Help me, Uncle Sam! How to get government assistance when you travel

By | March 28th, 2010

In a perfect world, here’s how it would work: When you run into trouble on the road, you contact the appropriate government agency, and a few days later — problem solved!

For blogger and frequent traveler Gary Arndt, it was a perfect world.

Kind of.

While trying to visit the Pacific island nation of Kiribati recently, he was denied entry because of a visa mix-up.

“Unlike most countries, the visa stamp for Kiribati isn’t a sticker, but literally a rubber stamp with ink and they write the dates it is valid in pen,” he explains. “When I arrived in Kiribati, they denied me entry to the country because the pen ink on the stamp had bled off the page when my passport got wet.”

He fired off an angry letter to the head of the Republic of Kiribati’s tourism ministry, who in turn, contacted the country’s prime minister. And wouldn’t you know it? They changed the rule. Just like that.

“I’m told that if you land in the country and your visa can’t be verified, you can have a three-or four-day grace period,” he says.

Back here in the States, the government does not change laws just like that. And it’s rarely as responsive as the tourism minister of 32 atolls and an island in the central Pacific. More often than not, travelers who complain to the government — particularly the federal government — get such empty promises as “look into the problem,” form letters, or no response at all.

Generally speaking, our government takes a hands-off approach to regulating travel companies and appears to be uncomfortable fielding consumer complaints. For example, the federal government doesn’t really have any meaningful regulatory authority over travel agencies, hotels and rental cars, and exerts minimal influence over airlines and cruise lines. (There’s not enough room to discuss the states, but even there, it’s a hit-or-miss proposition — some states are responsive and effective, others aren’t.)

Related story:   Unfair fares: 5 secrets for avoiding the bait-and-switch

Here are a few tips on when — and how — to effectively complain to the government:

Agency: Federal Aviation Administration

What it does: FAA is responsible for the safety of civilian aviation. Any grievances relating to maintenance improprieties, aircraft incidents or violations of Federal Aviation Regulation, would be handled by the agency.

How to contact it: The agency has one of the most helpful contact pages which not only puts you in touch with the right person at the FAA but also helps with other aviation-related complaints, directing you to the right agency.

Does it work? Sometimes. The FAA has a reasonably good record of responding to complaints, but it doesn’t always do what travelers want it to. Take Bonnie Russell, a San Diego, Calif.-based communications consultant who contacted the agency after her flight was diverted. The reason for being rerouted? A crewmember had fallen ill, causing a spectacle. “Some passengers thought we were crashing because within ten minutes of takeoff, she was on the PA crying,” she recalls. “A couple of people who couldn’t understand what she was saying through her crying thought we were going to crash.” An FAA representative phoned her and promised her the flight attendant would undergo some “retraining.”