Image: Newark International Airport
Mark Lennihan  /  AP
Air travelers have plenty to worry about these days, including lost or delayed luggage, overbooked flights and airport delays. Plan for the unexpected.
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updated 10/28/2011 9:50:54 AM ET 2011-10-28T13:50:54

While traveling, there's always a risk that you will encounter problems beyond your control — tour operators go out of business, hotel rooms fail to measure up to their star ratings and airlines leave passengers stranded on the tarmac. But what can you do if one of these disasters happens to you?

When the worst happens, it's important to know where you can turn to make a complaint, particularly if the company concerned has failed to resolve a situation to your satisfaction. Read on to see which agencies can help if you have a complaint about your trip — and what you can do to prevent problems in the first place.

Hotel complaints
The best way to avoid a crisis at your hotel is by doing your research before you book. TripAdvisor.com and every major booking site offer millions of first-hand reviews from real travelers that can alert you to potential problems. (Thou shalt not book any property on TripAdvisor's annual Dirtiest hotels list.)

If something goes wrong after you book and you need to make a complaint, it's important to know your rights. Read What's in a hotel guarantee? to find out what you're entitled to when you feel mistreated by a hotel.

Make your complaint immediately, while you're still at the hotel. It's nearly always more effective to talk to someone in person than to call an 800 number a few weeks later and speak with a customer service agent who wasn't in any way involved with the incident. If your complaint involves problems with your room — such as bed bugs or uncleanliness — snap a few photos to help bolster your case.

If the hotel can't resolve your complaint immediately, continue to follow up by phone or e-mail after you return home. As a last resort, you can bring your dispute to the Better Business Bureau in the U.S. or Canada (or your own country's local consumer protection agency).

Airline complaints
Unfortunately, air travelers seem to have plenty to complain about these days. We've put together guides to help you deal with some of the most common problems, including lost or delayed luggage, overbooked flights and airport delays. For a more comprehensive overview of air travel problems and solutions, see our review of airline passenger rights.

Many travelers don't think to check an airline's reviews and ratings before booking the same way they check a hotel's, but it's a good idea — and there are a number of sites out there to help, including AirlineQuality.com and the aforementioned TripAdvisor.com.

We always recommend programming your airline's phone number into your cell phone so that you can call immediately if there's a problem during your trip. Don't wait till you get home to make your complaint; if your checked bag goes missing, for instance, file a claim before you leave the airport.

If you've followed up with your airline by phone or e-mail and still can't get a satisfactory resolution, you can take your complaint to the Aviation Consumer Protection Division of the U.S. Department of Transportation. In Canada, you can try the Canadian Transport Agency; elsewhere in the world, seek out the government's transportation agency.

Travel agent and tour operator complaints
Most travel agencies are legitimate businesses that are extremely helpful when planning a trip. However, there are always horror stories about agencies that open for a week and take thousands of dollars from unsuspecting clients only to completely disappear a week later. Although cases like this are rare, you should be aware of them. We recommend booking only with agents that are part of a professional organization, such as the American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA) or the Association of Canadian Travel Agencies (ACTA). These organizations can also help mediate if a dispute arises that you and your agent can't resolve.

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When choosing a tour operator, check to see whether the company you're interested in belongs to a professional organization such as the United States Tour Operators Association (USTOA) or the Canadian Association of Tour Operators (CATO). These tour operators tend to be more legitimate and financially stable — and less likely to go out of business, taking your hard-earned money with them. We also recommend checking the company's record with the Better Business Bureau to see how it's dealt with past complaints.

The USTOA, CATO and the BBB are also three organizations you can turn to for mediation if you run into a problem with your tour operator.

Car-rental complaints
Before you rent, know which hidden costs you can expect to be added to your bill, and carefully read the terms and conditions of your rental agreement. If you have a complaint about treatment you received when renting a car, handle it in the same way you would if it were any other business — call the Better Business Bureau in your area or file a complaint online.

Credit-card disputes
If you made a travel purchase with your credit card, always check your bill carefully, particularly when traveling abroad. If you cancel reservations and are promised a full or partial refund, be certain that your account was not billed. If you do see an error on your bill, contact the merchant immediately to try to resolve the issue.

If you can't, notify your credit card company in writing within 60 days of when the statement containing the error was mailed to you. The company must respond to your letter within 30 days and then has 90 days to resolve the dispute.

For more information, see the Federal Trade Commission's page on fair credit billing.

Tips for more effective travel complaints
Consider purchasing travel insurance, which can protect you from many mishaps including baggage loss, flight delays or cancellations, and tour operator default. But be sure to read the fine print — not all policies cover all potential losses.

Confirm every part of your trip — including flights, hotel bookings and car reservations — a few days before you leave. This will give you a little bit of time to make other arrangements if you encounter a problem. (For more ideas, see 10 things to do before you travel.)

In the unfortunate event that something does go wrong, be sure to lodge your complaint immediately — preferably before you leave the airport, hotel front desk or car rental counter. Ask to speak with a supervisor if necessary. If your dispute can't be resolved in person, write down the names of anyone you spoke with, and keep all receipts, confirmation numbers, tickets and other documentation.

Continue to follow up with your travel provider by phone, e-mail or written correspondence. State your complaint clearly, mention what you perceive the resolution to be, and try to be as polite and friendly as possible. Keep a log of all conversations and correspondence, including dates, names and what was said.

In this new age of social media, disgruntled customers have more options for dealing with disputes than throwing themselves at the mercy of an airline call center. More and more travelers are airing their complaints in their blogs, on their Facebook or Twitter accounts, on travel message boards, in YouTube videos and beyond. An airline that's been refusing to listen to your calls just may perk up and take notice if you start broadcasting your complaint to hundreds or thousands of people. (See How social media is changing travel for more on this trend.)

If all else fails, take your complaint to small claims court. You don't need a lawyer and it's much easier than filing a lawsuit. Often, you can take on hotels and even airlines in their operating jurisdiction. Visit your county office of consumer affairs for further information.

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