Don’t take “no” for an answer until you read this story

If you’re thinking of taking “no” for an answer from a travel company, let Alan Schroeder talk you out of it.

When a late spring storm forced the cancellation of his return flight from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., to New York on Spirit Airlines, he asked an agent to refund half the $1,455 he’d paid for his ticket — a seemingly reasonable request. Instead, Spirit credited him just $459.

He asked for the rest. Spirit said “no.”

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Every day, customers ask travel companies for everything from discounts to refunds. And every day, travel companies turn their customers down. In the past, most travelers quietly accepted these rejections, believing they had little recourse.

But that’s changing. As travel companies tighten their rules, the “no”s are becoming more common. So, too, are customers such as Schroeder, who don’t accept them as a final answer. With a few insider strategies and the right company contacts, you can increase your chances of a successful request this summer.

Schroeder turned to me for help. I reviewed his case and Spirit’s explanation — that the refund was based on the fare he’d paid for his return flight — and didn’t think I could change Spirit’s answer. Schroeder, a heavy-equipment operator from Davie, Fla., persisted.

He contacted the Transportation Department’s Aviation Consumer Protection Division, which prompted a rare personal follow-up from a Spirit manager.

“I’m really sorry that we disappointed you by canceling your flight,” the supervisor wrote in an e-mail. “Despite your experience I hope you’ll consider traveling with us again. We’d love to provide a positive experience in the future.”

His case is still pending, but even if Schroeder is unsuccessful in securing a bigger refund, he could still enjoy a small victory when his complaint is added to Spirit’s record, where it will be tallied in a government database and reported to the public. Over time, that may affect other passengers’ willingness to fly with the airline.

You have to admire Schroeder’s tenacity. Not so long ago, in an era of “the customer is always right,” you didn’t need to ask more than once. Companies refunded tickets and offered favors because it was the right thing to do. Today, they might consider it if you play the loyalty-program card. Otherwise, no way.

There are ways around it, though. One of them is to know more than the person behind the desk. Darren Delaney, who runs a seminar for frequent travelers, says he encountered an intransigent front-desk employee when he asked about the availability of a larger room when he checked into a Starwood property in Seattle recently.

“Sorry,” the employee said. “There are no suites available.”

But Delaney didn’t accept the “no.” Instead, he checked Starwood’s smartphone app, which has access to the hotel chain’s live inventory. And the app said there were plenty of suites. He mentioned that to the employee.

“She then replied she would have to speak to the manager,” he said.

The manager handed him the key to a suite. Mission accomplished.

Information can empower customers in other ways. For John Favretto, an American Airlines passenger with “lifetime” platinum status, the series of “no”s he received in response to a minor request were frustrating. “Sometimes,” he confided, “I’m not sure how much my status is worth.”

American sent him a boilerplate response after he complained about a flight that didn’t have meal service.

“There was no indication whatsoever in the reply message that the lady who signed it had even read my e-mail,” he said.

So he found the name and e-mail address of American’s vice president of customer service, Sean Bentel. (I’ll save you the trouble. It’s [email protected])

“I re-sent my original e-mail to him,” he said, “and within 24 hours — problem solved!”

It may be helpful to know what all this looks like from the other side. On flights, space is limited and money must be made. Ditto for hotels and rental cars. Front-line employees feel conflicted. They know they’re in the customer service business and have been trained to make you happy, but they also have to answer to a supervisor who often sees only the numbers. It’s not an easy position to be in.

So how does a reputable business handle requests for bigger rooms or upgrades? Actually, it doesn’t, said Leo Locke, president of Donna Franca Tours, a Boston-based tour operator.

“We generally offer customers automatic upgrades before they ask for them,” he said. “We go the extra mile with personalization and suggestions.”

Still, customers ask for more. And when they do, Locke said, employees are trained to look for a reason to say “yes.”

“We do our best to oblige,” he said.

Sometimes, he has to turn them down, but when he does, he always gives a reason.

“For example, when customers ask us to give them a discount because of the stronger euro-dollar exchange rate, I advise them that we purchase futures the moment they make a deposit on their vacation to lock in their rate and not risk currency fluctuation issues if the opposite would occur,” he said. “That protects them. Our customers understand and appreciate the response.”

