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Quality of service, not price, is often what makes a trip memorable or disastrous, Tripso columnist Joel Widzer writes.
By Joel Widzer Travel columnist
updated 12/14/2006 11:13:24 PM ET 2006-12-15T04:13:24

The world is not wanting for world-class museums, historical churches or breathtaking views. Nor is it lacking in companies providing planes, trains or automobiles. What the discerning traveler does not find often enough are travel providers offering high-quality service.

To my mind, travel is service. Wherever I travel, the quality of service I receive is what makes a trip memorable or a disaster. Price is not the issue. I believe service should be excellent whether you are staying at an ultradeluxe Four Seasons Hotel or a value-orientated Hilton Garden Inn. In fact, I have stayed at the crème de la crème of hotels whose service was terrible and at value hotels whose service far exceeded expectations.

It is important to differentiate between true service-oriented travel providers and those whose commitment to service is only a facade. Let me use a few examples from recent hotel visits to demonstrate my point. With the exception of the hotel in Vietnam, none of the hoteliers knew I was a travel writer. Ironically, the Vietnam hotel is my example of poor service.

The Hotel de Paris in Monte Carlo is one of the pre-eminent hotels in the world, and my first visit there, in 2001, was an exceptional experience that has probably spoiled me. On a recent visit, however, a few hiccups occurred. Nothing serious, but a collection of small things like having to call twice to have my cell phone brought up from my car, and having to make more than one call to get ice and an international adaptor brought to my room. All in all, not a big deal. But when I checked out and mentioned that the service was not as great as it had been on my previous trip, the front desk clerk notified the general manager, who came to the desk, personally apologized and then took care of my bill. (Now this was way beyond the call of duty, as my daily rate was 520 euros per night!)

On another occasion, I was checking into the Hotel Palace in Barcelona when my colleague noticed that the rate was 15 euros higher than what he thought we had been quoted and that breakfast was not included in the rate as he had expected. As it turns out, my colleague was wrong on both counts, but come Monday morning, the manager approached us during breakfast to say that he had adjusted the rate and that breakfast would be included after all.

Now the Vietnam story. This one is instructive because it illustrates what I’ve found to be a common combination: gorgeous view, lousy service. When I was in Vietnam in October, I had the opportunity to visit Evason Hideaway & Six Senses Spa at Ana Mandara, a resort located on its own island — arguably one of the most picturesque settings in the world. But I found the staff to be unwelcoming, forgetful, slow and indifferent to its guests (I got not so much as an apology when the gift shop clerk gave my purchases to another guest). Of course, service often takes its cue from leadership, and this resort is run by an arrogant general manager who (among other things) failed to return phone calls when I inquired about a pair of shoes I had left in my room; he later answered my complaint that it had cost me $40 in phone charges to reach him with an abrupt “I can’t do anything about that.”

Don’t get me wrong. Quality service doesn’t mean you get a refund every time you have a bad experience. This past summer, I visited The Four Seasons Hotel Gresham Palace Budapest. I must have had a bad flight, because I got all upset over something silly like having to wait for a minute before the front desk picked up the phone. When I complained (and I had no right to), the hotel manager personally apologized and gave me his direct number should I need anything else from the hotel. Here I was whining, and yet the hotel showed me respect and demonstrated care for my experience. This hotel manager made his guest whole.

The Park Hyatt in Washington, D.C. takes an equally respectful and proactive approach toward customer service, placing complimentary bottles of Voss water in every guest room. Many hotels offer bottles of water, of course, but they typically come with a tag saying you can enjoy the water for a $15 extra charge! The Park Hyatt also offers two empty slots in the mini-bar for your own beverages. Nice touch. Another nice touch: When I called the operator to get the room service department, he did not transfer the call but instead promptly took my order himself.

Commitment to service is also expressed as a willingness to listen to the customer and change business practice. During a recent trip to Ethiopia, Green Land Tours led me through the many wonders of northern Ethiopia. On the last day of my trip, I spoke to the owner of this tour company and told him that his buses were not up to par and that I couldn’t recommend the company to other travelers because of it. Well, between the language barrier and my boorish attitude, we had a clashing of Titans (mind you, the buses weren’t awful; I’m just a tough critic). Later that evening we cleared up our misunderstanding, as Dario, the owner, explained to me the difficulty of obtaining financing for tour buses and how they can cost more than $60,000. I apologized for my ignorance — and arrogance — and we made friends. The very next day, Dario sent an e-mail saying that despite the large investment, his company was expanding its bus fleet to better serve its customers. Hearing the customers and acting on their feedback is the highest proof that a company cares about you.

Finding hotels with good service can be tricky. You can’t rely on the ratings of peer-to-peer sites such as TripAdvisor, especially if you have high standards for service. Instead, I recommend that you call the hotel yourself and get an idea of how they treat their guests by asking questions about the property. You might also ask how long the manager has been there. A new manager does not necessarily signify trouble, but if someone new is on board, you might ask what happened to the last manager. Finally, go with well established hotel groups. The Hiltons and Four Seasons of the hotel world work hard to keep their brands up.

Travel is service. When you come across a travel provider that offers value and quality service, you are certainly in for a good ride.

Joel Widzer is an expert on loyalty and frequent flier programs. He is the author of "The Penny Pincher's Passport to Luxury Travel," a guidebook on traveling in high style at budget-friendly prices. E-mail him or visit his Web site.

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