Wednesday, October 24, 2012

When No One Will Own Up to Travel Mistakes

 When No One Will Own Up to Travel Mistakes
The Washington Post
By Christopher Elliott, Published: October 12

In a world of airline code-sharing and outsourced call centers, who takes ultimate responsibility when something goes wrong with your flight?
For Robert and Roberta Blazek, that’s no academic question. And it has taken more than a year to find the answer. The Blazeks, from Viera, Fla., were visiting Poland in August 2011 when an electronic error voided their airline reservations, forcing them to spend $5,873 for a new pair of tickets to fly home.
Their repeated attempts to secure a refund from Travelocity, Lufthansa and United Airlines lift a veil on the often confusing agreements found in modern-day air travel and on the often strained relationship between online agencies and air carriers. They also show how customers can be left with nowhere to turn when they run into trouble while they travel.
In July 2011, Robert Blazek, a retired engineer, paid $2,984 for two round-trip tickets on Continental Airlines from Orlando to Krakow, Poland, through Although the tickets were purchased from Continental, the flights were operated by Lufthansa, a practice referred to as code-sharing.
“The first leg of the journey went as planned,” he says. “But when we checked in for our flight at Lufthansa in Krakow, we were told we did not have valid tickets. The supervisor told us we needed to call and resolve the matter and would not allow us to board the plane.”
Blazek tried to phone Travelocity but says he had trouble making an overseas call from his cellphone. “Since we did not want to remain in Krakow and the plane would be leaving shortly, we did the only thing that was left in order to return to the United States and not remain in Krakow overnight,” he recalls. “We purchased new tickets.”
You’d think a quick call to Travelocity would yield a speedy refund. But that didn’t happen.
No one knows exactly what became of Blazek’s money, but nine months later, when he contacted me for help, he had gotten absolutely nowhere.
Maybe the glitch happened on Continental’s side. At the time, the airline was in the throes of a messy merger with United Airlines. Lufthansa and Travelocity also may have been to blame for the crossed wires. Whatever, one thing was clear: No one would own up to the problem and refund Blazek’s $5,873.
Even as recently as last week, the companies were blaming each other. A Lufthansa representative said the couple didn’t have a valid return ticket and pointed out that the actual ticket belonged to Continental, not Lufthansa, and that it was sold through Travelocity. “Please understand,” she added, “our passengers are of the utmost priority to Lufthansa, and we always try to make matters right.” To that end, she said, Lufthansa had apologized and credited the Blazeks with 4,000 frequent-flier miles.
Travelocity said it contacted Continental and then United but had no luck securing a refund. “The airline advised us that Lufthansa canceled the return flights on January 29, 2011,” a Travelocity representative said in an e-mail to Blazek. “Continental Airlines will not provide additional compensation. We understand that this is a very frustrating matter and we have done all we can to try and get the carriers to offer you some kind of reimbursement.”
Travelocity offered Blazek a $100 voucher, which could be redeemed for a future trip through the online agency.
What should have happened? Someone needed to take responsibility for the mess, starting with the online travel agency that sold the ticket. At least that’s what a spokesman for a large bricks-and-mortar agency told me when I asked him about the situation. Simply put, said Steve Loucks of the Minneapolis-based travel agency Travel Leaders, the agent should “own” the problem until it’s fixed to everyone’s satisfaction.
“Since our travel agents’ businesses are built on repeat customers, typically in local communities, it’s in their best interests to work in their client’s best interests as true advocates on their behalf,” he told me. “Treat them poorly, and they’ll never come back and let others know. But give them what they want, and they’ll keep coming back and offer referrals.”
He added, “If they right a bad situation, they have customers for life.”
But even if the buck stopped with Travelocity, there’s still plenty of blame to go around. One of the airlines should have owned up to the lost-reservation problem, preferably the carrier that owned the ticket: United. And the code-share partner could have done more than offer a few miles to fix the problem. But passing the buck is becoming far too easy in an age of electronic transactions, in which the airline you’re ticketed on isn’t necessarily the airline you’re flying on.
Airline code-sharing is, without question, beneficial to airlines like United and Lufthansa. Not only are they allowed to legally share passengers and other resources, but they are given the government’s blessing to stop competing on certain routes: a “win-win,” as they say in corporate America.
The Transportation Department has taken recent steps to solve some of the problems related to code-sharing. A rule that took effect in April requires carriers to apply the same baggage allowances and fees to all segments of a trip. It’s a good start. Yet a whole list of problems, from disclosure of joint flights to refunds, can still plague those who are unfortunate enough to find themselves on a code-share flight.
I asked Travelocity and United to take another look at the Blazeks’ tickets. Scott Quigley, Travelocity’s vice president of sales and customer care, pointed out that his company handles “millions” of travel reservations without incident every month. “When issues arise, our strong supplier relationships usually allow us to resolve them quickly, conveniently and to the satisfaction of our mutual customers,” he said.
To that end, Travelocity has several departments dedicated to fixing reservations problems. “However, there are still cases where things go wrong for our customers,” he added.
This happened to be one of those cases. Quigley said that Travelocity took a closer look at the Blazeks’ problem and determined that “we could and should have escalated it more quickly with our airline partner.” Travelocity reimbursed the Blazeks in full for their remaining expenses and apologized.
How about United? I inquired about the Blazeks’ tickets. After conducting a “further” review, an airline representative said, “we believe we erred in not refunding the full amount that the Blazeks paid to get home.” United processed a full refund.
I know what you’re thinking: Wait, the Blazeks have been refunded twice, right? Yes, it appears that they have been.
I wonder whether it will take another year to figure out who should get refunded for that error. Stay tuned.
Elliott is National Geographic Traveler magazine’s reader advocate. E-mail him at .

