Trouble on the road? Maybe the government can help (seriously)

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Donald Lessard did a double take when he saw the name on his airline ticket: “Donald Jeffries.”

“I called American Airlines when I noticed the incorrect name,” says his fiancée, Jamie Jeffries. After multiple queries, the airline agreed to fix the mistake if she paid a $200 change fee. She refused.

“It’s not a change,” says Jeffries, a writer based in Santa Cruz, Calif. “It’s a correction. Besides, it wasn’t our mistake. I made the reservation through Hotwire.”

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Think you know how this one ends? Let me guess. Does it have something to do with me contacting American or Hotwire and solving the problem?

Don’t I wish.

True, I got in touch with American, which told me to call Hotwire – tag, you’re it! Hotwire tried to correct the mistake, spending what seemed like hours on the phone with the airline. But here’s how the couple fixed their ticket: Jeffries contacted her U.S. congressman, Sam Farr, D-Calif. His office intervened on her behalf, reaching out to American’s government affairs office.

Problem solved.

As it turns out, the government routinely helps travelers, and if the cases I hear of are any indication, it’s doing so more often. The State Department is perhaps the biggest advocate for travelers. But elected representatives often extend a helping hand to constituents who are on the road, even for seemingly small issues such as ticket changes.

Jane Watkins recalls the time her brother, Glen, and his friends were lost at sea. While sailing from St. Croix to St. Thomas, their boat suddenly took on water and flipped. A Royal Caribbean ship, the Jewel of the Seas, rescued them and offered a lift to St. Maarten. They weren’t allowed back to the USA because they had no travel documents. “Their passports were at the bottom of the ocean,” Watkins says. After three days of bureaucratic wrangling, Watkins called her congresswoman.

“They were allowed home that day,” she says.

Elected representatives often have special access to travel companies or government agencies. What’s more, there doesn’t appear to be any limit to the kind of services they offer. I’ve seen them get involved in issues as minor as airline seat assignments.

The State Department, which operates the American embassies and consulates around the world, is the go-to resource for Americans traveling overseas. Besides the standard services, such as issuing passports and visas and publishing information about international destinations, it gives travelers assistance they might not expect from a government agency.

For example, if you’re arrested overseas, did you know a consular official will visit you in prison to make sure you’re being treated fairly? During natural disasters, the State Department will ensure you get home. When Hurricane Odile hit Mexico’s Baja Peninsula in September, for instance, the agency evacuated Americans from Cabo San Lucas.

Does the State Department fix tickets? Not really, says Karen Christensen, the deputy assistant secretary for Overseas Citizens Services. “On the other hand, a lot of what we do involves personal interaction with Americans who are in distress,” she says. “We help people who get themselves in very difficult situations.”

Those scenarios include helping relatives repatriate the body of someone who dies overseas or finding emergency medical care when an American citizen falls ill.

But your congresswoman and the State Department are not government concierge services. And they don’t always work as expected.

For every success story, there’s an occasional complaint about long waits or bureaucratic hassles. Jessica Pociask, who owns a tour operator called Want Expeditions, remembers being trapped in Mali with a group of clients during the coup in 2012. She contacted the American Embassy, told staffers where they were and asked for help.

The embassy response? Stay put.

“Interesting experience, to say the least,” she says. “The guy from the embassy had no idea about what was going on, and there was absolutely no attempt to try to reach us after he promised a callback.”

Pociask escaped through Burkina Faso with the help of private contacts. She says she registers with the State Department when she leads a tour, just in case it hits the kind of roadblock the agency can help with.

Well, no one said the system was perfect. But if you run into trouble while you’re on vacation, it’s nice to know the government might have your back.

Should the government help travelers?

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How to get help

Contact your senator or representative. Lawmakers have back channels they can work, particularly with the State Department or with a large company such as an airline or hotel. Find yours at house.gov/representatives/find/

If you’re traveling overseas, get in touch with the State Department. It’s the agency that protects and assists U.S. citizens traveling abroad. You can get more information at travel.state.gov

Consider extra protection. A medical evacuation or travel insurance policy can help you when the government is unable to. Also, hire a competent travel agent, who may be able to assist when something goes wrong.

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