My friend Leon was incensed.
An experienced traveler, he had looked at recent headlines and decided it would be prudent to pull out of a planned trip to Turkey's Mediterranean coast. Vacationing 300 miles from Iraq was just too close for comfort, he felt.Two days later, a New York newspaper report seemed to validate his fears. It quoted a State Department advisory dated July 27 that outlined precautions for travelers in "several southeastern provinces" of Turkey.
Nevertheless, Turkish Airlines still levied a $100 cancellation penalty, because he had opted out of his flight only four days before his scheduled departure. There was no ban on travel to Turkey, so the airline was firmly doing business as usual.
Another beach lover I know had just mailed off a hefty deposit for a Hawaiian vacation last winter when hotel employees in the Aloha State suddenly said goodby to their bosses and walked off their jobs.
Most lodgings were managing to stay open, but my friend didn't want to cross a picket line. Still, she was told that she couldn't postpone her trip without forfeiting 25 percent of her advance.
A traveler's funds usually are protected these days if an airline or tour operator goes bankrupt, but what happens when travelers have philosophical reservations - either they're scared in the wake of terrorist activity in the region or turned off by the prospect of lingering hurricane damage or opposed to patronizing a hotel that hires non-union labor during a strike?
Airlines always spell out the conditions under which they will refund all or part of a fare and usually suggest that passengers purchase trip-cancellation insurance to cover any other eventualities. But airline policies range from liberal to rigid. El Al and a few others have waived any cancellation penalty no matter why someone wants to pull out of a flight. Northwest allows supervisors some latitude in interpreting the rules on a case-by-case basis. Turkish Airlines goes by the book, requiring authorization to change policy from its headquarters in Turkey. If a change in policy does come, however, a spokesman in the airline's New York office said that it would be applied retroactively.
Some tour operators are being sympathetic because of the Middle East situation. American Express Vacations, for example, is offering full refunds on packages to Israel, Egypt and Turkey, and Amex would intercede for travelers disputing a charge booked on its card, a spokeswoman said.
But your credit-card company is not always an ally in these situations. If you've charged your ticket to Mastercard knowing the restrictions and there's nothing actually preventing you from taking the trip, you're liable for the charge, according to a spokeswoman.
However, if you want to pursue a charge you feel is unfair, start with your travel agent - or airline, if you booked directly.
The next place to turn is the bank that issued your credit card, according to Mastercard and Visa. The bank might then take it up with the card company, all of which have arbitration procedures.
It may take a while, but the representative of one card company said decisions tend to go in the consumer's favor.