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Travel Adviser

Travel: Your rights when things go wrong

By Chris McGinnis
Special to CNN

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(CNN) -- Flight canceled? Get your money back. Hotel oversold? Get a free night. Rental car unavailable? Get an upgrade.

Here's how:

Canceled flights

Did you know that you can get your money back if an airline cancels your flight, even if you are using a nonrefundable ticket? Many travelers don't realize that the airline is required to refund your money if your flight is canceled -- for any reason. This does not apply if your flight is only delayed -- it must be flat out canceled.

Of course, the airlines are rarely forthcoming with this information, but it's true -- and you can and should ask for a full refund even if you have a so-called "nonrefundable" ticket.

Let's say you're booked on the last flight out at night hoping to attend a wedding or another event the next morning . . . and your flight is canceled . . . and it's just not worth making the trip anymore. Ask the gate agent for your money back.

"The airline agents will always try to convince you to accept a voucher, to keep your ticket for future use, or to put you on a later flight. But travelers should know that if their flight is canceled, one of their options is to get their money back," says airline expert Terry Trippler of

He adds that this refundability clause is part of each U.S. airline's contract of carriage -- except one: Continental. Its contract states that a refund can be in the form of a voucher for future travel.

Oversold hotels

You arrive at your hotel after a long flight. You've got your reservation and your confirmation number. But there's a long line at the check-in counter. You finally make it to the check-in clerk who smiles meekly while telling you that the hotel is sold out and that you'll be accommodated at another nearby hotel.

This situation happens so frequently that the hotel business has coined a phrase for it. In hotel lingo, it's called "getting walked." Like airlines, hotels oversell their inventory expecting a certain percentage of guests to be no-shows.

But we all know that sometimes everyone shows up. Or not enough guests check out as expected. So if you are unfortunate enough to get walked, here's what you should ask for:

1. A free first night at a nearby hotel of equal or better quality -- and the opportunity to return to the original hotel when a room becomes available.

2. A free long distance call to notify office or family of your hotel change.

3. Free transportation (cab/shuttle) to substitute hotel.

Remember that you must ask for these things, otherwise you may not get them.

No cars available

Moving along to the car rental counter. What can you do if you get to the airport car rental lot and the car you reserved isn't there?

Typically, car rental agencies won't downgrade you to a smaller car if they don't have a car of the size you requested. They should upgrade you to a larger or nicer car at no additional cost.

For example, if the full-size Ford Taurus you reserved is not available when you arrive, the agent should upgrade you to a larger or more luxurious car, like an SUV or a Cadillac.

And in the rare case that the rental agency has no cars of any type or size available, they should send you to a competitor and pay any difference in the rate applied.

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