Problems abroad? Here’s how to get around a language barrier

Sebastian Burel/Shutterstock
Sebastian Burel/Shutterstock
When Air Dolomiti canceled Stefano Alberti’s recent flight from Florence to Munich because one of its planes broke down, he potentially faced what to many American travelers would be a tall obstacle: a language barrier.

The regional carrier, a subsidiary of the German airline Lufthansa, offered to cover his family’s lodging and meal expenses and re-booked him on a flight back to the States the next day. But under European law, Alberti, who works for an analytics firm in San Francisco, was entitled to 2,400 euros (about $3,245) in compensation, and negotiating with Air Dolomiti might have been tedious, unless he spoke fluent Italian.

Fortunately, Alberti speaks fluent Italian.

Only one in four Americans knows a second language, which often translates into a problem when you’re traveling abroad, and particularly when you have a service question. The workarounds can include hiring a skilled travel agent and using a translation service — and, of course, persistence and creativity in the face of an employee who can’t, or won’t, understand what you’re saying.

Alberti’s problem was vexing even for a native Italian speaker. He first contacted Lufthansa, but it deferred to Air Dolomiti. He communicated with the airline in Italian, although he says that it offered to correspond in English. Invoking a clause that allowed an airline to cancel flights during “extraordinary circumstances,” a representative for the regional carrier initially agreed to cut him a check for less than half of what Alberti was due under the European law, called E.U. 261.

But Alberti said that the airline had misread and misapplied the law and that if it didn’t settle, he would file a complaint with L’Ente Nazionale per l’Aviazione Civile, Italy’s civil aviation agency. “After one more phone conversation, they agreed to pay the full amount,” he says.

An Air Dolomiti representative confirmed Alberti’s story, saying that it was a “privilege” to communicate with him in Italian. But it noted that it can also handle requests in English and offers a dedicated customer-service line in German. “We are an Italian company, but we have been operating on the international market since many years,” said Loredana Lodovici, an airline spokeswoman.

Alberti believes that his knowledge of the rules, not his linguistic edge, ultimately ensured a positive outcome. I think it was a little of both.

There are other ways to find the edge, one way or the other. One of the easiest is to work through a skilled travel agent who can negotiate on your behalf and knows all the rules. Virtuoso, a luxury travel agency consortium, allows you to search its network of agents by language from its Web site (www.virtuoso.com).

“Good travel advisers offer their clients advice, access, advocacy and accountability,” says Matthew Upchurch, Virtuoso’s chief executive. “And those last two points are crucial if something goes even slightly amiss when traveling. Consumer advocacy and accountability are two elements that can’t be replicated online.”

You might find a “mom-and-pop” agent — or, ahem, a consumer advocate — with passable language skills, but then there’s the issue of influence. Belonging to a well-recognized consumer group or travel agency network definitely has its advantages; otherwise, an intransigent travel company may not care that you’re upset about the service you received, or didn’t.

The other option: Go it alone, even if you don’t understand the language. To that end, there are several applications and programs that can help. One well-known fix is Google Translate, which seems to spring into action online whenever you access a site that isn’t in your native language. The results are good enough to get the gist of what someone is saying, and can be helpful.

For a more precise interpretation, you can try a service like VerbalizeIt, which uses a network of human translators to translate text or interpret speech in real time. Rates start at $2 a minute for live interpretation and 17 cents a word for document translation, all of which can add up quickly. But when you need to capture every nuance of a foreign language, and when hundreds or thousands of dollars are at stake, paying extra for a translator may be a sound investment.

Over the long term, learning a new language, or at least several key phrases, can be helpful. I’m a fan of Rosetta Stone, which offers a more interactive way to pick up a second language. And nothing beats actually immersing yourself in a language on a more permanent basis, which is how I learned German.

Perhaps the best way to overcome a language barrier — other than the kind of dogged persistence and native language skills that Alberti had — is creativity. Customer-service workers often speak English, but their comprehension skills vary. So when Janet Baker, for example, encounters language problems, she politely thanks the representative and hangs up.

