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4 crazy rules you need to know before you travel

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  • Some Web sites and hotels neglect to mention "resort fees" in rate quotes
  • Travel companies can change loyalty programs without informing members
  • Cruise lines can change itineraries; call to confirm the route before you leave
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By Christopher Elliott
Tribune Media Services
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(Tribune Media Services) -- A recent "World for $1" promotion by LastMinuteTravel.com promised a room "in any of our 15,000 hotels" for $1 a night. The only catch? You had to book them during a specified 15-minute window.

"As for when those 15 minutes occur," the site announced. "You don't know."

But that wasn't the only catch. No sooner did the 12-day sale start than the complaints began pouring in. People were being asked to watch a video before they could book a room. One reader timed the sale and found it wasn't lasting 15 minutes. Others were having trouble accessing the site.

Did LastMinuteTravel neglect to mention a detail or two?

Maybe. But if it did, it's not alone. The travel industry loves to "forget" important facts about its products, whether it's a critical airfare rule or an important paragraph in a cruise contract. And yes, these clauses are getting crazier. No surprise, then, that travel companies are being less upfront about them. They know good and well it could affect our purchasing decision.

I asked Lauren Volcheff, LastMinuteTravel's director of marketing, about the grievances shortly after the sale started. She admitted the 15-minute windows were divided into three or less sessions per day, "each lasting for at least five minutes, for a total 15 minutes of sale time." She confirmed that users were being asked to view what she called "a series of three tutorials" that lasted about 2-1/2 minutes.

That did little to stem the tide of angry e-mails to yours truly, who had advised people to give the promotion a chance before dismissing it as a fraud. Readers remained suspicious about the timing of the promotion. So four days before the sale ended, I asked the company for an update. True to its name, LastMinuteTravel waited until the afternoon of the last day of the sale to tell me it had made "some changes" to the promotion to prevent Internet scripts from snatching up the hotel deals. "Part of these changes mean that the times may no longer be in sync from one person to the next," she told me.

LastMinuteTravel just seems to be continuing a time-honored tradition in the travel business. Here are the top clauses your travel company probably won't disclose -- and what you need to know about them.

We can change the rules of our loyalty program any time

Travel companies basically do whatever they want with their loyalty programs. You'd think they might at least notify you when a rule changes, but they often don't. And they don't have to. For example, American Airlines' AAdvantage program terms warn that "American Airlines may, in its discretion, change the AAdvantage program rules, regulations, travel awards, and special offers at any time with or without notice." That's not just boilerplate legalese -- for large parts of the travel industry, those are words to live by.

What it means for you: Never assume the rules under which you enrolled in your airline, car rental or hotel loyalty program will remain the same. Or that anyone will tell you when the rules change. It's up to you to keep up.

Oh wait, there's a resort fee

Everyone loves a deal on a hotel, and with the economy in freefall, the Internet is one of the best places to snag a bargain. But is the rate you've been quoted for a room the price you're going to pay? Not necessarily. Ray Richardson thought he found a deal when his Priceline bid on an Orlando hotel landed him a reservation at a Radisson property. But then he got his bill, which included a mandatory $6.95-a-day "resort fee" to cover the cost of the hotel's pool, exercise equipment and other amenities. Can it do that? Why, yes.

Buried in Priceline's fine print is a provision that "Depending on the city and property you stay in, you may also be charged resort fees or other incidental fees, such as parking charges. These charges, if applicable, will be payable by you to the hotel directly at checkout." In other words, the "total charges" Richardson agreed to when he bid on an unnamed hotel in the Magic City were not entirely totaled up.

What it means to you: If you want to avoid resort fees -- which are nothing more than a hidden hotel rate increase -- book your room through a service that promises an "all inclusive" rate and stands behind it. If you're stuck with an undisclosed resort fee, and the hotel won't remove it from your bill, dispute the charge on your credit card.

We don't have to stick to our cruise itinerary

Did you know that your cruise line can change its advertised itinerary and doesn't owe you a thing? Anne and Jack King didn't before they checked in for their recent Carnival cruise to Panama, Costa Rica and Belize on the Carnival Miracle. At the last minute, and with no warning to the Kings, Carnival abbreviated its itinerary to include ports of call in Costa Maya, Cozumel and Roatan. Their compensation for a cruise they never wanted? A $25 onboard credit.

"We are sick that we spent more than $2,000 on a cruise we didn't want to take and never would have chosen at any price," Anne King told me. A review of Carnival's cruise contract -- the legal agreement between you and the cruise line -- confirms that it can make any change it wants to an itinerary, without compensating you. Who knew?

What it means to you: Always call to confirm your cruise before you leave, and let your travel agent know if your itinerary is changed. If your agent can't help, maybe your state attorney general can.

Miss your connection, pay a fine

This loophole is one of the oddest in the travel industry. Make that any industry. If you happen to miss a connection or fail to use the return portion of your roundtrip ticket, then the airline might fine your travel agency, and your agent could turn around and try to fine you. Why? Well, many airlines have silly rules that say you must use your entire ticket. Of course they can't force passengers to live by them. But they can stick it to travel agents by threatening to strip them of their ability to issue tickets.

When a so-called "illegal" ticket is discovered by the airline, it sends a debit memo, which is a bill for a full-fare ticket -- the most expensive kind in the system. Failure to pay can result in the agency losing its ability to book tickets for the airline. I know of several cases where an agent has asked the client to pay a debit memo. How weird is that?

What it means to you: If you're planning to throw away a portion of your ticket, don't use a travel agent. And don't give the airline your frequent flier number -- it can be used to track "illegal" behavior and they'll come after your miles.

In travel, it isn't so much what they say about a product that's important. Often, it's what they don't say. If you don't pay attention to the fine print on your loyalty program, airline ticket, hotel room or cruise ticket, you might pay a lot more than you expected.

Maybe the only thing crazier than these contract clauses is failing to read them.

(Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine. This column originally appeared on MSNBC.com. You can read more travel tips on his blog, elliott.org or e-mail him at celliott@ngs.org).

© 2009 CHRISTOPHER ELLIOTT DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES, INC.

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