Monday, October 22, 2012

The Car Rental Extras You Didn’t Buy

The Car Rental Extras You Didn’t Buy
The Washington Post
By Christopher Elliott, Published: October 19

Allen Friedman says that he declined the optional insurance when he recently rented a Chevrolet Impala from Dollar Rent a Car at Denver International Airport.
So when the retired dentist from Sarasota, Fla., returned the vehicle a few days later, he was surprised to see an extra $215 for insurance and $53 for “roadside assistance” added to his bill — charges that Dollar insisted were legitimate because, it said, Friedman had signed an agreement asking for the additional coverage.
Friedman’s complaint is the basis of a lawsuit brought against Dollar in federal court in Colorado by lawyer and consumer advocate John Mattes, who says that hundreds of other car rental customers have faced similar fraudulent charges.
Dollar says that the claims are without merit. “We deny the allegations and intend to defend the case vigorously,” says Anna Bootenhoff, a company representative. The company declined to answer questions about Friedman’s bill.
But according to the lawsuit, which is seeking class-action status, the rental company brushed Friedman off with a form response. When he disputed the charge on his credit card, Dollar wouldn’t budge. It showed his credit card company a signature that it claimed was his. When Friedman finally obtained copies, he realized that his signature had been forged, Mattes alleges in the complaint.
Friedman eventually got his money back after his credit card company sided with him and reversed the charges. But others aren’t so lucky. Mattes says he has a file of complaints from other car rental customers who verbally opted out of extra services but then found them on their final bill. Faced with a form-letter rejection from their car rental company, they gave in and paid up.
“I truly find it difficult to believe that anyone would forge a signature — ever,” says Sharon Faulkner, the executive director of the American Car Rental Association, a trade group. A former owner of a Dollar franchise, she says that no one ever accused her employees of forgery, although some customers complained that they were sold something they didn’t want.
 “If the renter was truly upset and apparently confused about their decision, I would reduce their rental so they were satisfied with their final bill,” she told me. “If it meant either removing coverage they realized they did not want or reducing their rental fees to make them return again to do business with me, then I always decided that was more important.”
What’s the source of this conflict? Mattes says that it has to do with how companies make money and compensate their employees. Like other travel companies, car rental firms derive a significant portion of their profits from “upselling” optional services such as insurance, roadside assistance and fuel-purchase options. Car rental employees, Mattes says, are often paid minimum wage but offered a generous commission — as high as 12 percent — from the sale of those extras. That gives employees an incentive to strong-arm customers into taking the insurance and, if they don’t, to forge their signatures, he says.
“Insiders have told me that if employees fail to obtain an average level of upsells per month, they may be terminated,” says Mattes.
Such allegations aren’t new. This class of dispute, which I call the “sign here” scam, was plaguing car rental customers when I started mediating travel disputes in the 1990s. Back then, car rental customers were issued contracts printed by a fuzzy line-printer and were told that the contact was the same one they’d agreed to when they made their reservation. Only later would they find out that they’d initialed the square to buy insurance that they didn’t want or need.
In recent years, technology has made this ruse even harder to detect. Contracts today often are signed electronically, through a touch pad at the counter. That favors the car rental company, which could conceivably forward any e-signature to a credit card company that’s contesting a charge. (And if Friedman’s allegations prove to be true, they have.)
Most frustrating, perhaps, is that even if Friedman prevails against Dollar, the effects on consumers would be minimal. Car rental firms are routinely fined by courts for consumer-unfriendly practices, but because the industry is not federally regulated, it can ignore any ruling except in the state in which it’s made.
As the suit against Dollar notes, this is not the first time the company has been accused of deceptive sales practices. In a 1989 California case, Dollar was accused of instructing its workers to aggressively sell optional products in return for high commissions. An appeals court sided with consumers.
Until the federal government — either by legislation or regulation — steps in to put an end to these “gotchas,” they’re likely to continue, even if Friedman wins his case. In the meantime, you can benefit from the artificially low car rental prices subsidized by drivers who are talked — or tricked — into buying services they might not need.
Always read whatever you sign. Otherwise, you could end up in court.
Elliott is National Geographic Traveler magazine’s reader advocate. E-mail him at

Friday, October 19, 2012

Speedy Airport Security: Should You Apply?

October 3, 2012

Speedy Airport Security: Should You Apply?

