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How to complain about your airline or hotel service - and get results
In my years of traveling I've ran into all kinds of horrible service - from 2 off-duty pilots fighting in the first class cabin, to a hotel room with water dripping down from the ceiling onto the bed.
Some complaints are minor, some are major, and some are just not warranted, but no matter how serious your complaint is, there are 2 ways to deal with the issue - the right way, and the wrong way.
In this article, I'm going to gather some of the best tips on how to get results when you complain, and what to do when you don't get the results you desire.
Know when to complain (and when not)
Some complaints are best kept till you get home, others are best dealt with immediately. If you are in your hotel room, and something is wrong, don't wait to complain. Call the front desk right away, and make sure someone with hotel management knows about the problem. If your coffee maker does not work, and you send a letter 2 weeks later, there is little the hotel can do about the problem, and they'll let you know that they would have been perfectly willing to help you out when you actually wanted that cup of coffee.
Another situation when you need to immediately escalate things, is when you are not getting what you paid for at the airport. If you reserve a first class ticket, but you end up in coach due to overbooking, make sure someone is made aware of the situation, and demand that your record locator is updated with the downgrade. Knowing your rights at the airport is the best way to prevent the airline screwing with you, and unfortunately they will if they get the chance.
If your complaint involves something during a flight, quietly ask a flight attendant for their help - many problems can be resolved with some help from them, and if the issue can't be resolved, they'll usually be able to provide a way of reporting the incident to the airline. Don't just ignore the problem and complain about it weeks later - the airline usually prefers to have a written report from their own staff.
The "when not to complain" part refers to the fine line that exists between sending in a complaint, and becoming a chronic whiner. Remember, you would not be the first person told to never come back when you complain too often!
The complaint letter
One does not have to be an Oxford Scholar to produce an effective complaint letter, all it takes is adhering to some simple steps. First of all; never ever write your complaint letter when you are still fuming mad. Trust me, the best complaint letters are produced when you have calmed down and can think clearly.
When you start writing your letter, imagine you are the recipient. Would you really want to read 100 letters a day with people describing how long they have been flying your airline, and any number of other personal details?
Leave the personal details out of the letter, the airline does not care how loyal you have been to them in recent years.
An effective complaint letter is all about the details - the quicker the recipient understands the issue and what resolution you are expecting, the better.
Include only the details required for things actually related to the complaint. Details like payment method, dates, people you dealt with and room or flight numbers are important. The color of the bus that drove you to the hotel is not relevant, so leave that out.
Put yourself back in the shoes of the recipient - don't take a rude tone, don't call them names, don't call their airline or hotel "useless" and don't make nasty comments about their colleagues. In fact, in every complaint letter, it's nice to point out one or two things or people that exceeded your expectations. The most effective complaint letters get straight to the point, stay calm and polite, and make the reader understand your issues.
When you send a complaint letter, you are not writing it just to vent, you are letting the company know that they messed up, and that you'd like them to make it right.
Do not be scared to make a demand, but keep it fair. If you spent $100 on a hotel room, and the maid woke you at 5am, don't ask for $200. Airlines and hotels always prefer to compensate you with miles or discount coupons, simply because those have the least value to them, and they'll ensure you come back.
I've learned that asking an airline for 25,000 miles for a spoiled flight is often quite acceptable, and on international flights I've regularly asked for 50,000 miles for things like an inoperable entertainment system or if the airline runs out of food. The worst that can happen is that the airline says no.
Remember, miles = free trips. If the airline compensates you with 25,000, you've got yourself a free round trip ticket within the US, which is often worth about $400.
One big "do not do" when it comes to demands, is threatening legal action - if the customer support agent reads a letter that contains legal threats, they'll usually pass it on to the legal department of the airline. Those people don't determine whether or not to help you based on customer service, they base it upon the law. If they are in the clear, they'll tell you to get lost.
If your complaint yields an offer from the airline, don't be scared to decline it - a $50 coupon for a 3 day delay is not reasonable. Make sure your reply thanks them for the time they took to reply to you, but ensure they understand that you expect a reasonable compensation, not a token gift to make you go away.
They ignored me - what now?
If you have a legitimate complaint, and you find yourself unable to find anyone that cares, then it's time to take it to the next level. At this point you have several options, which all depend on the severity of how poorly your were treated and what steps you already took.
At the hotel
If the front desk is unwilling to help, ask for someone in management. If your issue is serious enough, do not accept excuses. Of course, it is quite possible that a manager is not immediately available, in that case provide your personal details, and request that you be contacted within a reasonable time frame. Always make notes of who you are talking to, and what promises are made.
If the hotel manager is unwilling to help, make sure you keep your notes, and contact someone with the hotel chain itself. This could be a district manager, or even someone in upper management.
At the airport
If your issue is at the airport, your best bet is to stay calm and ask to speak to a station manager. Given the size of the airport, it is perfectly possible that they won't be anywhere near you, so ask to talk to them on the phone. One important tip at the airport is to always stay calm. Never yell, never make threats and never ever lose your temper with a gate or ticketing agent. If the issue can't be resolved at the airport, leave it until you get home and contact the airline directly but make it clear that you did everything you could to resolve it at the airport.
At the security checkpoint
If your airport problem involves the TSA, then things get a little more complicated - each TSA checkpoint will have TSO's (transportation security officers), Master TSO's and a transportation security manager. If something went wrong, step aside, and politely request to speak to the manager. Remember, most TSA agents are there to help you, but if you become rude and obnoxious, you probably won't make your flight.
If the TSA manager is unable or unwilling to resolve your problem, ask for a complaint form, and have him write down his name. Also make sure you write down the exact time and date of the incident, in the event someone needs to pull some video material.
When all else fails...
When all else fails with airline related complaints, you have either run into incompetence, or your problem is simply not deemed important enough. Either way, if you feel you are not receiving the attention you deserve, then it may be time to contact the Department of Transportation Aviation Consumer Protection Division. The ACPD can be contacted by mail, or through an online complaint form. Airlines dislike these complaints, because each complaint shows up in the yearly statistics of the DOT.
Serious hotel problems are not protected by the Department of Transportation, so the best bet for getting results here will require some real creativity. The Consumerist.com created the term "Executive Email Carpet Bomb" or "EECB". This involves digging up as many corporate contacts you can, and emailing every single one of them.
With a little help from Google, and some elbow grease, you'll eventually you'll run into someone who wants your problem to go away. Of course, the whole thing is rather time consuming, but the results are often worth it.
Don't forget to harness the power of the Internet - some of the best complaint resolutions have come after someone sent their complaint to a consumer site. One of the most famous Internet complaints is from 2001 and is called "You have a very bad hotel", millions of people read that presentation and it caused some major changes within the hotel that mistreated them.
If all else fails, and your other attempts fail too, then your only option is to share your experiences with the world. Post your problems with the property or airline on one of the many review sites, and warn others of what happened to you.
Just remember, sometimes all the effort just isn't worth it, and the best complaint is the one you make with your wallet.