The dangers of dynamic currency conversion

burning dollarProcessing a credit card charge for overseas purchases used to be pretty simple. You swiped your card while on vacation, your bank changed the money from pesos or euros into greenbacks, and the amount you’d spent appeared on your bill. Maybe you paid a small conversion fee, but you also got a competitive exchange rate.

Not anymore. Just ask Jae Cuadra, who recently tried to buy a round-trip train ticket between the Swiss cities of Interlaken and Lauterbrunnen. The purchase, at a train station in Interlaken, went on his Capital One Visa card, which doesn’t charge to convert foreign currencies. But “for the first time, I was offered a choice,” says Cuadra, a registered nurse from Westbury, N.Y. “Did I want to pay in dollars or Swiss francs?”
Continue reading…


Why can’t I transit through London?

Question: I’m an Indian national residing in the United States. I was scheduled to fly from Houston to Mumbai on British Airways recently. My itinerary involved a short stopover in London.

In Houston, while checking in with British Airways, I was denied boarding because my work visa was not stamped in my passport. The original visa stamped in my passport had expired and I was traveling to India in order to get my renewed visa stamped at the U.S. consulate in Mumbai.
Continue reading…


Can this trip be saved? Icelandair’s ESTA snafu strands 18-year-old in UK

Note: I’m starting a new series called “Can this trip be saved?” where you get to vote on whether I mediate a case. Here’s the first installment.

Carrie LaMarr is steamed at Icelandair. Because of a misunderstanding over her son’s visa requirements, he was denied boarding on a flight this summer. He had to stay in Europe two extra days and pay another $905 to fly home.

LaMarr says the mix-up is Icelandair’s fault. Icelandair says it isn’t to blame.

Who’s right? I’ll let each side speak for itself and then tell you why I need your help in deciding what to do next.
Continue reading…


Passenger refunded $2,706 after airline denies mileage credit

singaporeGordon Robertson paid $2,706 for a ticket from Vancouver to Brisbane on Singapore Airlines. Little did he know that the ticket didn’t come with something he — and indeed, most passengers — expect when they book a flight: frequent flier miles.

“I bought the ticket specifically because the airline was a participating Star Alliance member, and gave my Aeroplan number to the travel agency at the time of purchase,” he says. “At the airport, I was told me that the ticket didn’t qualify to earn points.”

Was Robertson out of luck? Well, I’ve tried to mediate cases like this in the past, and I usually fail. The travel agent or airline inevitably points to some obscure fare rule that says miles aren’t included. And that’s it.

Not this time.
Continue reading…


Who pays for a Disney cruise wrecked by Norwalk virus?

Let’s say your cruise is cut short by the outbreak of a gastrointestinal virus. You spend most of your vacation quarantined in your cabin. Should you pay for it?

That’s the kind of question I get from a lot of travelers when their vacations are ruined by circumstances beyond their control.

Take Patricia Branham, whose family was stricken with the dreaded Norwalk virus after they boarded a recent Disney cruise.

Within hours of each other, I fell ill. Next was my 16-year-old granddaughter Sadie. Next, my daughter Amy, followed by my granddaughter’s Hanna, 14, and Addie, 10.

My daughter Amy and granddaughter Sadie had to be taken to the clinic by wheelchair. When I called down for assistance, I was told, “We have two very ill patients that need our attention.” So I waited, and the nurse (who got sick herself) came up to my room to deliver meds. A family member overheard the doctor say “Norwalk Virus,” and that over 200 folks became ill.

We received our letter of 48 hour quarantine — which really didn’t matter as we were sick every remaining day forward, and some remain sick currently. I was with my personal physician on Tuesday and he informed me that if I didn’t improve I would have to go to the hospital and get and IV.

The humiliation we went through was just as bad as the illness. Hanna threw up at the dinner in front of everyone, both our rooms smelled of vomit and diarrhea. Our bedding had to be changed constantly as diarrhea accidents occurred while napping. We had no control of bodily functions and had to make choices to either “sit or lean over the toilet” in the bathroom.

It became very evident that others were falling ill, as the food service was put into “lock down.” All servers had to wear gloves and serve all the food, even the ice cream. To my husband’s horror a food server, in uniform, sick, was coming out of the doctor’s office.

By her account, Disney downplayed the Norwalk outbreak and offered a 15 percent discount for a future cruise.

Most everyone I have chatted to said I am most likely out of luck. I still owed about $6,700 on my Visa and I was able to dispute that amount until they contact Disney. The total was around $10,700 but you can only dispute what you still owe. I was chatting with my travel agent and she said that on another cruise line something like this happened and the were sued by the cruse line for failure to pay.

At least one attempt at a media intervention failed to resolve this issue, and I recommended that Branham sit tight until Visa made a decision on her dispute.

A few weeks later, I got an update.

Disney sent me a formal letter saying I am just out of luck as 1) I should have read the fine print, 2) I didn’t purchase Disney travel insurance. I placed a blog on the Disney Line message board, explaining what happened to us and a few hours later they removed it from their site and blocked me from going back on.

No surprise there. So what of the Visa dispute? Several months later, she sent me another note.

