Trouble flying in Europe? Here’s what worked for me.

Last Fall, a fantastic Italian vacation that I’d been planning for a year started horribly. Just as I got to the airport to leave for Rome, I received a message from my online travel agent informing me that our connection to Venice had been cancelled. After a red-eye across the Atlantic, we’d be stuck for eight hours in Fiumicino Airport, waiting for the next flight out instead of enjoying the famed City of Bridges.

By the time I got the message, the agent’s office was closed. The airline staff at JFK shrugged and told us to talk to the people in Rome. When we arrived, we were told that there was nothing that could be done, even though I found earlier flights on this carrier and others (in fact, even using high-speed rail would’ve been faster). No matter, we’d have to wait. They then handed us a snack bar voucher and sent us on our way.

A call to our online travel agent back in the United States yielded nothing, as well. They abruptly said that they weren’t our travel agent, they were merely a travel booking service (funny how their website fails to make this distinction). As such, they couldn’t act on our behalf, and I’d never get anywhere with the airline anyway, so I should just suck it up. I was furious, but life is too short and Italy too beautiful – the rest of the trip in my favorite European country was fantastic.

When we returned, I was still determined to do something about it. I made a few more calls, but (surprise!) I continued to get nowhere. Being an avid Consumerist reader, however, I knew that a little research and polite, firm persistence can go a long way.

Here’s what I found. The information paraphrased in the box below is on the European Union Air passenger rights website.

If you’re flying from or to an airport in the European Union operated by a carrier that’s registered in the EU and you are denied boarding, your flight is cancelled, significantly delayed, or your flight is overbooked:

  • Even as a U.S. citizen, you’re protected by EU law. EU passenger-rights laws offer better protections than similar legislation in the U.S.
  • Carriers are required to tell you your rights.
  • You have the right to choose between being rerouted or reimbursed for your ticket (in the case of a delay, to qualify it must be a delay of 5+ hours).
  • You may be entitled to food, free phone calls, and even a hotel room, depending on the distance to your destination and the duration of the delay.
  • If you’re arriving at your destination more than three hours late, you may be entitled to monetary compensation between about $300 – $700 USD.

If, as in my case, these things aren’t done, you can fille an Air Passenger Rights EU Complaint [PDF]. We sent ours to the airline’s United States home office via registered mail, and (surprise!) heard nothing. As detailed in the complaint form, after six weeks we sent a copy of our complaint directly to the Italian air transportation regulatory agency. A list of EU country enforcement agencies can be found here [PDF].

The result? It took six months, but it worked! We received two checks for $341. As nice as the money was, it felt even better to know that the airline didn’t get away with treating us like cattle. I’m actually more disappointed with our US-based online travel agent “booking service”, who totally let us down in a rude way when we were far from home, making it clear how little our business meant.

From now on, I’ll always take a copy of my air passenger rights with me when I fly to Europe (here’s the full version if you’d like to do the same). While it doesn’t guarantee better treatment for the little folk (i.e., budget traveler), I think it gives us some measure of power, and something is better than nothing. In my case, this particular something succeeded beyond all expectations. Thanks, EU, and thanks, Consumerist, for showing how it’s done!

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