Trouble at the check-in desk
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Complaints are sent to the proverbial circular file almost immediately when they’re not legitimate, and that’s almost certainly where yours will end up if it's not for real.
By Christopher Elliott Travel columnist
msnbc.com contributor
updated 9/15/2008 9:55:12 AM ET 2008-09-15T13:55:12

It isn’t your imagination. Your travel company is giving you the cold shoulder.

As the number of travel complaints takes off — airline gripes jumped nearly 60 percent to 13,168 complaints in 2007 from a year before, for example — companies aren’t necessarily scrambling to add more customer service agents.

On the contrary, many have either reduced their staff, automated the process or outsourced it to a foreign call center in a misguided effort to cut costs. It’s happening everywhere: at large travel agencies, hotels, car rental companies and cruise lines.

The departments dedicated to answering customer complaints are not only being asked to do more with less, thanks to strict new policies imposed by corporate beancounters, they’re less inclined to do more. Which is probably why your complaint is likelier than ever to be met with a form letter, a delay — or even ignored.

But that may not be the only reason. A lot of travelers are complaint-impaired. No two ways about it: their phone calls are irrational and their letters are ineffective.

I know because I read complaint letters. Lots of them. As National Geographic Traveler’s reader advocate and this site’s Travel Troubleshooter, I review a bundle of complaint letters every day. And just like a customer service department, I have to sort through them.

Video: Airlines cutting back flights Seems lately I’ve been sending out a lot of form responses. You know, the ones that say, “Thank you for your note. Let me review your complaint, and it if it’s something I can help with, I’ll be in touch.” (Or I might not be in touch.) I hate having to say “no” in such an oblique way, but a straight rejection often provokes a response so unbelievable hostile that I wish I’d never gone to journalism school.

Trust me, it’s better this way.

Here are the eight biggest mistakes made by travelers when they complain. Avoid these errors and you’ll probably get a prompt answer — if not a resolution — from your travel company.

Having a frivolous grievance
So the hot water in your hotel room ran lukewarm? Sorry, but you’re not entitled to a free week in a suite. Did a flight attendant get a little short with you on your last trip? Your request for a first-class seat anywhere the airline flies is unlikely to be met. Complaints are sent to the proverbial circular file almost immediately when they’re not legitimate, and that’s almost certainly where yours will end up. How do you determine if your complaint is for real? I recommend checking out the company’s terms and conditions (for example, the airline’s contract of carriage or the cruise line’s cruise contract, both of which are available from the company’s Web site). If your problem is addressed there, it’s probably the real deal. For the rest, use common sense.

Calling instead of writing
Even though a phone offers an instant way of communicating with a travel company, you shouldn’t expect too much from it. A representative may or may not respond to your oral request (in my experience, usually not) and since phone calls disappear into the digital ether once you hang up, there’s no surefire way of holding a company to its word. Besides, how can you be certain they understood a word you said? Unfortunately, more travelers are running into a formidable language barrier when dealing with overseas call centers. The agents often don’t get it. I’ve lost count of the number of times I get emails from disgruntled passengers who say they’ve spent “hours” on the phone and have gotten nowhere. But when they put their complaint in writing and send an email to the company, the case is often solved quickly. Note: for some odd reason, Southwest Airlines still prefers real paper letters. It’s not the greenest practice, but the airline is typically very responsive.

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Making a laundry list
Let’s face it, a long list of complaints makes you look like a whiner. And no one takes a whiner seriously. Laundry lists are most common to cruise passengers. The air conditioning in my berth didn’t work right, we didn’t get the dinner seating we wanted, our shore excursion left without us — and we want a full refund. No can do. I usually stop reading after the third bullet point and send my form letter. I’m not sure if the customer service agents even get that far. Did I mention no one likes a whiner?

Wasting their time
Couldn’t get an aisle seat on your flight because the airline had to change planes? Did you specify a beach view room but only saw part of the shore? These time-wasting complaints automatically are met with form letters. Believe me, I’ve seen the form letters.

Writing long
For some reason, lots of travelers want to compose the great American novel when they complain. Who knows why? The essentials of a long — and likely to be ignored – letter include the following: first, it must be incomprehensibly verbose. I’ve read letters that run more than eight pages, single-spaced. Instead of clear, simple language they use big, empty words. Another telltale sign of a long and ineffective letter is a timeline. “Saturday morning, 9 a.m., tried to board flight; Saturday late morning, 11:45 a.m., flight delayed; Saturday afternoon, 2 p.m. flight FINALLY boarded.” No one needs this information. In fact, these specifics probably are standing between you and the compensation you deserve. Why? Because customer service agents will take a quick look at it and then send — you guess it — a form response. Save the details for court.

Not offering a solution
Most travelers with a solid case to a fine job of explaining their problems. But not everyone offers a solution. This makes the travel company’s job exceptionally difficult. Now their customer service agents must guess what it would take to make you happy. Is a letter of apology enough? A voucher? A couple of thousand frequent flier miles? Or are we talking real money? Here’s the problem: The customer service agent will almost always err on the low side, offering a highly restricted certificate instead of a refund, or just sending you a cleverly-worded apology and hoping it will be enough. It hardly ever is.

Being impolite
I shouldn’t have to tell you that yelling on the phone or online by typing in ALL UPPERCASE is a terrible idea. You will get hung up on. Your letter will be taken to the dumpster. Remember, the customer-service department is staffed with real people. How would you feel if you got an email that said: “This is the WORST HOTEL IN THE WORLD and you should all be ashamed of yourself.” Doesn’t make you want to do something nice for that person, does it?

Threatening
If you’ve ever wanted to end a complaint letter — or phone call, for that matter — with the words “I’LL NEVER FLY YOUR AIRLINE AGAIN!” or “I’LL SEE YOU IN COURT!” then let me offer a little advice. Don’t. Threats won’t just guarantee your failure. You could also end up on a company’s blacklist (oh yes, they have them) or if your threat is serious enough  — say, you threaten the president of the company with bodily harm — then you find yourself on the wrong side of the law. Interestingly, when I see one of these letters in my “in” box, it’s attached to a note sheepishly asking me why the traveler hasn’t heard anything from the airline or hotel. Hmm, let’s see. Maybe it’s because you threatened to boycott the airline.

I was tempted to include a few real-world examples of travelers saying things that guaranteed their complaints would be ignored. But no. I’m not here to embarrass anyone. As long as you remember to complain only when you have a good reason, put it in writing, tell them what you want and mind your manners, you’ll get what you deserve.

And what if you don’t? Drop me a line. That’s why I’m here.

Every Monday, my column takes a close look at what makes the travel business tick. Your comments are always welcome, and if you can’t get enough of my column, drop by my blog for daily insights into the world of travel.

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