The credit card company sided with us and removed the debt owed. I had purchased a senior trip Insurance and I was covered for the days we were quarantined, which covered my deposit.

We have received two letters from the Disney collection agency demanding their money. We finally sent a rather terse letter back, by registered mail, basically telling them to leave us alone or we would take legal action against them.

Well knock on wood, it has been two months now and all is quiet. Now that could be a good thing or bad thing. I guess I will just have to wait and see. As far as our three granddaughters that we took on the cruise are concerned, they still implore me to never take them on a cruise again.

Hiring a collection agency may seem like such as fashionable thing to do in the travel industry today, but it is really little more than a reflexive response to losing a credit card dispute. I think Branham is probably out of the woods on this matter.

But her case raises an important question: If your vacation goes bad — really bad — should you have to pay?

Visa has answered that question for us: “no.”

I think most courts would side with Branham, too, even though Disney’s cruise contract seems to suggest otherwise.

THE CARRIER AND THE VESSEL SHALL NOT BE LIABLE FOR ANY DELAY, DETENTION, PERSONAL INJURY, ILLNESS, EMOTIONAL DISTRESS, MENTAL SUFFERING, PSYCHOLOGICAL INJURY, DEATH, DAMAGE, DELAY, LOSS OR DETRIMENT CAUSED BY ACT OF GOD, WAR OR WARLIKE OPERATIONS, CIVIL COMMOTIONS, LABOR TROUBLE, INTERFERENCE BY AUTHORITIES, PERILS OF THE SEA, DELAYS IN CONSTRUCTION, MAINTENANCE OR REPAIR OF THE VESSEL OR ANY OTHER CAUSE BEYOND THE CONTROL OF THE CARRIER, FIRE, THEFTS OR ANY OTHER CRIME, ERRORS IN THE NAVIGATION OR MANAGEMENT OF THE VESSEL OR DEFECT IN OR UNSEAWORTHINESS OF HULL, MACHINERY, APPURTENANCES, EQUIPMENT, FURNISHINGS OR SUPPLIES OF THE VESSEL, FAULT OR NEGLECT OF PILOTS, TUGS, AGENTS, INDEPENDENT CONTRACTORS, GUESTS OR OTHER PERSONS ON BOARD NOT IN THE CARRIER’S EMPLOY OR FOR ANY OTHER CAUSE WHATSOEVER EXCEPT THE NEGLIGENCE OF THE CARRIER OR ITS EMPLOYEES ACTING WITHIN THE COURSE AND SCOPE OF EMPLOYMENT.

It’s simple, really. Branham’s family didn’t have a magical cruise that Disney’s brochure promised. As far as their credit card company is concerned, they shouldn’t have to pay for it.


Bank insists $1,390 gas bill is correct — now what?

Remember last year’s soaring gas prices? Annette Lazzarotto will never forget them. She paid $1,390 for a single tank of gas on a visit to Italy. What’s worse, her bank insisted the charges were legit, and billed her for the full amount.

It happened at a gas station on Via Cassia near our hotel. As it was “my turn” to pay for the gas and not noticing this error, I signed the receipt which was then charged to my Visa card. While obtaining the gas we noticed the attendant to be very different from all other stops at gas stations. He appeared nervous, rushing around and gruff with us. Although curious, we ignored the behavior as we always present ourselves with deference while traveling as visitors in foreign countries.

Sure enought, when Lazzarotto returned to the States, she found a $1,390 charge on her Visa bill.

I contacted my Schools Federal Credit Union Visa, which obtained a copy of the signed receipt and explained because it was signed they could not help me. I was told I had to contact the company myself regarding the dispute. I found the station and the parent station and through a Web search e-mailed representatives who admitted the error and initially discussed the process of crediting my account through several e-mails of various department levels at the parent company-ERG Petroli SPA.

I then provided Visa with all the copies of e-mails from this company in Italy (as my problem was forwarded to several staff). All e-mails demonstrated the company’s willingness to credit or provide a money wire to my bank account. I was then told by my bank that now that I had obtained agreement to credit the money they would take over and handle it.

After the Visa dispute department apparently “lost” my entire file, I was asked to send it again through my Credit Union in February. I provided copies of all the documents to Visa only to receive a letter this June that the ERG Petroli corporate office does not have authority to issue credits on behalf of the individual merchant location, and the location refused to issue the credit.

What next?

Well, the Fair Credit Billing Act doesn’t protect you for overseas purchases, so Lazzarotto needed to take the matter up with one of the companies — Visa, Schools Federal Credit Union or ERG Petroli. I recommended that she take her bank to small claims court to recover the $1,000 or so she was charged.

Yesterday, I heard back from her.

The process was quite simple as the courts provide online forms to complete with support for writing the “demand” letter. I sent this to my credit union who informed me they would turn it over to their attorneys. Within a week, a CEO at the credit union called me to say they would pay the charge and “they do not like their customers to have to experience fraud like that.” Interesting they were letting me experience that fraud for 16 months as I fought with them and their Visa dispute department to no avail.

I learned to check and keep all receipts as I travel and to not hesitate to use the small claims court process even against a large company.

That’s a great lesson learned — and a long overdue, but happy, ending.