Publish date:

THE TRAVELER'S BILL OF RIGHTS Here's how you can get everything you are entitled to from resorts, hotels, inns, travel agents and tour operators.

All travelers may have undeniable rights to the comfort and
convenience they pay for, but that hardly means suppliers
automatically deliver. ''You must + assert yourself,'' says San
Francisco travel attorney Alexander Anolik. ''The squeaky wheel, in
this case, will get better lodging -- or a refund.''
All too often, people who vigilantly guard their consumer rights
at home turn into wimps on the road. They don't complain enough. The
American Society of Travel Agents, the trade group for 20,000 firms
nationwide, receives a mere 85 complaints a month from customers and
travel representatives involving bungled reservations, shoddy service
or misleading advertising.
No one should settle for second-rate service. Your best protection
is to take the initiative, be specific about your requirements and
then, upon arrival, politely demand fulfillment of every promise you
To give you more clout, we queried industry experts, trade groups
and attorneys to draft this bill of rights. Here is how to get what
you deserve:
-- Get the room you booked, not the room they want to give you.
Basically, hotels should be made to honor your reservations. Start by
learning about the hotel's policies. Ask specific questions, because
reservation clerks rarely volunteer information on booking procedures
or services. They won't tell you, for instance, that hotels often
overbook to compensate for the one out of every seven reserved guests
who typically doesn't show up.
Specify the kind of room you want: nonsmoking, quiet, near the
lobby -- or whatever. Ask for written confirmation. Keep in mind,
though, that if you request a special feature, like a view, it could
cost 5% to 10% more.
For the best results, make an effort to arrive as close to
check-in time as possible, usually around noon. Your chances of
negotiating a preferred room or better rate are 25% to 50% greater
during the day than at night.
-- Make the hotel liable. Unlike the airline and rail industries,
hotels, resorts, inns and other lodging establishments are not
regulated by federal or state laws nor by an industrywide code of
ethics. Still, you can ensure the hotel's contractual obligation by
mailing or faxing a short, binding agreement to the general manager,
confirming what you've been told. The manager or assistant manager
will usually reply. To avoid hassles at check-in time, bring along
copies of both letters.
Attorney Alexander Anolik writes a shorthand agreement on the back
of his personal checks. ''The returned check,'' explains Anolik,
''serves as a valid contract.'' Here's his format: ''This is in (full
or partial) payment for (list specific travel services and the range
of chosen dates). Any dispute involving these services shall be heard
by the courts of (list your hometown and state).''
Specifying your local jurisdiction requires the hotel owner (or
whomever) to travel to settle the problem. That way, you avoid
round-trip expenses. Besides, you may not face the most receptive
judge in some resort town. Anolik says that plaintiffs have come out
ahead in roughly 90% of cases involving contracts like his.
-- The hotel should solve problems, not shelve them. Start at the
top. Don't discuss mishaps or mistakes with any hotel employee who
ranks lower than assistant manager. Only managers are responsible for
maintaining the hotel's standards and reputation. Therefore, if your
room is a floor below a noisy nightclub, take the problem to
Be firm -- not hostile. ''Be willing to negotiate, especially in a
foreign hotel,'' says Deborah Hill, author of Travel Tips
International (Renaissance Publications, $12.50). ''In most cases,
it's a question of a hotel manager's honor to satisfy a guest.''
Don't settle for any accommodations or services below the quality
you were originally promised. And don't resign yourself to
misrepresentations -- for example, a resort that promotes two elegant
restaurants though one is merely a bar.
If the manager can't explain discrepancies between what you see
and what you read in an ad or brochure, switch to another hotel if
you can, or pack up and go home. Don't endure it. Upon your return,
send a detailed letter and photos, if possible, to the president of
the hotel or resort company stating the reasons why you should
receive a refund. Explain that you will inform the Better Business
Bureau, local chamber of commerce, the national tourist board (if
applicable) and the press about the false ads if you don't receive an
adequate response. Remember, if you grit your teeth and stay, it will
be tougher for you to justify a refund later.
Take another case. Let's say your guaranteed room is given to
another guest because of overbooking. If so, demand that the hotel
pay for comparable lodging elsewhere. Most hotels will provide
alternative accommodations. For instance, Radisson Hotels has an
estimated two to three overbookings a month at each of its 270
hotels. When that happens, the hotel will arrange to take you to
another hotel and pay for a night's stay and phone calls. The next
day, a Radisson representative will drive you back and give you an
upgraded room at no extra charge.
-- Travel agents are accountable for full disclosure. Since travel
agents make 25% of domestic hotel reservations, and 85% of
international hotel bookings, and advise roughly half of their
customers on where to go, the courts have started to impose legal
standards on agents.
Says Thomas Dickerson, a New York City attorney and author of the
treatise Travel Law (Law Journal Press, $80): ''Travel agents are the
fiduciaries of your trip. They should know the financial condition of
the hotel, resort or tour operator that they recommend and everything
about the destination, from your chances of getting sick to the
likelihood of terrorist activity.''
Marcus vs. Zenith Travel, which was decided last year in New York
State Supreme Court, is one of the most recent precedents. In that
case, Sam Marcus and his wife Renee of Great Neck, N.Y. paid about
$13,000 for a 16-day tour of the Far East. But when they arrived in
Tokyo, they discovered that the tour operator had gone bankrupt and
had not paid for their hotel. The Marcuses, in turn, sued their
travel agent, Zenith, and won.
The court ruled that Zenith had breached its fiduciary duty by
failing to inform the Marcuses of the tour company's financial status
before their trip. Although state laws vary, courts in Illinois, New
Jersey, Ohio and Pennsylvania have recently ruled in favor of
plaintiffs in similar cases.
Don't trust to fate or to the courts, however. When booking
through an agent, inspect your travel package thoroughly. Take notes
of all conversations, and then send a letter confirming the
arrangements. When you receive air tickets and other documents,
scrutinize them closely. One typographical error on the date can cost
you both the room and money.
If things really go awry and you can document the problems, many
agents will refund at least some of your money. Others may offer a
free trip to make up for your troubles.
-- Tour operators should deliver on every part of your package.
Working as wholesalers, tour operators buy blocks of hotel rooms and
airline seats and tailor them into distinct travel packages.
Therefore, before you commit any time or money, read every bit of
fine print on brochures and pamphlets, because these serve as your
contracts with the operator.
Watch for misleading language that may tip you to ''bait and
switch'' schemes. For example, the brochure might describe lodging
''at a leading hotel or similar accommodations.'' If the tour
operator sells more packages than the reserved space at the leading
hotel will accommodate, you may wind up getting dumped in an inferior
To check on whether the tour operator is reputable, call your
local Better Business Bureau. Also call the U.S. Tour Operators
Association (212-944-5727). Says Ann Waigand, publisher of the
Educated Traveler ($65 for 10 issues a year; 703-471-1063): ''Ask the
tour operator if such suppliers as hotels and airlines are paid
through an escrow account, which will secure your money.''
The best advice, besides doing your homework, is to remember to be
firm: You're entitled to the best trip your money can buy. That's
your basic right.