Don’t let them ignore your travel complaint. Here’s how.

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By | July 17th, 2017

It’s complaints season in the travel industry, as Adeodata Czink will tell you.

Her favorite summertime gripe? The tourist who waved a brochure in front of her face, vowing to sue because her expensive hairdo had been ruined. Czink, an etiquette expert and tour guide from Toronto, couldn’t fix the problem.

“We were in Niagara Falls,” she laughs. “I can’t control the mist.”

Czink wasn’t dragged into court. But ridiculous complaints such as the one she heard are as common as summer thunderstorms. I ought to know: I see copious quantities of travel industry complaints through my consumer advocacy website and a companion syndicated column. Believe me when I tell you that now, more than ever, people love to vent.

It’s getting worse, researchers say. “There just seems to be so much more to complain about,” says David Aron, a marketing professor at Dominican University who has studied consumer complaints, grudge-holding and retaliation.

“The media frequently covers negative issues like crowded planes, delays, people getting thrown off planes,” he says. “The tension levels, and levels of dissatisfaction, begin to rise before the experience even begins.”

Rather than adding your voice to the chorus of pointless gripes and loud bellyaching, which is often ignored by thick-skinned travel companies that have developed a form response for everything, why not do something effective this year? To figure out how to do that, you need to review the bad complaints and learn from them. This is going to be fun.

This is no laughing matter, though. If you’re worried about the coming onslaught of negativity, the travel industry should be deathly afraid.

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“The effects are undeniable,” says Ben Jost, CEO of TrustYou, which helps hotels analyze and respond to guest feedback. Travel companies that ignore the negative feedback suffer a measurable decline in booking.

At the same time, a lot of the gripes miss the mark — badly. Here are a few phrases that automatically send your email to the recycler:


  • “I demand a free first-class ticket anywhere your airline flies.” I searched my complaint file for this phrase and found thousands of cases that referenced this particular request for a free first-class ticket. It’s such a complaint cliche that I’m convinced customer service agents are trained to ignore it. I have the denial letters as proof.
  • “I’m telling everyone how terrible you are!” Threats to “take my case to Twitter” or “get the media involved” are also so overused that they induce a reflexive eye roll for the average travel industry employee. Part of the problem: It’s often impossible to please these angry customers, short of refunding their entire vacation.
  • “If you don’t do what I want, I’ll sue.” This one’s even worse than taking a gripe to the media. How many travelers actually take a travel company to court? Only a few. Complaints of this nature are not ignored. Instead, they’re forwarded to the legal department — which ignores them.
  • “Don’t you know the customer is always right?” That’s a common sentiment among summer vacationers, who tend to travel infrequently. Their expectations-meter is set somewhere in 1975, when the American travel industry — particularly the airline industry — was a standards-setter in the customer service department. When the service isn’t perfect, they make outrageous demands. Or they complain about waterfalls.
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What do you say instead? That’s easy. File your complaint in writing, if possible. Keep it brief, unemotional and polite. Write in complete and grammatically correct sentences. Above all, make sure your expectations are reasonable. No, your tour guide can’t control the mists of Niagara Falls, any more than your airline or hotel can control the weather.

If you ask for the moon, your complaint will just find its way into the bulging digital trash can on a company server. You can do better.

Secrets for a more effective complaint:

  • Cite the rules, chapter and verse. If you have a strong case for compensation or a refund, it’ll be in the contract. For example, airlines have a contract of carriage — the legal agreement between you and the airline — the outline of what they’ll do in case of a delay or a denied boarding situation. Cite the contract if it’s relevant.
  • Lawyer up — without lawyering up. Without threatening to go to court, let the company know that it may be violating the law (if, indeed, it is). For example, your hotel is regulated by state lodging laws, which determine an innkeeper’s liability for your personal property. Gently indicate that you know you have legal rights. That’s often enough to secure a quick resolution.
  • Appeal to a company’s customer service culture. Travel companies frequently promote warranties, customer promises or mission statements that claim to put you first. A quick reference to these documents can be enough to persuade an airline, car rental company, hotel or cruise line to do the right thing.
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  • ctporter

    Another thing to do is to do the research FIRST. Before your trip, know what is a realistic expectation, not only for the logistics of the trip itself but also what you want from your accommodations/travel experience. Research connections, ensure you do have enough time to make it, look at the percentage of on-times for your flights and book accordingly. Check the details before clicking purchase – spelling of names, dates of flights, car rentals, hotels, etc. Look at the cancellation policies for each before you buy. Know the luggage rules, from how much your bags can weigh to the amount of fees you will have to pay. Make your bags unique, clearly identify your bags – add your cell phone number so you can be reached. Check the airport codes on the bag tags to make sure they are correct to the point where you want to collect them. Research location of your lodgings, read reviews, look at photos (both corporate and traveler) Read what to do when renting a car, very excellent advice here for rental cars! Research your travel agent, whether it is an OTA or a “real” one. Many trips start at the airport. Understand that you WILL be going through security, that means plan for it!! Nothing in your pockets which means before you get in line, take OUT coins, keys, cell phones etc and put them in a pouch/bag/purse/backpack etc. so that when you get to the conveyor you are not holding up the line by taking out a whole bin full of stuff that cannot go through the detectors. You know you are going to go through a security line that will require not only a boarding pass but also ID. So have it out and ready. Travel does not have to be stress filled if you have realistic expectations and plan your travel well.

  • Noah Kimmel

    all great points. One more – research the reputation of who you do business with. Don’t book on Spirit and expect them to put you on Delta when your flight is delayed! Don’t take the spare room AirBNB and request a refund after your stay because the furniture wasn’t brand new. If it sounds too good to be true, it is!

    Always insure anything you can’t afford to lose – either the trip or even the valuables you take with you.

    And lastly – be polite / be a good customer. Remember, while you are stressing about your vacation, there is someone servicing you who has to work on that nice sunny day or deal with thousands of unhappy people on that rainy day. There is a company on the other side who is trying to be a good service provider and be reasonable, even in correcting failures. Being polite goes such a long way!

  • joycexyz

    I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry about the ruined hairdo at Niagara Falls. But I would suggest she spend the money on a good psychiatrist.

  • Harvey-6-3.5

    And even after a short polite letter, unless real money is a stake, don’t get too worked up. I got terrible service at a local pizza place (Ledo’s pizza), wrote the polite note, got a promise that was immediately broken, and just won’t go back. No biggie.

  • LonnieC

    And it’s sort of covered in your first bullet point, but clearly state what you expect the company to do for you.

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