Contract confusion: Don’t let your vacation get lost in translation

On second thought, maybe Haroldy Woods should have paid full fare for her train ticket from Frankfurt to Passau, Germany.

But a ticket agent assured her that signing up for a Deutsche BahnCard would save her money – about 25 percent off her 80 euro fare. Then she handed Woods a contract for the membership program in German, which Woods signed.

Just one problem: Woods doesn’t speak German.
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Help, I’ve lost my train tickets!

Question: I’m trying to get a refund for lost train tickets, and I need your help. I bought two Amtrak tickets for my sister and me to travel from Osceola, Iowa, to Denver, recently. Then I discovered that my husband, thinking that the envelope contained old information from a recent Amtrak trip I’d taken to Colorado, threw the tickets away.

When I contacted Amtrak, I was told that “lost tickets are lost money” and I would have to pay the conductor on the train for the lost tickets. If I found the tickets within a year, I could have a cash refund minus 10 percent or use them for future travel within that year.

Of course, I will not find those tickets because they went out with the garbage. Is there any suggestion that you could give me so that I do not have to pay twice for the same tickets? I’m really frustrated. — Diane Stephany, Des Moines, Iowa

Answer: Amtrak should be able to reissue your ticket without charging more. In fact, when I reviewed your letter, I though this must be a simple misunderstanding. How could any travel company issue a paper ticket in 2009?

Then again, we’re talking about Amtrak.

Don’t get me wrong. I think passenger rail is the future of transportation. Light rail and high-speed trains are more efficient, greener alternatives to fossil-fuel consuming cars and trucks. I take the train whenever it’s an option — which, unfortunately, isn’t very often.

Virtually all airline tickets are now electronic, meaning that you don’t get a real ticket, but a confirmation number. When you arrive at the airport, you check in and are issued a boarding pass by the airline. Amtrak should be able to implement a similar system.

Still, Amtrak is clear about its ticket policy. “Your tickets have value,” it warns on its Web site. “Please safeguard your tickets as you would cash. Amtrak is not liable for lost, stolen, misplaced or destroyed tickets.”

I checked into Amtrak’s refund rules. When you lose a ticket, Amtrak requires the purchase of a replacement ticket. Some travelers who buy a more expensive ticket are eligible for a partial refund of the second fare by filling out a lost ticket refund application, either online or through a station agent.

But there’s a $75 service fee and a five-month waiting period, to assure that the original tickets were never used.

Next time you travel by train, keep your tickets locked up somewhere safe with your passports and other valuables. Treat them as if they’re cash. I hope Amtrak can find a better way of handling tickets in the future, but until it does, you have to work within the system.

I contacted Amtrak on your behalf. As a one-time exception to this policy, it offered you and your sister a travel voucher for the total value of the original tickets that were accidentally thrown away.