No business, except maybe politics, is as two-faced as travel. There's one set of rules for us, the customers. And there's another set for them - the airlines, car rental companies, hotels and travel agencies.
But it's worse than that. The travel industry isn't just getting away with its duplicitous behavior. The real crime is, we're letting it happen.
We shouldn't, but then again, most travelers aren't fully aware of the industry's most maddening double standards. Here are four of the worst, plus my tips on how to even the score:
1. When an airline cancels a flight, it owes you nothing. When you miss a flight, you lose everything.
Let's say an airline cancels a flight because of circumstance beyond its control, such as the weather. According to its rules, you aren't entitled to any compensation. And even when it is the airline's fault - for example, a mechanical problem - airlines won't offer compensation unless you experience a significant delay.
But turn the tables. What about when you miss your flight?
The airline industry used to have a "flat tire" rule that said if circumstances beyond your control made you miss your plane - such as the weather or a fender bender - you would be rebooked on the next flight at no cost. But the airline industry quietly did away with that policy after 9/11. Latecomers are now told, "Tough luck," even when it's obvious they did everything they could to make it to the airport on time. They have to pay for a new ticket, usually at the most expensive walk-up fare.
This double standard must end now. If airlines let themselves off the hook for the weather, why can't they cut us a little slack when we're snowed in?
How to get around it: Give yourself plenty of time to get to the airport. And when an airline tries to play the weather card, don't buy it. A terrific resource for flight data is the Federal Aviation Administration's flight delay information site, www.fly.faa.gov/flyfaa/usmap.jsp.
2. When you reserve a hotel room, you have to "guarantee" it with a credit card. When the hotel books too many rooms, it doesn't have to guarantee you anything.
Ever book a hotel room by phone? Then you probably remember the agent cheerfully asking which credit card you'd like to use to guarantee your reservation. Hotels take your credit card number, and when you don't show up or when you cancel without enough notice, they'll charge you for a night. This policy isn't exactly the most customer-friendly, especially for an industry that claims it is in the hospitality business.
Does the credit card actually guarantee a room? Actually, no.
Here's why: The hotel's clever reservations system figures that 10 percent to 30 percent of the hotel guests won't show up, so it allows the property to sell more rooms than it has. When the system is wrong - which tends to happen at the peak of tourist season and during major holidays - it's forced to "walk" guests to another hotel, usually a hotel of lesser quality. There goes your guarantee.
How can hotels get away with this double standard? It only seems fair that if they can take your credit card number, they should be able to guarantee a room at their hotel. The solution is simple: either don't oversell, or stop asking for guest's credit card numbers.
How to get around it. Read your hotel's cancellation policies carefully before you book your room. Sometimes when you book a room directly through a hotel, the cancellation terms are more favorable than when you book it through a third party, such as an online travel agency. And join the hotel's frequent-guest program. Good guests are rarely walked to another hotel, and they can cancel their rooms with little or no penalty.
3. When a rental agency runs out of cars, you have to wait and don't get compensated for your time. When you bring back a car late, the agency charges you its highest hourly rate.
Most car-rental companies won't guarantee a particular vehicle, only a "class" of car. Car-rental companies do this because they can't effectively manage their fleets. It isn't unusual for them to rent all of their cars in a particular class, which means you have to wait a few minutes to a few hours for your vehicle. You know you're at a quality car rental company when they offer you an upgrade to the next class right away. Your compensation for the wait? Nothing. In fact, you'll probably lose part of the value of a rental because you've already signed a contract, and the meter is running.
But what happens when you make your car-rental company wait? Then, the rules are a little different.
Car-rental companies have been losing their patience with tardy customers. Just last year, for example, Hertz abbreviated the grace period for returns to 30 minutes, from one hour. Not to be outdone, Dollar, Enterprise, National and Thrifty eliminated their grace periods. That means when you're a minute late, you'll have to pay an hourly rate for your vehicle. Not very nice.
What a silly double standard. If a car rental company is going to make you wait, it should be prepared to do the same.
How to get around it. There's a little-known industry policy that still exists: When a car in your class isn't available, you're entitled to an upgrade to the next class. Free. Next time someone tells you to wait, try reminding that person of the rule.
4. When you book a trip, your travel company takes your money immediately. When you're owed a refund, it takes months to get your money back.
Next time you book a trip, chances are you'll have to pay for everything upfront. The airline or agency will suck the money out of your bank account with a swipe of your credit card. There are notable exceptions for big-ticket items such as cruises or tours, where you're allowed to make a deposit and then pay the balance later. But the rest of the time, we settle up at the time of booking.
But what happens when the roles are reversed? When your trip gets canceled and the airline or agency owes you a refund, there's nothing instant about getting your money back. Far from it.
In fact, airlines are notorious foot-draggers when it comes to refunds. Although they promise to return your money in seven to 10 days, it can take much, much longer - from one to three months. Why so long? I've asked customer-service experts, and they say the most plausible explanation is that these companies haven't invested in the technology to process quicker refunds. There's no incentive.
When there's a travel agency involved, the wait time can be even longer because it won't pay up until it's been compensated. In some cases customers have had to wait up to six months to see their money again.
This is a ridiculous double standard that is easy to fix. Travel companies should be committed to paying their debts as quickly as their customers pay them; that's just good business. You should insist on it.
How to get around it. When a travel company owes you money, the only way to speed things up is to become the proverbial squeaky wheel. Call, write, e-mail and let them know you aren't interested in giving them an interest-free loan for half a year. If push comes to shove, don't be shy about threatening to dispute the charges on your credit card. And if they don't respond, make good on your promise.
There are more double standards out there. Shoot me an e-mail with your favorites. And remember, the reason the travel industry gets away with these double standards is that no one bothers to question them.