Let’s hear it for the travel heroes!


Marie Robertson can’t stop doing good.

Two years ago, the Houston airline agent held a United Airlines flight for a passenger visiting his dying mother. Her compassionate act became a feel-good story that resonated among airline passengers – partly because her industry had a reputation for sometimes being less than caring.

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It turns out she wasn’t done. Robertson contacted me recently because she’s working on a new campaign to put the brakes on distracted driving (you can learn more about it here). She says most “don’t text and drive” efforts fail because motorists quickly forget them. But Robertson wants to change that by placing “don’t text” warning stickers inside car windshields and reminding drivers that their actions affect other people.

“Our goal is to reach everyone,” she told me.

I’m happy to help. I spend too much time dissecting the failings of the travel industry, and particularly of airlines like United. But you can’t encourage selfless behavior without first acknowledging it.

Here’s the problem: Some travel companies believe it’s the grand customer service gestures, like holding an aircraft at the gate, that impress us. And they do. But not as much as the little things, like taking care of an ailing passenger even when no one is looking, or a smile and, “Thank you for your business” when you check out of a hotel. Or handing out stickers that make the road a little safer.

Those small things can make a big difference on your next trip. And you’ll rarely read about them in a column, except today.

When word got out I was working on a story about travel companies that offer excellent customer service, I heard from people who thought going the extra mile would set them apart, and maybe inspire a favorable mention. One property was proud of a worker who had fulfilled a dying wish for a terminally ill guest. A luxury hotel in Chicago told me about an employee who offered a guest his suit for a business meeting after that guest had lost his luggage.

A Miami Beach hotel shared the tale of “Bubu the Bunny,” a young guest’s favorite stuffed toy that a family had left behind on its way to an Orlando theme park vacation. An employee volunteered to drive four hours to reunite the rabbit with its owner.

These are heartwarming stories, and exceedingly rare. You might travel a lifetime and not experience one of these special service moments.

Of course, passengers have their own ideas about excellent service. Nicole Greason, who works in the marketing department of a college in Tempe, Ariz., recalls a recent flight from London to Phoenix on British Airways. She had a debilitating migraine headache. A flight attendant noticed her pain and brought her ice packs, water and medication from his private stash.

“I have not forgotten how well I was treated on that flight and I have become a fan of British Airways,” she says. “I can’t wait to fly across the pond again — on British Airways, of course.”

The flight attendant’s actions won’t earn him “Employee of the Month” and on any other day, no one except Greason would give them a second thought. But today, on behalf of all passengers who brace themselves for a “you-get-what-you-pay-for” attitude when they board a flight, I say: Thank you. Mr. Unnamed Flight Attendant, you are a credit to your profession.

There’s evidence travel companies know the little things are important. For example, if you e-mailed a hotel with a question two years ago, the response would take anywhere between 48 hours to 5 days, according to OwnerListens, a mobile customer service platform. “Today, average response time is less than 48 hours,” says CEO Adi Bittan. A prompt reply seems like such a minor thing, but Bittain says guests rate these companies higher because of it.

You probably don’t need a study to tell you small acts of service make the travel experience better. It’s common sense. People like Robertson, the United Airlines employee known for holding a plane, know that as well. She says she was just doing her job then, and wants to continue helping. Robertson notes that she’s not alone. Many of her colleagues in Houston care deeply about service. They try to help passengers every day, despite airline policies that often make it difficult.

Travelers love stories about customer service heroes. But mostly, they just want a little courtesy and compassion when they’re away. Is that asking for too much?

Is good customer service recognized enough by travelers?

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Where to find better service

Every travel company is capable of offering excellent customer service. Here’s how to find and encourage it.

Look for special training. Companies like Ritz-Carlton and Disney have such well-known reputations for service that they offer hospitality training to other companies. That’s a good sign.

Recognize the little things. If an employee helped you, take a minute to contact the company and compliment that person. Send a brief e-mail via their website. Over time, the commendations will ensure these quality workers are rewarded.

Patronize the best brands. The American Customer Satisfaction Index recognizes the best airlines and hotels. Marriott and Hyatt, for example, rank highest in the latest survey. Stay with them, and avoid substandard companies.

85 thoughts on “Let’s hear it for the travel heroes!

