5 worst things that can happen to a traveler

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By Christopher Elliott

What’s the worst thing that can happen to a traveler? A traffic accident? Terrorist hijacking? Hotel fire? Travel is risky, of course. But there’s just no way of knowing when your number will be up, and your plane will go down.

There are other worst-case scenarios that aren’t as random. I’m talking about preventable incidents that might — and probably will — happen to you on your next trip. Things you can anticipate. Things you should anticipate.

Here are the five worst, along with my suggestions for sidestepping them:

1. In the air: a creeping delay

Have you ever sat in a terminal — or worse, on a plane — and been assured by a bored voice on the public address system that your flight will leave “any minute”? Then, half an hour later, there’s another announcement promising “just ten more minutes” until wheels-up. Followed by an update half an hour later that you’ll depart in a few moments?

It’s called a creeping delay. Airlines used to do their best to prevent them because they drove passengers quietly mad. But this year, strangely, creeping delays have been re-imagined as a tool to deflect the anger of air travelers and divert attention from the incompetence of air carriers. With each update, another party is blamed for the delay: air traffic controllers, the weather, lack of available gates. By the time the flight actually departs, passengers are so confused that they don’t know where to direct their wrath. Mission accomplished!

No one tracks creeping delays, but there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence that they’re being used with greater frequency. In extreme cases, customers can be strung along for many hours.

You can avoid a creeping delay by refusing to play along. If you’re waiting for a flight to board, be aware of the rules about delays. At some point during a mechanical delay, the airline owes you a meal and hotel — and don’t be shy about calling an airline’s bluff. The airline rules, also known as the contract of carriage, can be found on your carrier’s Web site.

2. At the hotel: a bad room at a bogus price

Imagine the worst possible room at a hotel. You know, the one between the elevator and ice machine, under the disco and above the kitchen. Who gets the keys to these coveted quarters? Why, you do — if you booked the room from the wrong site. Even the best properties routinely send guests who made reservations through a discount Web site to these hotel rooms from hell. The practice has been around for years, but with soaring hotel occupancy levels, anyone stuck in these undesirable accommodations are being given two choices. Accept the room or check out — and lose the money you prepaid for the room.

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Worse than that (as if that isn’t bad enough) is that the rate you thought you were going to pay isn’t the real price. No, there are lodging taxes that are added to your bill, and they’re used to fund everything from new basketball arenas to wildlife museums. Add to that resort fees and plenty of unexpected little extras, such as surcharges for the delivery of faxes and parcels to your room.

If you’re booking your hotel room through a site called toogoodtobetruerooms.com and found a steal for $19 a night, then you should expect to get the worst room in the house.
Is there a way around it? Yes. Call ahead and tell them you’re a light sleeper or have mobility issues or have a pathological fear of ice machines. Anything to get you away from the worst room in the house. And while you’re at it, ask for a total price for your accommodations. So that you won’t be surprised when the bill is slipped under your door the morning before you check out.

3. On the road: a fake damage claim on your rental

Surprise surcharges are as common in the car rental business as they are at hotels. But you don’t find hotel staff combing through your room after you check out, to make sure you didn’t put a nick in your furniture or crack the toilet seat. But in a perverted effort to squeeze more money from their customers, that’s exactly what car rental companies are doing. They send an associate to look for any dings or dents and then mail you a bill, regardless of what they find.

There are at least two reasons why car rental companies send you fraudulent or inflated bills for damage to your car after you’ve returned a vehicle. First, they don’t care if you ever come back. They believe you will always make a purchasing decision based on price alone. As long as they offer the lowest rate, they’ll get your business anyway. And second, and maybe more significantly, car rental companies just don’t know how to make money. Their margins are razor-thin, their fleets are difficult to manage, their employees are impossible to retain. The only way to make their numbers is go after you for a quick buck.

Fortunately, fighting back is relatively easy. A polite written response to a bill that you think isn’t legit, asking for additional proof, is often all it takes for the company to make a metaphorical U-turn. These types of car rental claims are often poorly documented. Just to show you mean business, CC the attorney general and the insurance commissioner for the state you rented the car in.

4. In a restaurant: a vindictive server

Look, I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not the best tipper. I think the reason I’m bad at this is that no one ever tells us how much to tip. They leave it to our discretion, which is not a smart thing.

But that’s no excuse for the way in which some servers have been behaving lately. And I’m not just talking about the blog war over a 10 percent tip that recently broke out in Seattle. Stanley Roberts, who runs a terrific restaurant site called We8there says even fast food eateries have been hitting up their patrons for tips. “Oh give me a break,” he says.

Yes, give us a break.

Nothing ruins a restaurant meal like a server who is steamed at the last guest who didn’t tip enough. And if that doesn’t leave you with a bad taste in your mouth, imagine how you’ll feel when you’re outed on a site like Bitter Waitress or Lousy Tippers. I don’t think anyone can argue that the way in which service-industry employees are compensated in the United States is in desperate need of reform. Until then, those of use who don’t want to tip have the option of enjoying a home-cooked meal. Those of us who do, and aren’t sure how much to tip — there’s absolutely nothing wrong with asking.

5. At sea: a norovirus outbreak

When you put a lot of people into the same place, like a hospital, school or cruise ship, you’re going to have the inevitable outbreak of a gastrointestinal virus or two. But cruise ships seem to have more than their fair share, if media reports are to be believed. No vessel, not even the famed Queen Elizabeth 2, has been spared. To get an idea of how infection-prone your cruise ship is, check out the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s cruise line inspection reports. (Hint: click on “85 or lower” to get the names of the flunkies.)

The cruise industry insists it is doing its best to keep ships clean, and I want to believe it. But the reality is that during late winter, at the peak of the outbreak season, dozens of ships are ravaged by norovirus, and thousands of passengers are infected. Many guests are quarantined in their cabins and become virtual prisoners at sea. Short of the ship sinking, a gastrointestinal illness is probably the worst thing that can happen to you on a cruise. Believe me, I know. It’s happened to me.

How do you avoid an infection?

Pick the cleanest ship (see the CDC scores), wash your hands frequently while you’re onboard and avoid the worst time of the year for outbreaks, which seems to be January through March. (Here’s how to plan your next cruise.)

In an earlier column, I talked about five rules that the industry should do away with. To which many of you responded, “You found just five?” Actually, there were many more. And I suspect you have a similar list of the worst things that can happen to you while you’re on the road. Not to mention the worst travel mistakes that you have ever made. Send me an e-mail and let’s compare notes.

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on X, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter.

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