"The Ministry of Home Affairs instructed all police bureaus nationwide yesterday to clamp down on criminals disturbing tourism through next month on the occasion of major international meetings and sports events to give good impressions to foreign delegates and travelers . . . Subject to intensive police crackdown will be acts of violence by hooligans, overcharging at hotels, restaurants and golf courses, soliciting tips, and forced sale of sourvenirs undesired by customers." Excerpt from The Korea Times
Well, now you know: It is the best of times and the worst of times. But what are you supposed to do if you can't get a Korean policeman to travel with you? If hooligans, overchargers or just plain trouble overtakes you, where can you find real help?
Both in this country and abroad, if you can schedule your emergency Monday to Friday from 9 to 5, by all means do it. Then help may be as close as a telephone. Odd hours are a bit troublesome. Even so, what every traveler should know is that good neighborliness is not dead, only buried. You can dig up quite a bit even beyond your own backyard.
I found some most recently in Hawaii, I'd arrived in weakened condition after an all-night flight, my thoughts totally centered on bath and bed. They were clearly not centered on the rental locker I'd stashed some things at the airport, because 10 minutes after lying down in my hotel room I was up -- painfully aware that I might not have turned the key to lock the locker.
With little hope in my heart, I phoned the airport and eventually got connected with the big chief in charge of storage. This big chief was truly big; he took the number of the locker, told me to wait, then hiked to the other end of the world where the locker was located and personally tested it. It was locked.
Acts of kindness, though, are not just confined to individuals. Lots of outfits build them into their systems -- or at least try to. In Lisbon, not long ago, I arrived to take a plane in worse-than-weakened condition. I was in the throes of food poisioning and unusually green around the gills. There was a check-in line, of course. However, I was wholly incapable of standing in it.
Instead, I went directly to another TWA desk and explained my problem. The clerk instantly sized up the situation, took me to an office where I could sit down, handled the check-in, and offered wheelchair transportation to the plane.
In a similar situation, my friend Anne had the foresight to call ahead to the airline and got the full invalid treatment for her injured mother, both getting on the plane and getting off.
It was my mother, though, who flew to St. Louis, only to discover after she got there that old age offers something besides wheelchairs -- namely, in this instance, a senior citizen air fare. She'd paid full fare so she spoke up, and within two weeks the airline had some money winging its way back to her. Had it not, of course, the Bureau of Consumer Protection of the Civil Aeronautics Board would have gained a new pen pal; last year it helped air passengers who complained of overcharges get back $121,821.
In an earlier Case of the Missing Suitcase, I spoke up, too, but got precisely nowhere. A snarling airline employe I got when I called after hearing nothing about my bag for 12 hours, said yes, they'd found it, but I'd have to come and get it.
Since I wasn't the one responsible for its going to Reno while I went to Los Angeles, I cut him short and took my troubles to where I thought I'd get a better hearing: the airline's director of consumer relations. These days almost every U.S. airline has one, and while I shouldn't have needed to take my troubles higher, it was worth every penny to call long distance. Four hours later, the suitcase was delivered to me.
My niece the skier, on the other hand, merely sat still for two months waiting for the missing skis to show up after her airline failed to produce them. I can't imagine why, since she might even have contacted for help one of the CAB's regional offices in New York City, Chicago-Des Plaines, Fort Worth, Los Angeles, Miami, Anchorage or Seattle.
A 1977 rule revision established that the airline is liable for certain "consequential" expenses, like rental of sports equipment or the purchase of toilet articles when baggage is delayed. Nor can airlines any longer deny claims for all types of fragile and perishable articles. If you're in doubt about what is or is not covered, you can get details from any CAB office.
It is, naturally, just as easy to have problems on the ground as it is in the air. In foreign countries, that's when you might well look up the local tourist office. Nothing's perfect, but many try to make things better, particularly if you've been robbed, ripped off or, well after the trip is over, still haven't received merchandise you bought and paid for.
In Mexico, National Tourist Office officials still tell of a close encounter of the worst kind, the visiting Canadians who left their baby in their hotel room, then went out and found they couldn't recall the name or location of the hotel. Half the tourist office's staff was mobilized at once to go right down the entire Mexico City hotel list until the one in which the visitors were registered was found.
