Travel 101: What you need to know about avoiding fine-print travel pitfalls

Cape Town - If you are planning an international trip, you need to make sure your default setting is all about avoiding frustrating situations - that means knowing all the ins and outs of the fine print related to you travel planning and booking process.

You know, those tiny legal clauses that appears just before you click to book a trip, check a bag or use a credit card or you suddenly hear about in the event of a long flight delay or an overbooked flight.

It is often seen but not read. But if you do and are smart about what you do with them, it could end up putting money in savvy travellers’ pockets.

SEE: #SABudgetTravel: Online travel booking patterns sees 'positive growth'

'While it may seem tedious, the fine print provides valuable money-saving travel opportunities at every step of your trip.

To see what we are talking about - check these useful tips:

The fine print on airline fine print: Contracts of carriage

For air carriers, the fine print is called a “contract of carriage” and contains important rules and provisions like check-in deadlines, refund procedures and the airline’s responsibility (or lack thereof) for delayed or cancelled flights.

Travellers who are flying domestically internationally may find all of the contract terms that affect the airfare on or attached to the ticket at the time of purchase. Some airlines provide “incorporate terms by reference,” which means the rules aren’t provided with the ticket – they’re in a separate document on the airline’s website and available wherever the carrier’s tickets are sold.

If the airline offers its rules incorporate terms by reference, it must provide a written notice with each ticket letting the consumer know this and mention that the terms may include liability limitations, claim-filing deadlines, check-in deadlines and other key terms. If the airline doesn’t provide its incorporate terms by reference, passengers are not bound by the rules.

SEE: #AfriTravel: Ethiopia rolls out e-visas

Credit card fine print

The Credit Card Accountability Responsibility and Disclosure Act of 2009 provide rights to consumers. Buying plane tickets with a credit card provide certain protections under federal credit card laws and also offers travellers more leverage and perks.

Know the perks of your card: Many credit cards offer travel reward programs that allow cardholders to earn free flights, hotel stays, car rentals and vacation packages. While each travel reward program is unique, most work by offering points or miles for every dollar charged to the card. These can then be redeemed for free travel rewards within the credit card’s network.

Know the annual fees: While the thought of travel freebies is enticing, travellers should keep in mind that many credit cards with these programs charge annual fees, which may or may not make the travel rewards worthwhile. These cards tend to have substantial interest rates, as well, so it’s worth paying off the balance each month to earn travel rewards without extra costs.

Know your options: Because every card offers different rates, fees and travel rewards, there is no one-size-fits-all credit card for travellers. Choosing the right card for you will depend on your travel preferences and spending habits. Be sure to weigh your options and know the benefits and drawbacks of the card you choose.

Know your deadlines: If you purchase plane tickets with your card and a problem arises, keep in mind that the legal deadline for disputing a credit card charge is 60 days.

Look for hidden insurance coverage: Some credit cards include travel insurance (cancellation insurance), reimbursing you when you use the card to book your trip, but cancel it prior to departure for certain situations like getting sick. Some credit cards also offer primary or secondary auto insurance if you book your rental car with their cards. The insurance typically is limited to collision damage and theft protection and doesn’t usually cover personal injury or personal liability (though your auto insurance or health insurance likely does).

The advantage of a card that offers primary auto insurance is that you can report any accidents directly with the credit card company, bypassing your insurance company, which means your auto insurance rate won’t increase. More commonly, credit cards offer secondary auto insurance that should pick up where your primary insurance leaves off. When you apply for a credit card, ask what coverage, if any, is included.

Don’t pay double: Don’t pay twice for services or miss out on reimbursements. Read the fine print for your credit card and its award programs. For example, many American Express Premier Rewards Gold Account members may receive up to $100 (about R 1 293.25 at R12.93/$) per year in statement credits towards purchases like checked bags, in-flight meals and airport lounge day passes.

Get your credit when credit is due: Airlines must forward a credit to your card company within seven business days after receiving a completed refund application; however, the credit may take a month or two to appear on your statement. If you paid by credit card for a refundable fare or a flight the airline cancelled and have trouble getting a refund, report this in writing to your credit card company. If you file a written request within 60 days of being billed for the flight, the card company should credit your account even if the airline doesn’t.

