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Fine Print Traps


5 travel traps lurking in the fine print

Jan 28, 2008

Your cruise ship may not be seaworthy. Your airline isn’t responsible for your checked luggage. And if something’s stolen from your room, good luck getting the hotel to cover your losses.

Surprised? Don’t be. It’s all in the fine print.

Perhaps the only thing travel companies like to do more than take your money is to have their lawyers write rules that allow them to take even more of your money. And they’re often less than up-front about their intentions, burying cleverly crafted clauses deep within their contracts of carriage, cruise contracts and rental contracts.

There’s no telling what you’ll find in the fine print, according to travel attorney Alexander Anolik. “The more the company can exclude without completely scaring the customer away,” he says, “the better.”

Airlines, car rental companies, cruise lines and hotels have done this since there have been contracts to sign, of course. But in the recent past, they’ve become more brazen in their efforts to aggressively embed customer-hostile provisions in their fine print.

Here are five of the worst clauses you’ll find in your travel contract:

Caution: our ships may sink

Before you set sail on your next cruise, you might want to have a look at your cruise contract (it’s on the cruise line’s Web site). Yeah, it’s full of legalese, but it can be a fascinating — and sometimes deeply troubling — read. Here’s what passenger Richard Pazara found in his Celebrity Cruises contract: “No undertaking or warranty shall be given or shall be implied as to the seaworthiness, fitness or condition of the Vessel or any food or drink supplied on board.” He found that a little odd, but not as odd as what happened next. “The contract had to be signed before embarkation or you were not allowed on board,” he says. Can you imagine a car rental company or, God forbid, an airline, saying that about themselves? It’s easy to see how a sentence about seaworthiness can save a cruise line money. If a ship sinks, it can say, “well, we told you it might.”

We’re not responsible for your checked luggage

Think an airline will compensate you for the luggage it loses? Think again. Check the airline’s conditions of carriage and you’ll find a long, long list of items that aren’t covered. The contracts are all more or less the same. Here’s American Airlines’ list of exclusions: antiques, artifacts, artwork, books and documents, china, computers and other electronic equipment, computer software, fragile items (including child/infant restraint devices such as strollers and car seats), eyeglasses, prescription sunglasses … you get the idea. Anolik, the travel attorney, says this is the most-complained-about clause in the travel industry. “When you take out the heirlooms, electronics, and cash, it leaves you with your dirty underwear,” he says. That makes the $3,000 an airline could compensate you for lost luggage a highly theoretical number. I recently asked an airline vice president why there were so many exclusions (other than the obvious reason that the airline would have to pay virtually no damages to their customers when their bags are lost). The answer? The contract is a guide that is meant to help passenger know what to pack. Or, to be more precise, what not to pack.

Something stolen from your room? Tough luck

Look carefully at the notice on the back of your door at the hotel — the one with the maximum room rate on it — and you’ll see the kind of fine print that will make you think twice before leaving valuables in your room or even the in-room safe. (You might also see a notice with the same wording when you check in.) “Hotel is not responsible for lost or stolen items,” it will say. Not only do they mean it, but state law is usually on the hotel’s side. For example, California doesn’t hold innkeepers liable for stolen items as long as there’s a notice. There is some liability for items such as “money, jewelry, documents, furs, fur coats and fur garments, or other articles of unusual value,” stored in a hotel safe. The hotelier must pay up to $500 if something is stolen from the safe, according to section 1860 of California’s civil code. Better keep your valuables at home.

We can take your rental car back anytime we want

A few years ago, Hertz made headlines when it quietly changed its contract language to say that if your rental was damaged in a natural disaster, you were liable for it. But car rental contracts contain lots of other goodies. For example, Avis says it can confiscate your car more or less whenever it wants to: “We may repossess the car anytime it is found illegally parked, being used to violate the law or this Agreement, or appears to be abandoned,” its contract says. “We may also repossess the car anytime we discover you made a misrepresentation to obtain the car. You agree that we needn’t notify you in advance.” This gives Avis a broad license to take your car whenever it wants to. Not only that, but you also agree to pay for “actual and reasonable costs incurred by us to repossess the car.”

We remove your miles and change our program rules whenever we please

Frequent flier miles, as I’ve said many times before, are a dangerous addiction that usually only benefit the airline. Need proof? Check out the rules and conditions of your program. Few people do. But you’d find some real gems in there, including the fact that the airline can change the rules whenever it wants to (check out the first paragraph in Delta’s contract) and that they can delete your miles for pretty much any reason (see paragraph 7 of Northwest’s terms and conditions. In the past, I’ve seen contract language that says miles are not worth anything and that frequent flier miles actually belong to the airline, not you. Don’t be shocked if you see that kind of language when you visit your program rules online. These contracts are fluid, and monitoring any changes is difficult. They benefit airlines because in the end, they get your loyalty but are obligated to give you nothing in return.

Beyond studying the fine print, there’s only one way to not become a victim of these clever traps. Fight them. When a travel company invokes one of its ridiculous rules, let them know you don’t think these provisions are right, and that if they disagree, you’re not afraid to ask a court for a second opinion.

Experts say some contract language is on less-than-solid legal ground and could be challenged. Now that’s something you won’t find in the fine print.

msnbc.msn.com

5 travel traps lurking in the fine print
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