I admit, I have an unfair advantage.
When I ask a travel company to reconsider its decision to deny a refund or impose a surcharge, my e-mail signature pretty much says it all: If you don't do the right thing, this might make an interesting story.
But you don't have to be a nationally syndicated columnist and ombudsman to persuade a travel company to see things your way. David Stein isn't. Continental Airlines wanted to charge his newborn daughter 10 percent of his fare plus a $160 fuel surcharge for a recent flight to Mexico, even though its website suggested the fuel surcharge didn't apply to lap children.
Stein wrote a brief, polite e-mail to Continental. Rejected. Then he appealed to Anne Munoz, the head of Continental's customer service department. Two days later, an airline representative called Stein. "She agreed that the policy featured on their website was confusing and inconsistent," he said.
Continental refunded the fuel surcharge.
How do you persuade a travel company to come around to your way of thinking? Here are six suggestions.
1. Mind Your Ps and Qs
No one likes a rude and demanding customer. But a short, tactful e-mail is often all it takes to shake something loose. Consider Ryan Einfeldt's problem with AirTran Airways. He had booked a ticket to New Orleans to attend a wedding when Hurricane Gustav hit. The wedding was postponed, but when he phoned the airline to cancel his flight, he was told he'd have to pay a $75 change fee. I suggested that he ask again -- this time in writing -- and to remember to be nice about it. He did, noting in his e-mail that he had "enjoyed my past experiences with AirTran, and hope to be able to continue to do so." It worked. "Due to your extenuating circumstances, I have waived the $75 cancellation fee that you incurred," an AirTran representative replied.
2. Use Reason
Sometimes, logic really works. It did for Teresa Castleberry, who was flying from Albany, N.Y., to St. Thomas on US Airways recently. Her flight was canceled because of "crew availability" problems. The airline offered her a later flight, but she would have missed two days of her vacation. So she rented a car and drove to Philadelphia, where she caught a flight to the Virgin Islands. She wrote to the airline, asking for compensation. Denied. I recommended she send a concise, well-reasoned e-mail to US Airways, asking it to reconsider. Bingo! A customer service representative phoned Castleberry, offering a refund of the unused portion of her ticket, for a total of $266. "I do believe that is reasonable compensation," she told me. I do, too.
3. Cite Their Own Policies
This is effective not only when the rules favor you, but also when they don't. What do I mean? Well, referring to an online agency's service "guarantee" when you aren't getting any service, for example, is a no-brainer. But citing a travel company's policy when you're obviously wrong -- that's brilliant. Which is exactly what Heidi Houseman did when Northwest Airlines refused to refund her parents' airline tickets and frequent flier miles after her father developed the intestinal flu and had to cancel his trip. "They were packed and ready to go, and they got up at 3am and -- boom!" she remembers. Northwest Airlines was well within its rights to keep the spent miles and her parents' money. I told Houseman that she needed to make sure she told Northwest that she was aware of the airline's no-refunds policy. So she did. Eventually, she appealed to a manager at Northwest, who decided to make an exception for the elderly couple. It refunded the tickets and miles.
4. Remind Them of the Law
Citing state or federal law in a complaint can persuade even the most difficult travel company to come around to your way of thinking. If you're staying at a hotel, there are a number of state lodging laws that probably apply to your visit. Airlines have a contract of carriage, and cruise lines have a cruise contract. When Doug Marshak tried to fly from Duluth, Minn., to Dayton, Ohio, on Midwest Airlines last year, he was denied boarding because there were too few employees working at the ticket counter, and he missed his plane. He had to fly the next day, and was offered no compensation. I told Marshak to write a quick e-mail to Midwest, mentioning its contract of carriage, which has provisions for passengers who are delayed because of operational problems. "Midwest called to offer a whole-hearted apology and gave me some travel vouchers," he reported.
5. Appeal to a Higher Power
It's always a good idea to start any complaint with a succinct, rational letter to the company's customer service department. But if you get a "no," take it to the next level. That's what Naomi Shapiro did when she was denied mileage credit for a trip to Ecuador. She wrote to a customer-service manager at Delta Air Lines, asking for another review of her case. Delta did, and solved her problem by depositing some frequent flier miles into her account. If I didn't know any better, I would say that customer service departments default to "no" when they're asked for something. Maybe that's why all of the examples in this column were solved only after an appeal to a manager.
6. Copy All the Right People
To underscore that you mean business, do what Sue Wilson did when she had trouble with an unexpected fee on an airline ticket she booked through Travelocity. She copied everyone from Travelocity's executives to yours truly on the letter, and that got their attention. Travelocity contacted her airline on her behalf, which refunded the surprise fee. But there are others who must be copied, too. Don't leave out the federal and state regulators who oversee the companies. When an airline sees the Transportation Department on the "cc:" list or a car rental agency notices your state attorney general's e-mail in the address field, they are far likelier to give your complaint a little extra attention.
Given my confession at the beginning of this column, you're probably wondering: How do I solve my own travel problems? When something goes wrong, do I write an indignant missive to the company with my full e-mail signature?
Actually, no. I prefer to go through the front door and I never, ever, tell them what I do for a living. I'd rather resolve my dispute quietly, through normal channels.
Incidentally, I apply the same philosophy to my work as the Travel Troubleshooter. If there's a possibility that a dispute can be addressed through the customer-service department without my intervention, that's the way to go.
I believe that given the choice, travel companies would rather do the right thing. Sometimes, they just need a little nudge.
Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine and the host of "What You Get For The Money: Vacations" on the Fine Living Network. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
(c) 2008 Christopher Elliott Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.