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Squeeze a 'yes' out of your travel company

The travel industry has taken a hard line, saying they can take us or leave us when, in reality, they need us more than ever. Here are some ways to get what you want from your company.

This isn’t a political column, but when I heard the next president of the United States, Sarah Palin, announce she belongs to the party of “no” — actually, make that the party of “hell no” — I thought for a moment she was talking about the travel industry.

I’m just kidding about the president thing. But not the “no” part.

Travel companies love telling their customers they can’t help them. Want an upgrade? No. A different room? Sorry. A few more days to use a ticket credit? Forget it. An extra hour on your rental car? Nope.

The travel business hasn’t been about “yes we can” since the airlines were recklessly deregulated in the 1970s. But unbelievably, the industry has taken an even harder line in the last year or so, saying we can take it or leave it at a time when they need us more than ever. Go figure.

(Are there exceptions? Sure. I can think of a few caring travel agents, hotel companies and even an airline or two that stand out. But that’s another topic.)

Since I mediate travel disputes every day, I thought it would be worthwhile to look at the different ways in which travel companies say “no” — and to find out whether these uncrackable cases can be fixed.

Normally by this point, I would have rolled out a few examples of real travelers who had their cases rejected in a spectacularly humiliating way. I’m staying away from anecdotes in this column to protect the privacy of those who have been repeatedly turned down.

Here are the type of “nos” I hear and a few tips on how to handle them:

Sorry, we can’t bend that rule.
One of the most common complaints I get comes from travelers who want their company to bend a rule for them. Topping the list are award mile-exemptions. Customers log into their mileage accounts only to discover they’ve lost 300,000 hard-earned frequent flier miles, and they want their airline to turn back the clock. In the good old days (pre-2008) it wasn’t so hard to find a customer service representative who might help. Today, even an inquiry by yours truly isn’t enough. The answer is still “no.” Your miles are gone.

Tip: Know which rules are bendable. Airlines are trying to unload trillions — literally trillions — of miles of mileage liability, so they have a huge incentive to expire your miles quickly. You’d be better off asking for something that won’t cost them as much, like a better seat assignment on your next flight.

Refund? We don’t give refunds.
Everywhere you turn, the travel industry is putting up “no refunds” signs. Airlines, hotels, cruise lines, even some car rental companies, are telling their customers “no money back — ever.” Do they really mean it? Yes, they do. The problem is especially bad with hotels, which are luring in customers with lower, nonrefundable rates that are often poorly disclosed. When customers try to change their plans — wham! — they’re hit with the bad news. Your money’s gone. Hotel guest are often shocked by how rigid the properties are. There are no exceptions.

Tip: Not so long ago, you could assume that when the terms on your purchase didn’t say “nonrefundable” you could expect a refund when your plans changed. Now, you have to assume something is nonrefundable unless it specifically says otherwise. You can still cancel certain airline tickets and hotel rooms, car rental reservations and cruises, but some important restrictions apply.

Your circumstances aren’t that special.
Everyone has a story. Maybe you need a refund on your tour deposit because of a death in the family or because you’re retired and on a fixed income or because you’re disabled. Trust me, your travel company has heard it all before. They believe you. But the answer is still “no.” These days, you have to die in order to get a refund on a non-refundable airline ticket (no, I mean that literally). Having a hard-luck story fails to impress even the most empathic employees, who couldn’t bend a rule even if they wanted to.

Tip: Short of dying, the only circumstances that qualify as “special” are members of the armed service whose orders change, and have to cancel their trip. But even there, you have to be prepared to show your orders.

But the contract doesn’t address your situation.
Many problems encountered by travelers these days aren’t addressed in the company’s written terms and conditions. For example, when the first leg of a flight is delayed by a mechanical problem, but the second one is canceled because of weather, your rights fall into a twilight zone, a gray area that the contract doesn’t specifically address. Then it’s up to the company to determine what your rights are — and “no” being one of its favorite words — it’s really not surprising where you’ll end up. Are contracts deliberately written vaguely to give travel companies the freedom to have their way with you? What do you think?

Tip: The cruise contract or airline contract of carriage isn’t necessarily the final word. Remember, travel companies must also comply with local, state and federal laws, so you may find some recourse outside the terms and conditions the company is leaning on — or using to shirk its obligations to you.

Don’t flatter yourself — you’re not our best customer.
The travel industry loves to hand out platinum and diamond cards to its customers, leaving us with the impression that we are their best customers. We aren’t. You find out the hard way, when you try to invoke your “preferred” status, only to realize that you’re not so special. I encounter travelers with elite status all the time who ask their travel company for waivers and favors, but end up with nothing. Why not? Because you’re not so special. It’s possible to get a quadruple-platinum status but still spend like a tourist, and frankly, the company isn’t interested in your business. You ask for a favor, and odds are, you’ll be treated like a vacationer.

Tip: True elites — the ones that can legitimately say they’re a company’s best customer — are typically business travelers who buy full-fare airline tickets and pay rack rate for their hotel rooms. They never have to ask for special treatment, because they already get it.

I think we’re all ready for this party of “no” to end. I don’t see it happening any time soon. Until it does, these tips should help you find whatever “yes” remains.

Good luck.

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