And this scenario illustrates one of what I consider to be the top 10 consumer issues in travel: accountability. Reservations, even when not prepaid, are contracts, yet failure to perform to the contract carries no consequences. We're accustomed to the airline case, where federal law requires airlines to provide specific compensation to travelers "bumped" from their flights because of overbooking.
Rental car companies also overbook and renters often keep cars longer then they originally intended. I remember an occasion on Hawaii's Big Island, when the rental location ran out of cars. In that case, the agent offered no more than the recommendation that I "rest a bit" until a few travelers returned their cars, which would get a quick cleaning and then be available. As with hotel rooms, the agent can't run out and buy a new car, and you want to get started on your trip, not hang around an airport lobby for hours. Some companies have policies that they either (1) pay for a taxi to take you to your hotel and deliver the car to you the following morning or (2) arrange a rental from a different company and pay the difference, if any, in the rental cost. But, again as with hotels, this is a voluntary company policy, not a law or regulation of any sort. And because so many car rental operations are independently owned, some may not follow the parent company's policies.
Cruise lines, too, may overbook. Because you typically pay in advance, cruise lines almost always offer a full refund, and most also offer a substitute cruise plus maybe a cabin upgrade. But here, again, that might not solve your problem if you've made other plans around your initial booking.
Clearly, then, you need more than an unofficial industry practice if you're overbooked. What's needed is for the hotel, car rental and cruise industries to come up with some sort of "bill of rights" for overbooked travelers. Last year, the Cruise Lines International Association did publish a bill of rights, but it consisted of a laundry list of promises with no accountability -- thus empty promises -- with nothing to say about a line's responsibility when it fails to honor the bill's provisions. And the hotel and rental car industries haven't even taken that baby step.
I'm not prone to shouting "there oughta be a law" as the solution to all consumer problems. Ideally, the industry would police itself. But what if it doesn't? The airlines found that when they abuse travelers long enough and don't fix the problems by themselves, travelers demand government action. Hotels, rental car companies and cruise lines may find out the hard way.
(Send e-mail to Ed Perkins at email@example.com. Perkins' new book for small business and independent professionals, "Business Travel When It's Your Money," is now available through http://www.mybusinesstravel.com or http://www.amazon.com)
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