smart spending

10 tips to clip travel cancellation fees

You want to ask two questions, says Lytle: If I have to change or cancel, when do I have to notify you? Second, what's the penalty if I don't?

Throw your notes or print-out into a folder or notebook with your other trip information. That way, if a question comes up, it's handy.

2. Make friendly cancellation policies a consideration.

If you're laying out a large amount of money for something like a cruise or tour, you should compare the cancellation policies just as you'd compare the quality of the meals or accommodations, says John Stachnik, president and co-owner of Mayflower Tours and board member of the U.S. Tour Operators Association.

"It's just as important as the level of hotels or level of meals if you're spending your hard-earned money," he says.

One option: Many tour operators offer a cancellation waiver, says Stachnik. This is not travel insurance, and it will apply only to the money you paid for the tour itself, not travel arrangements to the departure destination.

You need to know what circumstances are covered. While some waivers will cover cancellation for a limited list of occurrences like sickness or job loss, others will refund your money minus the cost of the waiver for any reason at all, he says.

What you get back if you cancel will almost always depend on how far ahead you cancel. Your tour operator will give you a schedule for the return policy (and you can often find one on the company's Web site).

Often, with tours, if you cancel during the last month before departure, you forfeit a significant amount of your total, Stachnik says. With his company, there is no fee if travelers cancel up to 45 days before a domestic trip or 60 days before an international excursion.

But that schedule "is fairly liberal" in the industry, Stachnik says. Some operators will want cancellation notices earlier. And many times there is a sliding scale: the closer to the departure date, the more money is forfeited.

While most companies don't have a rain-check policy, it's a good thing to ask for if you do want to reschedule and end up out a large amount of money, says Stachnik. Operators are going to want to help you out even more if they know you're going to be traveling with them soon, he says.

3. Cancel as early as possible.

Time is money. The sooner you cancel your plans, the more likely you are to recoup the maximum of whatever you've paid for the trip.

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If the hotel, resort, cruise line or tour company has time to resell your spot to someone else, everybody wins.

With smaller, independent establishments, like inns and bed-and-breakfasts, cancellation requirements vary widely.

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