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November 12, 2012

Choice Hotels: That Room Safe Could Cost You

Filed under: Business,Travel — Edgar (aka MrConsumer) @ 6:06 am

A regular Mouse Print* reader, Bob, recently returned from a cross-country car trip and wrote to complain about what he calls the “hotel safe scam.” Here’s his story:

You check into a hotel, and you are asked to initial a registration form in several places and then sign it. You initial to accept the hotel’s rate. You initial to acknowledge the non-smoking policy. And again for the no-pets policy. Some hotels also ask you to initial the “optional” safe fee. Then you sign at the bottom.

People are tired, distracted, in a hurry, or perhaps their English isn’t so good. If you stay in enough hotels, it all becomes routine. Many consumers just do as they are asked without reading.

The safe fee is usually $1.50 per day, but sometimes a different amount. Supposedly, it’s for the use of the safe. In some cases, I found the safe locked and unusable, but that made no difference to the charge.

An “optional” fee is rather extraordinary. The hotel form often says that you can ask for the fee to be removed. Some say they will remove the fee up to 60 days later. If you ask up front that the fee be removed, some tell you to ask again at checkout. In every case, when I insisted that the fee be removed, it was, although I had to ask twice sometimes.

The safe fee is a hidden-in-plain-sight scam. The hotels expressly tell you about the fee and rely on inertia to get your money. The hotels know that most people won’t notice or won’t object. Checkout at most hotels doesn’t require any action by a consumer. The hotel often slips a bill under your door, and you can leave without stopping at the front desk.

Sure enough, some Choice hotels tack on a “safe with limited warranted” charge of $1.50 a day onto your bill:

*MOUSE PRINT:

Choice safe charge

Mouse Print* contacted the PR folks at Choice Hotels to ask for an explanation of this charge and why they chose a sneaky way to raise the cost of a hotel room. The company did not respond.

The lesson here is clear: don’t blindly initial all the Xs on that card when you first register at a hotel, and scrutinize your bill for “optional” charges that the hotel might tack onto it.

• • •

January 23, 2012

Costa’s Cruise Contract Constrains Cruisers’ Claims

Filed under: Travel — Edgar (aka MrConsumer) @ 6:08 am

The 3200 passengers on the Costa Concondia, which was run aground and nearly sank in Italy, may find it tough going getting legal redress for their nightmare and suffering.

Much like airlines, cruise lines have contracts of carriage that govern the legal rights and responsibilities of both the company and the passenger. For Costa, which is owned by Carnival Cruise lines, it is called the Passage Ticket Contract (and contrary to reports by Reuters and Forbes last week, it appears that it is this Costa contract that governs, not Carnival’s as they asserted). Here are some of the key terms that protect the company at the expense of the passenger:

*MOUSE PRINT: Where Claims are to be filed — Italy!

“Voyages That Do Not Depart from, Return to, or Visit a U.S. Port –
All claims, controversies, disputes, suits and matters of any kind whatsoever arising out of, concerned with or incident to any voyage that does not depart from, return to, or visit a U.S. port, or to this Contract if issued in connection with such a voyage, shall be instituted only in the courts of Genoa, Italy, to the exclusion of the courts of any other county, state or nation. Italian law shall apply to any such proceedings.”

The good news is that the mandatory arbitration clause does not apply to this itinerary because no US port was visited.

*MOUSE PRINT: Claim Filing Deadline

“The Carrier shall not be liable for any physical or emotional injury, illness or death of a Passenger unless written notice of the claim with full particulars is delivered to the Carrier or its duly authorized agent within 185 days after the date of injury, illness or death.”

*MOUSE PRINT: Liability for Negligence

“The Carrier shall be liable only for its negligence.”

Score one for passengers!

*MOUSE PRINT: Liability for Emotional Distress

“The Carrier shall not under any circumstances be liable to the Passenger for damages for emotional distress, mental anguish or psychological injury of any kind, when such damages were neither the result of a physical injury to the Passenger, the result of the Passenger having been at actual risk of a physical injury, nor intentionally inflicted by the Carrier.”

Score another for passengers, since one could clearly argue that the passengers were at risk of actual injury, thus they can sue for mental anguish.

*MOUSE PRINT: Financial Limits on Liability

[Various international conventions] “limit the liability of the Carrier for death of or personal injury to the Passenger to no more than 46,666 Special Drawing Rights (“SDRs”) as defined therein, and all other limits for damage or loss to personal property. The value of 46,666 SDRs is equal to approximately U.S. $70,900 …”

*MOUSE PRINT: Don’t Try Suing Carnival

“All of the defenses, limitations and exemptions of whatever kind relating to the responsibility and liability of the Carrier that may be invoked by the Carrier by virtue of this Contract or by law are fully extended to and may also be invoked by all persons or entities who may act on behalf of the Carrier …”

*MOUSE PRINT: Property Damage Claims are Capped

“The responsibility of the Carrier for damages to or losses of the Passenger’s baggage, belongings or property, including without limitation clothing worn by the Passenger, even if temporarily in the custody of the Carrier, is limited to the maximum sum of the lower of five hundred U.S. dollars (US$500) per Passenger or one hundred fifty U.S. dollars (US$150) per piece, unless prior to the beginning of the voyage the Passenger declares a higher value in writing and pays a higher tariff equal to five percent (5%) of the declared value; provided, however, that under no circumstance shall the Carrier be liable for an amount greater than five thousand U.S. dollars (US$5,000), …”

*MOUSE PRINT: No Property Damage Claims are Allowed for…

“The Carrier does not undertake to carry, and shall not be liable for, loss of or damage to money, negotiable securities, business or other documents, jewelry, tools of trade or product samples, works of art, electronics, computers, computer disks or other electronic storage or similar device, cellular telephones, cameras, video or audio tapes, CDs, binoculars, recreational equipment, dental hardware, eyewear (including eyeglasses, sunglasses and contact lenses), hearing aids, medications, medical equipment, wheelchairs or scooters under any circumstances…”

*MOUSE PRINT: No Class Actions

“THIS CONTRACT PROVIDES FOR THE EXCLUSIVE RESOLUTION OF DISPUTES THROUGH INDIVIDUAL LEGAL ACTION ON EACH PASSENGER’S OWN BEHALF INSTEAD OF THROUGH ANY CLASS OR REPRESENTATIVE ACTION.”

