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WHEN PROBLEMS POP UP, KNOWLEDGE IS THE BEST WEAPON

It looked like a lost cause.

Betty van Iersel had prepaid $3,900 for an all-inclusive seven-day French canal tour on the barge Luciole. But two weeks after she'd wired the money to the cruise line, a financial emergency forced her to cancel.

The Luciole's owners refused to return her money, citing their refund policy. Her travel agency, Maryland-based Special Places Travel, which specializes in European barge tours, told her she could only get her money back if her cabin was resold. And that seemed like a remote possibility.

"I can't afford to lose this money," van Iersel wrote to me. "Do I have any options?"

An increasing number of cases that cross my desk look like van Iersel's: Because of a policy or rule - not always clearly disclosed - a favorable resolution looks improbable. Though each case is different, they all tend to have one thing in common: They could have been avoided with a few simple preventive steps.

Take the case of Veda Robinson and Jackie Smartt, who contacted me after missing their Carnival cruise. The reason? Smartt hadn't brought the right form of ID for her international trip. Then, because of a misunderstanding, both women were denied boarding, even though Robinson had the correct paperwork and wanted to take the cruise.

"Carnival will not reimburse me for being denied boarding, even though I had documentation, because they recently advised me that the personnel at the pier asked me, 'Do you want to board?' and documented on my incident report that I said 'no,'" she says. She denies that she declined to board the ship.

Carnival offered her, but not Smartt, a do-over cruise. After I blogged about the case, Robinson's travel agency secured her a full refund.

But there's a valuable takeaway for the rest of us. Don't wait until you're home to ask a travel company to make something right. Had Robinson made her case more forcefully at the port, she might have been able to get on the ship. Unfortunately, Smartt would have been allowed on board only if she had remembered her passport or passport card.

Or consider the case of Ana de Pascht, who had a flat tire on her way to the Albany, N.Y., airport. Her US Airways ticket, like most tickets today, was nonrefundable, nontransferable and nonchangeable unless she paid a hefty fee.

"I called US Airways and asked what could be done," she said. "I was told that I had to buy a new ticket and also pay a change fee of $150 - a total of $273 - if I wished to travel on the next flight out. I did question the agent about any other ways to avoid paying all that money and was told that was my only option."

I'm not going to suggest that de Pascht should have checked the air pressure in her tires before heading out, but it helps to have some passing familiarity with airline policies.

Turns out that there's a "flat tire" rule, and airlines are known to cut their passengers some slack if they can't make it to the airport through no fault of their own. (Seems fair, given that we're understanding when their planes break down.) I thought the rule had been phased out, but I'm told it's still unofficial policy at some airlines, including US Airways.

A US Airways supervisor at the airport conceded that the $273 fee to fly the same day seemed unfair, but he couldn't initiate a refund. Only the refunds department is allowed to do that. Eventually, de Pascht's story reached the ears of the Transportation Department, which referred the case back to the airline. As a "courtesy," US Airways agreed to refund the $150 change fee.

And what about van Iersel? Standard travel insurance wouldn't have addressed her troubles, although a slightly more expensive "cancel for any reason" policy may have allowed her to recover part of her ticket. Nor did using a travel agent protect her from the Luciole's refund policy. But it gave her an advocate in dealing with the cruise company.

She might have avoided her problem by carefully reviewing the cruise line's policies and paying by credit card. Many cruise lines offer either a full or partial refund as long as you cancel with enough advance notice.

Also, I would never recommend paying with anything but a credit card.

I had a lengthy conversation with van Iersel's travel agent, who reiterated the Luciole's policy. I got the impression that a refund was all but out of the question. But a few days later, I heard from both the passenger and her agent. The cabin had been sold and a refund was being processed.

I love a happy ending.

Christopher Elliott is the author of the upcoming book "Scammed: How to Save Your Money and Find Better Service in a World of Schemes, Swindles, and Shady Deals" (Wiley). He's also the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine and the co-founder of the Consumer Travel Alliance, a nonprofit organization that advocates for travelers. You can read more tips on his blog, elliott.org, or e-mail him at chris@elliott.org.

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