“I call in again,” says Baker, a sales representative from Chicago. “I repeat as needed until I can get a person I can converse with.”

Turns out, there are many ways to make yourself understood when it comes to customer service. Even when they’re speaking another language.

When language is a barrier to good service, who is responsible?

View Results

Loading ... Loading ...

Underwritten by

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by AirportParkingReservations.com

With nearly 20 years in the industry, over 128 airport covered in the U.S. and Canada, and over 1,000 Hotel and Parking Partners-we provide travelers the best options on how to get to the airport when flying. Whether you want to; drive yourself and park near an Airport (Airport Parking), stay the night before your flight at an airport hotel and leave your car (Hotel and Parking Package), or take a shared Shuttle/Private Car/Limo to the Airport- we got you covered. The best deals can be found online, and booking a reservation has never been easier. You can explore all of our options by visiting us at AirportParkingReservations.com, ParkSleepFly.com, AirportParking.com, and ShuttleFinder.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Cavalry Travel Insurance

Cavalry takes the worry of out travel by providing 24/7 access to medical and security professionals combined with the best medical evacuation and security extraction services. Cavalry gets you home safely when you need it most. Learn more at Cavalrytravelinsurance.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Seven Corners

Seven Corners has helped customers all over the world with travel difficulties, big and small. As one of the few remaining privately owned travel insurance companies, Seven Corners provides insurance plans and 24/7 travel assistance services to more than a million people each year. Because we’re privately held, we can focus on the customer without the constraints that larger companies have. Visit Seven Corners to learn more.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Sodexo North America

Sodexo North America Sodexo North America is part of a global, Fortune 500 company with a presence in 80 countries. Sodexo is a leading provider of integrated food, facilities management and other services that enhance organizational performance, contribute to local communities and improve quality of life for millions of customers in corporate, education, healthcare, senior living, sports and leisure, government and other environments daily. Learn more at Sodexoinsights.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Travelex Insurance Services

Travelex Insurance Services is a leading travel insurance provider in the United States with over 55 years combined industry expertise of helping people dream, explore and travel with confidence. We offer comprehensive travel insurance plans with optional upgrades allowing travelers to customize the plans to fit their needs. Compare plans, get a quote and buy online at Travelexinsurance.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by AirHelp

AirHelp is the world’s leading flight delays compensation company, helping passengers apply for compensation following a delayed or canceled flight or when boarding has been denied. It is AirHelp’s mission to fight for passenger rights by holding airlines accountable for flights disruptions that are out of passengers’ control. AirHelp has already helped 5 million people, taking the stress out of applying for compensation and making it as hassle-free as possible for travelers around the world.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Allianz Travel Insurance

The Allianz Travel Insurance company has built its reputation on partnering with agents all around the world to provide comprehensive travel insurance for their clients. Contact Allianz Travel Insurance for a comprehensive list of coverage.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Chubb

Chubb is the world’s largest publicly traded property and casualty insurance company, and recognized as the premier provider of insurance for successful individuals and families in the U.S. and selected international markets, offering coverage for high-value automobile, homeowners, recreational marine/aviation, valuables and umbrella liability coverage. As an underwriting company, Chubb assesses, assumes and manages risk with insight and discipline, and combines the precision of craftsmanship with decades of experience to conceive, craft and deliver the best insurance coverage and services to individuals, families and business of all size.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Fareportal

Fareportal’s portfolio of brands, which include  CheapOair and  OneTravel, are dedicated to helping customers enjoy their trip. Whether you want to call, click, or use one of our travel apps, one thing is clear: We make it easy to take it easy.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Insuremyrentalcar.com

An independent provider of low cost CDW/LDW insurance for use with rental cars. Up to $100,000 cover with no deductible. Policies available on a per day, per trip or per year basis. Also works with overseas rentals. Try  Insuremyrentalcar.comnow.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by G1G.com

