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Bumped? It’s a pain in the neck, so get something for it

Times Staff writer

ON a five-day trip to Pennsylvania during the Fourth of July holiday, I was showered with money-saving offers: I could have spent a night in Las Vegas for free, pocketed hundreds in extra cash and rented a full-size car for the price of a compact. My hotel even took $80 off the bill.

It wasn’t because of my profession; I was on vacation, and The Times does not accept freebies in any case.

But I also spent a night in a hotel room I didn’t want, went toe to toe with a car-rental clerk and fretted over whether I would get to my destination at all.

My fortunes, good and bad, resulted from oversales, when more customers show up than there are seats, cars or rooms. This can happen when companies overbook, accepting extra reservations to compensate for expected no-shows, or through various miscalculations.

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Whatever the cause, it seems, customers pay. Or do they?

Companies may try to compensate the inconvenienced; in some cases, they are legally required to. As a result, travelers may be able to lessen their pain or even profit from it, but only if they keep their wits about them and understand their options. Here’s a closer look:

* Airlines: Carriers are cagey about the rates of no-shows and how much they overbook. But what happens when they run out of seats is no secret.

Last year 47,774 passengers were bumped from flights and 588,266 volunteered to give up their seats on the 18 largest U.S. airlines, the U.S. Department of Transportation reported. The average rate of denied boardings, 12 per 10,000 customers, was the lowest in 15 years. But it recently increased.

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“I foresee more airline overbooking,” said Alexander Anolik a travel law attorney in San Francisco, as planes fly fuller and airlines cancel unprofitable routes.

If you’re denied boarding on an oversold flight, U.S. carriers, by law, must refund your ticket or let you use it for another flight and they may owe you up to $400; the amount varies by how long you’re delayed. For details, go to airconsumer.ost.dot.gov/pubs.htm; under “Other Publications,” click on “Fly Rights.”

Before bumping anyone from an oversold flight, gate agents must try to get volunteers to give up their seats. Fliers can profit from the free-for-all.

On the LAX-to-Phoenix leg of my trip to Pittsburgh, Southwest offered $200 plus the value of the ticket. In Phoenix, it was a one-night package to Vegas, with a flight out the next day.

Although carriers don’t report oversales by date or route, insiders say they are more common on nonstop flights between big cities and during peak travel periods, such as weekends, special events and before and after holidays. If you want the airline to make an offer, they say, be first at the gate and let the agent know you’re willing.

* Rental cars: “Overbooking is a given,” said Neil Abrams, president of Abrams Consulting Group, a New York-based consulting and research firm for auto rental and allied industries.

Companies don’t intend to run out of cars, Abrams said, but “fleet planning is an inexact science.” Typically, he said, renters don’t face penalty fees for canceling or returning a car late, and no-shows may average 15%.

Coming up short can work to your advantage. A colleague swears that she routinely rents compacts if she’s arriving late in the day, assuming she’ll get a free upgrade. She says she is rarely disappointed.

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But what if you don’t want a bigger car?

At the Pittsburgh airport, the Alamo agent said she didn’t have the compact car we had reserved. She proposed an “SUV special” rate of $10 extra per day. Worried about gas mileage, we declined that offer, only to find we had been assigned a full-sized car, albeit for the same rate as our compact.

We protested, the agent called her boss, and the compact materialized.

I later asked Charles Pulley, spokesman for Vanguard Car Rental USA Inc., which operates the Alamo and National brands, about the company’s policy.

“If you reserve a compact, we are obligated to provide a compact,” he said.

If it’s not there, he said, you should insist that the agent obtain a comparable vehicle from a competitor or ask whether one will be available soon. Or get the company to pay for a taxi to your hotel and deliver your car later.

The Alamo agent was “totally wrong” to pitch the SUV rental at extra cost, Pulley added; an upgrade should have been offered at the same price.

* Hotels: If you show up with confirmed reservations and there’s no room at the inn, the solution is straightforward: Expect the hotel to find you a comparable room at another hotel, pay for transportation there and pick up the tab for the night, said Robert Mandelbaum, director of research information services for PKF Consulting, an international firm of consultants in the hotel and tourism industries. If it does less, the hotel may be breaking a contract.

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Your rights aren’t as clear if you’re offered a room but not the type you reserved.

That happened to us at Four Points by Sheraton Greensburg, southeast of Pittsburgh, over Fourth of July. We had reserved a nonsmoking room, but when we arrived, the desk clerk said only smoking rooms were available. He put us in one that night, then shifted us to a nonsmoking room and took $20 off the rate for the next four nights.

We had little leverage in this situation, attorney Anolik said, because the fine print on Sheraton’s e-mailed confirmation said, “Special requests cannot be guaranteed until check-in.” (Sheraton did not respond for comment on its policy by the Travel section’s deadline Tuesday.)

Over the years, hotels have asked me to share a single-bedded room with my brother and a king-sized bed with three friends because they overbooked double-bedded rooms.

Legalities aside, “ultimately, hotels want to please you,” Mandelbaum said.

If you’re inconvenienced, both men said, don’t be shy. Ask for a manager. Suggest a room upgrade, a discount, free meals or other compensation.

You’re owed for your trouble.

Jane Engle welcomes comments but can’t respond individually to letters and calls. E-mail Travel Insider at jane.engle@latimes.com.


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