Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Travel credit charge and cash overcharges - the public forum remedy

Photo by Andres Rueda

Three years ago, several of my friends and I visited another friend in Istanbul, Turkey. We came during the summer at the beginning of the huge tourist-season rush. We knew that we would be charged more for tourist type items than locals would have, but what we had not realized was how important it was to scrutinize every single transaction - particularly when using a credit card.

I'm not talking about nickles and dimes here: I'm referencing those outrageous overcharges that can really affect your travel or financial situation. No amount of planning with a personal finance budgeting in mind can truly prevent this, but it is the sort of thing that can break your budget.

Situation One: The overcharge is noticed right away
One day, while we were walking around Istanbul looking at a beautiful mosque, two young Turkish men came up to talk to my friends and I. Hoping for romance, they settled for a laborious but engrossing conversation at a tea shop. As we left and paid, we gave cash to our friend who was using a check card. To our surprise, when we received the credit card receipt, the original had been charged with one too many zeros to the end of it. That small mistake meant the price of our teas was off by a hundred lira, a huge impact on a broke, traveling college student's budget.

Situation Two: The overcharge is not discovered until later
Another overcharge happened to one of my good friends who lived in Israel for the summer of 2008. His trip was pretty uneventful in terms of money, in large part due to his extensive financial planning. However, he was overcharged at a major hotel to the tune of over US $300. He didn't notice the overcharge until he checked his statement online the following week. Upon calling the hotel, he was consistently told that no one - save the hotel's accountant - could resolve the issue; inconveniently, the accountant was apparently on a permanent vacation.

What did these two individuals do? Because the situations were different, they required drastically different solutions.

In situation one, we were able to have our new Turkish friends express extreme outrage at the overcharge, which was corrected right away. Even if we had not had native speakers with us, it would have been fairly easy for us to communicate the problem with the bill. Of course, the transaction cancelation took a few days to process, but it did go through.

In situation two, my friend was presented with a very different set of facts. He was no longer at the hotel and had lost the ability to immediately make a public scene. This, along with the (albeit short) passage of time dramatically diminished his power in talking to the hotel. He finally resolved it in a rather dramatic fashion - but it worked. He told the hotel that if they did not return the overcharge, he was going to write about his difficult experience with the hotel and submit it to every travel blog and review website possible.

What does this mean?

Particularly in tourist areas, do not underestimate the power of making a public scene.
It's easiest to correct a problem at the scene, immediately after the overcharge occurs. Waiting can necessitate more drastic, more frustrating, interactions with the store, company, or service that overcharged you. But, if you don't discover the overcharge until later and can't come to a resolution, the internet does allow for a vast public forum.
If you don't keep track of your spending - at least a little - you will never know when an overcharge has occurred; likewise, if you don't check receipts after you pay, you may not realize an overcharge has ocurred.

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