HOW TO AVOID THE VACATION FROM HELL BAD VACATIONS CAN HAPPEN TO GOOD PEOPLE--AS THESE TRAVELERS FOUND OUT. OUR TIPS WILL HELP KEEP YOUR TRIP ON TRACK.
(MONEY Magazine) – So you thought trip traumas explode only in Chevy Chase movies? Well, repack that suitcase. Consider Camarillo, Calif. husband and wife Cindy Marks, 37, and Jon LeConey, 43 (right). Last September, the couple headed home halfway through their $4,000, 16-day Caribbean cruise feeling "exhausted and appalled," says Marks. Reason: They had booked on Regency Cruises, which, unbeknown to them, was steaming full speed ahead into bankruptcy.
While most vacations proceed without a hitch, incidents like the ones Marks and LeConey endured (described in detail on page 136) are distressingly common. Who hasn't had a trip to remember turn into a vacation to forget? Remember when Aunt Mildred left her bags momentarily unattended in Naples? Or when Junior tossed his cookies on the trip to the shore before coming down with the flu?
Last year, the American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA) alone received more than 2,000 trip complaints. And in 1994, the nationwide Better Business Bureaus received close to 9,000 gripes about travel-related services. "Travel is the ninth most-complained-about category," says Jerry Desanto at New York City's Better Business Bureau, after home improvements and auto dealers. Poor service is the most common travel woe, but vacationers also frequently suffer from unexpected medical problems, crime and operators that take the money and run--whether by scamming or because they go out of business.
Happily, there's a lot you can do to spare yourself the vacation from hell. For starters, an ounce of prevention will always be better than a pounding on the road. "You often can't keep from getting sick," says Stephen D. Colwell, co-author of Trouble-Free Travel (Nolo, $14.95; 800-992-6656; available in July), "but if you plan ahead, you can avoid many other things that can spoil a trip." That's where this article comes in.
One smart move is to seek advice from a top travel pro. He or she can steer you clear of questionable deals and idyllic-sounding resorts that are anything but. To find a reputable agent, get recommendations from friends and business associates. And before making any payment, says Nancy Dunnan of Travel Smart newsletter ($37 for 12 issues; 800-327-3633), get trip details in writing, including any restrictions, cancellation penalties and specific costs, such as taxes or port charges.
Bone up too on the latest vacation intelligence--hot spots, best buys, places to avoid and the like--by browsing newspaper travel sections or subscribing to newsletters like Travel Smart or Consumer Reports Travel Letter ($39 for 12 issues; 800-234-1970). But don't stop there. A computer and the Internet will give you access to up-to-the-nanosecond info like flight availability and fares, hotel and resort discounts, exchange rates, weather forecasts, car rentals, online city tours and more. Two sample surfing guides: Fodor's Net Travel (Michael Wolff, $22; updates at http://www.ypn.com/) and PCTravel (http://www.pctravel.com/).
Despite your best efforts, though, travel trouble may find you. Observes Colwell: "The scams keep changing, companies keep expanding too fast and many people still get burned." To make sure your hard-earned vacation doesn't flame out, we quizzed dozens of trip-from-hell veterans. We also canvassed top travel experts for practical tips. Here's what you need to know:
A VIEW OF THE UGLY UNDERSIDE WHEN YOUR TOUR COMPANY GOES BELLY UP
In fact, psychologist Cindy Marks and building manager Jon LeConey, who had enjoyed three previous cruises, including one with Regency, had little reason to be suspicious when reserving their fateful 16-day sail from Los Angeles to Fort Lauderdale. The Regent Star was supposed to call at Puerto Vallarta and Acapulco in Mexico, Costa Rica, the Panama Canal, Colombia, Aruba and the Bahamas. Price: about $3,250 up front plus $800 for extras such as a river-rafting trip in Costa Rica and an Aruba sightseeing tour.
Well, the Regent Star cruised out to sea all right, but it was five hours late leaving the San Pedro dock. More galling was that no Regency staff ever explained the delay. That pretty much set the tone. Of the seven planned port stops, only three occurred--the others always canceled, announced the cruise director over the loudspeaker, because the ship was late leaving the previous port. On the third day, the air conditioning quit.
"We were in the tropics, and it was unbearable," recalls Marks. "The waiters were dripping sweat, the food was hot and melting, and there were real worries about health and safety." On the fourth day, says LeConey, "we went ashore in Acapulco and bought ourselves a portable fan with a floor stand for $20 and carried it with us everywhere. People were envious."
Then there was the grand sailing through the Panama canal. The Regent Star was heading into the fourth set of narrow locks when it missed. The bow thudded into the side of the canal with a loud, sickening crunch. Marks and LeConey later learned that the ship suffered a gash about 10 feet high and 15 feet long. But worse, says Marks, "was that no announcement was made, no information given, no one said a word."
And the final straw: Three full days of repairs were necessary, and the cruisers were allowed a distraction. They could disembark at the port of Cristobal, Panama--if they dared. "It seemed like a place where all the residents were walking around with knives or guns," says LeConey. "We heard that a group of people who went ashore were mugged or beaten up."