In some cases, tickets purchased overseas in foreign currency can only be refunded in that same currency and country due to foreign government monetary restrictions. Keep this in mind if you are considering buying a ticket in a foreign country.

Avoid conversion fees: If you opt to book your tickets in a foreign currency as a way to save on airfare, make sure your credit card doesn’t charge a foreign transaction fee or currency conversion fee. Similarly, be aware of the fee when making in-flight purchases. With the wrong credit card, you will likely incur a separate fee for each transaction in a foreign currency, meaning, if you’re travelling on an international carrier, that glass of wine or headset on the plane (and every purchase on your vacation) may come with a hidden cost.

SEE: Visas 101: Everything you need to know about applying for a tourist visa

Fine print when booking

The deregulation of airlines in the late 1970s means that travellers have many options for air travel and how to book it. But, buyer beware, sometimes convenience comes with extra (hidden) costs, which vary by airline.

Watch out for booking fees: Some U.S. carriers like Spirit Airlines and United Airlines charge for booking tickets over the phone, while others like American Airlines charge for booking in person at ticket offices or airports.

Take your time to think (and shop): Many airlines will hold a reservation for 24 hours without payment. Others require payment at the time of reservation but provide a full refund if travellers cancel within the first 24 hours.

Don’t pay to rebook because of inclement weather: If a flight is cancelled by the airline, then re-booking fees are waived, particularly when there is severe weather.

Don’t make mistakes: Many fares have a penalty for changing flights or dates. Travellers may also have to pay for any difference in airfares if the original fare-type is not available on the new flight.

Understand travel insurance: If you think your plans might change, consider paying extra for travel cancellation insurance. Trip cancellation insurance covers travellers who may have their trip cancelled or delayed and often includes coverage for additional situations, like lost luggage, trip delays and trip interruption. Some trip cancellation insurance policies will cover your travel companion, too. 

Some credit cards include travel insurance, but make sure you read the conditions carefully. Companies like AirCare offer flight insurance starting at $34 (about R 439.71 at R12.93/$) for domestic flights and pays passengers for when a flight is delayed or stuck on the tarmac or when your luggage is lost.

Ask about new sales: After you buy your ticket, check with the airline or travel agent once or twice before departure to check the fare. Fares change all the time, and, if the fare you paid goes down before you fly, some airlines will refund the difference (or give you a transportation credit for that amount).

Watch out for extra charges: Watch out for miscellaneous charges like those for printing out a boarding pass at the airport (Spirit Airlines charges $2 per pass for this) meals, headsets, pillows, etc.

SEE: Russia to scrap visas for SA travellers from April

Ways to accidentally lose your reservation

Just because you paid for your ticket and confirmed your reservation doesn’t mean you can’t lose your reservation. Here are some of the most common ways to accidentally lose your reservation or booking and how to avoid them.

Forgetting the 24-hour cut-off: Many airlines allow you to hold a reservation for 24 hours without paying. If you forget to pay for the booking before the 24 hours is up, your booking will be cancelled.

Failing to reconfirm reservations: On international trips, some airlines may require you reconfirm your onward or return reservations at least 72 hours before each flight. If you don’t, your reservations may be cancelled.

Not checking in early enough: Passengers must meet the airline’s check-in deadline by checking in with the airline within the airline’s stated times. Some airlines require passengers to be at the ticket or baggage counter by a certain time while others require passengers to get to the boarding area by the stated time.

Some airlines require that time deadlines at both the ticket or baggage counter and boarding area be met. For domestic flights, air carriers generally require passengers to be at the departure gate 10 to 30 minutes before scheduled flights, but deadlines can be longer. For international flights, air carriers generally require passengers to be at the departure gate up to three hours before scheduled departure, but deadlines can be longer.

Missing or skipping one of your flights: If you are holding confirmed reservations that you can’t or don’t plan to use, contact the airline. If you don’t, the airline will cancel all onward or return reservations on your trip. Check the fine print when reserving your ticket because some airlines require the first segment to be flown in order for the remainder of the trip to not be automatically cancelled even if the airline is notified ahead of time. Similarly, if you’ve booked a ticket with a layover and only plan on using a portion of your trip, be prepared to forfeit all onward and returning trips booked as part of the same reservation.

