Here are the best consumer travel protections you’ve never heard of

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By Christopher Elliott

If you’re an experienced traveler, maybe you know about the Department of Transportation’s 24-hour rule for airline ticket purchases, or EC 261, the European consumer protection regulation for air travelers, or the Fair Credit Billing Act.

But what about the cruise bill of rights? The flat-tire rule? The Lanham Act?

Turns out there are a lot of rules, regulations and policies that benefit travelers. Travel companies sometimes go to great lengths to avoid mentioning that you have rights, and sometimes they even deny your rights. That’s because it could cost them money in the form of refunds or penalties.

First, just in case you didn’t know:

  • The 24-hour rule generally allows customers to cancel airline ticket reservations within 24 hours of making the booking and receive a full refund.
  • EU 261 is the European regulation that makes airlines pay customers with delayed flights. And again, certain exceptions apply.
  • The Fair Credit Billing Act safeguards customers against fraudulent credit card purchases. It enables them to contest unauthorized charges.

You knew all that, didn’t you? But how about these:

The Lanham Act

This is a federal statute with a broad scope. It states that anyone making a “false or misleading description of fact” is breaking the law. Specific to travel, it forbids a company from misrepresenting the “nature, characteristics, qualities, or geographic origin” of goods, services or commercial activities. In other words, if a hotel room isn’t as advertised online or if a tour doesn’t live up to its billing, it may run afoul of federal law. Similarly, when car rental agents imply that insurance is mandatory and offer to upsell you on their pricey policy, that could technically be a violation.

The cruise bill of rights

“Most cruise passengers don’t know they have a bill of rights set forth by the cruise lines,” says Tanner Callais, editor of the cruise website Cruzely.com. The bill of rights, adopted by the industry in 2013 to avoid more formal government regulation, gives passengers the right to leave a docked ship if it can’t provide essentials such as food, water, bathroom facilities and medical care. It also grants passengers the right to a full refund for a trip canceled because of mechanical failures and a partial refund for trips cut short. The bill also commits to providing customers with “timely” updates regarding any changes in a ship’s itinerary. These changes could be due to a mechanical failure or an emergency. It is legally enforceable because it’s part of your contract with the cruise line.

The flat-tire rule

According to this rule, if you’re delayed and miss your flight (due to reasons like traffic), you can go standby. This applies as long as you arrive within two hours of the flight’s departure. Although I’ve seen this rule invoked by passengers on a regular basis, none of the airlines publicize this rule on their websites. Former and current airline employees state that certain airlines, though not all, include this rule in their internal manuals. They also mention referencing it during agent training. I’ve questioned airlines about it on numerous occasions. For example, when I visited United Airlines a few years ago, the company’s senior vice president of customer experience confirmed that it did, indeed, exist. However, even when airlines have a “flat-tire rule,” it can be unevenly applied by agents, so invoking it won’t always do you much good.

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Rental-car upgrade and reciprocity rules

Like the flat-tire rule, company policies on rental-car upgrades and reciprocity are not readily available to the public. Yet, industry insiders confirm their existence. I’ve personally utilized them multiple times. So, here’s the deal: If you book a car class and it’s unavailable, you’re entitled to a complimentary upgrade to the next available class. If the location runs out of cars, it will pay for a comparable car from a competitor. Both of these are standard practices, and often formalized as internal policies.

Regulators are adding more rules and regulations that could potentially benefit travelers. For example, a few years ago, Josh Summer, a Dallas guitarist, discovered a line in the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 that required airlines to allow passengers to carry violins, guitars or other musical instruments in the aircraft cabin, “without charging the passenger a fee in addition to any standard fee that carrier may require for comparable carry-on baggage.”

“As a musician, I have been very thankful for that obscure rule,” Summer says.

Do the rules really work?

Yes, this column is filled with regular examples of how the 24-hour rule, the Fair Credit Billing Act and EU 261 can help travelers.

Even the lesser-known regulations demonstrate their effectiveness every day. Do you recall the 2008 YouTube video titled “United Breaks Guitars”? The video criticized the airline’s mishandling of the band’s guitars in the cargo hold. Since the passage of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act, complaints sent to me about damaged instruments have virtually disappeared. Similarly, the cruise bill of rights was initially criticized by consumer advocates for being insufficient. However, it has significantly decreased the complaints I’ve received about service issues on cruise ships.

A polite reminder of these relatively obscure policies — many of which have existed for years — is often all that it takes to secure that upgrade or rebooking.

Taken together, the rules and regulations offer necessary protections for travelers. It’s also a cautionary note for those seeking to eliminate the limited safeguards that keep us protected.

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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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