Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter. He lives in Auckland, New Zealand.

7 ways to find excellent customer service on the road

When I think of great customer service, I remember Alamo.

Alamo Rent A Car, that is.

I think about it because the company had almost no reason to be nice to me when I rented a car a few years ago. At the time, I was a relatively obscure travel writer transiting through Albuquerque, N.M., on my way to the mountains.

I had prepaid for a compact car online and declined insurance, optional waivers and the fuel purchase options. From a profit perspective, I was a deadbeat. Still, the agent was incredibly polite.

“Where are you headed today?” she asked.

“Up to Angel Fire, Red River and Taos.”

“Not in a compact, you’re not,” she laughed, handing me the keys to a four-wheel drive. No extra charge. “Enjoy your trip,” she added.

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One airline ticket for the price of two?

twoQuestion: I need your help untangling a flight problem that involves Hotwire, US Airways, United Airlines and Frontier Airlines. A few months ago, we were supposed to fly from Los Angeles to Dallas on US Airways and Frontier. Our first outbound flight was a codeshare flight operated by United.

We checked in at the US Airways counter with plenty of time before our flight left. After waiting in line, a representative sent us to the United Airlines check-in area, across the airport. It didn’t matter; our flight to Las Vegas was canceled because of severe weather. At that point, a United representative told us our flight had been rescheduled for the next day.

My family and I live three hours away from LAX. We arrived at the airport using a rental car. We had to pay another $130 for a hotel room that night. The next day, when we tried to check in, the system couldn’t find our tickets.

Our only option was to buy new tickets, which cost us $235 each. Since then, we’ve been trying to get our money back from Hotwire and the airlines. But so far, nothing. Can you help?

Llouellynde Orahood, Lompoc, Calif.

Answer: So you bought a round-trip ticket from Los Angeles to Dallas through an online travel agency, but ended up dealing with three different airlines? No wonder your refund is missing in action. I don’t think anyone knows where your money is.

This sounds like a Murphy’s Law kind of trip. Let’s talk about what happened to you, first. Going to the wrong terminal was probably avoidable. Your itinerary should have clearly showed which airline was operating your first flight. That means you check in at that terminal. (If you have questions, call your travel agent or airline.)

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Fee Wars II? Expedia plans to remove book-by-phone charges

keypadGet ready for round two of the online travel agency fee wars. This spring, the major online travel agencies eliminated their online booking fees. This morning, Expedia will announce that it will do away with its fee to book by phone.

That would make Expedia the only major online travel agency to offer fee-free telephone booking for air travel. By comparison, some online travel agencies charge as much as $25 per ticket to book via phone. Many airlines also apply as much as $25 in fees, per ticket, to buy by phone.

I spoke with Expedia spokesman Adam Anderson yesterday to find out what this move means for customers.

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Sky Harbor’s luggage scandal: Who’s to blame for a thousand stolen bags?

bag3Outraged? No, those of us who fly suspect this kind of thing is happening at every major airport in the country. It’s the only explanation.

The Unclaimed Baggage Center would have to be ten times its size if every piece of lost luggage ended up there.

And so we see this when we pick up the morning paper: News of nearly 1,000 pieces of stolen luggage being found while police served a search warrant at a home near Phoenix.

Here are details from the Phoenix police department.

What the heck?

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Banks, airlines deserve no credit for card tricks

cardkeysOn second thought, maybe you should leave home without it.

For years, I’ve been telling travelers to pay with plastic and so have my buddies in the vacation punditry business.

Credit cards protect you from unscrupulous travel agents and tour operators. They hold companies accountable for substandard cruises, flights and hotel rooms. Plus, you can rack up more frequent-flier miles than you’ll ever be able to spend.

But what if the very payment system everyone swears by was quietly helping itself to your money, a few bucks at a time, when you travel? What if companies were quietly tacking new fees onto your bill when you were away?

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Tarmac delays ground the fight for passenger rights

The approach of cold-weather season reminds me of tarmac delays.

Like the Northwest Airlines flights grounded during a 1999 blizzard at Detroit’s Metro Airport, leaving passengers without water or working toilets for more than seven hours. Or the JetBlue Airways customers stranded for nearly half a day during an ice storm in New York back in 2007.

But what if those were the only memories that cold weather evoked?

No skiing. No eggnog. No chestnuts roasting on the open fire. That would be absurd, wouldn’t it?

No more absurd than what has happened to the “passenger rights movement.” In the past few months, a series of headline-grabbing tarmac delays has helped a couple of influential lobbyists convince the media and a few elected officials that tarmac delays are the No. 1 passenger rights problem in America.

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How are airlines stopping the spread of Swine Flu on planes? (Hint: Begins with “p” and rhymes with “hell”)

It looks as if the airlines have no intention of loosening their inflexible change fee requirements to prevent a Swine Flu outbreak on planes. The Federal Aviation Administration confirmed that it has begun testing hand sanitizers for flammability, and at least one source close to the agency says carriers intend to deploy bottles of the gel on their planes as flu season gets underway.

That’s right, the airline industry’s answer to the H1N1 problem is apparently Purell on planes.

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Smile! The TSA is taping you — and here’s what you need to know about it

You may have noticed that the Transportation Security Administration, the agency charged with safeguarding America’s transportation systems, has a thing for video.

Last week, when it was accused of taking a passenger’s child during screening, TSA released footage of the woman that shows it never happened. And yesterday, it posted images of Rep. Jason Chaffetz’s screening incident at Salt Lake City International Airport (scroll down for the videos). The congressman had reportedly gotten into a verbal scuffle over the agency’s use of full-body scanning technology.

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A little advice for Nicole White, the TSA and anyone traveling with kids

Turns out Nicole White’s account of her son being taken by a Transportation Security Administration officer did not line up with reality. Now the truth squad is coming after White, her site has been taken down and the young mother appears to have gone into hiding.

I have a little advice for White. And for the TSA. And for anyone reading this who is worried they might be separated from their child at the airport.

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