We self-appointed travel mavens love to write or post about "Travelers' Rights," and we generally focus on a laundry list of rights travelers have. But many of those rights -- even those established by law -- have a big flaw: When a supplier fails to deliver, nothing specifies what the supplier is supposed to do, and it's likely that nobody is around to enforce whatever should be done.
Airline Rights. Air travelers generally have a lot of rights codified by law, in the United States, Europe and most other parts of the world. In the U.S., the rights with real teeth deal with mandatory compensation for being "bumped" due to overbooked flights. The airline owes you a cash payment that varies by how long you are delayed in reaching your destination, up to $1,350. And airlines, always loath to cut you a check, typically offer vouchers for much larger amounts, which are fine, as long as you're able to use them in full. Government rules also require airlines to compensate you for lost or damaged baggage, up to $3,500 for domestic travel and $1,536 for most international trips.
Beyond this, current U.S. rules about delays and other problems just require airlines to tell you about what their policies are. The government rules do not specify any performance standards or amount of compensation. Each airline specifies rights you have in the case of flight delay or cancellation in its contract of carriage. Most include specific compensation for meals and, on long delays, hotel accommodations, but others are quite vague.
Travelers on flights within Europe and from Europe enjoy considerably more robust compensation rules than the U.S. provides. Compensation is specified for a wide range of delays and cancellations in addition to bumping.
Hotel Rights. No federal or state laws specify performance standards or compensation requirements for hotels. Typically, local laws require hotels to provide adequate security, safety and compliance with disability regulations. Other rights are limited to contract law. And although a reservation is a valid contract, even with no deposit, neither law nor contract states what a hotel will do if you arrive and find that no room is available. Industry custom is to "walk" you to another hotel at least as good and pay for the first night, but that's a custom that is often ignored and not enforced anywhere.
Cruise Rights. The big cruise lines' trade association publishes a comprehensive passenger "Bill of Rights" that they incorporate into their contracts. But this "bill" has no teeth: Nothing in it specifies what a cruise line must do when it fails to meet a commitment. Your only recourse is maritime law, which is not consumer-friendly.
Tour Package Rights. Government rules require some tour operators to deposit payments into escrow accounts to protect consumers against operator failure. Beyond that, your only rights are contractual. And, again, contracts almost never include compensation if an operator fails to deliver.
Car Rental Rights. It's all contractual: If you show up at the counter with a firm reservation, and there's no car available, the agent is supposed to find you a car from another company. But, as in most other cases, there are no laws and no specified compensation.
The Takeaway. If your rights are determined solely by contractual requirements, it's "lots of luck." If you show up at an overbooked hotel with a confirmed reservation, you have a "right" to a room, but that doesn't actually get you a room. If you show up at an airport needing a wheelchair, but there's nobody available to push it, you don't get the assistance, even when mandated by law.
Whenever you face a situation where you're likely to miss a plane, cruise departure or whatever else, having a "right" or a regulation on your side doesn't necessarily solve your problem. Instead, your alternatives are either to accept whatever delay or inconvenience might result, and maybe claim compensation later on, or improvise your own solution. Equally clear is that although a creative improvisation isn't always feasible, a practical improvisation almost always beats the "suffer now, complain later" alternative. And you can still complain later.