WHO hasn’t stood in an airport security line shoeless, beltless, clutching a Ziploc bag and inching grimly toward a full body scanner? A few weeks ago, I decided I’d had enough. I applied for the U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s Global Entry program, which expedites passenger screening and customs declaration processes for fliers willing to undergo background checks and pay a $100 fee. If you’re already a member, you’ll soon be zipping through more airports. If you’re not a member, get ready to see a lot more travelers scoot ahead of you in line.
“The applications have grown dramatically,” said John Wagner, executive director of Admissibility and Passenger Programs for Customs and Border Protection. When Global Entry, one of several Trusted Traveler programs, began testing at three airports in 2008, Customs and Border Protection was receiving a few hundred applications a month. Today the program receives 25,000 to 30,000 applications a month.
If you are accepted for Global Entry, which expedites customs, you are also automatically qualified for the newer domestic screening program, T.S.A. PreCheck, which often (but not always) means you don’t have to remove your shoes, belt and jacket or take your laptop and liquids out of your carry-on. PreCheck is thriving, too. More than three million passengers have been screened since the program began tests last October, and the Transportation Security Administration said it plans to screen about a million passengers a month in 2013. Currently in 26 airports, PreCheck is aiming to be in 35 airports by the end of the year, according to Sterling Payne, a T.S.A. spokesman. (For the basics about Global Entry and PreCheck and the nongovernmental screening program, Clear, check out the Practical Traveler column that was published on April 18.)
Some in the travel industry are making it more compelling than ever to apply. On Sept. 24, Loews Hotels & Resorts announced that it would be the first hotel chain to pay the $100 application fee for its approximately 2,400 YouFirst Platinum loyalty rewards members if they apply by Nov. 23. That will cost Loews about a quarter of a million dollars, according to a spokeswoman for the brand. But Jonathan Tisch, chairman of Loews Hotels and himself a Trusted Traveler, said it’s worth it. “We are keenly aware that traveling today is a difficult proposition,” he said. “And we thought that it was in the best interest of our loyal guests that we team up with Homeland Security and Customs and Border Protection to promote programs they have spent a long time figuring out that will speed up the travel process.”
Industry executives think more hotels will follow. Airlines, including American, Delta, United, Alaska and US Airways, have already promoted the programs. But many travelers and public interest groups have serious concerns. Should you apply? To help you decide, here are some of the most common questions about Trusted Traveler, and what the experts have to say.
Are we endangering our civil liberties by sharing our personal information with the government?
When Global Entry members return to the United States after an international flight, they do not fill out customs forms or wait in line to be interviewed by a customs official. Instead, they use an automated kiosk to scan their passports and their fingerprints. The kiosk has a touch screen that enables travelers to answer the customs declaration questions. Then it prints out a receipt for them to take to officials at the baggage claim.
To get this speedy service (along with the perks of PreCheck), you must submit a raft of personal data: your address, employment status, driver’s license, passport and travel history as well as proof of “admissibility,” like a birth certificate. If your online application is conditionally approved, you will then have an in-person interview with a Customs and Border Protection officer and have your picture and fingerprints taken.
