Travel complaints that fail

 By Christopher Elliott Travel columnist contributor

What kind of a complainer are you?

Maybe you’re the squeaky wheel — the guest who keeps writing back over and over, even after you’ve been told “no” in a dozen different ways. Or maybe your grievances fall into the “special circumstances” category — you’re sick, you’re broke, you’re having a bad year.

Perhaps you’re a name-dropper, copying a vice president or CEO on every customer service inquiry to ensure it receives the proper attention.

You could be the litigious type: “Give me what I want, or I’ll sue.”

At the right time, these are all perfectly reasonably ways to complain to a travel company. At the wrong time, they can doom your customer service request to failure at the hands of a dreaded form response.

A few weeks ago, I was invited to speak at the Society of Consumer Affairs Professionals’ annual conference in Atlanta. After my speech, I witnessed a surprisingly lively and candid discussion among the participants, all of which were customer service managers in the travel industry. The topic? How to value your customer. Specifically, how do you prioritize requests from customers based on their elite status?

During our debate, the audience referred to the kinds of complaints they get, and much to my surprise, I found I had categorized them in a similar way. You need to know about these groupings, because being in one or another can make a big difference in how your grievance is handled.

The squeaky wheel
These gripes are easy to identify because the correspondence runs on for pages and pages. Also, look for phrases like, “This is my fifth attempt to contact you,” or “I called you a dozen times yesterday.” Squeaky-wheel queries usually have no more merit than garden-variety inquiries, except that they are repeated endlessly until the aggrieved party gets its way. (“I don’t know what to do about the squeaky wheel,” a manager for a cruise line confided. “Except maybe to give them what they want.” Neither do I.)

This is an effective tactic — if you’re two years old. Adults should try the squeaky wheel strategy only if they plan to never ever do business with the company again. Why? Because this infraction will go on their record, and believe me, companies keep track of difficult customers. You will pay for it down the line.

The special circumstances
Every traveler’s circumstances are unique, maybe even special. But there are a few words that really hurt your chances when you’re filing a grievance. “We are seniors on a fixed income,” probably tops the list. Not to be insensitive, but in a way, everyone is on a fixed income, and if you don’t have the money, you shouldn’t be spending it — at least that’s the view of the travel company you’re complaining to. “I’m an elite-level customer” is another. Also popular: A relative got sick or died, I lost my job, I got a new job, my son’s soccer team made it to the finals — you get the idea.

Look, these are all perfectly valid excuses, unless you’re holding a nonrefundable ticket or room reservation. If you can’t afford to lose those, consider insurance or book a room that can be refunded. Travel companies don’t want to hear about you as much as they are concerned about your experience. If you had a bad flight or hotel stay, they want to know. Are you retired? Did you just have a death in the family? Not so much.

The name-dropper
Sometimes, in order to underscore the seriousness of their complaint, a traveler will copy everyone in the world on a grievance: The VP of customer service, the CEO, the CFO, the Better Business Bureau, the cleaning lady and even yours truly. Also, they’ll mention that their uncle happens to know the company’s president. Well, big deal. Carpet-bombing, as it’s frequently called — particularly on the first run — actually hurts your chances of getting a successful resolution.

Instead of making you out to be a serious customer, it paints you as a crybaby. Instead of turning up the volume on your first try, give the system some time to work. Then, appeal to the powers that be. The string of e-mails in the “cc:” field isn’t making you look good.

The laundry list
A careful inventory of every single problem on a trip confuses folks in the customer-service department. I see a lot of these on cruises. “We didn’t get the 8 p.m. dinner seating we requested.” Then, “Our shore excursion was canceled because of bad weather.” And then, “We missed a port of call,” or “We heard engine noise in our room.” Save it for the next dinner party. Why don’t laundry lists work? Because it makes you look petty, and it makes it difficult for a customer-service professional to identify an issue they can effectively address in a response. You’re better off sticking to one problem and then telling the company what it can do to fix it. But long lists almost never further your cause. If anything, they could set you back.

The break-up
This complaint comes in two flavors: The one that ends with “I’ll never do business with your company again,” and the one that concludes with “If you don’t do exactly what I want, I’ll sue you.” Both are to be avoided. If you tell a company you’ll never do business with it again, then why should it even bother responding? If you threaten to sue, your letter will get forwarded to the legal department, where it could languish for months before being answered. (By the way, you don’t have to use the “s” word to be threatening. Someone just copied me on an e-mail to an airline that promised, “I will use every tool necessary, including Facebook and YouTube, to make sure that everyone knows that you lose people’s luggage.”)

Break-ups — real and imagined — are almost always completely unnecessary. Instead, tell the company how disappointed you are, and that you’re looking for a reason to do business with it again. Turning a negative into a positive gives the airline or hotel the incentive to make things right. Threatening it doesn’t.

Of course, there are times when you’ll want to employ some of these tactics, which is a topic for another column. But until then, my advice is to stay away from threats, name-dropping, lengthy complaints and sob stories. And don’t be annoying.

These grievances almost always hurt you more than they help. Take it from someone who spends all day reading complaints.

Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine. You can read more travel tips on his blog, or e-mail him at

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