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How to Get a Refund from or Complain to Any Travel Company: Which Government Agency Oversees What

So you want to go after your travel company for a refund, poor service, or mistreatment? Here are the parts of the government that oversee travel businesses, including car rentals, airlines, hotels, vacation rentals, and more.

Whether it’s a bankrupt cruise line, a canceled flight, a missing car rental reservation, or a hotel “walking” you due to overbookings, there are times when you need to complain to a higher authority.

But just who are those authorities in the U.S. travel industry? Well… it’s complicated.

The most important thing to do is always book travel with a credit card (rather than check, cash, or money transfer). In the case of a cancellation or shutdown, paying with a credit card gives you the right to invoke The Fair Credit Billing Act, overseen by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). It ensures you are entitled to credit refunds for products that “weren’t delivered as agreed,” no matter where the company that charged you is based. 

Which government agency oversees travel companies?

Complaints about cruise lines

Recourse can be challenging when you’re dealing with cruises, since nearly all the largest lines are flagged and headquartered outside the United States. The February 2024 bankruptcy of American Queen Voyages (AQV) was a rarity in that it was an American company, and information on its shutdown—including details about filing for refunds—can be found on AQV’s site

The Federal Maritime Commission (FMC) weighed in on AQV’s bankruptcy, suggesting consumers file claims with their card issuers. 

As for complaints against the vast majority of cruise lines embarking from U.S. ports, the FMC states: “There is no federal government agency that regulates cruise customer service issues (e.g., itinerary changes, passenger cancellations, cabin concerns, etc.). Moreover, the Commission has limited jurisdiction over cruise lines…in the U.S.”

So you can see why it’s so important to pay for cruises with a credit card, because that leaves passengers with recourse from their own credit card issuer.

FMC’s site offers advice on how to pursue complaints.

In addition, the U.S. State Department offers advice for U.S. citizens traveling on cruise ships in international waters.

Complaints about airlines

After 20-plus years as an airline passenger advocate, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard disgruntled flyers threaten to sue their carrier. 

Good luck with that. I wrote here about the failures of airline deregulation, and one of those failures is a legal loophole known as federal preemption. Simply put, it means that state legislatures, state attorneys general, and even state courts have virtually no authority over airlines, so your rights are greatly curtailed.

However, even loopholes have loopholes. You can still file suit against domestic airlines in small claims court. The dollar limits vary by state (free legal advice website Nolo maintains a list of every state’s maximum dollar amount) and range from $2,500 (Kentucky) to $25,000 (Delaware and Tennessee). 

Regardless of where you live, as long as your flight started or ended on land controlled by the United States, you can also file complaints with the U.S. Department of Transportation online, by phone, or by mail. DOT processes complaints for consumer, disability, and discrimination issues. 

On the same page, the DOT also provides links for filing safety complaints via the Federal Aviation Administration and security complaints via the Transportation Security Administration.  

Complaints about car rentals

The FTC offers advice on renting a car, as well as tips on charges, fees, and coverage options. Consumers who encounter problems with rental firms can file complaints with the FTC’s office that processes reports on “fraud, scams, and bad business practices.”

Additionally, filing a rental complaint with a state attorney general can be very effective. A good place to start is National Association of Attorneys General, which has a map, including contact information for where to start in every state.

In fact, some states, such as New York, offer detailed advice and details of their own on consumer protections.

Complaints about hotels and vacation rentals

The advice for addressing problems and complaints related to accommodations is similar to troubleshooting car rental issues. has its own list of whom to engage for complaints about travel, and it also recommends contacting state consumer protection offices (it even tells you whom to write) and the FTC.

The FTC also offers specific advice on vacation rental scams, which are now widespread.

Getting help for general problems

For bankruptcy filings

When U.S.-based companies file bankruptcy, either as Chapter 11 reorganizations or Chapter 7 liquidations, consumers have rights to claims. But you may wind up in line behind many other creditors.

You can keep abreast of developments if the travel company maintains a website. If it doesn’t, you’ll need to file claims through the court.

But what happens if your foreign airline or travel supplier (one that isn’t based in the United States) goes bankrupt? Obviously, laws vary by nation, as the DOT states: “Other countries may have bankruptcy laws that apply to foreign carriers and foreign ticket agents.”  

As for the U.S. State Department, the agency details what it can and cannot do for you in a crisis.

Unfortunately, in many cases Americans are exempt from foreign protections for shutdowns, such as in the U.K. and European Union. 

Not surprisingly, travel insurance companies advise you to purchase policies as added protection in such cases. If you do buy travel insurance, it’s wise to buy it from a third party and not from the company that sold you the travel product to begin with. Here’s a list of reputable insurance providers, including a few marketplace websites where multiple insurers vie to sell you policies in one place.

For complaints that don’t involve legal filings

While it is not a government agency, the Better Business Bureau (BBB) may still assist you in resolving disputes and allows you to alert others about bad corporate behavior. Companies don’t like it when they’re given a bad rating by the BBB, so they may be willing so work with you to avoid it. Ratings cover a broad variety of travel companies and are sorted by the location of the business.

Remember that it always makes sense to file detailed claims directly with your travel company either before or while you also contact government agencies. 

Also remember that some travel companies, particularly hotels and car renters, may be franchisees of larger brands, so make sure to send copies of your complaint to their corporate headquarters.

And keep good records! Along with using a credit card—it’s the first rule of paying for travel products—this can be crucial to getting your money back. Your claims and complaints will have much more power if you include dates, times, names, and other pertinent details, such as flight numbers, room numbers, berths, vehicle descriptions, and so on. Photographs may help, too.

William J. McGee is the Senior Fellow for Aviation & Travel at American Economic Liberties Project. An FAA-licensed aircraft dispatcher, he spent seven years in airline flight operations management and was Editor-in-Chief of
Consumer Reports Travel Letter. He is the author of Attention All Passengers and teaches at Vaughn College of Aeronautics. There is more at