Yes, I have a “do not mediate” list – here it is

By | October 14th, 2013

Orhan Cam/Shutterstock
Orhan Cam/Shutterstock
The government maintains a “no fly” list. Car rental companies keep “do not rent” lists. Hotels sometimes blacklist guests. So it probably makes sense that your favorite consumer advocate has a “do not mediate” list.

And since, ahem, I am your favorite consumer advocate, let me admit that I do, in fact, keep such a list.

I’m not afraid to share it with you, either.

The timing of my confession couldn’t be better — or maybe I should say, worse. The word “no” is being thrown around a lot in Washington these days, where everyone from your Tea Party congressman to the House Majority Leader, to the president, seem to be stuck on the word. So our government remains shuttered and we’re racing toward a debt-limit induced recession.

Oh no.

Before I get to the details, here’s a little good news: my list isn’t based on who you are, but on the solvability of your case. In other words, I won’t turn you down because it’s you. I judge all requests not by the color of your loyalty card, but by the content of your question.

(I do have a separate “do-not-quote” list for sources, but I’ll share that with you next week. I’m sure it’ll make a lot of people unhappy. All the more reason to tune in, my friends.)

Here’s my list, and the reason why I can’t help:

Visa or passport problems that led to denied boarding.
Proper paperwork is your responsibility, and yours alone. Even if a travel agent, airline or cruise line gives you bogus advice, it’s still your responsibility.

Missing loyalty points.
Loyalty programs are addictive and expensive for the average consumer. What’s more, they encourage companies to quietly remove necessary amenities and services from ordinary, non-elite customers. If your points were expired or confiscated, then thank the company for doing you a favor, cut up your card, and don’t look back.

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Recently lost or misplaced luggage.
“Help us find our luggage” is one of the worst kinds of complaints, but also unresolvable by an advocate. Think about it. Am I going to tell the airline or cruise line to look harder? I wish I could.

Compensation for delays that resulted in lost vacation or work days.
No, you can’t apply the car rental industry’s “loss of use” principle to your work or vacation. If you missed a day of your hotel stay while you were transiting through foreign airports, write it off as an adventure.

Airline seat comfort issues.
Can of worms, that one. If you’re complaining about the comfort of your economy class seat, I have just one question: Where did you find the time machine that took you here from the ‘70s?

Asking a company to honor an obvious price error.
People who intentionally book “fat-finger” fares are trying to steal. Normally, the passengers who buy them by accident and are offered a refund have absolutely no problem with it. I won’t become an accessory to theft.

Getting a refund for a nonrefundable airline ticket or hotel room.
Although some notable restrictions apply to this rule, I normally can’t get a refund on a nonrefundable travel purchase, no matter what I say. Do I think you deserve one? I might, but rules are still rules.

Airfares that go up after selecting a flight option (caching).
This is one of the most frustrating aspects of buying air travel. Thanks to antiquated technology, it’s possible for you to “see” an airfare or hotel rate that is no longer available. You’ll be offered another fare, almost always higher than the one you wanted. No, it’s not a bait-and-switch. And no, I can’t pressure the airline into lowering the price for you as an exception.

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Any case that’s been referred to a company’s legal department.
Once the lawyers sink their teeth into your case, it’s out of my hands. Seriously, there’s almost nothing I can do. That’s especially true if I’ve been threatened with legal action. It’s in the hands of the lawyers.

Some exceptions apply, of course.

For example, you might be able to make a strong case that a refund rule shouldn’t apply to you. The best appeals don’t involve your personal circumstances (“I’m a single mother and a disabled veteran on fixed income”) but relate to the lack of disclosure about these often incomprehensible restrictions. So, for example, if you can make a persuasive case that the State Department’s site was incorrectly interpreted by an airline gate agent, then that may be a reason for me to get involved.

How I say “no”

Here’s another trick of the trade. I’ve found that telling people “no” often sends them into a fit of rage. How dare I refuse their case? They behave as if I’m their personal problem-solving valet.

Instead of replying with a flat-out rejection, I’ve developed a form response that says I’ll carefully consider the case and get back to the reader if I can help. I also refer the consumer to my frequently asked questions, in which I include the “no mediate” list.

In an ideal world, I wouldn’t have to say “no” to any case — and no problem should be unresolvable. But the world we live and travel in is anything but perfect.

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  • Cybrsk8r

    I agree with all your catagories, except the first one. While it is your responsibility to have the right papers, the cruise line, etc. should be able to tell you what those papers are. If they can’t, then the proper response to your questions, from a cuise line agent, should be, “I don’t know”. “I don’t know” is ALWAYS a better answer than guessing. They shouldn’t guess at an answer just because they don’t want to look stupid.

    As far a TA giving you the wrong info, isn’t that why you use a TA in the first place? So nothing will go wrong.

