By Christopher Elliott Travel columnist
msnbc.com contributor
updated 9/14/2010 9:34:18 AM ET 2010-09-14T13:34:18

Sarah Andrus was flying from Philadelphia to Phoenix on US Airways when she accidentally left her jacket underneath the seat in front of her. "The jacket was a gift from a friend and unique," recalled Andrus, a director for an Olean, N.Y.-based manufacturing company. "I called the airline with low expectations of recovering my jacket, but I thought I'd give it a try."

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She was lucky enough to get through to a US Airways employee named Tanya, who understood Andrus’ predicament. “I followed her instructions to the letter, and heard back from someone within two hours. They had found my jacket and would keep it until my return flight,” Andrus said.

Frequent travelers can be forgiven for thinking the travel industry doesn't care about them, but simply wants their money. There is no shortage of stories blasting companies for higher prices, hidden fees and declining service.

But there are occasional bright spots, too.

"I think there are still flight attendants who try to go the extra mile," said Anne Sweeney, a former Pan Am Flight attendant. "Ever since the Steven Slater incident, people are more aware of it."

Point is, compassion isn’t dead in the travel industry. Whether it’s the airline employee who wants to do the right thing but isn’t allowed to, or the traveler who doesn’t expect it but gets it, anyway, people have a heart.

You just have to know where to look.

Just after 9/11, it seemed circumstances were irrelevant to travel companies. Rules were rules. But that wasn’t always true. For example, Dori Eagan’s partner was bumped from a flight from New York to Paris after his father’s funeral. The ticket agent empathized with his recent loss. “The gate agent took compassion on him and assigned him a seat,” she said. “I always think of his kindness when an employee is rude to me. I know there are good ones out there and I figure maybe when I am really desperate I will find another one.”

Put differently, the people behind the counter are human, too, and they’re often sensitive to your circumstances.

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A little niceness goes a long way, too. Jim McCreary, a training coordinator for a car manufacturer in Newark, Del., was returning from Hawaii on US Airways recently. On a stopover in Chicago, his flight home was canceled because of the weather. “Everyone was screaming and yelling at the poor agent at the ticket counter and all she could tell them was that since it was weather-related, the airline was not responsible for getting them a hotel,” he said. “When we approached her, I smiled and told her I could see she was having a rough day and politely asked if there were any other flights to Philadelphia that evening. She not only found us another flight, but upgraded us to first class at no charge.”

People often forget that it’s still all about service. When Carrie Charney, a retired auto accident claim secretary from Bardonia, N.Y., stayed at a Comfort Inn and Suites with her four-year-old grandson recently, the fire alarm went off several times. “The hotel manager had seen his stressful reaction and had been trying to help,” she said. “When my family returned to the hotel that night, there was a package waiting for Jared. With her own money, the manager had bought him a book about a tiger, as well as a stuffed animal that went with the book. The card attached apologized for what had happened and hoped the tiger would help him feel better. He still loves that tiger.”

Of course, not every troubled guest gets the stuffed animal treatment, but Charney’s story underscores the importance of giving a company feedback about your experience.

And, if a front-line employee takes a hard line, take it to a higher level. That’s what Joshua Davis did when a booking error by Delta Air Lines made his family miss their flights to Mexico. The airline balked at returning some of the money, sending him a form letter that said, “While we would like to offer special consideration in cases such as yours, we are unable to honor the many requests that we receive from others in similar situations.” If the airline had taken the time to read his correspondence, it would have known he wasn’t asking for any special consideration, and quickly refunded his money. After a series of appeals, it did just that.

While it may seem customer service is dead and that people in the travel industry don't care about your needs, there are moments of compassion. Some in the travel industry still get it — and still have a heart.

Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine. You can read more travel tips on his blog, elliott.org or e-mail him at celliott@ngs.org .

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Video: ‘Fall’ in love with these getaway bargains

  1. Closed captioning of: ‘Fall’ in love with these getaway bargains

    >>> to summer, we get on vacation deals to fall four.

    >> the season means fewer crowds and low prices. here to tell us about the wonderful places to go is beth fenner, "money" magazine's assistant managing editor. nice to see you.

    >> we're heading to hilton head to start off.

    >> we are. the great thing now is that really the peak season of summer, everything is more expensive, tee times, you could wait forever. the weather is just as good, in the 70s.

    >> it is not so hot.

    >> i think it is nicer too, the ocean is warm for swimming and the golf, you can't beat it.

    >> south carolina , is it -- it is easy to get to, isn't it?

    >> it is. you can fly into savannah and everything is so close.

    >> this looks like a lovely spot. the prices have dropped in the last -- since labor day , right?

    >> western hilton head island resort and spa, $149 a night for a room, that's 50% less than a couple of months ago. same exact room.

    >> that's amazing.

    >> nice.

    >> if you're a fan of the mountains and want to pick colorado or aspen --

    >> i miss colorado .

    >> i know you do. what do you have for us?

    >> aspen, peak fall foliage season, people ask, it the great there. the hiking is really a good draw and the hiking and the amazing views.

    >> tell us about the prices and things.

    >> well, the four star, we'll show you the sky hotel aspen is a boutique hotel that is sort of a hot spot . they have a great bar and outdoor pool. average daily rate in october $142. average daily rate in july, $277.

    >> is it crowded in the fall? does it get crowded?

    >> not as crowded. you're not pushing your way through to sit at the bar kind of thing.

    >> i love that place.

    >> beautiful. if you want to be adventurous and really go a long way away , the land down under you say is a good spot to hit.

    >> it is. the great thing about it now, it is not so much saving on the hotel, though you will, the ways to get there the flights are so much cheaper. the lowest you can get there around now for $600 round trip if you snag a good deal.

    >> all the way to australia?

    >> you can. you can.

    >> wow.

    >> if you hit it right as a low, where as it can be double that other times of the year.

    >> and they're entering their summer season , right?

    >> it is spring now so it is off season and their high season is december, which is their summer. so everything is cheaper.

    >> i know there are a million things to do there, but what are some of the highlights?

    >> surfing.

    >> yeah. you have the surfing. it is a big kite-flying season because it is breezy. there is on bandy beach, this famous beach, you can do that, sydney opera house , aquarium and friendly people . it is good.

    >> everyone says that. i've never been. you've been.

    >> i've never been. i was hoping to go with oprah but it is not going to work out.

    >> go now.

    >> ireland .

    >> ireland . where my jimmy niri is in ireland right now.

    >> dublin has had, a lot of places in europe, has had some problems economically which is our opportunity. things are cheaper. it is cheaper to get there. the flights, and a hotel room , again, it is about 25% cheaper than it would have been in the summer.

    >> people don't realize that from jfk it is a very short flight, less than -- like going to california . it is five and a half hours.

    >> it is nothing. go through customs, but other than that it is really not bad.

    >> this time of year is an okay time of year to be there.

    >> it is not as rainy. it is going to rain.

    >> ireland is ireland .

    >> you don't go there for the weather. you go there for the pubs and the great streets, the cobblestone streets, historic. it is charming.

    >> we'll have all this stuff on our website.

    >> yes, we will.

    >> in the meantime, we have to eat cupcakes.

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