By CATEY HILL
Non-refundable airline tickets>, forfeited hotel room deposits, cancellation fees on rental cars -- for travelers, the spate of snowstorms this winter has been costly, and January's not even over yet. But even as flight cancellations mount, travelers have more recourse than they may have thought.
As airlines cancel flights in anticipation of storms to avoid the costs of delays, travel delays are only going to get worse, experts say. Already in late December and early January, an estimated 16,000 flights were cancelled due to severe weather. In all of 2010, there were 25% more flights cancelled than in 2009, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. These cancellations do more than snarl air traffic. They can create a snowball effect for consumers who then may face tough hotel, rental car and cruise line cancellation policies, says Tom Parsons, CEO of BestFares.com.
As a result, many travelers have turned to travel insurance. Each time a major weather incident makes news, TravelInsuranceReview.net, which rates travel insurance policies, sees about a 15% to 20% jump in traffic. But for most people, it's still not worth the price (up to about 8% of the cost of your trip, according to David Lytle, the editorial director for Frommers.com). Trip cancellation insurance, which usually covers weather-related delays, can recoup all or part of your travel costs, but it can take months to get reimbursed. Unless you're taking an expensive trip or one that involves strict cancellation policies, you probably don't need it, says Damian Tysdal, founder of TravelInsuranceReview.net.
That's because, for the most part, travelers can do just as well on their own -- if they understand cancellation policies and know what to ask to get a refund. Here's what you can expect to get back if your trip gets derailed.
The good news: If an airline cancels your flight, they'll most likely book you on the next available flight at no additional charge. The bad news: Because airlines have cut capacity over the last few years, that flight could be days later well after your vacation is slated to be over. And airlines are only required to compensate passengers who are bumped from an oversold flight, so you're unlikely to be offered a refund or vouchers for meals and hotel in the event of weather cancellation.
But you can often get more if you ask. For starters: a flight on another airline. "Many of the legacy carriers can book you on another carrier to get you [to your destination]," says Lytle. "But they won't offer this until you ask." If you bought a non-refundable ticket and can't, or don't want to, travel on any of the flights the airline offers for re-booking, you will most likely get a credit for the full cost of the ticket, including any fees paid when you booked. You'll need to use the credit within a year but you won't be charged the usual airline flight-change fees of up to $100 when you do re-book.
Most hotels have a 24- to 48-hour cancellation policy. Before that, you're off the hook. After that, expect to pay anywhere from a small percentage of the cost of the room to full freight. Larger hotel chains usually have more lenient policies, says Lytle, while bed-and-breakfasts, say, have less. Some hotel chains are waiving cancellation fees this winter out of goodwill. Marriott, for example, is currently waiving its standard charge -- one night's lodging, plus taxes -- for guests booked at its New York City hotels whose travel plans were cancelled because of the 16-inches of snow that fell overnight. A spokeswoman says the decision to waive charges is made on a storm-by-storm basis.
If you find yourself stuck outside of the cancellation window, you can sometimes avoid paying a fee by explaining your situation to a hotel's customer service department, says Susanna Zaraysky, author of "Travel Happy, Budget Low." If the person on the phone doesn't give you a refund or allow you to re-book without a charge, ask to speak to the manager. It's not a sure thing, but some will reduce the fee or offer a credit, she says.
Compared to airlines and hotels, rental car companies are often downright lenient, in some cases offering a full refund for cancellations with just 24-hours notice, says Tysdal. Most won't charge you if you need to delay your rental by a day or so. Budget lets you cancel online within 48 hours of your pick-up time, after which they'll charge $75 to the credit card you used to hold your reservation. Similar to hotels, you may be able to get a refund by explaining your situation, even if it's beyond the cancellation period.
Cruise lines tend to have the strictest cancellation policies, says Lytle. Many will let you cancel within 30-to-60 days of the departure for a full or partial refund. After that, you're usually out of luck, says Tysdal. Royal Caribbean, for example, requires 60 days notice for a full refund on a 3- to 4-night cruise, but if you cancel within 14 days of departure, you'll only be refunded taxes and fees.
What can cruisers do? Tysdal says this is a case when travel insurance really can be worthwhile. Look for a policy that offers a 100% refund and make sure that the "covered reasons" for cancelling include weather, natural disasters, mechanical failure and illness.