By Anita Dunham-Potter Travel columnist
updated 7/2/2007 8:23:41 PM ET 2007-07-03T00:23:41

You've just returned home from a disappointing experience on your cruise vacation. Maybe the soup was cold or your hall mates were rowdy. Maybe bad weather knocked out your favorite port call. You tried to solve the problem on the ship, but you didn't get anywhere. What do you do now?

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You put your complaint in writing, that's what.

A letter can go a long way in voicing your dissatisfaction with your cruise. A letter makes your complaint official and pretty much requires a response from the cruise line. It's your best shot at resolution, so you need to make a good case. Here's how to do it.

Get organized
The first key to achieving satisfactory results is getting organized. Here are some key points:

  • Calm down. For many people, this is the hard part. But if you don't put anger and disappointment aside, you will just end up ranting or whining — and that won't get you anywhere.
  • Make notes. Write down exactly what happened ("Just the facts, Ma'am."). Include a record of each attempt to remedy the situation, along with the names and positions of those you have dealt with, if you know them.
  • Gather documents. Copy any receipts, incident reports, photographs, witness statements or other documents that explain and support your case. Never send original documents, only photocopies.
  • Put away the poison pen. You have to strike the right tone. You don't have to suck up, but you mustn't indulge in name-calling and derogatory commentary. You're trying to resolve a problem, not start a new one. The correct tone conveys respect for the company and an expectation that the matter can be resolved.

Keep it simple
Alan Wilson, editor and publisher of Cruise News Daily, says it's important to keep the letter brief, clear and concise. "Don't go into a whole laundry list of issues," he counsels. "Highlight the one or two main issues but don't write a 12-page letter of every issue you may have."

Here are some composition helpers:

  • Type your letter.
  • Give your reservation number.
  • Keep the narrative of events in chronological order, but explain all the details.
  • Specify how you would like the issue resolved; offer solutions.
  • At the end, give a brief summary and a cordial sign off.

When you finish the letter, sleep on it and then reread it in the morning. Better yet, have someone else read it.

Most importantly, don't be belligerent.

"Don't even hint at threatening legal action or adverse publicity," Wilson says. "If you do, the cruise line will be a lot less willing to help you and more interested in giving you exactly what you deserve under the cruise contract — which usually is nothing."

To whom it may concern
Some people don't agree with me, but I firmly believe you should address serious complaint letters to people as high in the chain of command as possible. Why? Because if the letter is very important to you, it should be important to the company's management, too. Cruise lines are in a service business, and their executives sometimes need to be reminded that their business rises and falls with customer satisfaction. So, never address your letter to the anonymous "Customer Service Department." Instead, direct it to the manager of customer relations, director, vice president — or even to the president of the cruise line. I am not deluded. I don't think every letter is being read by the big cheeses, but on more than one occasion, I have been pleasantly surprised.

Resolution takes time
Don't expect an immediate reply to your letter. The average response time is between 30 and 60 days (shocking, but true).

"They don't just sit down and write a reply," Wilson explains. "They research what you've told them and usually wait to reply until they know that some action has taken place on what you've reported."

But what if you've calmed down, gotten organized, written a good letter, waited patiently and still aren't getting anywhere?

Sadly, it's often only dogged persistence or the timely threat of legal action that finally yields results — or public exposure in online columns such as this one. Thanks to the Internet, there is now a great deal of help for customers wishing to take a stand against a company. Recently, I helped Carol and Arnie Rudoff, a couple from Arizona, settle an issue with Princess Cruises after they had gotten nowhere for five months. It took third-party intervention, but in the end, Princess did the right thing.

So, if you aren't getting anywhere with your cruise complaint, e-mail me. I'll do my best to find out why you aren't getting the response you deserve.

Helpful links
Travel Cheat Sheets, Christopher Elliott's Web site has addresses and e-mail listings for major travel companies.

Microsoft Word travel complaint templates are a great resource for helping you compose a professional letter. (MSNBC.com is a joint venture of Microsoft and NBC Universal News.)

Sound off! Do you have a comment, an idea, a complaint or a problem for Anita to solve? Send her an e-mail and you might find yourself in her next column.

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