When Air Dolomiti canceled Stefano Alberti’s recent flight from Florence to Munich because one of its planes broke down, he potentially faced what to many American travelers would be a tall obstacle: a language barrier.
The regional carrier, a subsidiary of the German airline Lufthansa, offered to cover his family’s lodging and meal expenses and rebooked him on a flight back to the U.S. the next day. But under European law, Alberti, who works for an analytics firm in San Francisco, was entitled to 2,400 euros (about $3,245) in compensation, and negotiating with Air Dolomiti might have been tedious, unless he spoke fluent Italian.
Fortunately, Alberti speaks fluent Italian.
Only 1 in 4 Americans knows a second language, which often translates into a problem when you’re traveling abroad, and particularly when you have a service question. The workarounds can include hiring a skilled travel agent and using a translation service — and, of course, persistence and creativity in the face of an employee who can’t, or won’t, understand what you’re saying.
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Alberti’s problem was vexing even for a native Italian speaker. He first contacted Lufthansa, but it deferred to Air Dolomiti. He communicated with the airline in Italian, although he says it offered to correspond in English.
Invoking a clause that allowed an airline to cancel flights during “extraordinary circumstances,” a representative for the regional carrier initially agreed to cut him a check for less than half of what Alberti was due under the European law, called EU 261 (which guarantees passengers hefty compensation for delays/cancellations on flights within Europe or departing from Europe).
But Alberti said the airline had misread and misapplied the law and if it didn’t settle, he would file a complaint with L’Ente Nazionale per l’Aviazione Civile, Italy’s civil-aviation agency. “After one more phone conversation, they agreed to pay the full amount,” he says.
An Air Dolomiti representative confirmed Alberti’s story, saying it was a “privilege” to communicate with him in Italian. But it noted that it can also handle requests in English and offers a dedicated customer-service line in German. “We are an Italian company, but we have been operating on the international market since many years,” said Loredana Lodovici, an airline spokeswoman.
Alberti believes his knowledge of the rules, not his linguistic edge, ultimately ensured a positive outcome. I think it was a little of both.
There are other ways to find the edge, one way or the other. One of the easiest is to work through a skilled travel agent who can negotiate on your behalf and knows all the rules.
“Good travel advisers offer their clients advice, access, advocacy and accountability,” says Matthew Upchurch, chief executive of Virtuoso, a luxury-travel-agency consortium (which has corporate offices in Seattle) that allows you to search its network of agents by language from its website (virtuoso.com).
“And those last two points are crucial if something goes even slightly amiss when traveling. Consumer advocacy and accountability are two elements that can’t be replicated online.”
You might find a “mom-and-pop” agent with passable language skills, but then there’s the issue of influence. Belonging to a well-recognized consumer group or travel-agency network definitely has its advantages; otherwise, an intransigent travel company may not care that you’re upset about the service you received, or didn’t.
The other option: Go it alone, even if you don’t understand the language. To that end, there are several language applications and programs that can help. One well-known fix is Google Translate (translate.google.com), which seems to spring into action online whenever you access a site that isn’t in your native language. The results are good enough to get the gist of what someone is saying, and can be helpful.
Customer-service workers often speak English, but their comprehension skills vary. So when Janet Baker, for example, encounters language problems, she politely thanks the representative and hangs up.
“I call in again,” says Baker, a sales representative from Chicago. “I repeat as needed until I can get a person I can converse with.”
Turns out, there are many ways to make yourself understood when it comes to customer service. Even when they’re speaking another language.
Christopher Elliott is a travel consumer advocate and the author of “How To Be The World’s Smartest Traveler.” His column runs regularly at seattletimes.com/travel. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.