Seven things I’ve learned from writing about other people’s travel issues

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Siobhan Downes is a senior travel reporter for Stuff.

OPINION: If you want a long list of all the ways a trip can go wrong, just check out our Travel Problems section.

There has never been more action than this year, with the world’s turbulent return to international travel providing plenty of food – from chaotic scenes at airports, to hours spent on hold with contact centers, to canceled flights and the mountains of lost baggage.

A big part of my job is talking to Kiwis about their nightmarish travel experiences and trying to get some answers.

Of course, these are often stories of individual misfortune. But more often than not, there are also broader lessons that can be learned. Here are some of the main ones I found.

READ MORE:
* Airport and flight delays and lost luggage: how to survive the chaos of travel
* Lost airline baggage: how to recover your baggage and get what is rightfully yours
* ‘Stuck in an eternal loop’: Kiwis caught in ‘airmageddon’ baggage chaos

1. Avoid using third-party sites to book flights

A recurring issue we hear about is people who have used third-party travel sites to book flights, only to find the flights unusable.

While many travelers use third-party sites thinking they’ll get a better deal, in my opinion, it’s not worth it. If you need to change your plans or something goes wrong with the booking, you’re completely at the mercy of the site’s customer service systems – the airline usually won’t be able to help.

Adding this middleman into the mix can also mean that any changes to your flights may go uncommunicated (or end up in your junk mail). They also might not share important information about travel restrictions or entry requirements – which could actually make your trip impossible.

It is best to book directly with an airline or use a travel agency for more complex itineraries.

Booking flights through third-party sites can be more difficult than it's worth.

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Booking flights through third-party sites can be more difficult than it’s worth.

2. It is definitely worth using a travel agency

In today’s travel climate, trying to reach an airline’s customer service team can be almost as painful as dealing with a third-party site.

A problem with your itinerary could leave you on hold for hours or waiting for an email response for weeks – not ideal if you need to get somewhere fast.

This is where a good travel agent can be worth its weight in gold. Their job is to act as your advocate, doing all the work for you (like standing on hold or constantly refreshing a flight booking page to see if seats have become available) to get your trip back on track.

3. Always pay by credit (or debit) card

Ridiculously long waits for refunds are another common travel issue we encounter.

But if you paid by credit (or debit) card, you might be able to take matters into your own hands. If you paid for a good or service that you didn’t receive – say a flight that was canceled – and the merchant is taking too long to process a refund, you can request a chargeback.

If your request is successful, your bank will reverse the payment and return the funds to your card.

Many people don’t even know it’s an option, but it’s a handy protection to have when tour operators aren’t playing ball.

If you pay by credit or debit card, you can request a chargeback if you don't get what you paid for.

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If you pay by credit or debit card, you can request a chargeback if you don’t get what you paid for.

4. Know your rights and keep your receipts

We also frequently hear from travelers who have been kicked out of flights or have them delayed or canceled, upending their travel plans – with airlines being coy about compensation.

According to the Civil Aviation Act, for domestic flights, the rule of thumb is: if your flight is delayed or canceled for reasons within their control (such as staffing issues or overbooking), you are entitled to a refund – up to 10 times the cost of your airfare, or the amount of actual damage that you can prove was caused by the delay or cancellation, whichever is lower .

But if your domestic flight is delayed or canceled for reasons beyond their control (like weather), you’re not entitled to anything. This is where having travel insurance can come in handy.

RNZ

Air New Zealand is cutting flights and will operate on a reduced schedule to manage staff shortages.

For international travel, it gets a little tricky, as it depends on where the airline is based, where you started your trip, and where you’re going.

But generally, under the Montreal Convention, if the airline is at fault, you should be entitled to reimbursement of your airfares and other costs.

Either way, keep track of everything you’ve prepaid for your trip. If you are the victim of a delay or cancellation while traveling, be sure to keep receipts for things like taxi rides, meals, and accommodation.

And if the airline tries to tell you to use travel insurance to recoup costs for which it is responsible, stand your ground.

Make sure you have at least six months validity on your passport.

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Make sure you have at least six months validity on your passport.

5. Check your passport

Sometimes a traveler only has to blame themselves for a trip gone wrong. In these cases, it is usually a passport-related issue.

The classic is not having a passport with a validity of at least six months, as required by many countries. Or finding out that your passport has expired and not having enough time to renew it.

But a lesser known problem is having a damaged passport – a little nibbling can be enough to ruin your trip. So always check your passport before booking and keep it in perfect condition.

6. Be clear about cancellation policies

Many tour operators have offered some level of flexibility throughout the pandemic, such as the ability to hold a booking in credits, or even get a refund no questions asked. It may therefore come as a surprise to find that some operators are no longer so flexible when it comes to cancellation.

This is particularly important when it comes to booking accommodation – check what the grace period is for a refund if you end up having to cancel. For some you may be able to cancel up to a day before check-in and get your money back, while others may be completely non-refundable.

The same goes for flights: a flexible fare is not necessarily a refundable fare.

7. Going public can get results

I hate to end on this note, because it shouldn’t be like this. But the reality is that if you’ve been wronged by a tour operator, sometimes making your complaint public is the best way to get results.

Of course, you should first try to resolve the issue directly with them, using their processes, and give them a reasonable amount of time to sort things out.

But if that fails, it’s remarkable how quickly things can be resolved with a well-written social media post or email to the media.

Call me cynical, but on several occasions my colleagues and I have had the experience of approaching an airline or operator to comment on a Travel Troubles story – only to be told that the issue has been magically resolved just before the deadline.

What’s your best advice for avoiding a Travel Troubles-worthy experience? Let us know in the comments.


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