By LAURA T. COFFEY
Protect your travel dollars in times of uncertainty
Airlines, tour operators, cruise lines and travel agencies have been ailing in recent months. Travelers need to beware of losing their vacation deposits or entire purchases if a travel supplier fails. The following tips can help you protect your investment in the event of bankruptcies, airline strikes and other problems.
1. Reputation is key. Choose a travel agency that belongs to the American Society of Travel Agents, which requires members to adhere to a code of ethics and sometimes helps mediate disputes. To make sure the agency's membership is current, call (800) ASK-ASTA (275-2782) or visit astanet.com.
2. Membership matters. Go with a tour operator that belongs to the U.S. Tour Operators Association, the National Tour Association or ASTA's Tour Operator Program. Members provide some form of consumer protection and carry bonds or letters of credit to repay travelers if the company fails.
3. Understand cruise restrictions. The Federal Maritime Commission oversees a bond that repays travelers if a cruise line fails or cancels a cruise, but only if the cruise stops at a U.S. port.
4. Opt for smooth sailing. If you hire a travel agent affiliated with the Cruise Lines Industry Association or the National Association of Cruise Oriented Agencies, he or she should be able to help you steer clear of cruise lines with serious financial problems.
5. Read your travel insurance policy carefully. Be sure it covers the default of your travel supplier and specifies what is required for your claim to be paid. Some policies also cover airline strikes.
6. Pay with a credit card. You may have to use your right to dispute charges on your credit card in a last-ditch effort to retrieve your travel funds.
7. Before you pay a dime. Make sure you obtain details about your trip in writing, including the total price and any cancellation and change penalties.
8. If an airline strike is looming. Speak with your travel agent about alternate travel options and "re-accommodation" procedures.
9. Request a paper ticket. Some carriers may offer to re-accommodate you if a strike is called, but only if you have a paper ticket. By requesting one in advance, you can avoid spending time waiting in line to have your e-ticket replaced with a paper ticket.
10. Carry your cellular phone. If your flight gets canceled at the last minute and chaos reigns at the airport's pay phones, you'll be able to contact your travel agent right away and make alternative travel plans.
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