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Avoid the Hobbit horror stories: Do extra homework

Posted by: under Airlines, Consumer travel, Travel deals Updated: January 11, 2010 - 9:56 AM

The recent closing of Hobbit Travel last month stunned a lot of travelers -- most notably those who learned their confirmed future getaways weren't so confirmed after all.

Take, for example, Robin and George Heller of Lake Elmo, who wrote to us just last week. Back in July of last year, the couple booked a Caribbean cruise on Holland America for last month through Hobbit, only to find out their airfare on Sun Country had never actually been purchased for them. (They paid Hobbit for the airfare, the Hellers said, but Hobbit never actually followed through to buy the tickets in their name).

The Hellers found out at the airport, the morning of their flight.

Fortunately for the Hellers, diligent Sun Country reps were able to land them a last-minute seat at the counter that morning (for a charge, of course), and the Hellers' actual cruise costs had been paid. But the Hellers are still stuck disputing some of the original charges for airfare from Hobbit, as well as stuck with numerous incidental costs that arose on their trip because of the trouble.

"This was a travel nightmare and none of it was our fault," Robin Heller wrote.

It sounds like, based on comments in our original story, the Hellers' Hobbit nightmare was hardly unique.

Fortunately, for those who paid for their trips with credit cards, many will likely, eventually, see their money back.

 

Teri Charest, spokeswoman for the Flexperks Visa of U.S. Bank -- you may remember them originally as WorldPerks Visa, before the Delta merger -- said while credit cards generally require that customers contest disputable charges within 60 days of purchase, "we are always the advocate for the customer and try to help the customer get their money back if they have some kind of dispute."

When the gloves come off, the credit card companies can just take the money back from the merchant -- if the merchant, of course, is still in business. If not though, banks -- especially banks -- are good at following the money, and they're in this fight with you to get it back. Because your loss is their loss.

Still, the whole Hobbit situation raises significant questions beyond this particular fallout, namely: What more could consumers have done to protect themselves?

"I've been asking myself the same question: What could people have done?" Twin Cities travel expert Terry Trippler told me last week. As in, most of Hobbit's customers did exactly what Trippler would have advised:

-- Use an established travel agency with a good reputation? Check.

-- Pay for your trip using a reputable credit card? Check.

-- Purchase travel insurance? Check.

These are many of the same tips Kermit Fruechte of the Minnesota Attorney General's office told me he would have suggested as well.  

So what else can a savvy traveler do to ensure they're getting everything they're paying for? Some of Fruechte's additional tips:

-- Don't just put your blind faith in your travel agent; follow up with airlines as soon as the confirmations are made. (In many cruise packages, for example, the airfares are purchased separate from the cruise. But follow up directly with the airlines and cruise lines to confirm your reservations. And if you have issues with them, get the names/extensions of the reps to whom you speak.)

It's probably a good rule of thumb, as well, to call and confirm your flights again before heading to the airport. If for no other reason than flight times can often change last-minute.

-- If possible, use a credit card and not a debit card. Debit cards take the money directly out of your personal accounts, versus giving you a credit card balance. While debit card charges may eventually get reversed as well, you're without your money until that happens.

 

For that matter, check with your credit card for package travel deals as well. A surprising number of credit card companies, from American Express and beyond, have diversified and may operate travel agencies themselves -- with package deals for their cardholders.

-- Purchase reputable travel insurance. While Fruechte said he's heard of instances where some travel insurance companies have reneged on their coverage, most travel insurance policies are written to cover these very kinds of problems. In fact, some will refund your entire trip for ANY reason should you choose to cancel. These policies can run in the neighborhood of about $25 per person or so -- not bad for piece of mind on a $2,000 cruise. But again, read the fine print. Some specifically will not cover if a travel agency closes its doors.

 

-- And, of course, again: go with an established, reputable travel agency when booking. Which, admittedly, by all outward appearances Hobbit was.

But that's where the Attorney General's Office consumer protection division can also play a role.

If you do have problems as a consumer, don't hesitate to contact them here:

http://www.ag.state.mn.us/Consumer/Complaint.asp

They're remarkably responsive to consumer needs and will get business' attention quick. They are, in fact, already working on several complaints on Hobbit.

So stay tuned.

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