  1. I usually travel with an older man with Down Syndrome, who has some weird eating issues. One of the (very few) foods he will eat is scrambled eggs. Sometimes getting him something to eat is a challenge since many place don’t service breakfast food other times of the day. We recently stayed at an extended stay-type hotel, where dinner was included several nights a week and breakfast everyday. When ever my buddy came into the dining room, if scrambled eggs weren’t on the menu, they ran to make some special for him. It made my vacation much less stressful and made this hotel my hotel of choice from now on.

      1. Yeah, but not everyone is willing to do it. We went to a restaurant once that refused to make toast for him because they didn’t make toast at night. I’m sure they had bread somewhere, but there was nothing I could say that would convince them to make some toast for him.

          1. I can’t imagine why a restaurant wouldn’t accommodate a special request. They can charge for it, they are leaving money on the table when they refuse.

          2. Yes, that happens. Generally, the places that can’t accommodate are rigid assembly line places. I am not one to make special requests, but I can’t imagine someone refusing to make toast unless they really didn’t have a toaster. They are generally quite happy to accommodate.

          3. You can say the same thing about a vegan restaurant in the US – a real hamburger ain’t gonna appear.

            I recently spent 3 months in India. Had no trouble finding beef when i wanted it after my coworkers pointed me in the right direction.

          4. That’s not always true. My daughter was in college when she ended up having an appendectomy and recuperated in a hotel room that I obtained. At one point, it was close to midnight and she wanted toast, but the hotel kitchen was closed. I walked over to a Subway. I asked for a toasted sandwich with no filling. They asked whether I was looking for toast and asked why. After I explained, they not only gave me the toast, but refused to charge me for it.

          5. I would figure out a way, even if it involved just grilling some bread. The problem I am thinking is that in some small hotels that have a small kitchen, they really have to prep the kitchen for each kind of service, and during dinner service when you’ve got a bigger menu and need more prep space its very possible, that the toaster is being stored away until breakfast.

          6. I know what you are saying. But there is a difference between someone who “feels like toast” and when there is a need, like in this case.

          7. I’m sure you know what I mean. Some people are not as fortunate as the rest of us are to be able to contend with life’s daily issues, and it makes a lot more difference to help them out a little.

          8. Some higher end restaurants get very snippy about special requests. It mars the Chef creations or some such nonsense.

          9. If the chef has an artistic creation involving toast, I can understand and respect that, but this is toast. Its like offending the Sommelier, and refusing to serve you water.

          10. There’s a lot more to toast than you seem to think. On Seinfeld, I heard that, in Britain, there’s a Viscount who does nothing BUT make toast for the royal family.

          11. I can think of 3 ways to make toast without a toaster in any restaurant kitchen, probably more if I really think about it.

        1. Just order a chicken salad sandwich on wheat toast, no mayonnaise, no butter, no lettuce. Then, all they have to do is hold the chicken, bring the toast, give you a check for the chicken salad sandwich, and they haven’t broken any rules. (Sorry…couldn’t resist….Jack Nicholson in Five Easy Pieces!)

      1. Staybridge Suites, in Las Vegas. I have nothing but good things to say about the place. It’s my “go to” place in Las Vegas now.

  2. Empathy IS good for business – it certainly is for mine, anyway. Let’s hope these employees are not getting fired for being nice, like those convenience store clerks who defend the company’s assets..

  3. I blame technology, particularly social media. Courtesy and empathy use to be part of a much grander phenomenon called human interaction, now everyone about digital interaction, everyones too busy on their phones being self absorbed the minute the plane lands. On top of that people poop on those in the service industry. Everyones too involved with “me”, to consider some nameless person they don’t have to have repeated interaction with or they don’t need something from. Why acknowledge someone else if there isn’t anything in it for them. Its the same perception from the service staff, why go out of my way to do something nice if there isn’t anything in it for them. 4 hours to get a teddy bear, better have been a nice tip in it for them, and you know the hotel didn’t pay their salary or gas if it was on their own time. The FA who held the flight, could have lost her job. Why do that for someone whos just going to complain that theres no room for their carry-on, and can they get a vodka tonic a few moments later. Words are cheap and expressing gratitude and appreciation costs nothing.

