We all mess up sometimes. The world traveler may forget his ticket, and even a five-star hotel can lose your reservation. When mishaps happen, the best travel providers will often go out of their way to make amends. After all, their reputations are at stake. The circumstances of the mishap and the way you present your case will determine what happens next. With patience and courtesy, a knowledgeable traveler can sometimes turn misfortune to advantage.
Quality travel companies strive to maintain a credible reputation for providing exceptional service.
An unhappy customer is the last thing they want at their door. Every mistake and mix-up, then, gives rise to two opportunities: one for the company, to uphold its reputation, the other for the customer, to achieve a fair resolution. Here is some advice for striking a balance -- and getting a good deal.
Take responsibility.
First things first: Responsibility for the quality of your travels starts with you. Know what to expect from your airline, hotel, cruise line, tour operator or rental-car company, and you won't be caught in a lot of misunderstandings. You'll also learn where the benefits and perks lie.
Over the years, I have gotten to know my preferred travel providers quite well. For example, I have studied the routes that Delta Air Lines flies out of my home airport, Orange County; I've learned what planes are used on each route; I know which flights arrive and depart on time; and I know which flights offer the best opportunities for an upgrade. Yes, I've had to read a lot of fine print. But taking responsibility means I get to fly in first class for free.
Taking responsibility also means not taking advantage of your travel providers. Fox News Channel recently ran a story about a man who suffered a heart attack while reviewing his bill in a restaurant. The problem is that this was the 18th time this man happened to have a heart attack after a meal at this same restaurant. The restaurant decided not to take it anymore, and the man got free meals for the next 90 days in jail.
Attitude counts.
In an earlier article ("Good Views = Lousy Service?"), I wrote about poor service at two hotels in coastal Orange County. Their respective responses speak volumes about their dedication to quality service.
When the owner of the Montage Resort & Spa read my article, he immediately dispatched an e-mail to his general manager to find out what went wrong. The general manager contacted me and expressed sincere concern, asking me how the hotel could improve and prevent future lapses of quality service. Prompt action, solicitude and a willingness to change are sure signs that goodwill really matters to a travel provider. You just have to follow their lead.
Conversely, when my friend Claudia gave my article to the manager of the Ritz-Carlton, Laguna Niguel, he retorted that he knows the hotel has good service because guests tell him so. When she told him I'd received a number of e-mails from readers concurring with my assessment, he demanded that I send him some proof. Arrogance is a sure sign that a travel provider lacks consistent quality. The best providers offer top quality to every customer, whether it's a mega-superstar or an average traveler like you and me. There is little you can do with a provider like this, except take your business elsewhere.
Ask and you might receive.
Recently, my 16-year-old daughter was traveling from school in upstate New York to see her mom in Dallas. I had mistakenly booked her on an itinerary with a three-and-a-half-hour layover in Atlanta. Concerned that she would be alone on a Friday night in a busy airport, I called the Delta Crown Room in Atlanta two hours before her flight to ask if I could purchase a one-day pass so she would have a safe place to wait for her next flight. It was probably too late to contact her, so I had little hope of success. But I thought I'd ask.
Luckily, I spoke with a Delta employee who was willing to make a champion effort. She made the arrangements in Atlanta, relayed the information to Syracuse, made sure my daughter got the message -- she even waived the $50 fee for the one-day pass. All the while, she was extremely sympathetic and helpful.
My friend Lance got in a similar jam. After bragging about the low fare he had gotten just one day before a trip to Washington, D.C., he took a second look at his ticket and discovered that he had actually booked a flight three weeks hence. (I have done the same thing with hotel reservations.) Lance called the airline, explained his mistake, and got a full refund. It turns out most quality airlines and travel providers (including a few third-party Web-based providers) will refund your purchase if your plans change within 24 hours of booking.
Extra effort and consideration are signs of real quality, and customers should reward such companies with their continued patronage.
Seek fair compensation.
When you have a legitimate complaint, state your dissatisfaction clearly and succinctly to the appropriate person. If your room service is a half-hour late, call the manager of room service not the hotel's general manager. If your first effort fails, take it to the next level. But before you lodge any grievance, think about what would be fair compensation. If your soup is cold, it would be silly to expect a free week in the hotel's presidential suite.
It often pays to let the travel provider suggest appropriate amends. My friend Carol and her two young daughters sat sweltering on a hot runway for two hours when their plane experienced mechanical difficulties. When they finally returned to the gate, Carol voiced her disappointment, noting that the flight attendants had not even offered the girls water in the heat of the plane. The agent promptly provided her with vouchers for dinner and placed her on a competitor's flight in first class -- much more than Carol had expected.
Finally, here are four quick pointers for getting the service you deserve.
Be polite. Very often, the customer-contact people are doing their best, and some things are simply beyond their control. Try to work with them patiently and politely to resolve your difficulty.
Don't take no for an answer. My friend Susan was stranded in the blackout on the East Coast in August 2003. She stood in line for three hours before getting to a gate agent, who then said, "Sorry, all flights are full." Undeterred, Susan (politely) asked to be put on a waiting list. The ticket agent said it would not make a difference, but she agreed to do it anyway. And Susan did get on a flight.
Use your leverage. If you are a frequent flier or a privileged customer of a traveler provider, use your status to your advantage when asking for a favor or amends. I'm sure my 2 million frequent-flier miles with Delta helped get my daughter that pass for the Crown Room in Atlanta.
Don't waste your time with someone who won't help or doesn't care.
Complacency, like arrogance, is almost impossible to deal with. I'd rather spend my money with a company that values its customers.
As a consumer on a quest for first-class travel, you have the right to expect and receive nothing less than the best. If a travel company fails to meet high standards, inform the appropriate official in a professional and caring manner. This may not always get you what you want, but it ensures that you keep up your own high standards, which is half the battle.

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