As the Tripped Up columnist, I’ve fielded hundreds of emails about the ways in which Times readers have spent their time off, whether it’s for a 90th birthday trip or a family vacation with five children, and how things frustratingly went wrong. For the final column of the year, I took inspiration from several stories in my inbox to suggest four ways to travel smarter — and happier — in the decade to come.
The Minnesota reader Kathleen canceled a Booking.com hotel reservation, only to realize the reservation had actually been made on another site — and that it wasn’t actually canceled. Jenny, a California reader, used Getaroom.com to book two nights at a Brooklyn hotel, paying $738 for the room itself and a nonrefundable $328 fee, which she was told that “we, the hotel supplier and/or the website you booked on, retain as part of the compensation for our and/or their services.”
Two other readers hit similar walls when they booked flights using online travel agencies: Cat, while trying to correct her name on a China Airlines ticket (via Expedia), and Marsha, while fighting for a refund for a canceled Hahn Air ticket (via Priceline).
For several reasons, booking directly is usually smart; for example, better rooms at hotels and the ability to choose seats in advance on flights. Although online travel agency pricing can be tempting, airlines and hotels will usually match those rates through programs like Marriott’s Best Rate Guarantee (which throws in a 25 discount and 5,000 Bonvoy points) and Delta’s Best Fare Guarantee (which ups the ante with a $100 voucher).
Above all, though, booking hotels and flights directly means you are only bound by one set of terms and conditions — meaning no additional fees from a third-party site. And should you need to make changes to your reservation, you won’t be jockeying for help from a middleman.
Organize your points, miles and credit cards
Jodi, an Arizona reader, asked how to get started in “the points game” — her terminology. I’ll refrain from using a Marie Kondo analogy here, but there’s no better time than New Year’s to organize some of the most powerful tools in your travel tool kit: your credit cards and loyalty programs.
I never book flights or hotels without first registering for the appropriate loyalty program. Points-earning potential aside, simply having an account can yield perks, including free Wi-Fi at certain hotels and sign-up bonuses (often in miles) on airlines. Miles are so easily transferred — to other airlines, to hotels, to other people — that even one-off flights on one-off airlines reap rewards.
Some people can’t deal with another login. I get that. That’s why I’m a fan of eWallet to store passwords and AwardWallet to track points.
Finally, take stock of your travel insurance, whether it’s embedded into credit card benefits or offered by an independent provider. As Paul, another reader, pointed out, these can change. In January, for instance, American Express will roll out new protections — meant to soften the blow of trip cancellations and delays — to some of its cards.
Mitigate bad hotel stays
Howard encountered bugs at a $561-a-night hotel in Israel. A microwave caught fire in Carole’s room in Miami Beach ($419 a night). Heck, last year I stayed at a much-gushed-about hotel in St. Kitts that disappointed on nearly every level, from food to stroller accessibility.
Scenarios like these are hard to resolve, but there are still ways to be proactive. Before booking, scan the hotel’s Instagram tag; real photos are more revealing than glossy marketing imagery. After something goes wrong, contact the manager, document the incident with photos and screen-grab written correspondence. Pressure the hotel on social media, tagging its handles. If you’ve booked your stay through a travel agent, ask them to parallel-track efforts.
Finally, raise a stink again at checkout in an effort to lower the final bill as much as possible. Several readers have asked whether there’s wisdom in disputing the credit card charge after the fact. The short answer: Yes, but it’s a real Hail Mary.
Understand value-fare plane tickets
Kelly purchased Basic Economy seats on an American Airlines flight that was moved up by three hours — an itinerary change that derailed her vacation plans.
“It strikes me as fundamentally unfair: I can’t change my flight because I bought a cheaper fare, but the airline can just switch me to a different flight and I have no recourse,” she emailed.
Basic economy tickets, generally the least expensive tickets on any flight, are to economy tickets just as a Gap Factory sweater is to a sweater from the regular Gap: They look and feel sort of the same, but you can’t deny the difference in price — and quality.
Most basic economy tickets are unchangeable, even for a fee. And because airlines (including American) reserve the right to change their departure times, Kelly landed squat in caveat emptor territory. I agree, though: fundamentally unfair.
An edition last month of Tripped Up, which addressed complaints against Europcar, inspired a flurry of reader reactions. Some sympathized; others, like Kristin F., shared divergent experiences. “I have rented from Europcar for 15 years,” she wrote in an email. “There was only one issue, which was taken care of quickly and politely. The people were so kind and helpful that I brought them chocolate when I returned my car.”
Sarah Firshein formerly held staff positions at Travel + Leisure and Vox Media, and has also contributed to Condé Nast Traveler, Bloomberg, Eater and other publications. If you need advice about a best-laid travel plan that went awry, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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