    1. I was on a flight where I got up for my electrolyte infusion [tomato juice – one litre] about half way across. FA burned her hand on a tea pot. I put some cream on the burn and told her that in 5 minutes she’d not remember she’d been burned. 5 min later, she was amazed that she’d indeed forgotten about it.
      Later, I started watching a movie, and fell asleep. When I woke up, I resumed it, but the captain came on the horn and described the weather at the destination in 3 languages, etc. etc. There was about 10 minutes’ worth of movie left. I told the FA that the captain blabbed every few minutes and kept stopping the movie with about 10 minutes left. She told me to stay in the seat once we landed, and she’d turn it back on for me so I could watch the end. She did. When I got off, nobody was on to block my exit, and I still had about an hour for the next leg. AND, there was nobody queued up at the security either. WIN-WIN situation. See what make nice can do for ya?

      1. It helps to email or post about these little things on the companies FB or Twitter pages. They do get recognized for it and there are so many complaints that people post it is refreshing for the companies to see something positive that their employees do.

        1. I do not use Facebug nor Twitterspam. Big Brother monitors them, and they are a source of infiltration by hackers; not loaded on my machines.

          I feared that if I sent in the truth, they’d hammer the young lady for turning it back on. Can’t trust those toads in charge – just read “Dilbert” daily to get an idea. In retrospect, I couldda written a note to the HMFIC praising the FAs w/o getting specific. Didn’t think of it at the time; paranoia overruled. Just because they’re all of ’em out to hump ya don’t mean you’re paranoid….

  4. I find that, as a general rule, you get what you give. I try to be kind, considerate and appreciative of help I get when traveling. Typically, I have had very good luck finding good customer service on my trips.

    1. I actually just witnessed an exchange when traveling last week where a traveler was trying to get his bag fee waived.

      It went something like:

      “I know you money grabbing a-wholes want to squeeze me for every penny I own, but do you think you could waive it today…or do you just enjoy being jerks and get off taking my money?”

      They didn’t waive the fee.

          1. I was going to come back with something, but really I got nothing. That’s the only checked baggage argument I’ve heard and thought, yeah okay.

        1. I just read ANAC is considering to change our Baggage Rules, to something more “convenient” for the passengers, like limiting the # of bags and/or charging the checked ones…

          1. Aren’t you entitled to at least 2 free checked bags from/to Brazil? You are one of the few countries that demand that, right?

          2. Yes. We are allowed at least 2 x 32kgs pieces for int’l trips in economy starting in Brazil.

            For trips starting overseas, the airline rule prevails. But some airlines may follow, in this case, ANAC rules.

            E.g. Air France:
            GRU-CDG-GRU: 2x 32kg
            CDG-GRU-CDG: 1x 23kg

            E.g. Delta:
            GRU-JFK-GRU: 2x 32kg
            JFK-GRU-JFK: 2x 32kg

            For domestic and South America flights, we are allowed at 23kg (the rule doesn’t specify how many pieces, Gol limits at maximum 10 pieces…)

      1. And just the opposite, I finally get to the ticket desk at Vienna’s airport to come home. I was pleasant, I smiled, I asked how his day was going. Nothing over the top, but just trying to be a bit friendly. When it came time to check the bags, I then mentioned that I had a third bag to check (my wife and I each got one free). I asked if there was a fee for that, and would have just paid, but he smiled and just shook his head a bit, checked it in and let me go. I remember smiling and telling him I appreciated it very much.

    2. Me, too. I have never seen a reasonable and polite request hastily dismissed in the hospitality industry. Only here in Elliott do I see the other side of the moon.

  5. Three cheers for travel websites (of which Elliott is my #1). It is only the prospect of giving wide notice to bad business behavior that makes these good stories possible.

    We had someone with a child with health-related dietary requirements visiting us. The waiter at our local restaurant told the chef, who appeared at our table in full “toque-topped regalia,” and asked the parent of the child what he could do to make something the child could… and would eat. That’s good service.

    THE BAD:
    At another upscale restaurant, my wife ordered the fish dish and asked that they leave off the elaborate vegetable topping on her fish. The waiter returned and announced that the chef refused to serve plain fish.
    That’s bad service… and the last time we ate there.

    1. Who are you to tell a chef his craft? Would you tell your dentist where and how to drill? There was an american table in Roppongi a couple weeks ago, that the head of the party ordered Kobe beef well done, they refused, he started shouting he was the costumer and he could order what he wanted. They apologized, but informed the customer “it was not possible”. The party left, and they took a pretty hefty amount of money off the table, with them. Their dinner tab would have easily been a couple thousand dollars.
      No matter how hard it may blow, the mountain can not bow to the wind.