Since its inception over three decades ago, G1G has continued to revolutionize the travel insurance industry by being the only aggregator to operate a customer portal, placing all of the user's primary needs in one place. We have continued to innovate and disrupt the market by reimagining the way travel insurance can be delivered to the end user in ways no competition can. Simply put, no one knows the market as well as its founders and no one else shares G1G values and mission.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Mediacom Communications

The nation’s fifth-largest cable operator, serving the smaller cities and towns in the Midwest and Southern regions of the United States. We are a high-performance broadband, entertainment, and communications company that brings the power of modern technology and quality customer experience to life inside the connected home by combining ultra-fast gigabit speeds with personalized local and over-the-top entertainment choices that fit your lifestyle. Details at  Mediacomcable.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Arch RoamRight

Arch RoamRight is one of the fastest growing, most-highly rated travel insurance companies in the United States. Travel advisors love working with us, and travelers feel protected with our trip cancellation and travel medical insurance coverage. We also make it easy to file a claim online with our fast, paperless claims website. Learn more about RoamRight travel insurance.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Virtuoso

The leading global network for luxury and experiential travel. This invitation-only organization comprises over 1,000 travel agency locations with 17,500 advisors in over 45 countries, and holds preferred relationships with 1,700 of the world’s finest travel companies. Virtuoso advisors collaborate with their clients to create personalized itineraries featuring exclusive perks, while also providing advice, access, advocacy, and accountability. For more information, visit  Virtuoso.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by VisitorsCoverage

As a company that is constantly striving to simplify travel insurance, VisitorsCoverage, is on a mission to help travelers make the better decisions about purchasing travel insurance, quickly. VisitorsCoverage has helped millions of travelers globally to buy the suitable travel insurance and explore the world with confidence. Get insurance for your next trip at  VisitorsCoverage. Lowest Price Guaranteed.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by MedjetAssist

Medjet is the premier global air-medical transport, travel security and crisis response membership program for travelers. With a MedjetAssist membership, if you become hospitalized more than 150 miles from home, we will get you from that unfamiliar hospital all the way home to the hospital you trust. All you ever pay is your membership fee. MedjetHorizon members add 24/7 personal security and crisis response benefits. Elliott.org readers enjoy discounted rates. Travel safer with  MedjetAssist.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Southwest Airlines

The mission of Southwest Airlines is dedication to the highest quality of Customer Service delivered with a sense of warmth, friendliness, individual pride, and Company Spirit. We are committed to provide our Employees a stable work environment with equal opportunity for learning and personal growth.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by TravelInsurance.com

TravelInsurance.com makes it fast and easy to compare and buy travel insurance online from top rated providers. Our unbiased comparison engine allows travelers to read reviews, compare pricing and benefits and buy the right policy with a price guarantee, every time. Compare and buy travel insurance now at  TravelInsurance.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Squaremouth

Squaremouth helps travelers easily and instantly compare travel insurance policies from all major providers. Only companies that meet the strict requirements of Squaremouth’s Zero Complaint Guarantee are available on the website. Compare policies on  Squaremouth.com to save over 70 percent on your next purchase.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Travel Leaders Group

Travel Leaders Group is transforming travel through its progressive approach toward each unique travel experience. Travel Leaders Group assists millions of travelers through its leisure, business and network travel operations under a variety of diversified divisions and brands including All Aboard Travel, Andrew Harper Travel, Colletts Travel, Corporate Travel Services, CruCon Cruise Outlet, Cruise Specialists, Nexion, Protravel International, SinglesCruise.com, Travel Leaders Corporate, Travel Leaders Network and Tzell Travel Group, and its merger with ALTOUR. With more than 7,000 agency locations and 52,000 travel advisors, Travel Leaders Group ranks as one of the industry’s largest retail travel agency companies.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Travelers United

If you’ve been mistreated by the airlines, Travelers United is your voice in Washington. Join the #1 travel advocacy organization working with Congress to improve and protect travelers. Plus, get $400 of annual benefits you can use for travel for only $29/year. Add your voice to ours. Make travel better.  Join today.

Send this to a friend