Got a complaint about the travel industry? It’s got one about you, too

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By Christopher Elliott

Got a complaint about travel? Wait until you hear what the travel industry has to say about you.

A recent pre-flight briefing on an American Airlines flight, captured on Instagram, offers a hint. In it, the pilot scolds passengers for their selfish behavior.

“Be nice to each other,” he says. “Be respectful to each other. I shouldn’t have to say that. You people should treat people the way you want to be treated. But I have to say it every single flight because people don’t. And they’re selfish and rude — and we won’t have it.”

And there you have it. Many in the travel industry think customers are a bunch of spoiled babies.

“I’m weary of those entitled travel industry passengers who are continuously whining and complaining,” says Lisa Thomas, a veteran flight attendant based in Denver. “I feel like telling them, ‘Take some responsibility for your choices.’ ”

Thomas made her comments the first time I wrote about this topic, coming on the heels of a column about the rise of fees in the travel industry.

And that triggered a fascinating debate. Many travelers say that they think fees are out of control, particularly in the airline business. Airlines collected $102.8 billion in revenues from fees in 2022, a 56 percent increase from last year, according to a recent study by the consulting firm IdeaWorks.

At the same time, many in the industry say that they think people are getting exactly what they paid for: a quality product at a ridiculously low price. Industry employees like Thomas suggest that travelers are too demanding. They want low fares and great service, and they can’t have it both ways.

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So who’s right?

That’s a difficult question, particularly if you remember flying before the airline industry was deregulated and the travel industry grew dependent on extra fees. But considering it might ensure a smoother trip, no matter how you get there.

Whether you’re flying, cruising or checking into a hotel, you probably want to pay as little as possible — and maybe nothing — for travel.

The “nothing” part is no joke; that’s the implied promise of loyalty programs, with their “free” flights and stays. Insiders call this the deal economy, and they blame it for opening a chasm between what travelers pay for and what they anticipate.

Say, for example, you find an amazing bargain at a five-star hotel through an online travel agency. The hotel knows you only care about a low price, and will invariably give you the keys to a broom closet.

“So, despite getting a deal on a resort experience, the customer is then relegated to the lowest possible room type, regardless of occupancy,” says Amy Draheim, who has worked as a marketing director for a dozen award-winning hotels in the travel industry. “I know what the deal economy can do to tarnish a guest experience. The truth is — at risk of cliche — that you get what you pay for.”

The gap between expectation and experience

This rift between expectation and experience may be widening, experts say.

“Part of it stems from a tremendous information gap,” explains Samuel Engel, a global managing director for aviation at ICF, a consulting firm based in Fairfax, Va.

He says nearly half of all airline passengers take fewer than two trips per year. They don’t know where to get information about extra fees or the quality of their travel experience. Mabye they don’t even care.

“Most of them are simply buying a ticket based on time and price,” he says. “How can they possibly know what to expect?”

But there’s a little more to the story. True, travelers are interested in — even obsessed by — saving money. One reason is that they’re barraged by advertising messages that promise they can have it all. A low price, great service, and eventually, if they book enough trips, free flights and hotel stays. There’s plenty of that kind of information being transmitted to travelers, but not enough information about the travel experience. Fees, surcharges and other extras are often hidden deep on the travel companies’ websites. It is only revealed at the last moment when you book a trip.

For travelers, it all adds up to a feeling that somehow, travel isn’t as good as it used to be. And that often triggers a defensive reaction from people in the business.

“It was expensive to travel back then,” recalls Thomas, the flight attendant. “Tickets typically went for $600 to $700. That was 40 years ago, when a house cost $19,000, and a brand-new car was probably only a few thousand dollars. Now, you can fly somewhere at 36,000 feet, at 500 miles per hour, for $100 — round trip!”

Remember what travel used to be like?

But travelers who flew during the days when the price of an airline ticket was the actual price you paid remember things differently. John Madden is a retired civilian Army employee who lives in Troy, Mich. He took his first commercial flight in the early 1950s. The flight only cost $72 to fly from Washington to San Francisco in 1967. He still has the ticket.

In economy class, the flight attendants served passengers steak on real plates, he says.

“You didn’t pay to reschedule a flight, to catch an earlier flight, to select a seat or to sit with family or friends,” he says. “We weren’t charged for checked or carry-on bags. The people who crammed oversized bags in overhead compartments were businessmen in suits in a hurry to deplane.” (Related: Air travelers’ complaints rise more than 20 percent, but where’s their breaking point?)

The math is more confusing when some airlines can offer no baggage fees and have no change fees while others continue to raise theirs year after year. And it’s even more perplexing when other travel companies follow the airline industry’s lead, adding fees to their products that used to be — and probably should still be — included in the product.

Even if the economic model has shifted, making it necessary to quote a low price and then add fees, couldn’t the travel industry be a little nicer about it?

“Maybe, if the airlines were not so busy trying to grab every dollar and would be a little kinder to people, customers would react in kind,” says Cynthia Kelley, a retired driver from Sandpoint, Idaho. In other words, cut back on commercials that promise free travel. Tell us what’s included in your product.

Remember that you’re in the hospitality industry.

Here’s who is right

In the end, the answer to the question of “who’s right?” may be “everyone.” I recently wrote an article talking about the travel industry’s side.

Fees are too high — and so are customers’ expectations. The reasons may be complicated, the solution is not.

Now more than ever, travelers have to look past the hype and the come-ons for loyalty programs. They need to familiarize themselves with the product they’re booking.

Eva Doyle, a professional speaker from Columbia, Md., says she researches every reservation she makes.

“I read up as much as I can on what I’m really getting for my travel dollars,” she says. “I prepare for long waits and indifferent employees. Solitaire is on the top list of my games on my phone. I join loyalty programs when it makes sense to do so. I also try to take advantage of whatever benefits I can.”

Flipping the script

Doyle says she often encounters the “you-get-what-you-pay-for” attitude, and there’s no argument that will prevail against it. Instead, she tries to reinforce good behavior. When she receives outstanding service, she sends a message to that person’s supervisor, praising their helpful attitude.

As for that American Airlines pilot who made that viral announcement, the reaction has been mixed. Some passengers feel it’s high time the travel industry call out our entitled behavior. Others say he crossed a line.

Focusing on the positive in this standoff may be the best advice of all, and that doesn’t just mean recognizing the best employees. It also means giving your business to an airline, hotel or car rental company that treats you fairly and honestly, instead of the one that quotes you the lowest price.

Complaints in the travel industry are not new to us. Here’s the best way to get your travel industry complaint resolved. And if that doesn’t work, you know where to find my advocacy team.

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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 X, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter. He is based in Panamá City.

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