      1. Bad analogy. The dentist drills because he is the pro and knows what’s best for the patient. The goal is the fix the teeth the best way possible.

        The person at the restaurant generally knows what they want to eat. Would think the goal of the restaurant would be to make the customer happy, and a slight change to a dish wouldn’t been that difficult.

        But that’s just my opinion.

          1. Last spring I ate at Morita-ya in Kyoto.
            moritaya-net dot com
            While not from Kobe, this ancient place is well known for growing Wagyu in their own farm(s). Anyway, I ordered “Oiru Yaki”. That’s as close as you can get to a plain steak in Japan since it’s usually sukiyaki or shabu-shabu in the menu. I can proudly tell you that you cook your own “steak” on a extremely hot pot (with just fat on it). You can cook it at whatever doneness you want.

          2. No, the chef does not always know what is best for the diner.

            People have allergies and some simply don’t like specific things. While the people with those issues I know (including myself) all try to work with what is on the menu and not make special requests, sometimes there is no other option.

            Instead of seeing a request to accommodate a dietary restriction as an affront to a chef’s ego, the good chefs take these types of requests as a challenge to their creativity and can often create wonderful items with little or no real inconvenience to anyone involved.

          3. Unfortunately, that’s simply not true. Many of the “boutique” restaurants see the food as an advertisement of their chef’s creativity. For example, in the food snob world, beef is eaten medium rare. Were a chef to prepare a steak well done, it would diminish his standing/reputation in that world.

            Personally, I think medium rare anything is disgusting.

          4. At a lot of those restaurants, the “chef” is not there at all (he/she is on some cooking show on TV) and the kitchen staff is afraid to deviate from the published menu because they will get fired if they do and there is any complaint.

            However, I am finding more and more of those types of restaurants are allowing some variation in the ingredients to fit the requests of the customers. Maybe not to the point where you can order your Kobe well done, but they will leave off the sauce if you ask.

            When watching cooking shows, I have a great deal of respect for the famous chefs that respond to the various challenges with excitement. Not so much for the chefs that grumble about what great chefs they are and announce that using the ingredient presented is below them.

          5. My friends from Azerbaijan were perplexed when asked how they wanted their steaks. They always have it well-done.

          6. Nobu – Chef’s Choice menu – Four Seasons Lanai at Manele Bay. I have a couple of food intolerances and expressed them to the waitress. He prepared one set of dishes for my husband and as needed, another set for me. Absolutely exquisite and a real validation of this man as a master chef.

            I will add that I have never paid so much money for a meal in my life, but this was my 35th wedding anniversary.

          7. Watch Jiro Dreams of Sushi.
            Tiny place in Ginza station, but he is personally there serving you.
            How can Nobu Matsuhisa be in multiple continents at same time?
            Ask Robert de Niro?

      2. “No matter how hard it may blow, the mountain can not bow to the wind. ”

        OK, but the mountain doesn’t have to show a profit after paying the rent. The first rule of a restaurant:

        “The public has to eat it.”

        1. We had an excellent cafeteria. People took the bus from the other buildings to come to ours. The idiots in charge wanted to transfer the chef up to the big building; he didn’t wanna go. They decided to contract out the cafeteria, which had been in business there since before WWII, to a gang of avaricious dirtbags who immediately doubled the price of coffee. Everybody went out and bought coffeemakers that Monday morning. The chef moved to a place which was more deserving of his skills, to our loss. They couldn’t force us to eat there, and we stopped, in part because the chow was now mediocre at best, and cost more. Their business went down about 70% because they screwed with us.

      3. Asian stupid arrogance. I have seen it many times in Asia. If they can’t sell you what THEY want to sell you, they won’t do business with you. They’d rather get nothing.

        1. Actually I have experienced this more in France. Nevertheless it is usually a gastronomique experience if you let the French decide.
          And talking about steaks, try ordering your porterhouse well done at Peter Luger’s. It will most probably came out as medium rare as it should be 🙂
          Many Asian foods are intended for family or group serving. They are usually placed on the middle of the table with a lazy susan. When they see a foreigner, the question is do you want it spicy or not, assuming they will ask at all.
          For me the cook has a skill and when I visit his or her restaurant, I am there to enjoy that skill. Most of that experience is lost in America. That’s why I’m on a jet to Asia on Tuesday. Food is taken seriously in other parts of the world. Here it is a production line output.

