Any savvy traveler knows to check the fine print before making travel plans. We generally know that hotels require notice if we cancel our stay, and that airlines won't let us switch departure dates without paying a fee. But what happens if the vendors, and not you, are the ones who change your plans?
Unfortunately, most online travel vendors are mum on the topic, using their FAQs and Terms and Conditions to lecture us about our limitations, but say little about what happens if the itinerary changes come from their end; travelers then almost always have to consult customer service reps directly and are often met with case-by-case conditions. So, to make sense of some of your travel plan's fine print, we've complied some guidelines for understanding your course of action when a vacation packager changes your itinerary after you've booked.
How Vacation Packages Work
To understand where responsibility lies, you need to be aware that there are several types of vacation package-selling websites. There are aggregator sites like BookingBuddy and Cheapflights that search the web for package deals; when it comes time to book, these sites usually send you to the actual travel site where the package was found. These travel metasearch sites collect a commission but don't actually handle your reservation. In that vein, you shouldn't expect these vendors to take an active part in customer service matters.
Another kind of online vacation package vendor cobbles together getaway elements (flight and hotel deals) itself and sells them under its own banner. The vacation package arms of airlines (i.e. Southwest Airlines Vacations), Expedia, Travelocity, and flash sale sites like Groupon Getaways fit into this category. These sites act as intermediaries between you and the original vendors. They also have vested interests in their deals, and typically require their vendors to meet certain standards and offer quality products and services.
And a third — and more rare — type of vacation package seller is the charter packager. Sellers like Funjet and Chicago's giant Apple Vacations often combine their own non-scheduled flights with hotel stays, which they have a heavy hand in vetting. These companies often take the most responsibility for your satisfaction and have customer representatives on the ground at the destinations they serve, thus making them the easiest travel agents to deal with should your agreed-upon package change.
At least on paper, most of the major vacation sellers wash their hands of a lot of responsibility when it comes to snafus in your travel plans. Hotwire, in its FAQ, informs you that it is "acting solely as an intermediary" by assembling vacation packages. The terms go on: "Airline tickets available through this Site are subject to the published conditions of carriage and rules of the applicable airline." The same applies to hotel rooms, which are "subject to the published conditions of carriage and rules of the applicable hotel."
If your itinerary changes, you can bet that just about every travel site and agency will tell you the same thing: Talk to the specific airline or the hotel you reserved a seat or room with. Initiating complaints, once you know where to start, is the easy part, and it's best to remember that you're not on your own, despite what your vacation planning customer service rep might say.
Here's a simple chain-of-command to keep in mind; your air ticket is ruled by the company from whence it came: the airline. And if you've booked a commercial flight, you've agreed to the airline's FAA-mandated Contracts (or Conditions) of Carriage. These terms contain rules that require the airline to commit to certain services. In the old days, these policies were printed in microscopic type on the back of paper tickets, but now, you can always find this info on airline websites, or behind the link next to the little checkbox reading "I agree" just before you buy.
More specifically, this contract binds the airline to transporting you to your destination any way it can; and if it can't do so on the day you contracted for, it will pay for your overnight hotel if you are stranded. For example, American Airlines promises that if it can't send you on the flight you were sold, "you will be rerouted on [the] next flight with available seats." If the delay or cancellation was caused by events within their control and they do not get you to your final destination on the expected arrival day, they will provide reasonable overnight accommodations, subject to availability. Delta's agreement is similar.
You may arrive later than you want or you may not have a direct flight, but the terms of this contract only require the airline to get you to your destination, not to deliver quick travel or convenience. If that means you miss 10 hours of your vacation because your air arrangements changed, legally speaking, the airline has still fulfilled its obligation. However, some airlines agree to grant a full refund if the flight changes and you reject the new routing. American Airlines Vacations, for example, has explained that "the passenger is always entitled to a full refund for an AA schedule change if the ticket has been paid for." But for cancellations other than flight schedule changes, the airline still falls back on its published Contract of Carriage, which may delay your flight significantly — but legally.
If you think an airline has broken its Contract of Carriage, you can file a complaint with the government's Aviation Consumer Protection and Enforcement agency, which tightly regulates the airline industry.
What to Do When a Vendor Changes a Reservation
While the airline industry is bound by federal laws to fulfill their Contract of Carriage, hotel booking regulations are more of a free-for-all. Sometimes, hotels bump reservations and claim they're overbooked or that they're under renovation, effectively shunting customers to another property across town.
What's more, a gap in consumer protection laws means that legally, hotels can essentially do what they want with your reservation. Christopher Elliott reminds us that states have differing regulations, and that most hotels have the authority to change your reservation before you check in, which can leave you without a roof over your head. If this ever happens, here's what you'll want to do:
First, contact the airline or the hotel property directly and try to work it out with them. You'll want to be open to accepting alternative accommodations if necessary. But if the hotel won't budge, some customers opt to file a lawsuit against the hotel for not holding up its end of the agreement, though this is both a time- and money- consuming option.
So, if you lack the time, energy, and resources to sue, it may make you feel better knowing that even airlines often have trouble dealing with properties. "Hotels do not care what happens to the air [tickets] and are not compassionate," complained one airline vacation package executive, who asked to remain anonymous. She adds that when bookings are bumped, "the hotel portion is refunded [to the customer] and we try to get money back from the vendor, [but] many times this does not happen."
However, if you had booked your getaway through a powerful vacation packager, you've now got a powerful alliance. Although their legalese will tell you it's not their responsibility to ensure that your hotel accommodations are in place, they can exert pressure on the establishment to set things straight. With market competition and reputations on the line, even a shifty hotel wouldn't want to lose the referrals that come from a mighty Priceline or Expedia. So, if you can't come to terms with the property itself, appeal to the company that sold you the package to begin with. The booking company has a reputation to uphold, and in many cases, as mentioned, will eat the cost of hotel reservation to make you happy.
In this regard, a Priceline representative said the following: "Of course we'd speak to the supplier on the customer's behalf if there's an issue." Hotwire also stated that it works with the hotel to make sure that its customers are rebooked in a same or higher quality hotel at no extra cost. Even BookingBuddy, one of the sites that merely serves as a third-party matchmaker between travel sites and customers, says it only "rarely" needs to get involved — which means it does if necessary.
Although it's not promised up front as part of a purchase, the airline-run packagers, including Southwest Airlines Vacations, will also go to bat for the consumer. Says a spokesman at American Airlines Vacations: "In the case of a hotel being overbooked and the vendor advises us in advance, we contact the customer [and] advise the alternative, which normally is the same star rating or higher. If the customer does not approve, a refund is given in full, paid for by the vendor."
Tips on How to Minimize the Chances of a Vacation Package Predicament
- Always read the Terms and Conditions for each element of travel (air, hotel, etc.) before purchasing.
- If you don't know your vendor's policy for involuntary substitutions, ask before buying.
- Choose larger hotels with more rooms because they have less potential for overbooking.
- Choose a brand (i.e. Starwood, Marriott, Hilton) that has an established customer service culture and runs other properties in your destination location in case you are bumped.
- Book with a charter packager such as Funjet Vacations, which explicitly promises full refunds if fights are delayed more than two days or if your agreed-upon hotel changes.
If someone else changes your vacation package plans, it's up to you to sort it out with the businesses that handle each component of your trip. If that doesn't work, the major vendors will usually try to help you if you have indeed been wronged, despite the fact that this role isn't officially part of their top-line policies. Which means that although the web may have made buying travel easier, actually getting what you pay for remains as big a muddle as ever.