The Brancatelli File



February 2, 2007 -- Life on the road has always been a dicey proposition, but 2007 is already shaping up as a year of unique challenges. Prices--for airline tickets, hotel rooms and car rentals--are rising. Service is deteriorating as the travel industry continues to cut back on everyone from gate agents to front-desk clerks. Airlines are losing more bags, rental-car firms are bungling more reservations and hotels are slashing more perks.

You have two choices when things go wrong: Start a blog and rant--or complain effectively and get satisfaction. If you goal is to vent, well, I guess posting a nasty blog entry makes some sense. But if you want compensation and satisfaction, I suggest that writing an effective complaint letter is a better way to go.

Readers ask me all the time if complaint letters to airlines or hotels or car-rental firms are actually worth the effort. My answer is always an unequivocal "Yes!" That is especially true in recent years because the travel industry has adopted a squeaky-wheel strategy. They know almost everyone is getting a raw deal, so they seem to be saving their apologies and compensation offers for the small percentage of travelers who take the time to write and complain. They feel it is cheaper and easier to pay off anyone who squawks rather than concentrate on giving every customer a fair shake.

So I say go for it. If you've been particularly disrespected recently--and, remember, this is business travel, so you should be accustomed to a modicum of abuse--don't shrug your shoulders and accept it. Use this crash course of 12 tips to get some satisfaction.

The best complaint letter is the one you never write. Do whatever you can to solve the problem on the spot. If you can't get instant gratification from the person with whom you're dealing, then you should ask to speak to someone higher up the corporate food chain. Schedule permitting, it's worth investing some time in an on-site, ad hoc arbitration session.

As a business traveler, you should have a sense, very early in the process, when something is going wrong. So start taking notes immediately: Get times, places, names and as many specifics as you can. Hold on to all receipts, tickets, boarding passes and anything else that's part of the paper trail. And think like a business person. Keep track of anything and everything you'd want to know if it was your job to resolve the situation retroactively.

Don't throw your complaint file in the corner with your expense account. The longer you wait, the less likely it is that you'll get satisfaction. Initiate your complaint as soon as you get back home. It's the first thing you should do after you unpack.

We're all more comfortable with E-mail now, but most airlines and hotels are unwilling or unable to resolve problems electronically. Rely on an old-fashioned paper letter and snail mail. Use company stationery if you were on company business. (By the way, handwritten notes don't cut it.) And make sure to attach copies--not originals--of all relevant pieces of the paper trail.

Letters generically addressed to "customer service" are handled generically. If you really want satisfaction, you need to send your complaint to someone specific. If your complaint is with a particular hotel or a specific airport station, find out the name of the general manager or station manager and address the letter to that person. Unhappy with the frequent-travel program? Write to the vice president of marketing. If your complaint is about a hotel chain, airline or car-rental firm, write to the president, chief executive or chairman. Will you get a response from the top dog? Probably not. But most executives at this level have staff specifically charged with handling letters addressed to them personally.

Long missives that start at the dawn of deregulation aren't a good approach. Consider your complaint letter a memo to your own CEO: Keep it as short as possible. Be firm, but polite. Get to the point and don't clutter your letter with small indignities or frivolous complaints. Don't go for revenge. It isn't worth it--and, anyway, you won't get it.

Don't bludgeon the airline or hotel with your clout, but don't run away from it, either. If you are an elite-level frequent traveler, put your account number and status on the letter. If the complaint is so serious that you're thinking of moving your business elsewhere, say so. If you can impact your company's travel policy and sway business away from the airline or hotel, say so. But don't bluff. Only threaten what you are actually prepared to do.

The biggest mistake most complaint letters make is not asking specifically for compensation. Writing a letter of complaint without asking for something is guaranteed to generate little more than a form letter and a form apology. Tell the airline, hotel or car-rental firm exactly what is required to make amends.

Have a sense of proportion. A one-hour delay doesn't entitle you to a refund. A rude employee isn't grounds for a free hotel night. The punishment, so to speak, should fit the crime. Asking for hard cash is always tricky, although, sometimes, a refund is the only fair resolution. However, if you'd be happy with bonus miles or points, room or flight upgrades, or discount coupons, ask for them. If you're a truly frequent traveler, immediate elevation to the next level of elite status might be the best compensation of all.

With the exception of denied-boarding and lost-luggage compensation, which are governed by federal or international regulations, airlines are generally masters of their domains. Those so-called "Customer First" initiatives that the airlines adopted with much fanfare a couple of years ago have no power of law, but you'll have a better case if the airline violated its own published standards. Most airlines have finally posted their respective contracts of carriage on their Web site, so examine them carefully.

I assume you know that you should never pay cash for travel services. That's because you do have legal recourse if you charge your travel purchase to a credit card. Under federal fair-credit laws, you have the right to contest any charge that you do not consider legitimate. That includes a travel purchase gone awry. If you're in a row with an airline, hotel or car-rental company over a service they didn't provide, immediately contest the charge with your credit card company.

If the airline or hotel's first response is insufficient, don't give up. Tell whomever responded to your letter that you aren't satisfied. (By the way, don't return any coupons, discounts or checks they sent.) You'll be surprised how often a second letter yields a better offer. And remember: Be reasonable. This isn't about revenge, it's about fair and adequate compensation.

Copyright 1993-2007 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.