To learn is one of the pleasures of travel abroad. In one case however, I learned a lot about foreign travel and never made it out the home airport. Certain lessons from a cancelled trip stuck unpleasantly, not being shoved aside in lieu of the stories about language barriers and the memorable food that never materialized. So as you sit daydreaming about your next trip to foreign soil, mind these to ensure an experience that’ll have a fighting chance of competing with those daydreams.
#1: Life Throws Curveballs
Don’t fall into the trap of thinking there is no way, no how, come hell or high water that the trip you’re planning could be cancelled. This trip was to be a once-in-a-lifetime trip. One we’d given a lot of thought to, planned in our minds for a couple of years, and even committed the resources for. Travel insurance may cover some things, but it doesn’t cover prudence. By the time the trip came within a month of departure, our job situation had become unexpectedly dicey. The decision to cancel was one of prudence. We knew we’d lose some money, but we couldn’t lose money we hadn’t yet spent. It’s not always illness or injury or some family crisis that creates a need to cancel.
If you go into the planning of a trip with this in mind, you won’t be unpleasantly surprised if the plug has to be pulled.
#2: Currency Change-ups
All of the lodging accommodations took the initial charges/downpayments in Euros. The exchange is easy enough to calculate. BUT on the refund end several credited our credit card in British Pound Sterling. In most cases, what I received back when I finally got the transactions converted back to Euros then U.S. dollars was not what it would have been had they refunded the money in the original currency taken – Euros (exchange rates fluctuate daily). Not only that, as if that’s not enough, but it’s extremely confusing when you begin converting the multiple currencies. Make sure you ASK if a cancellation becomes necessary, in what currency they’ll make the refund. You can’t change the policy, but you’ll at least be informed.
I suggest you use a full size notebook page for every leg of the trip. Organize it any way you want, but make room for this: as you book, find out exactly by what time frame you have to cancel, and should that be necessary, exactly how much you’ll receive back assuming you cancel within that time frame. Not a percentage, not a night’s worth, but the number of dollars/euros/pounds etc. If it’s not to be money, rather vouchers, get all the details of their restrictions for use. Note all this prominently on your planning page, the date, and the person’s name that gave you that information.
#3: Cash vs. Vouchers
I booked several legs of the trip through Mr. and Mrs. Smith. Happy with their customer service and responsiveness, the cancellation process irrevocably damaged my opinion of them. I hesitate to say I won’t use them again. I will say instead that I’ll attempt to avoid them in the future. Or for that matter, any other booking agent that attempts the same. Here’s why. I was generally aware of the cancellation policy. In other words, I understood that should I have to cancel my refund would be in vouchers that could only be used towards another Smith property and had to be used within a year. Okay. But here’s what I didn’t know. In order to use the vouchers I received upon the cancellation, a FULL prepayment (as in 100%) of the price would have to be made for the NEW trip. So for instance, come June we decide to use the vouchers for a stay at a Smith property in the U.S. I’m within the year restriction, but guess what? Instead of the requisite down payment to hold my reservation, in order to use my voucher, I have to give them the entirety of the cost of the stay. No dice. Not only will I NOT use the vouchers, but I have to cry foul on this. ALL the lessons I learned were due to my own lack of savvy. This however, is a bad business practice, aka “RIP-OFF”.
#4: Don’t Call Them!
Don’t ever call them. If they’re not offering to call you to iron out any snafus, they don’t deserve your business. My credit card wouldn’t clear with our lodging company in Morocco. I felt guilty about that, as if it was my fault or the thought crossed my mind that maybe they thought I was attempting something I couldn’t afford. Add to that the need to get the particulars nailed down, and you’ve got me picking up the phone and making an international call when they asked me to. It’s embarrassing to admit that. I was very upset at my stupidity when I received the phone bill. And incensed that they asked me to call in the first place. There was nothing wrong with my credit card, they just had problems processing a U.S. card and they admitted mine wasn’t the first.
#5: International Wire Transfers
No credit card surcharges, no currency exchange issues, a way to put down a reservation hold and know exactly what the financial impact will be. Think again!
A small B&B in Andalusia required a deposit in the amount of $100 Euros and could only accept a wire transfer (with the balance in cash upon our arrival). I had our banker figure the exchange and wire the amount. She even agreed to waive their normal international wire transfer fee of $30 (nice!). We received a confirmation that USD of $149.24 had been debited from our account and $100 Euro sent to the B&B’s bank.
Things came unwound from there. An email comes from the proprietor of the B&B that a deposit of $85 Euro had been received. I emailed her back reminding her she’d requested $100 Euro and that I had in hand confirmation $100 Euro had been wired directly to her bank account. I even got our banker into the fray, but nothing could be done. The proprietor’s bank had charged her an incoming wire fee and she had to pass that on to us, because, well, that’s the way business was done in Spain and she felt terrible that she hadn’t told me that upfront, she assumed I knew, and on and on. She blamed the misunderstanding on her bank in the end. Numerous emails were exchanged. But in the end, we only received credit for the $85 Euro. I was helpless to combat this situation.
When I calculated what the fees were for the wire transfer of $149 USD, the total was $51 ($30 potential fee from our bank and $21 fee from the receiving bank – $15 Euro converted). That’s just a small fee of 34% of the amount wired!! Avoid international wire transfers unless you get all the particulars and fees assessed in writing ahead of time.
#6: Foreign Car Rental
Plan to spend triple the amount you would allocate for a similar amount of time stateside. The collision damage waivers are extremely pricey. But we felt we needed the best level of coverage offered. Even if that could have been reduced with a lower level of coverage, it was difficult deciphering what was covered and what wasn’t.
Since we were to be in the South of Spain for several days, we wanted to rent a car. With plans to take the AVE from Madrid to Cordoba, the plan was to pick up the car at the Cordoba train station. Even with the help of a travel agent, the first attempt at this would have required loading our luggage into a taxi for a short ride to the rental car pick-up. Not so bad on the trip in, but on the trip leaving, that element of unknown time threw up road blocks where scheduling was concerned. Even though the car rental agency showed up as being at the Cordoba train station, when we looked closely at the address, it was off-site. At the time we canceled the trip, a rental car had still not been locked down.
Forget the fine print. Ask more questions. As in a LOT of questions. Stupid questions. Get names and emails confirming what you were told if you can. If someone wants your business, they shouldn’t mind. And prepare for this: no matter how many questions you ask, how many t’s you cross and i’s dotted, there will still be a few unpleasant surprises upon a cancellation.
On a bright note, I loved TripIt (www.tripit.com) for organizing trip logistics. In one glance it allows you to see the itinerary for every day, addresses, phone numbers, flight or rail numbers, costs, confirmation numbers, level of accommodation booked, etc. I can’t think of a detail it won’t handle.