Before you embark on your summer vacation, take a few minutes to read the fine print on your airline ticket, car rental contract, vacation rental contract – or any other contract the travel industry pushes in front of you. You’ll be glad you did.
It’s no exaggeration to say that many, if not most, travel problems start with a failure to read the terms and conditions. After years of advocating travel cases, I think I know the reason for the fine-print illiteracy. No one even knows where to find the fine print, let alone how to make sense of it. It’s so frustrating that travelers, and at least one travel insurance company, are doing something about it.
“Travelers inevitably encounter fine print,” says Karina Saranovic, a lawyer with the firm Delman Vukmanovic in Los Angeles. “The mile stretch of ink at the bottom of agreements can seem intimidating.”
She has encountered more than her fair share of terms and conditions when booking past travels, including her recent honeymoon. Saranovic remarked on how easy it is to click “accept” and finish a booking without understanding what you’re getting.
Her advice: “Comb through the terms with a magnifying glass because you can’t always predict what you’ll find.”
Airline contracts, also known as “contracts of carriage,” say the airline is not required to keep its flight schedule. But you’re expected to check in on time. Otherwise, the airline will cancel your ticket and keep your money.Car rental agreements stipulate that if you damage a vehicle, you owe the company for repairs, plus “loss of use” – or what the car rental company would have earned had the car not been in the shop.Cruise contracts say the staff may search your cabin for any reason at any time. The cruise line can also use your image for any purpose without compensation.“While it’s a good idea to read the entire contract, you’d be forgiven if you don’t,” says Tanner Callais, the founder of Cruzely.com, a cruise site. “After all, if you want to cruise, then you have to agree to their terms.”
It’s that way for virtually all travel purchases. The agreement, known as an “adhesion” contract, is a take-it-or-leave-it proposition. If you don’t click “accept,” you’re not traveling.
So how do you read the contract? And what do you do when you find something objectionable?
Knowing that there is a contract is the first step. Most travelers are only vaguely aware that there’s an agreement.
And even if they are aware of it, they have no idea how to find it.
Sometimes, knowing the terminology is useful. An airline contract, for example, can be called a “contract of carriage” or “conditions of carriage,” depending on the company. Hotels are a little trickier. Technically, your reservation is your contract, although you may find additional terms and conditions on the hotel site. Knowing the lingo can help you quickly find the contract when you’re doing your due diligence.
Once you’ve found the contract, experts say, you should take your time reviewing it. Contracts typically outline deadlines for cancellation refunds, rescheduling or promotional qualifications. If you’re buying travel insurance, you should read the contract twice.
Travel insurance policies are written in gibberish. Even if you think you understand what you’ve read, you might want to read it again.
Almost every contract you read will be one-sided and nonnegotiable.
Which is to say, you can’t ask the airline or hotel for a revision – it doesn’t work that way. If you press the “book” button, you agree to the terms. (Oh, and the terms can change at any time, for any reason, to which you also agree.)
But you can say no, and if you don’t like what you read, you should say no. This is particularly true when buying products for which you have many options, such as travel insurance or vacation rentals. If your policy doesn’t look right, walk away.
For some travel companies, the fine print is part of the business model. As they teach you in consumer advocacy school, the large print giveth and the small print taketh away. (Tom Waits sang about it, too.) Simply put, travel companies make more money when they slip a term into the fine print that makes your airfare nonrefundable or add a mandatory tip to your cruise ticket.
But some travel businesses – the ones caught between the consumers and the companies – are tired of the confusion. So earlier this year, the travel insurance website Squaremouth.com decided to do something about it. The company inserted a notification at the end of its contracts, giving $10,000 to the first person to read to the end.
Squaremouth estimates that fewer than 1% of travelers who buy travel insurance read all of their policy information. “We’re working to change that,” Squaremouth CEO Chris Harvey told me.
Harvey expected the contest to last a year. But Donna Andrews, a high school teacher from Thomaston, Georgia, discovered the contest in less than 24 hours and won. I asked her why, and she said it was a habit. A self-described “nerd” who keeps a file with all of her contracts, she says she’s done that since studying consumer economics at the University of Georgia.
“I always fully read contracts before signing to ensure I know what is covered and what is not,” she says.
Maybe there’s a lesson in there for the rest of us. “Gotchas” infest virtually all travel contracts. If you don’t want to get ripped off, you have to follow Andrews’ example. Make a habit of reading the entire contract – unless you like surprises.
Christopher Elliott is a consumer advocate, journalist and co-founder of the advocacy group Travelers United. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.