Consumer IQ

MintLife Reader Q&A: Is There a Better Business Bureau Overseas?

international travel

MintLife columnist and consumer advocate Christopher Elliott is answering a MintLife reader question today about researching the reputation of a business overseas.

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Question: Is there a site to check out businesses before traveling overseas? Something unbiased, like our Better Business Bureau here in the States?

I’m asking because I’m traveling to London soon and am looking for a transfer service from the airport to the cruise terminal. The services all appear to be the same, but their prices vary wildly.

I’m afraid to go with the lowest bid. I don’t know if the company is reputable. It seems to have a nice website, and if it is legit, then why should I pay more? I’ve read the reviews about the business, but I’m skeptical. Can you help? — Carolyn B., Seattle

Answer: No, there isn’t a Better Business Bureau overseas. “There is not an international component to BBB,” BBB spokeswoman Katherine Hutt told me. “Although, it’s certainly been discussed as a future possibility.”

BBB is making some inroads into the international market. “We are beginning to handle dispute resolution against US companies by foreigners, but that usually involves online transactions,” says Hutt.

Now, to be clear, calling the BBB “unbiased” may be going a little too far. You can find lots of useful information about certain businesses on the BBB website, but the organization is funded by dues paid by member businesses, which critics say gives it a pro-business slant.

I consider BBB’s ratings to be a valuable gauge of a company’s reputation, which is to say, if a company has an “F”, it’s a sign of trouble. I’m not as enthusiastic as accepting an “A” as an endorsement or a guarantee that you won’t have any trouble, either. As a matter of fact, I’ve had some run-ins with businesses that received top scores through their regional BBB site.

So what should you use? In your case, a good travel agent might be the first place I’d turn. Not only will an agent know about the reputable operators, but he or she may also have access to special discounts.

By the way, you can get to the cruise terminals at Southampton by bus or train, and unlike many parts of the United States, there are reasonably-priced mass transit options you can take advantage of. I would be reluctant to recommend a cheap, fly-by-night operator.

If you’re looking for feedback on a specific business, either in the U.K. or one of your ports of call, I can’t wholeheartedly recommend any single review site. Sites such as Angie’s List, Yelp and TripAdvisor have made some inroads in Europe, but they all have issues, some of which are serious.

Bottom line: You can never know for certain whether a business is on the up-and-up — even in the United States. As the old adage goes, “Buyer beware.”

Christopher Elliott is a consumer advocate who blogs about getting better customer service at On Your Side. Connect with him on Twitter and Facebook or send him your questions by email.