Image: American Airlines, customer service
Paul  /  AP file
Customer service with a real smile? Just a few months ago, customers were widely regarded as walking dollar bills, but now they are just grateful to have them at the counter.
By Christopher Elliott Travel columnist contributor
updated 11/3/2008 9:58:26 AM ET 2008-11-03T14:58:26

It took a couple of airline bankruptcies, a summer of staycations, a serious recession and the near-collapse of the world economy, but by golly, travelers are feeling loved right now.

Turn back the clock just a year and you’ll find a dramatically different picture. Travelers were unappreciated — even exploited — by unscrupulous travel companies that were flush with profits.

No longer. With just one notable exception, it’s difficult to find any part of the travel industry that isn’t being extra-nice to its customers. Which industry? Like you have to ask. (Hint: stay away from the airport.)

But even there, amid the fraudulent “à la carte” pricing schemes and gross neglect of non-elite passengers there are signs that customer service is back in vogue.

Mary Hooper, a retiree from Bakersville, N.C., who remembers flying the friendly, pre-deregulation skies in style, has seen small signs of a return to the good old days. On a recent Virgin Atlantic flight, she found herself in a surprisingly comfortable premium economy seat, surrounded by pleasant, accommodating crewmembers.

“Now I have a big reason to fly again,” she told me.

If there’s a silver lining on this cloud of economic uncertainty, it’s that travel hasn’t been this affordable in years, as I predicted a few months ago. As a bonus, the travel industry is rolling out the red carpet. Excluding most airlines, it’s almost as if we’ve turned the clock back 50 years in the customer service department.

Unbeatable bargains
Will Crockett, who works for a university in Waco, Texas, had a tall order for his recent New York weekend getaway. He wanted a hotel in midtown near a subway stop for less than $150 a night at the last minute. So he clicked on with just two weeks to go before his trip. “I knew I was taking my chances,” he says. He scored a room at the Wellington Hotel — “clean place, outstanding service,” he says. Thanks to the recent Wall Street meltdown, a lot of hotels with high service standards are having fire sales. You can find these deals on sites like Priceline and Hotwire. Travelers are routinely finding discounts of 40 to 50 percent off the published room rate. Plan your visit to New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco now.

Upgrades without asking
Tom and Jennifer Leckstrom visited the Four Seasons Resort Nevis in the West Indies earlier this fall for their five-year anniversary. “The hotel package was reasonable since it was the off-season, plus I booked a mountain view room instead of an ocean-view room,” she says. But when they arrived, the couple discovered they had been upgraded to an ocean-view room at no additional charge, and without having to ask. “Couldn’t have been happier about it,” she says. These upgrades are becoming far more common. During my research, I found many travelers who said hotels, resorts or car rental companies were going out of their way to make guests feel welcome.

Customer service with a real smile
When Anya Clowers rented a car in Las Vegas recently, she was impressed by the way her shuttle driver behaved. She wasn’t apathetic and she didn’t flash one of those fakey Paula Deen smiles. “She truly enjoyed her job,” she says. “From welcoming travelers to Las Vegas, to lifting luggage, to providing small tips about the city, she was a rare gem.” What a switch from just a few months ago, when customers were widely regarded as walking dollar bills by rental companies. Now they are just grateful to have them at the counter. Isn’t that the way it’s supposed to be?

Europe is cheap again
Well, almost. The euro isn’t at parity with the dollar — yet. But as podcaster Elyse Weiner observes, it’s well on its way. “The weaker euro is a bright spot in this painful economic time,” she told me. “It’s astonishing after you’ve trained yourself to convert Euros to $1.65 to find yourself in a $1.30 world.” No one knows if a one-to-one parity world will come soon, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it happened this year. Nor would I be shocked if the euro went below a dollar, like it did in the 90s. Which would send a tsunami of tourists to Europe next summer, of course.

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Going the extra mile
Before Sue and Bill Painter checked into the J.W. Marriott Hotel in Lima, Sue e-mailed the property and asked for a bottle of champagne and cake for their room. It was her husband’s 60th birthday. “When we arrived at the hotel, we were shown to a large room on the executive floor,” she says. “In the room was an exquisite cake covered with very high-quality Peruvian chocolate, with the chocolate made into a large bow on top of the cake.” The charge for this elaborate surprise? Nothing. The cake, champagne and upgrade didn’t cost a penny extra.

When times are tough, and everyone stays home, you get to experience air travel the way it was meant to be experienced. Away from the crowds, with all the attention to detail and pampering you remember from before the days the government recklessly deregulated an entire industry. Barry Maher, a professional speaker, recently boarded a Lufthansa flight and found that the clock had been turned back, in a manner of speaking. “At one point, I had the entire first-class section of a 747 and three flight attendants all to myself,” he says. “Even in business class, the food was wonderful, the service excellent, the seats that recline into beds were comfortable and the entertainment selection excellent.” This isn’t a fluke. As air travelers scale their trips back faster than airlines can cut their flights, a lot of folks are flying on less crowded planes. Enjoy it.

I know what you’re thinking: Shouldn’t travel always be like this? Yes. But that’s not how it works. The travel industry is cyclical. During good times, we’re taken for granted. During bad times, they worship the ground on which we walk.

They might try splitting the difference for a change.

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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