SEE: You now need to make a reservation to see the sunrise from the 'top of the world'

Baggage fine print

Check for charges for your carry-on: While most airlines still allow passengers to bring one bag plus a personal item like a backpack, laptop case, umbrella or coat, some airlines like Frontier Airlines, Spirit Airlines, American Airlines (Basic Economy ticket holders only) and United Airlines (Basic Economy ticket holders only) charge to bring carry-ons. An exception to this is mobility aids and assistive devices.

Check if there are charges for checked baggage: Depending on the airline, class of service and route, you may have to pay to check your luggage, even the first bag. There can also be extra charges if you exceed the airline’s limits on the size, weight or number of the bags (or all three). On some flights between two foreign cities, your allowance may be lower and may be based primarily on the weight of the checked bags rather than the number of pieces. Ask your airline about the limit for every segment of your domestic trip if you are flying different airlines and for every segment of your international trip even if you are flying the same airline, especially if you have a stopover of a day or more.

Know what you can check for free: Assistive devices like walkers and wheelchairs are generally checked for free as are strollers and car seats. Special liability requirements apply to the domestic transportation of assistive devices used by passengers with disabilities, so if your equipment gets damaged en route, report it right away.

Know what happens if your cargo is damaged: If your suitcase arrives smashed or torn, the airline will usually pay for repairs. If it can’t be fixed, you and the airline can negotiate a settlement for the airline to pay the suitcase’s depreciated value.

NOTE: if you have packed your suitcase to the seams, the airline may let you know at check-in that your suitcase might not survive intact and may require you to sign a statement that you are agreeing to check your over-stuffed bag at your own risk. Even if you sign the form, the airline might still be liable if exterior damage is caused by the airline’s negligence.

Airlines must pay if you wait (a long time) for delayed baggage: If you are one of the unlucky few whose bag goes missing and it takes more than a few hours to be found, most airlines will cover reasonable expenses incurred while the luggage is located and delivered to you. You may have to negotiate with the airline regarding how much is covered. The amount depends on whether or not you’re away from home and how long it takes to track down your bags and return them to you. If the airline does not provide you with a cash advance, it may still reimburse you later for the purchase of necessities. Keep all receipts.

Beware of baggage delivery fees: Once your long lost luggage is found, don’t assume the airline will deliver it to your hotel or home for free.

Claim your lost baggage: If your bag is declared permanently lost, you will have to submit a claim, and airlines don’t automatically pay the full amount of every claim they receive. Be sure to double (and triple) check with the airline that all claims forms have been submitted because missing the deadline for filing it could invalidate your claim altogether.

If your flight had a connection involving two carriers, the final carrier is normally the one responsible for processing your claim even if it appears the first airline lost the bag, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. Once you settle your claim with the airline, the airline may offer you a cash payment or free tickets on future flights. If you opt for the travel voucher, be sure to confirm any restrictions, such as blackout dates, destinations and voucher expiration.

Consider buying excess valuation: Airlines set a limit on the liability to delayed, damaged and lost checked baggage. The maximum liability is regulated by the U.S. Department of Transportation and it is adjusted every two years for inflation. The limit is currently $3,500 (about R 38 797.92 at R12.93/$) per passenger.

For international travel, the limit is currently 1,131 Special Drawing Rights, a currency surrogate that floats daily. The international limit applies to domestic segments of an international journey. This is the case even if the domestic and international flights are on separate tickets and you claim and re-check your bag between the two flights. When your luggage and its contents are worth more than the limit, consider purchasing excess valuation at check-in. Excess valuation increases the air carrier’s potential liability; it’s not insurance.

Check your insurance coverage: If the airline’s settlement doesn’t fully reimburse your loss, check your homeowner’s or renter’s insurance; it sometimes covers losses away from the residence. Some credit card companies and travel agencies offer optional or even automatic supplemental baggage coverage.

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SEE: Lost luggage? New, smart tags helps you find lost items all over the world

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