By Travel columnist
updated 6/7/2006 3:19:03 PM ET 2006-06-07T19:19:03

Have you ever had a business trip where everything — and I mean everything — went perfectly? Me neither. Yet while paging through a periodical that targets business travelers, I noticed that the people in the ads all appear to be on trips that couldn’t be more pleasant.

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What gives?

I fly with the same airline as the pictured passenger who is sitting next to an elegant seatmate while being tended by attractive and cheery flight attendants. I rent from the same rental car agency as the driver who is standing in the sun in his perfectly pressed suit next to his flawlessly detailed, shiny new vehicle. I stay in the same hotels as the guest who is shown checking in with the help of a smiling and eager desk clerk.

Well, none of this happens to me. My experiences are typically different — much different — than those depicted. Where are the crying kids I often find sharing my airplane? Where is the beater that I sometimes get stuck with at the rental car agency? Where is the apathetic clerk that I must cajole into letting me check in to the hotel? Where are the delays, the rain, the lines — the aggravation?

Having more than a few travel miles under my belt, I find these ads do not make me keen to pack up and get on the road. If anything, they make me feel that I’m being gypped: No elegant seatmate, no shiny new car, no eager desk clerk.

I understand that marketing is all about showing products and services in their best light, but by monkeying around with my expectations, aren’t these travel providers setting me up for disappointment? According to Dr. Anthony Pratkanis, they are doing just that, and they will pay the consequences.

Dr. Pratkanis, a psychology professor at the University of California at Santa Cruz and an expert in the field of persuasion, says, “Marketing travel services (any services for that matter) is a double-edged sword. In order to sell the service, you have to raise expectations. But if — and when — that service turns out not to meet those expectations, it is perceived as poorer than if the person hadn’t had his expectations raised in the first place.”

Moreover, the greater the difference between one’s high expectations and one’s perception of poor delivery, the greater the negative feeling associated with the provider of that service. For instance, departing 10 minutes late is one thing; having your flight canceled is another thing altogether. Being switched from a Ford to a Chevy is one thing; moving from a full-size sedan to a subcompact is also another thing altogether. Being assigned a hotel room in the east wing instead of the west wing is one thing; shuffled from a suite to a standard room … well, you get the idea.

Interestingly, these same differences between expectation and performance also provide companies with opportunities to make a better impression on their customers than they would have had they met those expectations in the first place.

As Dr. Pratkanis notes, “If a service provider acts to correct a problem that occurs as a function of a significant difference between what a traveler expected and what was provided, then the traveler’s sentiment about the company will become more positive. That is, if a traveler’s situation is improved in the face of rapidly falling expectations, he or she will feel pretty good about the provider.” Of course, the converse is also true: When you have the rug pulled out from under you as your expectations are rising, your opinion of the provider will sink dramatically.

But you needn’t wait passively to see if the travel provider will deliver the goods or mess up. Travel satisfaction is a two-way street. Here are five ways to avoid the disappointment of dashed expectations.

  • Be proactive. It can’t hurt to ask for an upgrade. The worst that can happen is that you don’t get one, and then you’re just back where you started. On the other hand, if you snag a better seat, a better car or a better room, you will find your spirits lifted and your travel experience improved.
  • Be prepared. Carry the toll-free reservation numbers of your airline, rental car company and hotel with you. If things start going awry, you may be able to find a customer service agent who can help you get back on track.
  • Be friendly. If you were in a position to improve the experience of a customer of your own, wouldn’t you favor a likable one over a bully? It doesn’t take a psychologist to tell you that politeness pays. Ask any kindergartner.
  • Be a member. Travel service providers put forth more effort to satisfy the customers who contribute the most to their revenues. Membership in each of your providers’ “frequent user” programs will identify you as one of those customers. And membership is usually free.
  • Be loyal. The more transactions you conduct with a particular travel provider, the more valuable you become to it. Consequently, the company will put more effort toward ensuring your satisfaction.

My general advice? If you want to return from a trip feeling good about the experience, go ahead and hope for the best … but expect the worst. Then put some effort into guaranteeing your own satisfaction. Next thing you know, the marketing folks will be taking a picture of your smiling face.

Terry Riley, based in Santa Cruz, Calif., is a corporate psychologist specializing in the management of travel behavior. Terry is the author of "Travel Can Be Murder" and "The Complete Travel Diet." He also edits Travel Fox, a satirical news report. E-mail Terry or visit his Web site.

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