These travel double standards have gotta go!

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You break it, you pay for it. Unless you’re traveling. If they break it, you pay for it, too.

No one knows that better than Vicki Kahl, a homemaker from Johnson City, Tenn., whose checked luggage sustained damage on a recent US Airways flight from Raleigh, N.C., to Phoenix.

“Clothing was hanging out of a large gash on the side,” she remembers. She stood in a long line to file a luggage claim, but eventually had to leave so she wouldn’t miss the last shuttle of the day to Tucson. The airline denied her claim on a technicality; it said she didn’t file within four hours of her arrival, as its policy requires.

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“I am frankly surprised by the undisguised impatience and lack of professionalism that I’ve encountered,” she told me.

That would be one way of seeing it. Here’s another: Travel companies are quick to point the finger at their customers and collect any damages to which they feel entitled, real or perceived. But when the tables are turned, and they’ve damaged something that belongs to you? Not so much.

The travel industry doesn’t just collect actual damages, such as a dented rental car or a cracked hotel room TV. It’s one of the few industries — perhaps the only one — that charges its customers for hypothetical damages. Some of the better-known fictitious damages include an airline seat it could have sold for more (if you don’t believe me, ask your friendly travel agent about debit memos); and a car rental company billing you for “loss of use” (what it could have earned if it didn’t have to repair the car you dented).

Whenever they want to earn a little extra money, it seems they turn the screws a little tighter on customers. What better way of extracting an additional $250 from a guest than accusing them of damaging a room by smoking in it, long after they’ve checked out? Better yet, why not just help yourself to the money in their bank account? That’s what Bea Cooper says happened to her when she checked out of the Holiday Inn Express and Suites Orlando South-Davenport recently.

Cooper, a business development director from Avon Park, Fla., was staying in the room with her two-year-old granddaughter, Ethel, and insists she didn’t smoke. She says she was “never informed” about the cleaning fee that mysteriously appeared on her credit card. No one e-mailed or called her to say, “We’re adding $250 to your bill, and here’s why.” Cooper had to phone the hotel to find out about the charge.

Holiday Inn insists it notified Cooper about its “100% smoke-free” policy, which says smoking is not permitted anywhere inside the hotel, authorizing it to charge her if she did. Cooper agreed to the policy when she checked in.

“The hotel confirmed that the guest signed a registration card,” says Lindsay Cameron, a spokeswoman for the hotel chain.

What if the roles are reversed, and something happens to you or your property? It’s either red tape, like Kahl experienced, or nothing at all. Consider what happened to Alisa Richter, who works for public relations agency in New York, when she visited an upscale hotel in San Francisco this summer for a wedding.

“I was using an adjustable set of hand weights, and one of the disks slid out and landed on my foot,” she says. “They didn’t have a medic on staff, but called over a personal trainer who asked me a few generic-sounding questions, then said very authoritatively that it was probably just a bad bruise. I got the sense he wanted to placate me quickly and move on.”

Actually, her toe was broken. The hotel offered her nothing, no apology, no adjustment of her room rate, and it didn’t even remove the hazardous weights from the gym.

So, to recap: You damage something during your travels — or you leave a travel company with the impression you might have damaged something — and they’ll bill you automatically, and sometimes without telling you. They damage something of yours, and you get red tape, rejections, or nothing at all.

Can you say “double standard”?

If you think something’s wrong with this picture, that makes two of us. But we don’t have to accept these travel industry practices. Kahl’s appeals went unanswered until I contacted US Airways on her behalf. A representative contacted her quickly and processed a claim for a replacement bag.

Too bad they don’t all end like that.

Does the travel industry have too many double standards?

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How to fix a broken trip

Travel companies will fix what’s broken if you know what to do:

Act now. If you see damages to your personal property, the clock is ticking. The sooner you say something, the better the chances a travel company will take responsibility for it.

Get it in writing. Don’t take an employee’s word for it when something is broken. “Don’t worry, we’ll take care of it” isn’t the same thing as a written damage report. Talk is cheap.

Be patient. While some companies will bill you immediately for damage, even if they don’t have a repair invoice to back up the charge, it can take six to eight weeks for them to cut you a check when they’ve hurt something that’s yours. Like I said, double standard.

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