The Travel Adviser: New laws means new challenges

Always know in advance what the terms of changing or canceling your purchases are; the law may not be perfect, but there is no reason you should be treated like a donkey.

By
July 17, 2011 06:05
Galilee

Galilee 311. (photo credit: Israel21C)

 
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The oft-quoted but seldom understood idiom “The law is an ass” applies just as stringently when it comes to travel purchases. Even if the application of the law visibly runs contrary to common sense, it doesn’t lessen the consumer’s obligation to know it.

To wit, over the last two months, we’ve seen Israeli consumers calling for a boycott due to the high price of cottage cheese. We discovered that one of the most respected US advisory firms actually advised an Israeli company that raising the price over 15% would have a negligible effect on its sales.

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Foolish they were, as consumers reacted strongly and forced manufacturers to beat a hasty retreat from their price increases.

Two recent e-mails from aggrieved travelers led me to review the consumer protection laws in the field of tourism in Israel.

The first e-mail was from Mira, who, when making a reservation for a ticket, was told in writing by her travel agent that the ticket must be purchased within 48 hours – not an abstract two days, but 48 hours from the minute the reservation was made.

The following day, she asked for one more day to decide, and the travel consultant, despite what had been written, gave her until the following afternoon.

When she tried to purchase the ticket late the next day (two days after being given her 48-hour deadline), she was told that the reservation had fallen through and that if she wanted a new one, it would cost $120 more. Under the pressure, she acquiesced and paid for the new ticket.

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She then took the intelligent step of explaining her exasperation in writing. She detailed that the instructions she had received were not clear enough, and felt she should be refunded the difference.

The savvy travel consultant, with very little soul-searching required, offered a Solomonic solution: he would cover half the difference. Here, the law was actually on the travel agent’s side; having put the terms of the original reservation in writing, he was following the law to the letter.

THE KNESSET, with the help of the Association of Travel Agents and the Israel Hotel Association, has passed a series of laws to protect consumers.

First and foremost, these laws cover all purchases done online through an airline, hotel or travel agency site. Even if purchasing a 100-percent nonrefundable ticket, or making a hotel reservation (inside Israel), you are permitted to cancel within 14 days of remitting payment with the firm knowledge that you will get back the entire amount, minus 5% or NIS 100 ($30), whichever is less.

The two caveats are that the airline ticket or hotel stay cannot be set for within seven days of payment, and that the request to cancel must be in writing – via e-mail, fax or the old fashioned pen-to-paper letter. Please note: It does not cover hotel reservations outside of Israel, so if you’re told a hotel abroad has a one-night cancellation fee, you will have to pay it.

The reasoning for the law is that even if you sought out a specific site to receive a quotation for an air fare, the fact that the site exists – i.e., that an advertisement or offer was made – is deemed a solicitation for your business, and as such is considered grounds for upholding the law’s provisions if you should cancel. This holds true even if you looked up the phone number of a travel agency in the Yellow Pages! Want to purchase a charter ticket for Rosh Hashana on Easy Jet? Going to their website and wading through a waffle of information and then an exhaustive search leads you to their “change and cancellation” policy: “Unless you have purchased a ‘flexible fare,’ you are not entitled to change flight reservations once confirmed, except the names of passengers or flights (subject to space being available) which may be changed prior to check-in for the original flight on payment of a fee per passenger per flight.”

Fares are non-refundable. The fare will be payable by the purchaser if you fail to use the space booked.

Now book the same flight, at presumably the same fare, on the site of Arkia or Daka90. The conditions are identical; payment is made at the time of the booking, and like the EasyJet site, you sign a declaration that all that you’ve submitted is correct.

And if you decide that being in London in September is no longer your cup of tea? No problem.

Write them an e-mail informing them you’re canceling, without the need to provide a reason, and your payment will be returned, minus the paltry sum of NIS 100.

WHILE I applaud this legislation in principle, consumer pressure needs to be placed on the Transportation and Tourism ministries to enforce it on all the non-Israeli charter airlines that fly to and from Israel.

When Bob wrote to me recently stating that he had purchased a ticket to Rome on an Israeli airline via their site and been told there was a hefty cancellation fee, I was taken aback. Politely explaining the law to him, I suggested he speak once more to the agency’s representative and explain ever so slowly that he had requested to cancel well within the 14 days and nowhere near seven days before the flight date, and that it would be in her best interest to refund the money. Surprise, surprise, the travel agent quickly agreed to make the cancellation and refund his payment.

Like most consumer protection, the law was written to protect those purchasing from afar. Walk into a travel agency, even if you received a direct solicitation, and you’re not protected. It is designed solely to cover private consumers.

No protection is given to business clients. A professor at Hebrew University whose trip is being paid for by the institution has no protection. Planning to take your hard-working employees on an incentive trip to Cyprus? Unless you paid from your personal account, you, too, have no protection. Agreements and contracts made between two companies are completely exempt from this legislation.

In concluding, the point I want to reiterate is: Always know in advance what the terms of changing or canceling your purchases are. The law may not be perfect, but there is no reason you should be treated like a donkey.

The writer is the CEO of Ziontours, Jerusalem.

mark.feldman@ziontours.co.il

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