For at least one colleague of mine, this engenders thoughts of secret police. Certainly, it concerns public interest groups like the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a research center in Washington that focuses on civil liberties issues. In written comments to United States Customs, the center said Global Entry raises “substantial privacy and security issues,” like who exactly has access to the information and whether the program satisfies fair information practices (like enabling travelers to see and amend their personal information and ensuring that it is being used only for the purpose for which they provided it). You can learn more at
In a privacy impact assessment available at, the Department of Homeland Security says that the information it collects is necessary for national security, enabling it to ensure that applicants are not on any watch list and that they are not misidentified as someone who is. “It’s really no different than the data we would collect from any one of the millions of people who enter the U.S. each day,” Mr. Wagner said.
The impact assessment contends that the information will be accessed only by people who must see it to do their jobs and who have passed a background check and completed privacy security training. The Electronic Privacy Information Center has said the department’s definition of who can access this information is too broad.
I’m concerned about privacy. At the same time, with the electronic trail that we all leave in the information age, the Global Entry application seemed only slightly more exhaustive than forms I’ve filled out for things like online banking and renewing my driver’s license. Time will tell if I was too trusting.
Doesn’t clearing people as Trusted Travelers create an opportunity for criminals to slip through the cracks?
“We do a pretty rigorous background check,” Mr. Wagner said, ticking off the sorts of things the government probes like criminal records, watch lists, and customs violations. Applicants’ fingerprints are run through F.B.I. and Department of Homeland Security systems, he said. Additionally, members of the programs are still subject to random checks at the airport.
That said, the Electronic Privacy Information Center has noted that criminals with records could potentially collaborate with Trusted Travelers who do not have previous ties to terrorism.
A valid (and chilling) thought. Yet there is some comfort in knowing that even though Trusted Traveler makes navigating an airport less onerous, members and their bags are still screened to ensure safety. There is no bypassing the detectors.
If millions of people are eligible for expedited screening, will it really be all that fast?
Just as priority boarding lines have become interminable thanks to travelers with every kind of status imaginable, one wonders if something similar will happen as Trusted Traveler becomes widespread. The Global Entry process is supposed to take 60 seconds to complete. Not bad. While I have not gone through it myself, other travelers say this is fairly accurate.
As for PreCheck, after a year of testing the T.S.A. is expanding the program to the nation’s busiest airports. One of the biggest complaints about PreCheck is that members never know if they will be expedited. The program is not available at every checkpoint in participating airports (a list is at, and sometimes members are simply told to stay on the regular line. Still, David A. Castelveter, director of external communications for the T.S.A., said in a statement that “we have evaluated the results of the pilot program to ensure T.S.A. PreCheck is operationally ready for larger volumes of travelers.”
Here’s hoping.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Hyde Park Mansion