    Maybe the solution is for the travel industry to quit giving out passport advice. Simply refer their customers to the State Department.

  • sdir

    I’m an infrequent traveler at best, so I actually like it when you occasionally toss in one of the above situations, because I can read about it and learn from it. I like learning what my rights are in a given circumstance and learning what the customer could have done differently, whether in how they corresponded or in simple steps they could’ve taken to protect themselves.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    It’s your list and your time. You take those cases that fit your particular world view. Why someone who’s NOT paying you would get upset is beyond me.

  • LFH0

    I also paused at the first category, albeit for a slightly different reason. I have heard situations in which a passenger has all the proper immigration documentation (e.g., passport, visa), but the carrier nonetheless refuses to permit boarding on the ground that the carrier believes–incorrectly–that the documentation is incomplete. Such would lead to a complaint that a carrier is wrongly denying boarding based on the carrier’s erroneous perception of immigration requirements, rather than actual immigration requirements. A carrier’s erroneous perception is probably something that a consumer advocate could mediate.

  • henare

    You are spending a lot of money on your trip and you want to rely on the word of someone who is making a pittance per hour who has no responsibility for your situation to counsel on the documentation required to travel to specific destination? Craziness.

    I’d make an exception to this for people who were using a real travel agent (and not Orbitz, Travelocity, …) since I think this is part of what you are paying for …

    Referring people to the State Department isn’t even the default correct answer (if the customer isn’t a US passport holder then it certainly isn’t).

  • I should have prefaced the list by saying that even though I sympathize with someone who was turned away at the border, it’s usually an unsolvable case for me. Who’s going to refund the flight or cruise?

  • johnb78

    I agree you shouldn’t mediate cases turned away at the border. However, those are extremely rare.

    Far more common are those where airlines turn away valid documentation before boarding, in which case it’s entirely reasonable to expect them to pay up.

    The BBC featured a case along these lines last week:


    I agree with Chris on the passport/paperwork issue when people are turned away at the border or at boarding. Travelers can be told everything they need but still manage to show up with missing or wrong documentation. Requirements can and do change and it is up to the traveler to get the correct paperwork. Yes, air carriers can make mistakes, but more often the mistake is made by the traveler and there is nothing that can solve that problem immediately.

  • Freehiker

    “People who intentionally book “fat-finger” fares are trying to steal. Normally, the passengers who buy them by accident and are offered a refund have absolutely no problem with it. I won’t become an accessory to theft.”


  • Judy Serie Nagy

    Good for you! Spend your efforts on assisting people who really have been harmed; not just those who have done dumb things and want help … when they should have asked someone for advice before they did the dumb thing. Besides, it makes for a MUCH BETTER and more entertaining/educational column!

  • Nigel Appleby

    In a really ideal world there would be no problems and you would be out of work Chris, well as an ombudsman anyway. But that would be a boring world to live in. Keep up the good work and your list makes sense to me.

  • Barfeld

    Perhaps it’s not worth your while to mediate the “caching” problem, but the fact remains that there’s something very seamy about it. First of all, the main reason for the “caching” problem is that airlines create dizzying arrays of fares, charging different prices to different passengers, in an effort to squeeze extra dollars out of anyone willing to pay more. The first question is whether this is a scheme that deserves support.

    Secondly, there’s the question of “who should suffer” if an airline markets its products using software that systematically supplies erroneous price information. Should it be the consumer, who has no control over the situation and can’t do anything about it? Or should it be the airline, which ought to be responsible for its own marketing representations? By putting the onus on the consumer, the airline ends up getting a free pass to lure in consumers using “inadvertently” (though systematically) understated prices

  • DavidYoung2

    Had a fight with Delta on this three weeks ago. Had a valid Brazil visa in an expired passport. Was told the US passport number on the Brazil visa had to match the passport I was using. Fortunately, my smartphone found the page on the Brazil consulate website that said my visa was still valid – just bring both passports.

  • Gerald Vineberg

    No problem. I do not know how you do what you do now!!!

  • Raven_Altosk

    I would like to see “cases referred by those who are not actually involved” added to the list. Y’know, “My father/wife/cousin/dog…” stories. If someone can’t be bothered to contact you on their own, then the case should be moot.

  • Raven_Altosk

    This x 1000

  • Asiansm Dan

    Understandable. Nobody want to handle the In-laws affairs.

  • LFH0

    Sometimes the people affected are not competent to be able to act effectively on their own (e.g., minors, mentally retarded, non-English speaking).

  • sunshipballoons

    “Here’s another trick of the trade. I’ve found that telling people “no” often sends them into a fit of rage. How dare I refuse their case? They behave as if I’m their personal problem-solving valet.

