How to Complain Effectively

Get Upgraded, Not Degraded

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Your room doesn't look a thing like it did on the hotel's website. It's more like a broom closet than an elegant suite. You've booked two expensive business class seats for your 10th anniversary trip and neither one reclines.  "We're very sorry, there are no other seats available," you are told firmly and finally.  Do you just sit there and take it?

No way, says Suzanne Fletcher, President and CEO of the National Business Travel Association. "First take a deep breath," Fletcher advises.

"Remember the old 'count to ten' trick from elementary school? It works. Taking a moment to compose yourself will help you remember that this one trip is not the single most important thing in the world. And that will allow you to approach a discussion more calmly and politely."

Then what?

1. When you need to complain, do so as soon as possible. It's best to get the situation rectified on the spot, if possible, rather than having to complain after the fact. 

2. Be calm and polite, direct and firm. Like you, airline, hotel, and car rental employees face myriad challenges every day. If you approach them politely and explain your frustration clearly, they are much more likely to be inclined to help you.

3. Understand that airline rules are complicated. Experts often tell travelers to "know the rules" before complaining, but for many airline passengers following that advice would mean never complaining. Your best bet is to know the restrictions associated with your ticket to the extent possible (for example, is it a refundable ticket?), and beyond that to realize that the airline may or may not be required to rectify the situation you face.

4. If you're getting nowhere, talk to someone else. Sometimes talking to the right person can make all the difference. If you're not making any progress, get back in line and speak with a different agent, or ask to speak with a manager or station manager.

5. Use your cell phone. The time you spend waiting in a long line of people can double as time on-hold at the call center. You may get through on the phone before you get the front of the physical line.

6. Know what you are complaining about and what you want. It sounds simple, but sometimes people get so frustrated they don't clearly explain the problem or what they hope to accomplish by complaining. Starting your conversation with those points will give you a better chance of success.

7. Respect security personnel and know current security standards. Showing frustration with security screeners will not help you get to your destination any faster, nor is it likely to change operations at the checkpoint. The best things you can do to help make their jobs easier and your security experience smoother is to know and follow current screening rules, and give yourself plenty of time to get through the line.

8. Your travel department or travel agency is your lifeline. When the hotel doesn't have the room you reserved; the rental car is the wrong size vehicle; or your flight is cancelled, and the line at the airline counter is so long after that you know you'll never get on the next one -- your travel agency can often help you. Carry the phone number with you and, if there is one, the after-hours number for help in these difficult situations.

Finally, Sam Haigh, President and CEO of Benchmark Hospitality International advises travelers to "always follow up in writing -- even if the issue was solved to your satisfaction."

"This gives the property or airline additional input upon which to follow up with you. Hotels and airlines pay a lot of attention to written comments, good and bad.  Include names and other specifics."