Never Make a Scene at the Customer Desk
It isn't our favorite aspect of budget travel, but there are times when we must make a travel complaint.
The majority of interactions between traveler and agent go the way of what you see pictured here -- professional courtesy and efficiency.
But when things go poorly, travel complaints often have a sense of urgency attached: you need to get on the next plane out of town or you need that hotel room you were promised. Under stress, many of us raise our voices and quickly lose patience when we sense someone is less concerned about our problem than we would prefer.
No one is suggesting you become a "pushover" and allow the system to trample you. But make your points with a calm politeness rather than a shrill, demanding tone. Ask for a manager. Be clear about what you think would resolve the situation on the spot. If you need a free room or a refund, ask for it. Don't wait for it to be offered.
Remember that whatever an employee tells you does not need to be the last word. But if they can say truthfully that you were loud, rude or even threatening, you might face even more trouble. At the very least, human nature kicks in and the person on the other side of the counter decides there is no reason to help you.
Save Every Document, No Matter How Small
The picture above shows counterfeit rail tickets. If you want to prove you were ripped off, you'll need to show that ticket. But look how small they are -- easily lost in your luggage or among larger travel documents.
It is important to save all the paperwork from the transaction(s) in question. If someone at a complaint desk takes that documentation from you, get their name and job title, and ask if they can make a copy of whatever you're surrendering to them.
Another tip: save receipts from meals or lodging you had to purchase because of your travel problem. You'll need these things to document your losses. They not only show how much extra money spent, but also verify your time line. With all of your paperwork, you are ready to contact the company.
Don't Plead Your Case to the Wrong Department
When you're dealing with multinational companies or government consumer bureaus, it's easy to get lost. There is a natural tendency to unburden yourself of the sad story, but don't waste time and energy telling it to someone who can't help you.
Ask for the specific person(s) responsible for addressing customer complaints. Search for the contract of carriage in your ticket or make a few calls before you spill your troubles.
Resource: Airline phone and web site directory.
Take Detailed Notes
At first glance, this seems like painfully obvious advice. But logic fails us when we're in a difficult situation and perhaps holding back anger or battling fatigue.
You'll need details when you make a formal complaint. Save every correspondence with the company, and take notes while on the phone. Ask the name of each person with whom you speak, and keep a log of your contacts by date and time, including what they promised you or how they treated you. Use the same firm but friendly resolve that you attempted at the ticket counter. Continue as long as there appears to be a possibility of resolution.
As with a travel journal, it pays to write down the details right away, as many are quickly forgotten within a few hours.
Travel Complaints against Airlines
An airline ticket is really a contract between you and the company that they will transport you to a certain place at a certain time. The more formal name is "contracts of carriage." You won't be surprised that much of this information is in very fine print, but pull out some magnification and read it. It is important to know what the airline has promised (or failed to promise) before you go forward with a formal complaint.
If you don't have a ticket handy, go online to the airline's web site. For example, Delta Airlines contract of carriage information is plainly displayed. It's a simple matter of performing a search for it.
Exhaust Internal Appeals Before Going to an Outside Agency
When an airline experiences system-wide problems, you can bet there are hundreds of consumers in your predicament. There is bound to be an internal appeals process in place that will deal with your concerns, or at least attempt to do so.
But there are times when you are butting your head against a stone wall. No one you've contacted will help resolve your problem, despite repeated attempts.
Complaint bureaus and consumer services operate mainly for victims who have done the work and run into that wall. Now is the time to take your documentation and seek the help of a third party. But don't expect an outside agency to help you until you've done everything reasonable to help yourself.
Consumer Protection from the U.S. Government
The U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) maintains an Aviation Consumer Protection and Enforcement Division. Within it, you can file complaints about safety and security, airline service, as well as disability and discrimination concerns. Outside the U.S., many other countries maintain similar operations that will vary in name but operate under the umbrella of consumer protection.
Discrimination and safety issues will get a lot more attention here than poor service, but the government keeps tabs on complaints, and it never hurts to let the offending company know that, if necessary, you're prepared to notify the appropriate consumer agency.
Small Claims Court
The USDOT offers an outline of steps that might be required if you need to go to small claims court.
These courts are operated by state and local governments. As the name implies, this is recommended only for relatively small claims. In these situations, you are your own attorney. Unless you're trained in the law, don't go into this kind of court if the outcome is crucial.
Learn from the Bad Experiences of Other Travelers
Unfortunately, some airlines and travel companies have recurring problems with consumers. Consult their track records before you consider doing business again.
This holds true for all transactions, but especially larger expenditures necessary for bigger trips. Consult the Better Business Bureau or respected studies of consumer satisfaction: J.D. Power and Associates issues annual ratings for hotels and airlines; The American Customer Satisfaction Index compiled at the University of Michigan provides quarterly report cards.
Don't be Discouraged
When wrapped in red tape, it's easy to feel isolated.
Don't allow yourself to be worn down or discouraged. Remember that your perseverance might help someone else avoid a similar problem.
Of greatest importance, however, is the need to pay as little as possible in time and money for your travel. If you think someone has wasted your resources, call them on it.
Airline Escape Clauses