    Instead of replying with a flat-out rejection, I’ve developed a form response that says I’ll carefully consider the case and get back to the reader if I can help. I also refer the consumer to my frequently asked questions, in which I include the “no mediate” list.”

    Wait, you use that in cases where you already know you won’t mediate? So you lie to the person who writes you? If you’re not going to mediate, you should tell them “no.”

  • Joe_D_Messina

    I know that’s one of your pet peeves, Raven, but it’s usually pretty obvious why the third party is contacting Chris. Typically, it’s a parent who paid the bill for their kid or the child of an elderly parent, with the occasional case where somebody was the main organizer of a trip so he feels like he should be the one to try and fix things. If the problem is legitimate, I don’t see how the messenger is relevant, just as long as they can provide complete and accurate information to Chris.

  • Joe_D_Messina

    I agree with this. If it’s a certainty that no help is coming, it’s far better to tell the person that straight up rather than stringing them along. A definitive answer allows the person to move along and ultimately will cause fewer hard feelings than if people are left in limbo, wondering why they’ve never heard anything back.

  • omgstfualready

    Agreed on the non-english speaking. The other examples listed are not legally allowed to be entering into contracts in the first place though…

  • omgstfualready

    This is more than reasonable. Those having the nerve to think they deserve a refund on their non-refundable fares/rates because THEIR situation is unique and special make me dizzy with annoyance. This cuts to the meat of consumer advocacy!

  • LFH0

    It may be that others may not be able to enforce contracts against minors, but minors can usually enforce contracts against others. So if a minor purchases a transportation ticket from A to B, and the carrier fails to perform, the minor can probably enforce the transportation contract against the carrier. And in that circumstance, a minor might not be able to act effectively on their own . . . and the minor’s parent might be the best person to communicate the problem to Mr. Elliott.

  • Jeanne_in_NE

    I don’t think I’d go so far as calling it a “lie”. I do think that perhaps the form response saying, in effect, “no” is a little too subtle. Everyone thinks that they are special, that their circumstance is special, that they are the exception to the FAQ “no mediate” list. So I think the subtlety is lost on those people who persist in demanding help when they clearly fall into the “no mediate” list.

    Look at it from Chris Elliott’s point-of-view. If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you’ve probably noticed the anguished set of articles on the missing 10,000 emails, as in Chris expressing his anguish that he didn’t get the emails or respond to those people on a timely basis. Chris does what he does out of a strong sense of justice and a gift for knowing how to obtain or ask for that justice. Imagine if you had those qualities regularly stomped on – I’ll bet you’d work out a way to not have to endure any more stomping. Telling CE to develop a thicker skin would damage those qualities that we’ve admired (and sometimes castigated).

    I agree that the “no” should be a little more clearly worded, but perhaps we should offer an alternative wording for him, rather than scolding him. My brain is fried right now, but perhaps you and others could craft an acceptable “no” for consideration?

  • Cybrsk8r

    Well, I don’t know which gov’t agency would be the right one. Since I’ll never take a cruise, I really don’t care.

  • omgstfualready

    Very true. Thanks!

  • Carver Clark Farrow


  • Carver Clark Farrow


  • Annie M

    A lot of people don’t know that Canadian Immigration can turn you away from entering the country if you have any kind of DWI or DUI on your records (and several other issues). No one can tell a traveler if they will or won’t be permitted to enter a country even if they have a passport. It IS up to the passengers to know the rules and what they are up against.

  • Annie M

    A TA can tell you what paperwork you need, but if you have an DUI’s, DWI’s, or convictions under your belt you can be denied boarding and a TA has absolutely NOTHING to do with that. It is up to every travelers to know whether they can be denied boarding based upon whatever skeletons they may have in their closets. A good agent can tell you the documents you need but we aren’t mind readers and know your backgrounds. Unless you’d like us to ask “do you have any convictions we need to know about?”

  • Annie M

    They can also be denied if they have any convictions of a crime on their records or even a DWI or DUI. Only the traveler would know that.

  • Meredith Putvin

    “Some exceptions apply, of course” would be a good fall back on here. If it is a case of the airline agent goofing up at the time of board, then yes, mediate should be on the table. Chris is not saying this list is absolute, just that he typically cannot mediate such cases, but exceptions can apply.

  • cowboyinbrla

    I have no problem with the concept of a “do not mediate” list but I would also suggest some rethinking.

    With regard to the caching problem on websites: if airlines really wanted to be fair about it, they could use this “issue” to be up front and proactive with their customers. When an airfare search is conducted, the response could include a cookie that “timestamps” the results. When the fares are displayed, include a prominent notice that this fare is good for a minimum of X minutes (it may be available for weeks, but it’s guaranteed for, say, 5 minutes). When you book, the server checks the timestamp of the search, and if it’s within the limit, the fare is honored. If not, a fresh search is conducted to confirm the fare is still available in the “bucket” of fares, and if not, a message is displayed that the time expired and during the interim that fare sold out.

