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Kip Tips

When Disaster Disrupts Your Travel Plans

Know your rights and how to improve your odds of avoiding fees and penalties if you alter your reservations.

Recently someone told me that he had booked a flight before the Japan disaster with a connection in Tokyo. To avoid the hassles and potential dangers in Tokyo, he called the airline after the earthquake and was told that he could cancel his flight and get a full refund. Before jumping at the offer, he booked a flight on another airline without a stopover in Tokyo. When he called the first airline back, he spoke with a different representative, who said he would have to pay a fee for canceling. He didn't want to be stuck with two flights, so he asked me what he should do.

I offered him some tips then turned to travel expert Anne Banas, executive editor of to get her take on the matter. So if a disaster (or anything else) disrupts your travel plans and customer service representatives give you conflicting responses, here's how Banas (and I) suggest you handle the situation.

1. Start by learning your rights. If your flight is canceled due to weather, natural disaster or anything not within the airline's control, you're only entitled to a refund for the canceled portion of your trip. Of course, it never hurts to ask for more (hotel or food voucher, a waiver of fees for booking a new flight). You have more rights if it's the airline's fault that your flight is canceled or delayed, Banas says. To learn more, see our Traveler's Survival Guide.

2. Whenever you get an airline, hotel or other agent on the phone who promises you something (such as a full refund), get the person's full name and direct line. If you don't seal the deal during that call, you risk getting a different agent -- and a different response -- if you call back.


3. Don't give up if a customer-service representative denies your request. Thank him for his time and call back later. You may get a more favorable response if you speak with another agent. If your travel plans are disrupted because of a disaster, it may pay to wait to contact the airline to give it time to develop a response to the situation. Shortly after the earthquake in Japan, several airlines offered to let passengers change flights without fees or penalties if they met certain criteria. Since then, some airlines have relaxed the criteria for passengers to qualify for change-fee wavers, Banas says. Watch for airlines to adjust their criteria as the situation in Japan unfolds.

4. If all else fails, tweet. Some airlines respond well to customer questions and complaints on Twitter. Just don't be billigerent, Banas warns. For more on using Twitter to voice your dissatisfaction, see How to Get Airlines to Respond to Your Complaints.

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