*MOUSE PRINT: As to safety… you are on your own.

“… the Passenger assumes responsibility for his or her own safety and the Carrier cannot guarantee the Passenger’s safety while on or off the Vessel.”

*MOUSE PRINT: Cancellation rights, No Consequential Damages.

“The Carrier may for any reason whatsoever, including … perils of the sea, … cancel… the voyage itinerary, and the Carrier shall not be liable for any loss whatsoever arising from or relating to such cancellation, deviation, delay, substitution or modifications. … in no event shall the Carrier be liable for any consequential damages, costs or expenses of any kind.”

*MOUSE PRINT: Refunds for the rest of the trip — only merchandise credit toward another Costa cruise.

“If the performance of the voyage is interrupted… the Passenger and the Passenger’s baggage may be landed at … any port or place at which the Vessel may call and the responsibility of the Carrier shall cease and this Contract shall be deemed to have been fully performed…. The Passenger shall not be entitled to any refund of the Cruise Fare or to compensation, damages or reimbursement of any expenses whatsoever, but will be given credit for the proportion of the Cruise Fare unused.”

While this contract severely limits Costa’s liability, the company may well be more generous in settling claims, if for no other reason than to try to maintain goodwill, to rebuild its public image, and to limit its legal expenses. Hopfully, some smart lawyers will figure out a loophole or two in their contract.

For a comprehensive legal analysis of cruise passengers’ rights, please read Judge Thomas A. Dickerson’s treatises: “Cruise Passengers Rights and Remedies 2011″, and “Travel Abroad, Sue at Home 2011“.

• • •

May 1, 2011

American Airlines: Aisle Seats Now a Perk for the Loyal or Rich

Filed under: Travel — Edgar (aka MrConsumer) @ 4:11 pm

Many people are disgusted with the airlines constantly finding new ways to ding passengers, particularly with fees for services that used to be part of the ticket price.

Now American Airlines and possibly others are putting a premium on some conventional aisle seating in coach.

Here is a seating chart for a 30-row airplane:

Note the string of purple aisle seats that extends back as far as row 22. Checking the legend and what the double asterisks mean solves the mystery.

*MOUSE PRINT:

The purple seats are considered “preferred seats” and only go in advance to upper level people in AA’s frequent flier program and those paying full coach fare. The saving grace at American is that they don’t charge a fee for a premium coach seat, unlike some other airlines.

The effect of American’s seating policy is that anyone making a conventional reservation on a discounted ticket even over six weeks before the flight is seemingly only offered a middle or window seat, and a tiny subset of the coach aisle seats — at least on this particular flight. (And despite American’s representation that additional seats will be made available within 24 hours of departure for the peasants in coach, the airline held those seats for assignment only at the airport.)

• • •

February 21, 2011

For Once, Good News in Airline Fine Print

Filed under: Travel — Edgar (aka MrConsumer) @ 6:15 am

It doesn’t happen often, but new fine print in the Delta Airlines frequent flier program, Skymiles, has good news for passengers.

*MOUSE PRINT:

Miles Expiration: Effective January 1, 2011, we eliminated our mileage expiration policy so you can earn and redeem miles without worrying if and when your miles will expire.

Previously, if you didn’t deposit or withdraw miles in your account at least once every 24 months, your miles would expire.

*MOUSE PRINT:

Award Redemption Fees: We no longer charge a fee for Award Ticket redemptions, even last-minute bookings.

Previously, there was no charge for redemptions only if made more than 21 days before departure. From 8-20 days, the fee was $75 USD; from 4-7 days, $100; three days or less, $150.

Hats off to Delta for doing something positive for consumers in their fine print. Now let’s see if the other airlines follow suit.

• • •

February 14, 2011

United Airlines: #1 On-Time Airline?

Filed under: Travel — Edgar (aka MrConsumer) @ 5:33 am

United Airlines issued a press release last week proclaiming that it ranked highest for on-time performance among its peers, based on the latest government statistics.

A closer look at the actual report from the Department of Transportation, however, tells a slightly different story.

*MOUSE PRINT:

2010 On-Time Arrivals

United is actually third best for on-time arrivals, because Hawaiian Airlines and Alaska Airlines were the actual number and number two ranked airlines.

So how could United claim superiority? One has to go back and look very carefully at exactly how they worded their claim. They actually said:

“United Ranks Highest For On-Time Performance Among Network Peers For 2010″

and then United qualified that even more by saying:

“United Airlines today announced the company was — for the second consecutive year — first in on-time performance for domestic scheduled flights among America’s five largest global carriers* for 2010.”

Last summer we pointed out a similar case when Dish Network claimed to be tops in customer satisfaction (because they cleverly didn’t count the actual number one and number two companies). We said then, and repeat now, that is kind of like Alamo declaring “We are number one (if you don’t count Hertz and Avis)”.

In United’s case, while every word they said was literally true, consumers could still come away with a false impression.

One thing that United didn’t issue a press release about was another statistic the government reported. According to that same study, what United really was number one in for the most recent month (December 2010) was — consumer complaints. They had 1.47 complaints per 100,000 emplanements — the worst record of the 18 air carriers surveyed.

• • •
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