At that point, the couple demanded to leave, along with a dozen or so other fed-up passengers. Regency paid their fare home--about $1,000. Once home, the couple asked their travel agent, Barbara Ospenson of Camarillo Travel, to write to Regency Cruises, requesting a refund. Within two weeks, she received a postcard from Regency saying the matter was being reviewed. A week after that--by the end of October--the company had declared bankruptcy and Ospenson never heard from Regency again.
Luckily, the couple had paid with a Visa card, though it still took some effort to be heard. Marks made at least 30 calls to First USA, the issuing bank, without a satisfactory response. Finally, she dashed off a letter to First USA president Randy Christofferson and managed to get Regency to credit them with $1,300, about a third of their money.
"We did take a lot of the trip," explains Marks, "so though we argued we were trapped on the ship, we didn't qualify for getting all the money back." The worst part, she says, "was taking that time off and coming back not the least bit rested."
Travel-wise advice: When planning any big-ticket trip, says Robert Whitley, president of the United States Tour Operators Association (USTOA), you can ensure that the tour operator is legit by booking through an experienced travel agent who has recently done successful business with the firm. Also check whether the operator is a member of USTOA, which is backed by a $1 million consumer-protection plan in case a tour company folds.
When possible, pay by credit card within 60 days of your departure date. Sometimes you can delay full advance payment by putting down an early deposit. That way, you hold reservations and can still get most of your price tag credited from your card issuer if necessary.
If you're booking months in advance, consider travel insurance. Access America (800-284-8300) and Travel Guard International (800-826-1300) sell a variety of policies. "The most basic covers your money in case you cancel a trip," explains senior sales manager Sandy Bolz of Travel Guard. Even better is a package that also pays off for cancellation or interruption owing to financial default of the travel supplier--typically $90 to $110 per $2,000 tour.
Most bankruptcies occur before travelers leave, but should the worst happen while you're mid-trip, keep a detailed diary of everything that goes wrong. "Try to resolve problems on the spot," advises Stan Bosco, ASTA's assistant director of consumer affairs, "and file the proper reports with the cruise director, tour leader and, when necessary, the home office's consumer-service head." If your travel agent can't retrieve money from an ailing or dead company, get some muscle from complaint agencies at ASTA (703-706-0387) or the local Better Business Bureau, your state's attorney general's office or your city's consumer-protection division.
A TOUR OF EXOTIC HOSPITALS THAT MAY SIMPLY REJECT YOUR INSURANCE
No one much thinks about needing medical care when heading out for vacation. And, of course, too many people learn otherwise the hardest way possible. Karen Spero, 52, a Cleveland investment adviser and frequent traveler, for example, still grimaces about a skiing trip in Austria years ago. She was waiting for a friend at the bottom of a ski run when another skier veered out of control and stuck her with a ski pole.
Spero was rushed to a hospital and diagnosed with a dangerous blood clot in her abdominal wall that required immediate surgery. Ten days later, about to be released, she found the hospital took only cash. A friend from Munich lent her some money and, says Spero, "I had to wire home to get $2,000. I finally was reimbursed under Blue Cross' hospitalization plan, but it went on forever and was a huge hassle."
To add insult to severe injury, Lufthansa, citing medical risk, at first refused to fly her home. "I had to practically promise not to bleed on the airplane," says Spero.
Such experiences are no less frightening when you're on native ground. Plus, unless you're up to date on every clause of your health insurance policy, on-the-road care can cost you thousands of dollars up front with little hope of getting even a penny back. The Landrieu family of New Orleans (see page 137), for instance, spent six months putting together a once-in-a-lifetime trip of three generations and 21 relatives for a week's ski vacation to Red River, N.M. last December. It never did go well, though at first, it was merely a "comedy of errors," says public relations consultant and family matriarch Phyllis Landrieu, 63.
Toting about 40 pieces of luggage, the group missed their connecting flight from Dallas to Albuquerque. That's because their earlier flight from New Orleans had been delayed an hour. So they were put on standby status for another Dallas flight, only to find that one woefully overbooked. By the time they arrived at Albuquerque International, 6 1/2 hours late, the car agency had rented out their four reserved vans. Packed into alternative wheels, the family got lost and took 4 1/2 hours to cover the two-hour drive to Lifts West Hotel in Red River.
From there, things picked up for a while, though one family member, David, 34, did take a spill on the slopes and decided to take it easy after that. On the third day, a snowmobile jaunt turned into a five-hour ordeal in subfreezing conditions because the family wasn't prepared for high mountain winds. Result: icy faces, feet and toes. With all eyes glued to narrow paths while breathing sickening motor fumes, one Landrieu snowmobile driver, steering around a curve, mistook the throttle for the brake. She smashed the machine into some trees, getting herself and her husband badly scraped and bruised. Only a large tree stump stopped the couple from plunging into the valley below. The group braved all that, with surprising good humor. But when the snowmobile crew finally made it back to the resort, David was found by one family member, a trained nurse, to be clammy and sweating, suffering severe chest and arm pains--classic heart-attack symptoms.
