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Risks on the road ahead

Canceled flights, overbooked hotels, civil unrest: How to prepare for the worst.

January 22, 2006|Laurie Berger | Special to The Times

FROM bankruptcies to bedbugs, many of the perils that beset travelers last year still loom large. Perhaps not surprisingly, experts are predicting an equally bumpy 2006.

If that sounds like doom and gloom, take heart. Practically speaking, this year's vacations are more likely to be sidelined by scuttled flights, overbooking and grumpy customer service people than by hotel bombings and bad weather.

To help you travel smarter and safer, we asked the pros about risks that lie ahead.

Here's what they said.

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Airlines

BE prepared for more pain.

Analysts may be calling 2006 the turnaround year for ailing airlines, but consumers won't get a reprieve from last year's flight woes.

Eight carriers are in default, and only United is expected to emerge from bankruptcy this year. "Service will get worse in the near term because airlines still have to conserve costs," said Vaughn Cordle, a Washington, D.C.-based airline analyst and a pilot for a major carrier.

Partly as a result of cost-saving measures, the number of seat miles dropped 3.2% domestically in 2005 from the previous year and is expected to decrease even more in 2006. With fewer spots for a record number of fliers, travelers are at greater risk of being inconvenienced than stranded.

"There's a good chance the nonstop jet you book today may be a connection on a regional plane tomorrow," says travel attorney Jeff Miller of Columbia, Md.

But the single biggest obstacle for travelers will be trying to rebook a canceled or delayed flight at the same price.

"Even if you pay with a credit card and get your money back, you can't replace the great low fare [on] short notice," says Robert Mann, an airline analyst based in Port Washington, N.Y.

Your rights and remedies: When flying with a bankrupt carrier, remember that airlines must honor their contracts of carriage (see the major airlines' contracts at latimes.com/contracts), says David Castelveter, a spokesman for the Air Transport Assn.

"Being in bankruptcy does not give them carte blanche to do whatever they want," he says, "unless they file a motion in Bankruptcy Court to terminate an agreement."

Although consumers have few rights under these contracts, there's one important safety net: If your flight is scrubbed, you're due a full refund -- in cash.

Another protection: If your airline goes belly up, other carriers serving that route must fly you to your destination for no more than $50 round trip under Section 145 of the Aviation and Transportation Security Act, which Congress recently extended for another year.

Beyond that, fliers are at the mercy of the replacement carrier's goodwill -- or lack thereof -- for help with hotels, transportation and other expenses if they're stranded by another airline's bankruptcy.

Avoiding trouble: To dodge schedule changes that cause missed connections, go a day early, says George Delanoy, president of Brea Travel. "Flights are so full and airlines have less schedule, there's no cushion like we had in the past," he says.

Lean on your travel agent. Good online and bricks-and-mortar agencies earn their fees these days rebooking fliers when their flights are canceled or excessively delayed. But don't expect the same from discounters: You've traded service for price.

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Hotels

AFTER years of empty rooms, there's little or no room at the inn.

Lingering effects of Katrina are partly to blame. The hurricane took out about 30,000 New Orleans hotel rooms. Properties across the country are now filled up with relocated conventioneers as well as an estimated 150,000 evacuees.

But with travel rebounding, Smith Travel Research, an industry data provider in Hendersonville, Tenn., is forecasting a 5.5% rate increase, well above the predicted rate of inflation, for the coming year. "It's going to be harder to get a room at the price you want," says Jan Freitag, spokesman for Smith.

But higher rates raise service expectations. "Mid-priced hotels in New York are charging several hundred dollars a night," says Shelly Ransom, manager of hotel relations for the Automobile Assn. of America. "At these prices, customers expect to get the best, but they won't."

Cutbacks on renovations, maintenance, even housekeeping are already rubbing travelers wrong. "I don't know when the last time was I heard a vacuum in a hotel," Ransom says.

Guests in 2006 may find themselves glad they get a room at all. Hotels are getting more aggressive about overbooking, says Bjorn Hanson, a lodging analyst with New York City-based PricewaterhouseCoopers.

"You can expect one in 100 customers with confirmed reservations to be 'walked' [the hotel industry's term for bumping] at big-city hotels midweek," he says.

Your rights and remedies: If you're one of the unlucky guests, the hotel has breached your contract and must pay for another room for you elsewhere. This information is not offered voluntarily, so you must ask.

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