When you’re on the road this summer, you’ll know you’re dealing with a reputable company when it offers you something before you can ask for it. Reliable information and a few good contacts can help when a company isn’t in a generous mood.

And remember: It never hurts to ask again.

This story was first published on May 28, 2015.

10 thoughts on “Don’t take “no” for an answer until you read this story

  1. When it comes to the airlines making more profits from cheaper fuel but still charging more for tickets and fees, I was reminded of a similar economic situation when sending mail to my overseas relatives a few weeks ago.

    The price of a small box to from the states to Ukraine is $65.00. About 5 years ago, it was half of that. I think the price increase was due to rising fuel cost of the time (and this includes in the EU as well). But now that fuel prices are down… the post offices (USA and elsewhere) aren’t so quick to lower their rates.

    And who can blame them? If you find money in your sock drawer, are you so quick to give it away?

    All that said, good luck with complaints against Spirit changing anything. They are notoriously proud of being a low cost airline and not caring about customer complaints. They can get away with not giving a 1/2 credit for a cancelled return fare due to weather because airlines charge more for one way tickets therefore making the outgoing leg worth more and weather isn’t their fault. Heck, I’d expect such a stance even from a legacy airline.

  2. From the facts provided, I cannot determine if Mr. Schroeder deserves a larger refund or not. Consider if one buys a round-trip ticket, from New York to Florida and back, where the price of the outbound flight is $1,000, and the price of the return flight is $500 (perhaps outbound is to be flown at a peak travel time, and return at an off-peak travel time), for a total of $1,500. If only the outbound segment is flown, it seems pretty clear that the refund for the unused return segment would be $500, not $750. The problem becomes somewhat more difficult when a discount is given for flying round-trip. Suppose the foregoing prices were for one-way journeys, but for a round-trip, the discounted price is $1,200, rather than $1,500. But since that discount is given only if one actually flies round-trip, the discount should be discarded if only one segment of the ticket is used, and the unused portion is returned for a refund. In such circumstance, by going outbound, the traveler used up the $1,000 value of a one-way ticket, and having paid a total of $1,200, the traveler would be entitled to a refund of $200 (i.e., the excess of what was paid over what was consumed). But without these details, I can’t tell if Spirit was wrong, or not, in refunding only $459.

  3. Maybe it’s just me, but I always start any interaction – asking for something or just a routine check-in – with a big smile, maybe some other pleasantries. If they’re slammed and the line is out the door, it has to be really brief, but everyone appreciates a simple kind or courteous word.

    Probably the very best result was a late night AA flight DAL to OAK where I Schmoozed the very corporate looking agent with kind words and some Promotional Products (I was coming from the Promo Products Annual Trade-show) and got back a huge smile and a middle seat in an EMPTY ROW on the flight.

    Start by being NICE, and when they say “Sorry” be even nicer. If you ask for the supervisor, be still nicer and even sympathetic with them. “I know it may be difficult for you to help me with this and I’m sure you want to do something for me”. That sort of phrase thrown down the challenge for them to be as nice as you and may hit their tipping point.

    It’s harder for them to say no to someone who (unlike most complainers) is not screaming at them.

  4. I can see why Spirit might not want to refund half the fare, we’d need to know more about the pricing. Often I buy tickets where one leg costs substantially more than the other. If that were the case here, it would be unreasonable to expect half the fare back. If in Mr Schroeder’s case the fare was the same both ways, of course he is entitled to a half refund.

  5. “But Schroeder didn’t accept the ‘no.’ Instead, he checked Starwood’s smartphone app, which has access to the hotel chain’s live inventory.”

    I believe you meant Delaney didn’t accept the “no”…

    1. You’re right, Carch. As my daughter’s softball team used to say, “Good eye, good eye… good eye, good eye, good eye.” I changed it. Thanks! 🙂

  6. It’s clear to see that companies large and small still don’t understand the ‘Without the customer there is no you’ adage.

    You lose them and their multitude of friends when you don’t treat the people keeping you in business the way you should.

    We have a photo tour business, and in the last couple of years have had very late cancellations because of medical issues. Rather than keep 100% of their payment, we refund everything non refundable to the client. Why? Because it’s the right thing to do!

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