"One thing you can count on at ski resorts," observes Phyllis, "is emergency services." David was quickly taken by ambulance to a hospital in Taos, a 50-minute drive due south. There, doctors suspected a bruised heart but didn't have the equipment for proper tests. Within 14 hours, he was once again loaded into an ambulance that sped off for Albuquerque, about 100 miles away.
"It was very scary," says David's wife Robin, who, along with her husband, owns a New Orleans patio design firm. "But the people were sincerely concerned and nice."
David ended his vacation by recuperating for three days in the hospital. Because New Year's Day intervened, Robin informed the couple's New Orleans HMO of his accident the following Tuesday--24 hours beyond the required 48-hour notice for a medical emergency. Given the holiday, however, the insurance policy--"which we'd just taken out a few months before," says Robin thankfully--covered most of the $11,000 in bills. "We had to pay $900 ourselves, including a flat $300-a-day rate of inpatient care," she recalls. All told, Robin and David's vacation, if you can call it that, cost them $5,000.
Travel-wise advice: As basic as it sounds, research your destination. Knowing conditions and temperatures can help you dress appropriately for adventures like snowmobile trips. Outside the U.S., stay alert to food and water safety. You may want to stick to bottled water and avoid raw fruits or vegetables from street vendors.
After reviewing your health insurance contract, consider trip medical insurance. Some HMOs, for instance, impose restrictions on so-called urgent care even when you cross only state lines.
"This is not the time to be penny-wise," advises Richard Bifulco of Snug Harbor Travel in Amityville, N.Y. "We had one woman taken off a ship because of a brain seizure. She was charged $21,000 in medical bills, but her $59 trip insurance covered it all." Travel Guard's Bolz recommends a package that covers not only emergency medical care but baggage theft and trip- cancellation coverage. Typical cost: 6% of your total price tag.
Access America and Travel Guard insurance packages also include medical coverage. Other options: TravMed (800-732-5309), Worldwide Assistance Services (800-368-7878) and Corporate Assist (800-756-5900).
A CROSS-CULTURAL EXCHANGE COULD MEAN GETTING ROBBED OR MUGGED
In a far-from-enchanted April two years ago, Kathleen Salisbury, 53, a Los Angeles schoolteacher, journeyed to Paris with her sister, Judy Van Dyke, 54 (pictured on page 138), who owns a travel agency in an L.A. suburb. At the end of their week's stay, Van Dyke's wallet was pickpocketed out of her shoulder handbag on the Metro. "It was on a weekend," says Salisbury, "with a lot of families on the subway. We later realized it was one of the gypsy children who kept banging into us. Luckily, my sister is an experienced traveler and she was carrying only about $100 worth of francs and one credit card."
The sisters were angry about being easy targets. "But we didn't lose much," says Salisbury. They called to report the loss to the credit-card company. Later, the women learned the card was used within 24 hours in London, so it was obviously some kind of organized operation.
A bigger problem was the mysterious disappearance of their luggage. The hotel room was so small that the sisters stored their empty bags in the hotel's lobby area. The day before heading home, they found the luggage gone. "The desk clerk was embarrassed and apologetic," says Salisbury. "He called in the manager who started calling employees who had the day off. But I insisted they quickly buy us new bags." He did, but, she continues, "they were extremely cheap, flimsy ones."
Then the women visited the local police. "It was not the way we wanted to spend our last day in Paris," sighs Salisbury. "We just knew we'd need a police report in order to file insurance claims at home."
Back in L.A., the sisters filed a copy of the police report along with the insurer's claim forms. They had each purchased $100 trip insurance packages through Van Dyke's agency. About a month later, each sister received a check for $200--a bit less than the luggage was worth but in the standard range for baggage loss.
Travel-wise advice: Pack smart. Besides carrying visas and passports separately from cash, notes Bosco, "keep copies of your passport numbers and traveler's check receipts in several places"--including with a relative or friend back home. If you do lose a passport or visa, immediately call the U.S. embassy or consulate. You must show up in person, but the staff will help you to transfer money, cancel credit cards and reach friends at home.
To ensure safety once you arrive, suggests Bosco, ask your travel agent to "call ahead to see if there are any crime advisories." You can also check trouble spots by calling the State Department hotline (202-647-5225) to hear a recorded list of worldwide advisories. Overall, advises Travel Smart's Dunnan, the best protection is to blend in. "Don't walk around wearing a Yankee baseball cap with a Michelin Guide in your hand," she says.
If you become a crime victim, take action on the spot. As with Salisbury's experience, "It's to your advantage to file police reports where the crime occurs," says Bosco.
In the end, say the experts, should anything go awry, don't suffer in silence. Call your tour operator or agent. "It costs a company about five times more to get a new customer," explains author Colwell, "than to keep an old one. They will no doubt accommodate you."
Reporter associate: Subadhra Sriram