Waiting. That's the worst mistake a traveler can make these days.
It's what Femi Adenuga did after buying tickets for his parents to fly from Lagos to Pittsburgh through Travelocity. "A week after the purchase, while e-mailing the itinerary to my dad, my eye caught a single letter error in my mother's first name," said Adenuga, a college student. He contacted Travelocity, which got in touch with Delta Air Lines, which urged him to cancel the ticket and buy a new one.
Delta's official ticket name policy, outlined on its site, is abundantly unclear: "In general, Delta and Northwest do not allow a name to be changed on an existing PNR." (A PNR is shorthand for Passenger Name Record, which is a fancy way to describe your itinerary.)
I can think of lots of exceptions, including this memorable case involving a canceled destination wedding and a ticket that needed to be changed for obvious reasons. But I digress.
Adenuga shouldn't have waited to review the names on his tickets. As I've mentioned a time or two, many travel agencies can change a ticket name if the error is caught quickly. A week later, you're pretty much at the mercy of your airline.
I'm dedicating this column to travel mistakes, a topic that will be familiar to anyone who reads this feature or follows my misadventures as National Geographic Traveler magazine's ombudsman. I haven't collected all of my favorite travel errors in a single column in a while, and the industry has changed. Not necessarily for the better, I might add.
Travelocity tried to help Adenuga, to no avail. Delta refused to change one letter, instead telling the online agency it would "make a notation" in the record, but adding that it couldn't guarantee authorities would allow his mother into the country. Based on that advice, Adenuga bought a new ticket, and Delta issued a voucher for the amount of the first ticket.
Can you say "absurd"?
So here it is: Review every reservation you make online or offline immediately. If there's a problem, speak up. Airlines that refuse to make a reasonable name change to correct an obvious typographical error -- well, that's a topic for another time. Let's just say these are not nice people and leave it at that, for now.
What other kinds of mistakes should you avoid when you travel?
Not Inspecting Your Rental Car
When Alan Chim rented a car from Thrifty in Montreal, he didn't notice any damage to his vehicle in the dark garage. But no employee was there to sign off on the car. "On return, the agent inspected the vehicle and noticed a tiny scratch on the front driver-side door," he told me. "The attendant made me fill out an incident report and said I'd be hearing back within three to six weeks." (Its damage claim against him is still pending as I write this.) This mistake is relatively easy to avoid. Find someone who works for the car rental company and ask for a sign-off. Note any damage, even the smallest dent or scratch. Here's some good news: Hertz just began a program to start taking pre-rental pictures of its cars. You might consider getting a snapshot of your vehicle, too.
Not Buying Insurance for Your Cruise
Lisa Olson missed her Carnival cruise because of an airline delay. "We did call before the cruise departed to see if there was any other cruise leaving around the same time that we could change to, and there was not, so we had to cancel," she told me. At that point, Olson could have made a claim on her travel insurance -- if she had it. She didn't.
Every day, I get e-mails from readers like her, wondering if the cruise line will cut them any slack or at least credit them for a future cruise. They almost never do. They could, but the most common cruise line argument I hear against it is that it "undermines" the highly-profitable travel insurance that cruise lines sell with their product. Which brings me to another point: Shop around before buying cancellation insurance. Get a few quotes before settling on a policy. The insurance your cruise line recommends may not be the best product for you.
Staying at a Hotel With a Resort Fee
Tabby Stone found himself at one recently: Planet Hollywood in Las Vegas, where he was attending a conference. The mandatory $4.99-a-night fee supposedly covered phone calls, in-room bottled water and "additional inclusions" (whatever that is). "When I asked why the fee wasn't just part of the base rate, since it was mandatory, the clerk replied that the management makes it a separate fee because if it's part of the base rate they have to pay a commission on it," he says. I've said this before, and I'll say it again: Don't give your business to a hotel that charges a mandatory resort fee. It's like feeding the pigeons. They'll keep coming back for more.
Using a Credit Card That Charges a Foreign Transaction Fee
Take a good look at your credit card. Check the fine print in your cardmember agreement. Does it charge a "foreign transaction fee"? Many do. No, I'm not talking about a foreign exchange fee, a dubious surcharge that covers the cost of exchanging dollars into other currencies; foreign transaction fees have replaced these.
One reader booked airline tickets from Mumbai to New York through Qatar Airways on Expedia. But when his Citibank credit card bill arrived, it contained a surprise $44 transaction fee. Why? Because Qatar Airways was not based in the United States, even though the transaction took place entirely in dollars. The best way to avoid a foreign transaction surprise is to use a card like Capital One, which not only doesn't impose any transaction fees, but also absorbs the 1 percent fee that Visa or MasterCard charges it for a cross-border transaction. There's no telling what other fees credit card companies will come up with in the future, but for now, this one is certainly among the most creative.
So that's my top five list. What's yours? What mistakes have you made while you're traveling? (Send me an e-mail and I'll include your responses in a future column).
But before I sign off this week, a word to the readers I mentioned in this story: You are in good company. Every week, I get dozens of calls and e-mails with identical problems. I've made all of these mistakes -- every one of them -- too. So don't feel singled out.
Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine and the host of "What You Get For The Money: Vacations" on the Fine Living Network. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
(c) 2010 Christopher Elliott. Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.