Special to The Washington Post
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 â€” or any other contract the travel industry pushes in front of you. You will be glad you did.
It is 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 is so frustrating that travelers, and at least one travel insurance company, are doing something about it.
â€œTravelers inevitably encounter fine print,â€ says Karina Saranovic, a lawyer with the firm Delman Vukmanovic in Los Angeles. â€œThe mile stretch of ink at the bottom of agreements can seem intimidating.â€
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 â€œacceptâ€ and finish a booking without understanding what youâ€™re getting.
Her advice: â€œComb through the terms with a magnifying glass, because you canâ€™t always predict what you will find.â€
â€¢ Airline contracts, also known as â€œcontracts of carriage,â€ say the airline is not required to keep its flight schedule. But youâ€™re expected to check in on time. Otherwise, the airline will cancel your ticket and keep your money.
â€¢ Car rental agreements stipulate that if you damage a vehicle, you owe the company for repairs, plus â€œloss of useâ€ â€” or what the car rental company would have earned had the car not been in the shop.
â€¢ 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.
â€œWhile itâ€™s a good idea to read the entire contract, youâ€™d be forgiven if you donâ€™t,â€ says Tanner Callais, the founder of Cruzely.com, a cruise site. â€œAfter all, if you want to cruise, then you have to agree to their terms.â€
It is that way for virtually all travel purchases. The agreement, known as an â€œadhesionâ€ contract, is a take-it-or-leave-it proposition. If you donâ€™t click â€œaccept,â€ you are 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 is 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 â€œcontract of carriageâ€ or â€œconditions of carriage,â€ 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 are doing your due diligence.
Once you have 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 are buying travel insurance, you should read the contract twice.
Travel insurance policies are written in gibberish. Even if you think you understand what you have read, you might want to read it again.
Almost every contract you read will be one-sided and nonnegotiable.
Which is to say, you canâ€™t ask the airline or hotel for a revision â€” it doesnâ€™t work that way. If you press the â€œbookâ€ 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 donâ€™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 doesnâ€™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 â€” the ones caught between the consumers and the companies â€” 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. â€œWeâ€™re working to change that,â€ 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 â€œnerdâ€ who keeps a file with all of her contracts, she says she has done that since studying consumer economics at the University of Georgia.
â€œI always fully read contracts before signing to ensure I know what is covered and what is not,â€ she adds.
Maybe there is a lesson in there for the rest of us. â€œGotchasâ€ infest virtually all travel contracts. If you donâ€™t want to get ripped off, you have to follow Andrewsâ€™ example. Make a habit of reading the entire contract â€” unless you like surprises.
Christopher Elliott is a consumer advocate, journalist and co-founder of the advocacy group Travelers United. E-mail him at [emailÂ protected]