THE TRAVELER'S BILL OF RIGHTS Here's how you can get everything you are entitled to from resorts, hotels, inns, travel agents and tour operators.
By Derek T. Dingle

(MONEY Magazine) – All travelers may have undeniable rights to the comfort and convenience they pay for, but that hardly means suppliers automatically deliver. ''You must assert yourself,'' says San Francisco travel attorney Alexander Anolik. ''The squeaky wheel, in this case, will get better lodging -- or a refund.'' All too often, people who vigilantly guard their consumer rights at home turn into wimps on the road. They don't complain enough. The American Society of Travel Agents, the trade group for 20,000 firms nationwide, receives a mere 85 complaints a month from customers and travel representatives involving bungled reservations, shoddy service or misleading advertising. No one should settle for second-rate service. Your best protection is to take the initiative, be specific about your requirements and then, upon arrival, politely demand fulfillment of every promise you received. To give you more clout, we queried industry experts, trade groups and attorneys to draft this bill of rights. Here is how to get what you deserve: , -- Get the room you booked, not the room they want to give you. Basically, hotels should be made to honor your reservations. Start by learning about the hotel's policies. Ask specific questions, because reservation clerks rarely volunteer information on booking procedures or services. They won't tell you, for instance, that hotels often overbook to compensate for the one out of every seven reserved guests who typically doesn't show up. Specify the kind of room you want: nonsmoking, quiet, near the lobby -- or whatever. Ask for written confirmation. Keep in mind, though, that if you request a special feature, like a view, it could cost 5% to 10% more. For the best results, make an effort to arrive as close to check-in time as possible, usually around noon. Your chances of negotiating a preferred room or better rate are 25% to 50% greater during the day than at night. -- Make the hotel liable. Unlike the airline and rail industries, hotels, resorts, inns and other lodging establishments are not regulated by federal or state laws nor by an industrywide code of ethics. Still, you can ensure the hotel's contractual obligation by mailing or faxing a short, binding agreement to the general manager, confirming what you've been told. The manager or assistant manager will usually reply. To avoid hassles at check-in time, bring along copies of both letters. Attorney Alexander Anolik writes a shorthand agreement on the back of his personal checks. ''The returned check,'' explains Anolik, ''serves as a valid contract.'' Here's his format: ''This is in (full or partial) payment for (list specific travel services and the range of chosen dates). Any dispute involving these services shall be heard by the courts of (list your hometown and state).'' Specifying your local jurisdiction requires the hotel owner (or whomever) to travel to settle the problem. That way, you avoid round-trip expenses. Besides, you may not face the most receptive judge in some resort town. Anolik says that plaintiffs have come out ahead in roughly 90% of cases involving contracts like his. -- The hotel should solve problems, not shelve them. Start at the top. Don't discuss mishaps or mistakes with any hotel employee who ranks lower than assistant manager. Only managers are responsible for maintaining the hotel's standards and reputation. Therefore, if your room is a floor below a noisy nightclub, take the problem to management. Be firm -- not hostile. ''Be willing to negotiate, especially in a foreign hotel,'' says Deborah Hill, author of Travel Tips International (Renaissance Publications, $12.50). ''In most cases, it's a question of a hotel manager's honor to satisfy a guest.'' Don't settle for any accommodations or services below the quality you were originally promised. And don't resign yourself to misrepresentations -- for example, a resort that promotes two elegant restaurants though one is merely a bar. If the manager can't explain discrepancies between what you see and what you read in an ad or brochure, switch to another hotel if you can, or pack up and go home. Don't endure it. Upon your return, send a detailed letter and photos, if possible, to the president of the hotel or resort company stating the reasons why you should receive a refund. Explain that you will inform the Better Business Bureau, local chamber of commerce, the national tourist board (if applicable) and the press about the false ads if you don't receive an adequate response. Remember, if you grit your teeth and stay, it will be tougher for you to justify a refund later. Take another case. Let's say your guaranteed room is given to another guest because of overbooking. If so, demand that the hotel pay for comparable lodging elsewhere. Most hotels will provide alternative accommodations. For instance, Radisson Hotels has an estimated two to three overbookings a month at each of its 270 hotels. When that happens, the hotel will arrange to take you to another hotel and pay for a night's stay and phone calls. The next day, a Radisson representative will drive you back and give you an upgraded room at no extra charge. -- Travel agents are accountable for full disclosure. Since travel agents make 25% of domestic hotel reservations, and 85% of international hotel bookings, and advise roughly half of their customers on where to go, the courts have started to impose legal standards on agents. Says Thomas Dickerson, a New York City attorney and author of the treatise Travel Law (Law Journal Press, $80): ''Travel agents are the fiduciaries of your trip. They should know the financial condition of the hotel, resort or tour operator that they recommend and everything about the destination, from your chances of getting sick to the likelihood of terrorist activity.'' Marcus vs. Zenith Travel, which was decided last year in New York State Supreme Court, is one of the most recent precedents. In that case, Sam Marcus and his wife Renee of Great Neck, N.Y. paid about $13,000 for a 16-day tour of % the Far East. But when they arrived in Tokyo, they discovered that the tour operator had gone bankrupt and had not paid for their hotel. The Marcuses, in turn, sued their travel agent, Zenith, and won. The court ruled that Zenith had breached its fiduciary duty by failing to inform the Marcuses of the tour company's financial status before their trip. Although state laws vary, courts in Illinois, New Jersey, Ohio and Pennsylvania have recently ruled in favor of plaintiffs in similar cases. Don't trust to fate or to the courts, however. When booking through an agent, inspect your travel package thoroughly. Take notes of all conversations, and then send a letter confirming the arrangements. When you receive air tickets and other documents, scrutinize them closely. One typographical error on the date can cost you both the room and money. If things really go awry and you can document the problems, many agents will refund at least some of your money. Others may offer a free trip to make up for your troubles. -- Tour operators should deliver on every part of your package. Working as wholesalers, tour operators buy blocks of hotel rooms and airline seats and tailor them into distinct travel packages. Therefore, before you commit any time or money, read every bit of fine print on brochures and pamphlets, because these serve as your contracts with the operator. Watch for misleading language that may tip you to ''bait and switch'' schemes. For example, the brochure might describe lodging ''at a leading hotel or similar accommodations.'' If the tour operator sells more packages than the reserved space at the leading hotel will accommodate, you may wind up getting dumped in an inferior location. To check on whether the tour operator is reputable, call your local Better Business Bureau. Also call the U.S. Tour Operators Association (212-944-5727). Says Ann Waigand, publisher of the Educated Traveler ($65 for 10 issues a year; 703-471-1063): ''Ask the tour operator if such suppliers as hotels and airlines are paid through an escrow account, which will secure your money.'' The best advice, besides doing your homework, is to remember to be firm: You're entitled to the best trip your money can buy. That's your basic right.