Travel blacklists: Turning tables on the industry

Maybe you’ve heard about Jason Puerner, or someone like him.

Puerner, a transportation planner from Lakewood, Colo., says he recently rented a Chevrolet Cruze with a pre-existing scratch from Enterprise. After returning the vehicle, he refused to cough up $412 for repairs and ended up on the company’s infamous “Do Not Rent” list.

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“They also threatened collections or legal action if I don’t pay my bill,” he says.

Blacklists are common in the travel business. Airlines keep lists of passengers who are forbidden from flying, hotels have comparable do-not-stay lists, and most prominently, car rental companies have no-rent lists.

Here’s something you probably haven’t heard: Some industry organizations are starting to keep tabs on companies that misbehave. And they’re reporting them publicly. The results could help you have a better travel experience.

Puerner’s blacklisting was a mistake, as indeed some listings are. Who can forget the government report that found more than one-third of the names on the federal government’s terrorist watchlist are based on outdated information?

After I contacted Enterprise on his behalf, it rechecked its records. Sure enough, a previous renter’s records verified that the scratch was there before he rented the Chevy.

“We sincerely apologize for the confusion, inconvenience and misunderstanding,” an Enterprise representative told him.

When it comes to tracking the bad players, one of the most progressive trade groups is the American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA). For years, it kept a list of “logo violators” — companies that claimed to be ASTA members but weren’t.

The process behind the list is noteworthy.

“When a consumer sends us a question or complaint about a company, I always start by verifying its membership in ASTA,” explains Genevieve Strand, ASTA’s manager for government and industry affairs. “If it is using the ASTA logo and is in fact not a member, that initiates our logo violation process.”

Typically, that begins with a strongly worded “cease and desist” letter to the agency warning that its unauthorized use of the logo misleads consumers. The logo violators aren’t just falsely claiming affiliation with ASTA; in some cases, they’re also ripping consumers off. I know because I’ve had complaints about a few of them from travelers.

For years, ASTA listed only a handful of companies and almost never spoke openly about the list. Now, under a new emphasis on helping consumers, it actively promotes its roster of rogue agents and its efforts to help travelers.

Some travel organizations are more discreet in outing bad operators, preferring to do it by exclusion. Consider the U.S. Tour Operators Association (USTOA) member list, available on its site. The USTOA requires each member to set aside $1 million of its own funds to protect consumers’ deposits and payments against losses arising from bankruptcy, insolvency or cessation of business of that member company.

I’ve talked with USTOA officials about their member list several times, and although they won’t say the non-members could be problematic, I will. If you’re considering a tour and don’t see a USTOA membership, I’d advise extra steps to protect yourself, such as a good travel insurance policy.

The more interesting question: Which industry organizations don’t name the bad players?

  • Airlines, represented by Airlines For America (A4A), don’t report the carriers that enrage customers with bogus fees and bad service. An A4A representative said reporting on underperforming airlines is best left to the government. (Oh, I know what you’re thinking — if they did, they’d all be on the list. But seriously, wouldn’t it help to name the worst of the worst?)
  • The car rental industry, represented by the American Car Rental Association (ACRA), doesn’t publish lists of ethically challenged car rental locations that ding their customers with bogus claims. An ACRA spokeswoman said that wouldn’t align with its mission to “promote, improve and enhance the motor vehicle rental industry.” Also, it would probably require a full-time staff of investigators working long hours, but it would be an incredible benefit to customers — and a boon to the industry’s credibility.
  • The cruise industry trade group, Cruise Lines International Association, doesn’t name potentially dubious cruise lines. Doing so might make travelers feel more comfortable taking a vacation at sea.
  • Hotels and their trade group, the American Hotel & Lodging Association, are mum when it comes to underperforming properties. Thankfully, we’ve got reader review sites such as TripAdvisor to get real-time report cards on individual lodgings.

For years, companies have tracked their worst customers. Wouldn’t it be nice if someone did the same for them? Although a few trade associations are, there’s a long way to go. When a business tells the truth about itself, everyone wins.

Other lists to watch:

  • Airline: The authoritative American Customer Satisfaction Index tracks airline customer service performance over the years and can offer a reliable indicator of the reputable, and disreputable, airlines.
  • Car rental: This is a difficult industry to track. The best-known list is J.D. Power’s customer service ranking, in its 21st year. Avoiding the low-scoring companies might be a sound travel strategy.
  • Cruise: You can get a pretty good idea which ships are unsanitary by reading the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Vessel Sanitation Reports before booking your next cruise.