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Complaining 101

Hotel rooms cleaned incorrectly, restaurant meals prepared improperly, overpriced rental cars, lost luggage — there are plenty of things that can go wrong on the road, anytime of year. This summer will be no different.
Duane Hoffmann /

It was a four-star hotel in a prosperous mid-western city. I arrived late in the evening and the fresh-faced desk clerk told me I was “darn lucky” to get the last empty room.

Maybe “darn lucky” has a different meaning in Indiana.

The “non-smoking” room smelled of cigars. French bread flew out of the register when I turned on the heat. And there was an open box of condoms in the nightstand drawer.

Alarmed, I called the front desk to complain. The response: “We’re totally full, ma’am. But how ‘bout I send someone up there to vacuum the bread off the floor and take the condoms away.”

Not exactly the four-star solution I expected. But then again, my initial sputtered “complaint” might have come across as an unformed whine. A more pointed chat with the manager a short while later secured a more satisfactory response: I spent a complimentary night at a much cleaner hotel down the road.

The season of our discontent
Hotel rooms cleaned incorrectly, restaurant meals prepared and presented improperly, overpriced rental cars, lost luggage, and airplane trips that get delayed for hours — there are plenty of things that can go wrong on the road, anytime of year.

This summer will be no different. In fact, it may be a bit worse: airlines have been shaving schedules in response to rising fuel costs, and planes are already flying to near or full capacity. And while gas prices and worries about the economy may keep many Americans closer to home this summer, travel industry expectations will be high as everyone tries hard to squeeze the most of out of their travel dollars.

Complaining 101
As travelers, we can find plenty to complain about — but does complaining help? You bet. You should get what you pay for. And airlines, hotels, restaurants, rental car agencies and attractions should fix what goes wrong. But as well-mannered travelers know, how you complain can make a big difference in whether or not a situation is resolved.

So what works?

Do — don’t stew
If something is wrong, try to resolve your problem right away — not after a sleepless night in a hotel room listening to that running toilet, after a cross-country flight spent seated in front of a toddler who keeps kicking your seat, or an hour into that “quick” lunch that’s taking forever to arrive. Before you get all worked up, bring your issue to the attention of someone who has the power to take action. The front desk clerk might give you a different room; a flight attendant might find you a different seat; and the restaurant manager might speed things up in the kitchen.

Enlist — don’t enrage
“When it comes to travel, sometimes it’s inevitable: things just go wrong,” warns frequent traveler and etiquette book author, Peter Post of the Emily Post Institute. “At that point, it’s how you deal with people that will make a huge difference in their response and the amount of help you get.”

Post says, “What definitely doesn’t work is getting in someone’s face.” Alternatively, he suggests trying to enlist a customer service staff onto your problem-solving team instead of presenting a problem as an adversarial “you against them” situation. 

“The gate agent for your flight isn’t the one who created the weather delays or the equipment problems. Yelling at them won’t do any good. Instead, ask yourself how you'd deal with a long line of angry customers if you were behind the counter and act accordingly.”

Document diligently
Sometimes, a travel issue just can’t be resolved on the spot, no matter how hard your problem-solving “team” has tried. You may need to file a complaint after you get home — and to do that you’ll need good documentation, not simply a sense of outrage.

Instead of standing around grumbling, use the time and energy to take specific notes and snap some photos. If the plane door closed at 2:05 p.m., yet sat at the gate until 6:37 p.m., write that down. If your hotel room has mold in the bathroom and a badly stained carpet and the front desk says there’s nothing they can do, take a picture and get names. Your notes — not your emotions — are what will help you make your case when you sit down to compose your written complaint.

And when you file that complaint, stick to the facts, don’t embellish them. Being polite and to the point works on paper too. Using your detailed notes, explain the situation that prompted your letter. Be specific and include details such as dates, times, and reservation numbers and some information about you, such as your history as a customer. And be reasonable about what sort of compensation will make you feel that your issue has been resolved. A million frequent-flyer miles in exchange for that canceled two-hour flight? No chance. But a complimentary night’s stay to make amends for a hotel room equipped with a French bread-spewing heat register? More likely.

Anticipate and avoid
Of course, the best complaint is no complaint — and there are simple ways travelers can use anticipation to “self-insure” against problems:

  • Hotel guests should inspect an assigned room before officially checking in and unpacking bags.
  • Fliers should arm themselves with information about alternate flights in case they’re faced with a delay.
  • And it’s always a good idea to build some “squish” time into your travel schedule. For an upcoming trip to Italy, etiquette expert Peter Post told me he rejected an itinerary with a short layover at Dulles International Airport in favor of one that will keep him on the ground a few hours. Just in case.

Harriet Baskas writes's popular weekly column, The Well-Mannered Traveler. She is the author of the , a contributor to National Public Radio and a columnist for