    Second: I get that you think loyalty programs are a losing bet, considering the way they’re devalued. But the reality is, first, they’re money makers for the airlines, so second, they’re not going away, and thus third, if you are flying, or buying something you would buy anyway and can get miles for it, you might as well. In my case, I don’t worry about getting enough to get “status” because I don’t fly that much and I know I’ll never succeed. But they build up, and every two years or so I can take a free flight somewhere. I don’t expect Hawaii for 25,000 miles in the high season, but with realistic expectations I can usually find a flight somewhere I’d like to go for the base level. Given that: why SHOULDN’T I demand that the airlines honor the promise of whatever points/miles they said I’d earn? That doesn’t mean you should mediate every missing points case, but (and this is fourth) if the airlines DID get rid of miles, you can guarantee they wouldn’t use any savings from not giving free flights to make the experience nicer for paying customers. Since they only really let you get seats for free that they don’t think they can sell anyway, no wonder they’re money-makers for the airlines.

  • Stan Prus

    Well, I would agree with the airline seat comfort rule,but. A lot of international airlines (especially Lufthansa) sell economy seats as business class and think they can get away with it just by posting a sign that say “business class” at the front of an economy seat section.

  • y_p_w

    The US State Dept isn’t likely to know all visa requirements, especially since they can change quite often. In any case, they’ll tell you it’s your responsibility to find out what the requirements are. There are also entities (I use this term because of the complexity of recognition of sovereignty) that the US government doesn’t recognize. Additionally, most government agencies are shut down now, although Customs is still operating.

  • llandyw

    They don’t even need to do that. All the airlines need to do is to have pages expire immediately. Another method is to use a meta tag that turns off caching for the pages that need frequent updates. A simple (remove the single quotes) line on a page will disable caching and the problem is solved. Simple, but it seems they want it to occur anyway or this one simple line would be included.

  • Cybrsk8r

    So the cruise line can’t tell me, the State Dept. can’t tell me. So I guess I’ll just ask my Ouija board. Good thing I’ll never take a cruise.

  • cowboyinbrla

    That wouldn’t solve the problem of getting a fare quote, starting the purchase process, and finding it sold out before you finish – which can happen even without caching. My point was that no fare should be offered unless that fare is guaranteed to be available for a minimal amount of time, a time sufficient to complete the transaction. More than once I’ve gone to purchase a fare, done a search (with NOTHING in cache, and found that fare wasn’t available by the time I finished typing in the relevant information.

  • bodega3

    That happens on the GDS, too. Unless you book and end the record, all you are doing is holding the space which could be sold from under you by someone who is faster than you.

  • TMMao

    Even with caching, the customer still has the opportunity to back out of the transaction, so who really suffers? Usually, the website offers at least one confirmation page if not two before processing the transaction. And even then, there is still the 24-hr cancellation opportunity.

  • dcta

    As a professional Travel Agent, I have to say that it IS my responsibility to apprise you (both ethically and in fact, legally) of passport and visa requirements. What you do with the information I give you is then your responsibility.

    AND I can get all the information as it is at the time of booking, if you are booking 6 months out, I try to re-check all that about 60 days out – things can change.

    AND your cruiseline, air carrier, tour operator can do the same if you choose to book directly with them. AND Orbitz and Expedia do have the same responsibility to apprise you as I do.

    The real fly in the ointment? Consumers who don’t tell me the truth about their status before they buy – like their actual names, their immigration status, whether there are possible bench warrants out against them, etc…

  • dcta

    Use a real Travel Agent who uses a GDS.

  • dcta

    No! Chris MUST be saying that this is his response to EVERY query, not specific ones.

  • dcta

    Again, a Travel Agent using a GDS does not have this problem.

  • Lindabator

    While I agree in spirit – clients don’t ALWAYS give you all the facts (can’t seem to give you a name as it appears on your passport even after arguing repeatedly, then saying OOPS when you get a copy of the passport and its wrong). So although you SHOULD get the right information, when you KNOW you have a special circumstance, the consulate is your best bet for the information.

  • Lindabator

    OH – good one! And don’t even attempt to leave the country with a hold for back child support! And NO – the client isn’t always forthcoming, even when you give a few examples.

  • Lindabator

    You need proper paperwork for international travel as well. Always refer to the consulate for current information on that country.

  • Lindabator

    But the Consulate of the country CAN tell you what’s required – and NOT just for cruisers, but ANY international travel.

  • Lindabator

    But most never HAVE the full story, which only adds more problems along the way.

  • dcta

    Actually Bo – and I know you know this – you’re not even holding the space unless you end the record.

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