THIS YEAR'S "I'd-rather-be-right-than-president" prize probably should go to a top official of the American Society of Travel Agents.
What he has done is to ask agents of an industry that heretofore has emphatically preferred to be paired with Paradise to help push for federal regulation of all travel sellers. The Society is now seeking to expose abuses currently perpetrated on the travel public. Apparently the ASTA leadership thinks we're now old enough to be hold there are some.
Whether federal regulation will help us is another matter. Personally I've not felt particularly abused by travel sellers. Outraged on occasion, yes, and at times aggravated to my toes by classic instances of ignorance or indifference.
But with a few glaring exceptions, the industry as a whole has been putting its house in order. (Pressure from the consumer movement and an on ongoing investigation of the industry by the Federal Trade Commission have probably helped.) In the last eight or 10 months, at least, the bulk of my problems has been in geographic and other areas where more federal regulation would not provide any answer - or would provide one that, like so many present-day rules, is available only after the fact and requires too much time and energy to get results.
I think, for instance, that the "let-us-sock-it-to-you" scene is overcrowded at the moment. What on earth gives the Statler Hilton Hotel in Manhattan the gall to rent a room in which great globs of wallpaper are hanging down from the walls and ceiling, where the clerks are indifferent when not argumentative, and the housekeeping rules so sacrosanct that you receive three calls from maids despite a "Do Not Disturb" sign?
Small faults? Not at $49.90 a night. If after all, it were a coat with a damaged lining, I'd have my money back in a minute.
Just as much a thorny part of travel are operators like Italian charmers who run around in uniforms labeled "tourist interpreter," sharing with travelers the last part of the train trip from Rome to Naples. Their gimmick (by several accounts and my own experience) seems to be to connect with non-Italians going on to Capri or the Amalfi Coast resorts, sorrowfully inform them that their train, bus or boat is no longer available due to strike or cancellation, but that all is not lost. All is not lost because they, the tourist interpreters, by chance know someone with a car, boat or empty hotel room who will "assist" for what turns out to be only five or six times the going rate.
And how would federal regulation of travel sellers save travelers from the E & O Hotel, once the star of Panang, Malaysia, now one of the most artful dodgers around? "We provide the best (currency exchange) rates," says a sign by the cashier's window. SO they do - except when they don't; and on the day I made comparisons, for 100 U.S. dollars, you would have received $3.50 more in local currency if you had changed your money at a bank rather than E & O. Changing English pounds also would have cost you about 3 percent more, and changing Hong Kong dollars would have cost 8 percent more.
Panang, too, was the travek agent who agreeably pointed out that she could offer me the "group rate" at the new Rasa Sayang Hotel if I were to pay the money to her in advance. Poor player that I am, I declined - and found out on arrival at the Rasa Sayang that not only did they have "standard" rooms cheaper than my agent's group rate rooms (which, in truth, did offer a discount on "deluxe" rooms), but that it was off-season and everything in the place was reduced. The net result was that I paid $16 a night instead of the requested $30.
Back in the United States, I called a travel agent about a room at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Montreal. I am disposed at times to take take least expensive room in one of the most expensive hotels on the grounds that the etceteras make up for what will assuredly be a loss of space. Only trouble was that the lowest-price room offered by the travel agent was higher than the lowest-price room offered by the hotel.
"Well," explained the Ritz-Carlton's room clerk, "we don't offer our lowest-price rooms through travel agents."
Arrangements for my Cathay Pacific flight from Manila to Hong Kong were not made through a travel agent or even the airline. I just went to the airport 3 1/2 hours before flight time with a ticket (bought in New York) but no reservation. I would have gone early even with a reservation, because I was aware of something other travelers may not be. The fact is that "discounting" - selling tickets for less than the so-called legal price - is very much the thing in Asia, so planes tend to fly full. Asian flights that go full also tend to have been sold to more people than will fit on them.
The result is that latecomers can be losers, ragardless of when they booked or what they paid. So when I arrived at the Manila airprot early, the nice man at Cathay said blithely, "Oh, we're already 12 seats overbooked, I don't think we can take you." No doubt he shouldn't have, but when he opened the counter for check-ins I was first in line - so he accepted me. Who knows what happened to the last 12 passengers who came after me?
I can't believe federal regulation of travel sellers would save me from the bulk of hassles I've encountered or even make certain I get accurate and complete information. Certainly the ASTA code hasn't. Under that code, "it is the duty of the ASTA member to keep himself and his staff fully informed of all phases of domestic and international travel in order to be in a position to give clients truly professional travel advice and to secure for them the best possible travel services and accommodations."
Yet ASTA agents I have asked have been unable recently to tell me (1) about city bus service from the Los Angeles airport, (2) whether there are luggage lockers at San Francisco airport and (3) what local car rental firms operate in or around the Honolulu airport.
What should I expect? I don't know. No doubt not as much as the ASTA code suggests. But perhaps ASTA shouldn't count on that, either; the business has grown too big, too fast to keep on representing all travel agents as being all-able in all departments. Perhaps more sepcialization by travel sellers and more technology to keep tabs of product quality would be better forms of consumer protection than new federal regulations.
In any event, 10,000 blessings on the ASTA people who want to bring travel troubles out of the closet. It we know what they are, we can start sidestepping.