chet McDoniel, owner of Off to Neverland Travel, which specializes in Disney destinations. “The ability to listen and custom tailor each and every itinerary is crucial to being of service to my clients.”

6. Has a Better Business Bureau rap sheet
Check out the Better Business Bureau site to see if your travel agency is listed. If it is, the BBB will give it a letter grade. “When we evaluate a company we look at their complaint record — including the number of complaints, severity of complaints and whether or not the company tried to respond to the complaint — as well as licensing and government action,” says Alison Preszler-Southwick, a spokeswoman for Council of Better Business Bureaus. What if it isn’t on the site? It might be listed under another name (try a search by address) or you might be looking in the wrong region. The BBB has 4 million reliability reports on North American businesses in its database, so if your agency has been in business for a while, there’s probably a record.

7. Is impossible to reach
If your travel agent disappears after making a sale, that’s not a good sign. “A travel agent should be able to be contacted,” says Marcy Lannon, a manager for Meridian Travel in Dania Beach, Fla. “That does not mean that they have to be on call 24/7, but I think that it does mean you should be able to contact them during their business hours and you should expect replies in a timely manner.” The worst agents never call back after booking a trip, never follow up to make sure you had a good vacation, and are never reachable when something goes wrong. You’re better off buying a trip online, directly through an airline, hotel or tour operator.

8. Doesn’t listen
A competent agent takes the time to listen to what you want, and then makes recommendations based on your needs. In fact, good travel agents don’t consider themselves agents at all, but “specialists in a destination or travel type,” says John Peters, the chief executive of, a network of 9,000 travel agents. “They can get you information that can’t be found on the Web. They listen more than they speak and then wow you with the perfect trip.”

9. Other warning signs
Here are a few other things you don’t want to hear your travel agent say: “I became a part-time travel agent because I love taking free trips.” (“Many people wake up in the morning and say ‘I love to travel … think I’ll be a travel agent’,” says veteran cruise agent and blogger Sharon Emerson.) Another potential sign of trouble: “I bought my agency certification online for only a few hundred bucks — and you can too!” Those so-called “card mills” are problematic. But that’s a topic for another column. And finally, “No need to read the insurance policy, it’ll cover you.” The commissions on travel insurance policies are exceptionally generous, and a bad agent will try to push a policy that may not fully cover your trip.

This is by no means an exhaustive list. But if you’re curious about your agent, it’s a good start.