In this country, that's the kind of job Travelers Aid would most likely inherit. Says Richard Gelula of the organization's national office, in perhaps the granddaddy of understatements, "Most people just don't expect trouble."
Travelers Aid expects trouble, although even they are surprised at some of the forms in which they see it. Who, for example, would expect that a visiting nun from Ireland can't get who she wants on the phone, not because they've gone out or gone away, but because someone sold her the wrong ticket, and she's at "Dulles" rather than "Dallas"?
The help is free, normally. And, says Gelula, "We're not just for the poor. We help the rich or anyone." The "rich," though, might well can only when they've become suddenly poor -- sometimes as the result of robbery or an accident, sometimes because their cash is gone and no one will take a check.
As it happens, in a genuine emergency Travelers Aid helps them get back in the money. Through a network of some 3,000 community contacts and 137 offices, Travelers Aid has set up a system that allows them to advance funds once the indigent person's family, employer or friends cover the advance with a deposit. The contact work is all done with the consent of the person, of course.
By the same token, this kind of assistance probably wouldn't be needed by the average vacationer. Most people have more financial resources to draw on than they think. Travelers Aid usually begins by pointing out that some gas credit cards (notably Gulf and Exxon) can be used for food and lodging at certain places. And that both travel and bank credit cards often permit quick and easy cash advances. Also, airline tickets can be purchased for travelers by someone at a distance -- family, friend, whoever.
Travelers Aid representatives are further likely to know about passengers' rights in the event of canceled or delayed transportation service and, when necessary, how to intervene in these cases. Travelers Aid also offers a free "protective travel service," meaning you can ask them to meet a DEPENDENT" person (i.e., an elderly or handicapped person, a child) who might need assistance at the beginning or end of a journey. This can be arranged by contacting the nearest Travelers Aid office. Airlines can be helpful in such cases, too.
If your trouble looks as if it'll lead to a fight, though, often the people you want on your side are to be found in state, city or county consumer protection offices. There are now about 500 of these offices usually reachable (if you can't find them in the phone book under that name) through the office of the local mayor of attorney general.
Of course, not all consumer protection offices work alike. In fact, they vary as much as state laws do. But this is where I'd head first in any quarrel over money -- an overcharge, a sudden switch in terms of a contract for travel service, a reluctance to refund any cash deposit by, say, a car rental company or a hotel.
(Naturally, get as much as you can on paper. If, for instance, you think you're being overcharged by a taxi driver, ask for a receipt and call the taxi company to see if the figure jibes. If it doesn't, but you get no refund offer, then take your documented case to the consumer office.)
Also in the "Did You know?" department:
It's hard to win out over motels and hotels that "lose or decline to honor" your reservation. But armed with proof (a written confirmation, or at least a name and a transaction number), you should at least be offered comparable accommodations elsewhere. Some hoteliers even take the high road and pay for an equal or better room until they can bring you back.
The cash-advance-by-credit-card system also works abroad -- but not the same way everywhere in the world, so it's best to ask questions. In many foreign countries, you can only get your money in local currency, and in a few Eastern European nations you can't trade back what you don't spend.
U.S. embassies and consulates are basically most helpful when it comes to major emergencies rather than minor ones. They can't substitute for a travel agency, get you out of all fixes, cash a personal check or arrange free medical or legal service. They can make sure you receive equal treatment under foreign laws, aid in getting you out of a disaster area or a place where war breaks out, give suggestions on sources of financial assistance. Representatives will visit Americans in trouble, and if you're sick, destitute, injured or stranded, do whatever they can to help you get help or get in touch with relatives at home.
Different automobile clubs offer different emergency services to members, from taking messages for people on the roads to replacing lost car keys. Now being developed for members by The American Automobile Association is a list of "approved auto repair services," quality-checked for workmanship. So far, though, the program is operative only along the east coast of Florida and in metropolitan Washington, D.C., Milwaukee, Houston, San Antonio, most of Minnesota and Orange County Calif.
The AAA also has begun to circulate to media and member clubs a weekly availability report on gasoline supplies. However, it pinpoints only prices and problems; don't telephone expecting to learn which particular stations are open or closed. Few if any clubs can answer that one.
For the most part, the "age of consumerism" means that trouble travelers who need help have a better chance of finding it.