From overbooked flights and endless delays to cramped airplane seats and lost luggage, traveling can sometimes leave you feeling like everyone in the industry is out to get you. Fortunately, that’s not so. Travelers United, a non-profit membership organization with a five-star rating from GreatNonprofits.org, has your back.
RewardExpert recently spoke with Charles Leocha, the organization’s president and co-founder, about the inspiration behind Travelers United, their accomplishments and current initiatives, and the launch of a new paid membership option.
The Number One Travel Advocate Group in Washington
A journalist by trade, Leocha wrote his famous travel book, aptly titled Travel Rights, in 1993.
“After I did that, I became sort of the go-to person to interview whenever there was a change in rules and regulations pertaining to travel and especially airline travel,” he explained. “Then in 2009, some people asked me if I’d start a non-profit to advocate for travelers in Washington.”
Initially founded as Consumer Travel Alliance, Leocha’s non-profit became known as Travelers United in 2014.
“Over the course of the last eight years, we’ve become the number one travel advocate group in Washington,” he said. “We work with the Department of Transportation, Congress, and other stakeholders including airlines, hotel companies and online travel agencies.”
The group’s mission includes education to create consumer awareness and research to determine the consumer impact of internal government debates in addition to advocacy. To date, Travelers United has grown to just under 50,000 members.
Speaking for the Consumer
“Most people don’t realize as airline travelers how important our presence is in Washington,” Leocha explained when describing Travelers United’s advocacy efforts. “If there is no one speaking for the consumer, the only people the Department of Transportation hears from are the ones who send them complaints.”
Thanks to the coalitions they’ve formed with other groups, Travelers United has accomplished a great deal on behalf of airline travelers. This includes the creation of the Advisory Committee for Aviation Consumer Protections within the Department of Transportation (DOT) as well as a number of rule and compensation changes.
“We advocated for the 24-hour ticket change rule that went into effect in 2012,” Leocha said. “It allows you to change or cancel your airline reservations for 24 hours. Before that rule, if you made a mistake, the airline could charge you a fee to fix it. In those days, that fee was $150 for domestic travel changes and $250 for international.”
Travelers United was also able to secure an increase in lost luggage compensation for inconvenienced travelers.
“We got it increased to up to $3,500,” Leocha said. “Airline passengers are now eligible for that amount whether their baggage is lost, damaged or just delayed.”
Leocha’s group has also tackled the common problem of denied boarding. “We got the compensation doubled when people are bumped from a flight,” he explained. “It’s now $1,350 in cash if you are denied boarding for more than two hours. If the delay is between one and two hours, you get $675. The compensation is tied to the consumer price index as well, so it goes up every two years. It has already been increased twice since the new rule and will increase again next year.”
However, some changes are harder to get through the system than others are. For example, Leocha and Travelers United have been working with the DOT to require airlines to publicly release all of their fee information since 2010.
“Right now, the only thing consumers can get when comparison shopping through an online travel agency is the cost of the airfare,” he said. “Even if they go to the airline websites, they can only review the airfare until they actually purchase a ticket. You don’t learn about all of the additional ancillary fees until then. That’s something we’ve been working on and I thought we were close to getting it done at the end of the Obama administration. But for some reason they stopped and we still have to get the bag, seat reservation, cancellation and change fees made public.”
Travelers United Plus
While Travelers United has always offered a free membership program through which subscribers receive access to an e-book version of Travel Rights as well as a daily newsletter and the opportunity to participate in important travel-related surveys, the nonprofit recently launched a new, paid membership option known as Travelers United Plus.
For $29 the first year, paid members receive perks including restaurant gift certificates, cybersecurity protection tools, a digital travel vault and more in addition to the free newsletter, travel e-book and opportunity to participate in exclusive polls and surveys.
“Basically, we’re trying to give people benefits they can use every day whether they are traveling or not,” Leocha said. “This will allow us to continue our work in Washington and remain independent of any special interests or stakeholders. We can operate with a lot more freedom.”