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The Navigator: When travelers experience discrimination

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By Christopher Elliott
Sunday, February 21, 2010

As self-described "adventurous grandparents," Trevor and Jean Broome had been looking forward to their upcoming trip to Costa Rica, which included diving, hiking, snorkeling and whitewater rafting.

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Until they got some bad news from their tour operator: They were too old for the tour they had selected.

Gap Adventures of Toronto recently notified the couple that the adventure package they had purchased had been "re-aligned" to a younger demographic that would "likely be in the 18 to 39 age range."

To travel is to be discriminated against, of course. Separating passengers and guests by age, income or gender is hardly new; whether it should be happening is an ongoing debate that some travelers seem to be having with greater frequency.

Although a Gap representative told the 50-something Broomes that they could either cancel the tour or continue as planned, Trevor, a retired police officer from Plymouth, England, told me that he was "horrified and deeply offended by this blatant ageism." He called Gap's decision to change its tours prejudicial, discriminatory and something done with "total disregard to our feelings." He added, "Is this any less offensive than discrimination on grounds of race or gender?"

I asked Gap about Broome's grievance. Lyndon File, the company's manager for customer satisfaction and safety, said that segmenting tours by age is a common practice in his industry and that the company made every effort to accommodate Broome when it decided to rebrand his Costa Rica tour, including moving him to a different tour with a financial incentive to do so.

"Further, in subsequent e-mail communication with Mr. Broome, I offered to reimburse for any out-of-pocket expenses should he cancel," he said. "All of these options are fair and reasonable, I believe."

It's difficult to find any real data on discrimination in the travel industry. Perhaps the most reliable numbers come from the airlines.

The Transportation Department reports complaints against carriers every month, and discrimination-related grievances hardly registered (they came in 10th place in the latest month for which statistics were available, behind baggage, customer service and refund-related problems). Are the numbers low because people don't know they can complain to the DOT, because they don't bother, or because there's nothing to complain about? I'll have the answer in a future column.

Not all of the discrimination is blatant. Consider Dan Nainan, a 28-year-old voice-over artist and comedian from New York, who says that the airline he regularly flies routinely discriminates against him based on his youthful appearance. "Everywhere I go, they challenge me -- telling me that the 'preferred' line is for first-class passengers only, even though I'm a first-class passenger. They just assume I'm not in first class," he said. Why? "Because I'm not some fat, gray bald guy with a huge belly wearing a suit and tie."

But some of the discrimination is overt. Melanie Gutermuth, a disabled veteran and graduate student from Hanover, Md., travels with a service dog. "Most of the time, this is not a problem," she said. "However, in recent months, that's changed. People will say, 'You look normal to me,' because I'm not in a wheelchair or blind. Consequently, I have been excluded from some services, and charged pet fees for others."

For travelers with disabilities who think that they are being discriminated against, there are places they can turn to for help, according to Kleo King, a senior vice president at the United Spinal Association, a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the quality of life for people with spinal cord injuries and disorders. She recommends working with a travel agent who specializes in travel for the disabled (you can find one at the Web site Able to Travel (http://www.abletotravel.org) and bookmarking pages such as the Department of Justice's Americans With Disabilities Act site (http://www.ada.gov).


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