For the Travel Hall of Fame, I'd like to nominate Anand Murtee. Anand Murtee is an Indian guru who traveled to Bombay with an airline that lost his baggage. Shortly thereafter, some 250 of his followers came calling at the airline's office to express their displeasure. They continued to express it until the office was unable to function normally. Employees were thus freed to concentrate on finding the holy man's belongings and returning them to him. Which they did. In two hours flat.
Not often, but every once in a while, I don't just dream of Anand Murtee, I'd like to be Anand Murtee. There is a wayward airport cab driver in Washington, D.C., my followers and I would call on, a hotel keeper in Taipei who has some explaining to do regarding my "lost reservation," and not one but two creative accountants working as waiters in Mexico City who deserve to hear from us.
Alone, I am still infinitely wise and profoundly resourceful in dealing with travel troubles, of course. However, it is also true that occasionally a year or more has passed before I've figured out what I should have said or done. I was reflecting on this failing the other day and suddenly realized a little home truth: You may not have to worry about what to do After if you get the Before and During parts right.
According to a number of people in the consumer protection field, the majority of travel complaints that come to them, one way and another, are the aftermath of avoidable predicaments. Having vast experience in learning things the hard way. I'd even venture to say there are 10 good rules for staying out of trouble.
1. If you're so clever that you've rooted through hundreds of possible places to go or stay because you've attracted by one or more specific features, be smart enough to root some more and find out if these features are operative or available. Write that down, and do as I say, not as I did. I am one who went to stay at the UN Plaza Hotel in New York City because it's one of the few Manhattan hotels with a pool. I neglected to ask if the pool would be usable while I was there. It was not.
2. Be skeptical of "freebies" and "discounts." We are all wonderful people and everyone loves us -- but rarely enough to give more than they get. There is, for instance, the case of a pair of travelers who tried to use two-for-the-price-of-one dinner coupons that came free with their package tour in London, only to find that the twofer arrangememt applied just to the main course and that they would also have to buy a bottle of wine. This is okay as far as it goes -- however, it is certainly not far.
3. Learn to read. You may be amused and amazed at what this will do for a trip. Among other things, quite a few tour brochures stop a long way short of guaranteeing what they offer. If you read all the way through you find that many leave themselves the option of later changing a few things -- like the price, the hotels, the itinerary and the dates.
There's much merit in discussing such points with a responsible travel agent before you put down a penny because the tour operator isn't kidding. These things can happen. My own feelings is that it does a lot for your insides to at least know where you stand in the event that your cookie crumbles.
Also, since bad mathematicians abound, take time to examine your hotel and restaurant bills. And if you buy something to be delivered later, it won't strain anyone's writing arm to spell out when on the receipt.
4. When you're asking questions because you care about the answers, write the answers down. It doesn't hurt to let the other party see that you're taking notes or on the telephone say, "Would you please spell your name for me." Too, it may be that you're not perfect either and might, heaven forbid, forget what you hear, or hear what you want to hear rather than what's really said.
5. If you're going out of the country, there are a lot of things you might rather not hear. But if there's reason to be suspicious, ask questions anyhow about the political mood of the place and if there are any clouds on the horizon. The country desk officer at the State Department can help keep the rain off your vacation by telling you if the country happens to be immobilized by, say, a strike or an election, or if there's reason to think it might be soon.
6. Take all pertinent papers with you -- tour brochures (they're part of your contract), receipts for deposits or other payments, hotel confirmation slips, the works. They are your basic equivalent of a blunt instrument and what you need in doing in dirty dealers. If you worked through a travel agency, of course, you can call and have someone there flail away in your behalf while you have an ice cream. Failing that or failing satisfaction, call or take your papers and rendezvous in person with the most likely mediator, usually a consumer protection office or a government-run tourist or visitors bureau.
7. Look before you leap into something that could be costly. Don't be so done in by a supercilious waiter that you lose your ability to say "How much?" You don't have to be rude or crude about it; in a bar, a simple "What are your drink prices here?" can be said with an amiable rather than a suspicious look on your face. Better yet, ask for a bar list or whatever might be in writing that's applicable to the situation.
8. Do not issue invitations to thieves and robbers. Okay, it's as old hat as buying the Eiffel Tower, but police say that tourists most often in trouble have (a) flashed a fat wad of cash, (b) left valuables on display in their car, or (c) kept personal checks, credit cards and traveler's checks in a suitcase -- locked or unlocked -- or right on top of a hotel chest of drawers. This is not brilliant. Nor is something like buying a watch from a sidewalk merchant or letting yourself be conned by a tour aide who tries to sign you up for, say, a rental car or nightclub show seat by using scare tactics like "you can't get it after we get there." There is a certain amount of self-employment in some areas that the tour operator is unaware of, isn't connected with and would hit the roof if he knew about.
9. Do not assume. Yes, there are different strokes for different folks. For instance, just like men and women, taxis come in all sorts of shapes and sizes beside the kind with which you may be familiar. They may also come with tricky add-ons to the bill or be "special" cabs with genuinely "special" (read "high") prices. In foreign parts especially, it is not a waste of time to read giveaway booklets and hotel literature as well as talk to people at your hotel and any tourist office to get a rundown on the "system." Taxi regulations, money-changing, hotel extras, curious restaurant customs all may affect you in the pocketbook and cause confrontations.
10. Speak up (maybe even scream). That's if something's misrepresented of if you're not getting what was promised you. Say what you expect to have done to set things right. Bear in mind that you will catch more flies with honey, although that doesn't mean keep offering it when it becomes clear you're getting a run-around in return.
Once again, remember your fallback possibilities: your travel agent, a consumer office, a government tourist-visitors bureau. Complain first to the proper person on the scene (hotels have managers, airlines have station managers, tours have tour operators -- and tour operators should have representatives somewhere around), but just because it may be summertime and all the leaves are green, you don't have to be, too.
Keep your head, keep notes, and if you can't get what's due you on the scene, at least you'll have a good case to take to the small claims court or the attorney general's office.
Or maybe Anand Murtee?