          1. I was thinking of the time I wanted shoes. Guy wanted to stretch small shoes rather than order correct size. AND tried to overcharge me more than I had paid previously there. Found the shoes MUCH cheaper across town. Peace on him…..

    2. I agree about the Bad. Why insist on putting those vegetables on top that are simply going to be taken off and thrown away? That is a waste of food in my eyes. I gag when I see anchovies – if the chef insisted that I had to have the anchovies on top of something he was serving, I’d also be walking out.

  6. While working in Italy for several months and a week away from returning home, I got a call from my son that my oldest son had passed away from a massive heart attack. I called Delta, told my story, and a young reservationist said he was going to put his supervisor on. She immediately took charge. My original return flight was with FF miles, and she created award seats where none were left and re-routed me from Pisa, Italy, to Phoenix rather than my home base in another state. No change fees, no additional miles required. I was with my Phoenix-area family within 24 hours. I will never forget that wonderful reservationist and her empathy and professionalism.

    1. Damn. That’s rough, John. I almost lost my son to drowning when he was eleven. No parent should ever have to face that pain. Thanks for sharing your story.

  7. can an airline agent like Robertson actually hold a flight for anyone ? Probably not. It was probably delayed anyway.
    Let’s look at all the implications of a flight being held.
    1) People on flight might miss their connections at other end.
    2) crew on flight might run out of duty time, late in the day
    & many others
    These alone can have massive implications.

    1. UA held a flight for me and 13 others when our flight was delayed getting in to make our connection. It probably helped that our connecting flight was the last one of the night.

      1. My son was on Can’tinental thru Texas to Central America. They told him he’d make the connection. They took some pax on a courtesy cart to the next gate; he ran, they closed the door on him even tho his bags made it on. He made sure that no one in his firm would fly with those lying scumbags again.

          1. There were a couple of Can’t people I met who were nice. Also met a beach who purposely mis-directed my bags. I caught up with her next trip. She didn’t remember me; I refreshed her memory. She looked afraid, although I didn’t threaten her…..

    2. Assuming the airport is not slot controlled, then captain and dispatch can agree when to leave since the tower will clear them anyway. I don’t believe the gate agent has this level of authority. I would like to hear from airline emps here.

      Airline performance criteria tend to put pressure on gate agents to achieve an “on schedule” OUT time, however, in some cases, the Captain can authorize a late departure if he/she determines that the lost time can be made up en-route and a scheduled arrival can still be achieved or to satisfy customer service requirements. If conditions permit and expected passengers are on board, the station may initiate an early departure, within certain limits, if the Captain’s approval is received.

  8. I’ve already mentioned the Bend, OR Double Tree hotel twice this week for not charging guest who didn’t show up when the local airport closed for weather. They didn’t charge for those who didn’t make it the next night either. I just found out that one of the guests, who chose to rent a car when his flight was canceled, arrived at 2 a.m. without a prior reservation. We had left a message and a key for him to stay in the hospitality suite (comped because our guests for an event had rented a lot of rooms.) When he arrived, the hotel put him in a regular room, which he stayed in the next night also. When he check out, he saw that the hotel did not charge him for the night of his arrival. They didn’t have to, but the hotel willingly forfeited a lot of money that weekend.

  9. In my travels there have been many people who have gone out of their way to help out or to ease a tricky situation. The standout is the desk clerk from St. Margaret’s hotel in London (sadly, now closed), When we departed for home in the States, we forgot to retrieve our passports from the hotel safe. This was our first international trip and we were more worried about catching our flight than our passports. When the clerk realized what had happened he sprinted the quarter mile from the hotel to the Tube stop. We were surprised and then delighted when we heard a breathless voice call out our names just before we entered the turnstiles. We couldn’t thank him enough for saving us from what would have been a most terrible experience at the airport.

  10. When I see someone who has been kind or gone out of their way, I email their boss. Most places only hear complaints, they appreciate a note when one of their employees goes out of their way to make a stay pleasant.

  11. “But Robertson wants to change that by placing “don’t text” warning stickers inside car windshields and reminding drivers that their actions affect other people.”

    This would be illegal in California (unless the State specifically approves/issues it like the Fastrak transponder) and I suspect it’s illegal in most states. And for good reason: stickers and other things on the windshield can interfere with visibility and create distractions.

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