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.

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Just one problem: Woods doesn’t speak German.

Three years later, she paid a price for glossing over the Teutonic fine print. A Netherlands-based collection agency contacted her, demanding 97 euros (about $127). It turns out that the BahnCard is automatically renewed, a fact that she would have known if she’d read the contract.

“This is such an injustice,” said Woods, a retired flight attendant who lives in Dallas. “The agent never mentioned any recurring charges or annual renewal fees, and I couldn’t read the application in German.”

I contacted Deutsche Bahn on her behalf – I’ll tell you its answer in a moment – because contract problems like Woods’s are not that uncommon.

Travel companies like putting pieces of paper in front of their customers that are either in German or read as though they were (and as someone who speaks German, I think I’m allowed to ask: Is there really that much difference?).

For example, when Kim Usiak dropped off a friend at Miami International Airport for a flight to Brazil, she witnessed an unpleasant confrontation between a TAM Airlines agent and her friend.

“They pulled out a new, one-page ‘declaration of responsibilities’ [contract] written in Portuguese, which they were now requiring passengers to sign,” Usiak remembered. “We requested an English version but were told they had none. The basic translation of the document was that TAM was relinquishing all liability for baggage.”

If that sounds absurd (which it is), then you won’t be surprised by what happened next. When Usiak’s friend refused to sign, a supervisor threatened to have her luggage unloaded from the plane. Usiak flipped out her iPhone to record the conversation, and then a TAM employee threatened to call the police.

Finally, Usiak’s friend decided to sign the agreement rather than miss her flight.

I contacted TAM to get its side of the story. It didn’t respond.

A few years ago, I came across an even more troubling lost-in-translation story. A reader had booked a hotel in Switzerland for a week through a travel agency, but a paperwork mix-up had led him to believe that his daily rate was the weekly rate. Hotels often ask you to sign a slip of paper when you check in, acknowledging the price of your room and any additional charges that may apply. This hotel’s agreement was in French, but the traveler didn’t read French. So his best chance of clearing up the misunderstanding became yet another casualty of the Tower of Babel.

His final bill was considerably higher than he thought it would be. When he balked at paying it, the hotelier threatened to call the police. An expensive lesson learned.

Car rental customers encounter the foreign-contract problem all the time. Their travel agent tells them they have a guaranteed rate of $19 a day, but they end up signing an agreement for $39, plus optional insurance, plus fuel purchase option, and before you know it, the rate has quadrupled. What’s worse, they don’t find out about the problem until they return the vehicle and are presented with a massive bill by an employee who can’t speak English.

Contracts don’t have to be written in another language to be meaningless, of course. A few weeks ago, I heard from reader Ilana Goldman, whose travel insurance claim had been denied. Under the terms of her agreement, she had to take her case to arbitration. But the arbitration requirement seems like nothing more than a stalling tactic by the insurance company. The arbitrator refused to accept her case because “the business in this matter has not complied with our requests in the past.” I suggested that Goldman sue the insurance company. The matter has yet to be resolved.

And what of Woods? Deutsche Bahn denied her request to drop the matter. In an e-mail, a representative explained, to absolutely no one’s surprise, that rules are rules.

“As we did not receive a notice of cancellation in time, the BahnCard for the subsequent period of validity was issued,” he wrote. “In the meantime the account was turned over to a collection agency since we received neither a response to our reminders nor the payment due.”

Next time, Woods may want to just buy a train ticket.

(Photo: Chuck C oker/Flickr Creative Commons)