Hyde Park Mansion 

Hyde Park Mansion  was originally owned by Frederick and Louise Vanderbilt.  The family called it “Uncle Frederick’s cottage” because it was small by the family’s standards.  Louise Vanderbilt’s niece inherited the property, but could not afford to maintain the property due to newly implemented federal taxes.  Having major difficulty selling, she decided to sell the property to President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s National Park Service for $1.00.  The house is located in Hyde Park, NY along the Hudson River about 2 hours from New York City.  The interior furnishings are exquisite. 

Monday, October 15, 2012

Old Westbury Mansion and Gardens

Old Westbury Mansion and Gardens

Upstate New York has a plethora of incredible historic mansions.  Old Westbury Mansion and Gardens provides so much history about fine antique furniture, beautiful art and the history of the gilded age.  If you are ever traveling to Old Westbury, NY, the house and surrounding neighborhoods are fabulous, and definitely worth a visit.  Photos are not allowed inside, but I was able to get one picture of the foyer.

Friday, October 12, 2012

The Oheka Castle

The Oheka Castle

If you want a fantastic getaway and possibly run into a few celebrities, take a relaxing weekend at the Oheka Castle in Huntington, NY.  If your budget doesn’t allow it, reserve a tour to see the rooms, grounds and learn the history of this exquisite home which is now a first class hotel.  It is the number wedding destination in the US.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Airlines Set Bag Fee Record in First Half of Year

Airlines Set Bag Fee Record in First Half of Year
NEW YORK (AP) — U.S. airlines collected more than $1.7 billion in baggage fees during the first half of the year, the largest amount ever collected in that six-month period.

Delta Air Lines Inc. once again claimed the title as the airline collecting the most in baggage fees: nearly $430 million from January through June. The slightly larger United Airlines — part of United Continental Holdings Inc. — followed with $351 million in bag fees, according to a report from the Bureau of Transportation statistics released Tuesday.

Airlines started charging for a first checked suitcase in 2008 and the fees have climbed since. Airlines typically charge $25 each way for the first checked bag, $35 for the second bag and then various extra amounts for overweight or oversized bags.

The nation's 15 largest carriers collected a combined $932 million in bag fees in the second quarter, the BTS reported. That's in addition to the $816 million collected in the first quarter of 2012. The third quarter, which includes the busy leisure travel months of July and August, is traditionally the highest of the year but figures aren't expected to be reported by the government until December.

The airlines also collected an additional $1.3 billion in fees for canceling or changing a reservation during the first six months of the year.

Without the fees, many airlines would struggle to remain profitable. The industry turned a $2.3 billion operating profit with a 6-percent profit margin in the second quarter, according to BTS, up from $228 million, or a 0.7-percent margin, during the first quarter, a traditionally slow time of year.

Many of these fees were first introduced to allow airlines to offset rising fuel costs. In 2007, the airlines paid an average of $2.09 a gallon for jet fuel. The next year, prices spiked 46 percent to $3.06. During the first seven months of this year, airlines have paid an average of $2.96 a gallon.

Airfares have climbed in recent years but not as fast as the cost of fuel. Passengers have shown reluctance to book tickets if the base fare is too high, hence the introduction of the fees.

Monday, October 8, 2012

More Fees, Less Choice for Air Travelers

Below is an interesting article on more fees for travelers.  You definitely want to see how little travelers are getting for the money.

Report: More fees, less choice for air travelers
September 25, 2012

WASHINGTON (AP) — Airline passengers can expect fewer carriers to choose from, fewer flights to smaller cities and more baggage and other fees as the industry continues to grapple with high fuel prices and a weak economy, according to a government report released Tuesday.

