How to keep your travel complaint from being ignored

You've probably seen the viral video by now. A passenger, who had paid for his seat, was dragged off of an overbooked United Airlines flight. Here with some legal insight into that case is Andy Crouppen with Brown and Crouppen.

It's complaints season in the travel industry, as Adeodata Czink will tell you.

Her favorite summertime gripe? The tourist who waved a brochure in front of her face, vowing to sue because her expensive hairdo had been ruined. Czink, an etiquette expert and tour guide from Toronto, couldn't fix the problem.

"We were in Niagara Falls," she laughs. "I can't control the mist."

Czink wasn't dragged into court. But ridiculous complaints such as the one she heard are as common as summer thunderstorms. I ought to know: I see copious quantities of travel industry complaints through my consumer advocacy website and a companion syndicated column. Believe me when I tell you that now, more than ever, people love to vent.

It's getting worse, researchers say. "There just seems to be so much more to complain about," says David Aron, a marketing professor at Dominican University who has studied consumer complaints, grudge-holding and retaliation.

"The media frequently covers negative issues like crowded planes, delays, people getting thrown off planes," he says. "The tension levels, and levels of dissatisfaction, begin to rise before the experience even begins."

Rather than adding your voice to the chorus of pointless gripes and loud bellyaching, which is often ignored by thick-skinned travel companies that have developed a form response for everything, why not do something effective this year? To figure out how to do that, you need to review the bad complaints and learn from them. This is going to be fun.

This is no laughing matter, though. If you're worried about the coming onslaught of negativity, the travel industry should be deathly afraid.

"The effects are undeniable," says Ben Jost, CEO of TrustYou, which helps hotels analyze and respond to guest feedback. Travel companies that ignore the negative feedback suffer a measurable decline in booking.

At the same time, a lot of the gripes miss the mark — badly. Here are a few phrases that automatically send your email to the recycler:

• "I demand a free first-class ticket anywhere your airline flies." I searched my complaint file for this phrase and found thousands of cases that referenced this particular request for a free first-class ticket. It's such a complaint cliche that I'm convinced customer service agents are trained to ignore it. I have the denial letters as proof.

• "I'm telling everyone how terrible you are!" Threats to "take my case to Twitter" or "get the media involved" are also so overused that they induce a reflexive eye roll for the average travel industry employee. Part of the problem: It's often impossible to please these angry customers, short of refunding their entire vacation.

• "If you don't do what I want, I'll sue." This one's even worse than taking a gripe to the media. How many travelers actually take a travel company to court? Only a few. Complaints of this nature are not ignored. Instead, they're forwarded to the legal department — which ignores them.

• "Don't you know the customer is always right." That's a common sentiment among summer vacationers, who tend to travel infrequently. Their expectations-meter is set somewhere in 1975, when the American travel industry — particularly the airline industry — was a standards-setter in the customer service department. When the service isn't perfect, they make outrageous demands. Or they complain about waterfalls.

What do you say, instead? That's easy. File your complaint in writing, if possible. Keep it brief, unemotional and polite. Write in complete and grammatically correct sentences. Above all, make sure your expectations are reasonable. No, your tour guide can't control the mists of Niagara Falls, any more than your airline or hotel can control the weather.

If you ask for the moon, your complaint will just find its way into the bulging digital trash can on a company server. You can do better.

Secrets for a more effective complaint

• Cite the rules, chapter and verse. If you have a strong case for compensation or a refund, it'll be in the contract. For example, airlines have a contract of carriage — the legal agreement between you and the airline — the outline of what they'll do in case of a delay or a denied boarding situation. Cite the contract if it's relevant.

• Lawyer up — without lawyering up. Without threatening to go to court, let the company know that it may be violating the law (if, indeed, it is). For example, your hotel is regulated by state lodging laws, which determine an innkeeper's liability for your personal property. Gently indicate that you know you have legal rights. That's often enough to secure a quick resolution.

• Appeal to a company's customer service culture. Travel companies frequently promote warranties, customer promises or mission statements that claim to put you first. A quick reference to these documents can be enough to persuade an airline, car rental company, hotel or cruise line to do the right thing.

Christopher Elliott is a consumer advocate and editor at large for National Geographic Traveler. Contact him at chris@elliott.org or visit elliott.org.

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