Executive Travel : When Plans Go Awry, Know Your Rights

CAROL SMITH <i> is a free-lance writer based in Pasadena</i>

Most business travelers have had some form of corporate training, whether it’s in sales strategies or management techniques.

What most have not had is any instruction in how to travel.

One of the least understood aspects of business travel is the rights and recourse travelers have when things don’t go as planned, said Chris McGinnis, director of Travel Skills Group, an Atlanta-based corporate training firm.

For example, many business travelers do not know all of their rights when they are bumped from airline flights or that they have some recourse when they arrive at a hotel to find their reservations have been lost.


“Most business travelers have a feeling they’re not getting what they’re supposed to get, but they don’t know what it is they’re supposed to ask for,” said McGinnis, who wrote the book “202 Tips Even the Best Business Traveler May Not Know” (Irwin Professional Publishing, 1994).

Here is a rundown on what travelers should know when their plans go awry.


If you are involuntarily bumped from a flight, you have the right to financial compensation from the airline.

“A lot of people just take the free ticket that the airline offers,” McGinnis said. But federal regulations stipulate that if you are bumped and the airline can’t get you to your final destination within an hour of your originally scheduled arrival time, it is required to give you as much as $200 cash or the value of a one-way fare to that place, whichever is less. If the airline does not get you there within two hours, it must reimburse you up to $400, or the value of a round-trip fare, whichever is less.

The cash is in addition to your original ticket, which the airline must still honor, said Chris Chiames, spokesman for the National Air Transport Assn., a Washington-based trade organization representing airlines.

In order to qualify for the cash compensation, you must have arrived at the airport gate at a prescribed number of minutes before the departure time to claim your seat. If you arrive after that time and the flight is overbooked, you have essentially broken your agreement with the airline, which is no longer required to compensate you if you are bumped. Therefore, it is important for passengers to know how far ahead of departure they must check in, Chiames said.

Also keep in mind that even if you have checked in at the gate and have a boarding pass, you risk losing your seat (and therefore are not entitled to compensation if bumped) if you do not board when the flight crew calls your seat row number, he said.


Airlines will sometimes offer a bumped passenger a voucher for a new ticket or a free ticket to a destination of his or her choice in lieu of cash. Business travelers may prefer to take the free ticket, but they should know that they have the option to choose cash, McGinnis said.

Also note that if the airline offers a choice of a free round-trip ticket or a voucher to apply toward the ticket of your choice, the free ticket would not qualify for frequent-flier mileage but the ticket purchased with a voucher would, McGinnis said.

If your flight is delayed or canceled and it’s the airline’s fault, the airline is required to take action.

According to what’s known as Rule 240 of the airlines’ official rules, the airline is required to get you to your final destination within a certain time even if it means putting you on another airline. If you are concerned about making an appointment or connecting with another flight, you can ask the ticketing agent to “240” you on another flight. It will help to have a copy of the Official Airline Guide, available in bookstores and airport newsstands, with current flight schedules so you can look up other flights that will get you where you want to go.

When asserting your rights with the airline, it helps to be courteous, Chiames said.

“Some passengers think that being belligerent is the way to get things done, but a kindhearted, sincere, patient request is going to go a lot further than pounding on the counter,” he said.

If the airline loses your luggage, you are entitled to reimbursement of up to $1,250 a bag. If the bag is not lost but does not get to you in time for an event you had planned to attend, the airline must reimburse you for the costs associated with having to buy or rent clothing, McGinnis said.


Last, if you have been inconvenienced because of an airline’s actions, you can ask for some small favors such as meal vouchers, a toilet kit, a pass to the airline club or a free phone call to notify someone of changes in your travel plans.


With airlines, travelers’ rights are guaranteed by regulations. It’s different in the hotel industry, where “rights” are not backed by law but rather by industry convention, said Maura Nelson, spokeswoman for the American Hotel & Motel Assn. in Washington. For example, hotels, like airlines, routinely overbook on busy weekends because they count on a certain percentage of no-shows. If the hotel cannot honor your reservation, it will probably pay for transportation to a comparable room in another hotel and for your first night there. If the hotel doesn’t offer to pay for the first night, ask for it, McGinnis said.

Before asking for such compensation, though, make sure you have checked in by the time stipulated by the hotel, Nelson said. Most hotels will hold a reservation only until 6 p.m. unless it is guaranteed with a credit card, in which case you can check in anytime you choose.

When making a reservation, always get a reservation number and the name of the employee who made it for you as insurance against lost reservations, McGinnis said.

Be aware that you don’t have to accept the first room the hotel offers you. If it’s not to your liking, ask to see something different.

Rental Cars

Your “rights” here are also dictated by industry convention, not government regulation. The main thing to keep in mind is that the rental company is not supposed to downgrade you to a smaller or less expensive car if it doesn’t have the model you reserved; you should get something equivalent or better, McGinnis said. Conversely, if you requested a smaller car and the company doesn’t have one that size when you arrive, you can ask for an upgrade at the same price.


Another tip on renting: If you want to get the newest car on the lot, ask for the one with the lowest mileage. The rental agent should have that information available, McGinnis said. Many travelers use this strategy to make sure they get cars with the latest safety technology.