The airline industry is still in transition after a tumultuous decade in which bankruptcies and mergers cut the number of airlines accounting for the bulk of domestic flights in half, to just five: American, Delta, Southwest, United and US Airways, the report by the Department of Transportation's inspector general said. If US Airways and American — which are in merger discussions — were to combine, that would drop to four.

There are dozens of other airlines in the U.S., but collectively those smaller carriers account for less than 15 percent of total passenger traffic. Twelve years ago, there were ten major U.S. airlines accounting for 90 percent of domestic flights. But high fuel prices, the 2008 recession and a slow economic recovery have taken a toll, the report said.

In 2000, fuel costs were just 10 percent of airline operating expenses. Fuel costs peaked at 40 percent of expenses in 2008, outdistancing payroll as the airlines' biggest expense. Last year, fuel accounted for 35 percent of expenses.

Less competition has enabled airlines to try to offset higher costs by eliminating less profitable flights to smaller cities, the report said. Airlines cut the number of scheduled domestic flights by 14 percent between June 2007 and June 2012, the report said. As a result, flights have fewer empty seats and airlines have been able to increase fares, especially on short-haul flights.

Last year, the industry attempted 22 fare increases, of which 11 were successful, the report said. Airfare increases are considered successful if competitors also adopt an increase. If there's not widespread matching by other airlines, the result is usually a withdrawal of the original increase. So far this year airlines have attempted eight fare increases, four of which have been successful, the report said.

Since 2008, airlines have also supplemented their fares by charging a wide range of fees for services that in most cases used to be free. Baggage fees alone contributed $2.7 billion in added revenue to airlines last year. Besides fees for checked bags, at least two airlines — Allegiant and Spirit — now charge passengers for carry-on bags.

As a result of these trends, the industry in general has become profitable again after years of red ink. And having fewer flights has resulted in a drop in flight delays and cancellations.

"The good news is that the (carrier) consolidation and ancillary fee revenue stream have stabilized the airline industry," said Kevin Mitchell, chairman of the Business Travel Coalition, which represents corporate travel managers. "The bad news is airlines can disregard consumers' interests much more easily when there are fewer carriers."

John Heimlich, vice president and chief economist for Airlines for America, a trade association representing major airlines, said one reason airlines have cut back on flights is that more passengers traveling less than 700 miles are choosing other forms of transportation such as cut-rate intercity buses and Amtrak's higher-speed Acela trains in the Northeast. He said some people would also rather drive than hassle with security checks in the post-9/11 world.

"Airlines have been more cautious about avoiding a glut of seats in the marketplace relative to the demand, and such caution has helped the industry get back on more solid financial footing," Heimlich said.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Terezin, Czech Republic

Terezin, Czech Republic

To get a better understanding of the suffering that individuals experienced during the Holocaust, I visited a Holding Camp in Terezin, Czech Republic.  Although we were told during the tour that executions were not performed at this camp which makes it a holding camp, individuals were starved to death by being served only coffee everyday and a piece a bread every few days.  I traveled to the Holding Camp on a wet, muddy and cold day which gave me a true sense of how unbearable it was be there.  This camp has not been touched since World World II so it really opens your eyes to the effects of the Holocaust.  Most web sites will refer to the camp as a concentration camp, but it was considered a holding camp.  Additional information can be found at

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Yosemite National Park

Yosemite National Park

Yosemite National Park is one of America’s gems.  If you are traveling to San Francisco, take a day tour to Yosemite National Park.  It is about 200 miles or 4-5 hour dirve from the city so book a tour from San Francisco, and let someone do the driving so you can enjoy the scenery.  Additional information can be found at

Monday, October 1, 2012

San Simeon at Sunset

San Simeon at Sunset

One of the most spectacular views in California is seeing elephant seals on the sea shore in San Simeon at sunset.  San Simeon is about mid-way between Los Angeles and San Francisco.